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Eric Stoen of Travel Babbo lets each of his kids choose any destination in the world every year for a one-on-one trip. We asked him how the tradition started and what benefits have come from it. 

It Started with Penguins

It was a simple request: “I want to go to Antarctica.” It came from my daughter who was studying penguins in school. She was three. I said yes.

I mean, of course I said yes. I wanted to go to Antarctica, too! And she was my first child and I had no idea that other parents didn’t let their kids choose their travel destinations.

I picked up the phone, called National Geographic Expeditions, and asked them what an appropriate age for Antarctica was. They suggested eight, since at that age kids can appreciate where they are in the world, follow the educational sessions that would be taking place on the ship and entertain themselves on the ship. I hung up and told my daughter that we would go when she turned eight.

She was a little disappointed with the time frame, as was I.

But It Really Started with a Cartoon

Looking down at my disappointed daughter, I quickly asked if there was anywhere else that she wanted to go first. She said that she had seen the Sydney Opera House on a cartoon and wanted to see it and touch it in real life. Plus, Australia has kangaroos and koalas and all sorts of fun animals. We quickly went online and booked a trip.

Travel with kids: Feeding kangaroos at Featherdale Wildlife Park outside Sydney (4 years old)

Feeding kangaroos at Featherdale Wildlife Park outside Sydney (4 years old)

A New Tradition

That trip to Australia in April 2010, just a few months after my daughter turned four, was the start of a tradition. Every year after that I asked her where she wanted to go, and every year we went. We visited Hong Kong. We traveled to Sydney again. We visited Bali a couple of times. And for her eight-year-old trip we went to Antarctica. Antarctica was amazingly kid-friendly, and National Geographic had been correct with its age recommendation – eight was perfect.

Travel with Kids: Antarctica

In Antarctica (8 years old)

Travel with Kids: In Bali's Monkey Forest (9 years old)

In Bali’s Monkey Forest (9 years old)

We had fun last year with her 10-year-old trip. She couldn’t decide whether to choose Orlando, Paris, Bali or Sydney. On a whim I suggested that we should fly around the world and see them all. We added in Dubai, Oman and Borobudur (Indonesia) and did the entire journey in just under two weeks. How many kids get to say that they went around the world during summer vacation?

Travel with kids: In Oman on our around-the-world trip (10 years old)

In Oman on our around-the-world trip (10 years old)

Of course it wouldn’t be fair for her to be the only child choosing annual destinations, so starting at the age of four my other kids got to pick as well. My son has been all over on his annual trips, including Easter Island (which he had seen in a National Geographic book), Palawan, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Croatia (which he chose initially because when he was little he thought it sounded like “crocodile”). For his seven-year-old trip we traveled to LEGO Headquarters in Billund, Denmark. Only 140 people get to tour the LEGO factory and meet LEGO’s designers every year and we managed to get two of the tickets. And just as with Antarctica, I thought it was pretty cool, too! For his nine-year-old trip this month he picked the Maldives, and we added on Bangkok and Singapore as well.

Travel with Kids: Taking pictures at Tongariki on Easter Island (6 years old)

Taking pictures at Tongariki on Easter Island (6 years old)

Travel with Kids: At Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia (7 years old)

At Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia (7 years old)

Travel with kids: Sunrise kayaking in Palawan, Philippines (8 years old)

Sunrise kayaking in Palawan, Philippines (8 years old)

My youngest daughter, who’s seven, is just getting started. Thus far she’s chosen Belize, Tokyo and Australia (twice) for her trips.

Travel with kids: Playing beach bocce in Belize (4 years old)

My youngest playing beach bocce in Belize (4 years old)

Travel with kids: My youngest in Sydney (6 years old)

In Sydney (6 years old)

The Benefits

Everything about these trips has been fun, but there have been tangible benefits as well.

Discovering Their Passions

I’ve loved watching the kids choose their destinations every year, since these trips have really let them find and follow their passions. My oldest daughter has fallen in love with Bali. It speaks to her soul. She loves the nature, the people, the culture and, yes, the monkeys. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up in Bali for most of her annual trips – which is just fine. I like traveling to new destinations, but I love Italy and get back there for at least a couple of weeks every year. Bali is her Italy.

Travel with Kids: Sunrise in Bali (9 years)

Sunrise in Bali

My son loves remote islands. He always enjoyed our annual trips to Hawaii, but it was a trip to Bora Bora for winter break when he was six that really ignited his passion. The LEGO trip was an anomaly – otherwise all of his trips from six onward have taken us to hard-to-reach islands. Easter Island was fascinating from a historical perspective, but it was also distinctly Polynesian, not dissimilar to Hawaii and Bora Bora. Palawan was amazing as well – stunning and a good introduction for him to Filipino culture. The Maldives this year are a natural continuation. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t choose the Seychelles or Palau next year!

Travel with Kids: Paddle Boarding in Palawan

Paddle Boarding in Palawan

My youngest daughter wants to be a vet. While she chose Belize for her first annual trip for the animals, it was her visit to Australia Zoo and a wombat walk with Vet Tech Samantha at six that set her on her course. We’ll be returning to Australia Zoo this year to again get up close to the animals and meet with Samantha, and it could very well become an annual destination.

Travel with kids: My youngest feeding an echidna at Australia Zoo

My youngest feeding an echidna at Australia Zoo

The Bonding

I’ve loved every trip that I’ve taken with the kids, and I’ve gotten to see a lot more of the world, but the best benefit for me is getting closer to each of the kids. Without the rest of the family around, there are no distractions – it’s just the two of us for a week or two.

And it goes beyond the quality time that comes from one-on-one meals and excursions. Sometimes we have adventures that couldn’t have taken place with the whole family there. In Amsterdam two years ago my son and I got on the wrong train at the airport and ended up outside of the city. I called a friend who said to take a train to the Sloterdijk Station, where she would pick us up and take us to our hotel. I assumed she would pick us up in her car. Nope! She showed up on a box bike, and she subsequently peddled us through Amsterdam for 20 minutes on a gorgeous Friday night. It was a highlight of the entire summer, and it happened because there were only two of us.

Travel with kids: At the start of our box bike adventure across Amsterdam!

At the start of our box bike adventure across Amsterdam!

The Planning

While our kids help with all of our family destination and activity planning, on these one-on-one trips they’re 100% in charge. They get to choose our flights, hotels and ground transportation, and they research in advance what they want to do. The flight planning is the fun one, since we bring up Google Maps, look at all routing options, and see what makes the most sense. This is also the part of the process where we add in additional stops, essentially turning one trip into two or three.

Travel with kids: On New Years Eve in a hot air balloon over Chiang Mai, Thailand. The stopover destination (on the way to Palawan) and balloon ride were my son's ideas.

On New Years Eve in a hot air balloon over Chiang Mai, Thailand. The stopover destination (on the way to Palawan) and balloon ride were my son’s ideas.

I’m letting my kids keep all of their frequent flier miles. My hope is that when they get to college, they’ll spontaneously decide to fly to Paris or Tokyo over a long weekend with their friends. Not only will they have the miles to do it, but they’ll ideally have the skills to navigate the airports, figure out transportation, know where they want to stay, and research what there is to do – at least that’s my goal. Well, my primary goals are to have fun, bond with each of the kids more and continue to introduce them to the amazing cultures of the world. But the travel planning is a great side benefit!

Travel with Kids: Where to next?

Endless possibilities!

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