Before we had children, my husband and I loved to travel. Our preferred way to see a new destination was via road trip. In the five years prior to starting our family, we’d already taken extensive, weeks-long journeys down the Pacific Coast Highway, around the western states of Arizona and Utah, the Pacific Northwest (twice), and New England. Our oldest will turn four this summer and since she’s been born, we’ve slowly been dipping our toes back into the travel water.
I’ll admit that the idea of packing luggage, planning an itinerary, traveling for hours, and finding somewhere to stay, all with an armful of children in tow, didn’t sound like the most appealing thing in the world to me at first. Yet, as the years progress, we’ve learned a few ways to make the adventure as exciting and stress-free as possible. Here are five tips we swear by.
1. Ease up on the itinerary.
Pre-kids, I’d make an elaborate to-do list for every single trip. I’d create travel binders for each destination, with every activity listed on a separate sheet of paper that was inserted inside a sheet protector. Co-workers who saw me assembling this system on my hours off laughed at the detail-orientedness of it all, but it was more than practical. If we received a ticket stub, brochure, pamphlet, or program while at an event, I’d simply stick it into the sheet protector, along with a few key photos of us there. I now have five of such binders in my memory box, each chocked full of fun memories that I love to look back on.
Now? I’m nowhere near as intricate with my planning. I don’t try to shove too much into one day and instead, I allow myself the space (and the grace) to simply take our time. We might plan one major activity per day, but other than that, the rest of the time is spent eating together, waking up slowly, meandering our way there and back, and just relaxing, as a vacation is meant to be spent. As the kids have gotten older, it’s also been fun to let them choose one or two activities that we can do while we’re there. This way, they have something to look forward to and I can make sure the vacation is tailored to their interests. My spouse and I might enjoy an afternoon at the museum, but if we’re bringing along whiny, tired kids who would rather be anywhere else, there’s no chance it will be enjoyable.
2. Make a (healthy) allowance on strictness.
At home, I have a strict limit for how long my small children can watch anything with a screen. This includes their tablets, the television, my phone, etc. Yet, there’s nothing like sitting on a five-hour flight to encourage you to ease up a bit on such regulations. On a plane, there are literally only a handful of things small children can do, and quietly at that. I’ve found that bringing along our tablet and some headphones is simply the smartest and the easiest way to go, and I believe the passengers around us would agree.
The same goes for sweets. While we might not allow desserts before the meal at home, on vacation I love to mix it up a little and surprise them. They might also get an extra scoop of ice cream, another piece of fudge, or a second cookie if I’m feeling extra gracious. It is vacation, after all. The key to it not becoming a free-for-all? Make sure everyone is on the same page and understands that as soon as that home key turns, the rules are back in place.
3. Pack smartly.
Some families prefer to stuff absolutely everything into one giant piece of luggage and let dad roll it around. Others let their kids bring on small carry-ons full of their essentials. We’re a little in-between. My children are barely walking and expecting them to keep up with any sort of bag is a pipe dream. Most likely, we would end up carrying it, along with our own knapsacks. So, my husband and I each pack a larger bag that we can check (if we’re going on a longer trip) and fit the kids’ gear inside those.
Since we have two kids, we each take one, and this tag-team system works for us. If we’re going somewhere for five days or less, though, we’ll just do carry-ons, utilizing the same system. We’ve found that by rolling our clothes, cutting down on unnecessary accessories, and really sticking to the basics, we can fit more than you’d think under our airplane seat.
4. Carefully consider your sleeping arrangement.
While everyone bunking together in a big room sounds like fun, reality will quickly set in when the kids can’t sleep because dad is snoring, one child is being too loud and energetic and keeping the other up, and mom can’t get any nighttime work done because the entire scene is just too chaotic. If you can see yourself fitting into that scenario, a hotel alternative like Airbnb might be best, as you can often book an entire suite or even a whole home, with enough rooms for everyone to spread out.
Of course, that’s not to say that hotels should be nixed entirely. If you’re willing to adapt your nighttime routine a little and don’t mind being a little off schedule, they can be just the luxurious treat you want them to be.
5. Appoint childcare if necessary.
When we booked our trip to Sanibel Island last year, my well-meaning grandmother was only too eager to come along, offering to help keep the children so my husband and I could enjoy some time together. We knew we wanted to hit a few local highlights, including the beaches and the restaurant scene. It would have been much easier to do those things with an extra set of hands in tow, wrangling sleepy or overly curious children. While the offer sounded intriguing and we definitely considered it, we ultimately decided that it would just be too much and we’d prefer to vacation just the four of us.
On the other hand, my best friend recently went to Disneyworld and said she absolutely couldn’t have done the trip as successfully as she did if her mother-in-law hadn’t come along to help corral her gang. Whether you hire outside childcare, like a nanny, to accompany you and make the trip easier, or you choose to go it alone, understand how each dynamic will work before you commit to it.