How to Take a Great Vacation with Your Kids

Or At Least Improve Your Chances of Enjoying It

The New York Times recently printed a story about how people have good memories of their family vacation even if the trip itself was stressful. Nearly everyone who has ever traveled with a family member has experienced this phenomenon. You spend two weeks arguing with your children in a single hotel room, but somehow remember enjoying it as soon as you get home.

We travel with our kids a lot, and over the years have found a few strategies for improving our chances of enjoying our time together. These aren’t foolproof, but we argue slightly less than we otherwise might when we actually do this stuff. These tips are in the order I learned them. Here you go:

  1. If you are breastfeeding, do not wean before a big trip. I weaned my son when he was 19 months old (he could say, “Nurk pease, mommy,” and I thought if he was old enough to discuss it, it was time to wrap it up). Ten days later, we flew to London, and I had no solid method for calming him down on that very long flight. He slept poorly during that trip and I felt very inadequate that I couldn’t soothe him as well as I had when he was still nursing. Maybe the real lesson here is:
  2. Don’t change anything right before or during a trip. Stick as close to the routine as possible. Traveling will already be disruptive enough, you don’t have to potty train on top of it. Unless you are camping and planning to let your kid run around naked or something, in which case, you know, be careful of the poison oak.
  3. Do not bring your giant stroller. Get a cheap folding umbrella stroller. You and the flight attendants will thank me for this. In fact, travel with as little extra stuff as possible. Most hotels have playpens and most cities have companies who rent this stuff. Do not bring your own unless it’s absolutely necessary.
  4. Deciding where to stay is crucial. I prefer to get an apartment, so we can have a kitchen. I find hotel breakfast to be gross, high calorie and too expensive. That said, my husband prefers hotels, and if we go that route, we try to stay someplace with access to a pool. Now that our kids are older, we get two rooms when it is even vaguely affordable to do so. It’s worth whatever we spend for us and the kids to have a separate space. They feel grown-up and posh, and we get them out of our hair.
  5. As soon as you get to your destination, find the nearest park. Take your kids there as soon as you check in (unless they’re hungry. In which case, feed them first). You are going to see a lot of this park during your trip.
  6. Next, find a grocery store, and buy some fruit and other snacks to keep in your room and in your bag. As you know, you will need to feed the beasts every couple hours and you don’t want to be shelling out for the hotel buffet every time they want something.
  7. Each day, pick one thing you really want to do, and go do it as early as possible. Being the first people at the museum or zoo has a lot of benefits. There are no crowds, the animals are awake, the kids aren’t cranky yet, and by the time they fall apart, you will have finished most of what you planned to do. If your museum doesn’t open until 10, go to the park first, and the kids will feel like they got to do something they wanted to do.
  8. Time to eat lunch! Either eat at the museum or find someplace nearby. Do not trek somewhere new for a meal or go back to the hotel or apartment you’ve rented.
  9. You can plan a second activity for the afternoon, but you should be very flexible about this. It should be a lower priority activity so that you can bail if the kids are falling apart. If this happens, just roll with it. It’s better to call off an unpopular activity then stand on a street corner in Bangkok yelling at your kids. At a certain age, you’ll be able to leave them on their own in the hotel room and venture out to see the Victoria and Albert Museum without them.
  10. Spend the afternoon at the pool, the park or the movies. Everyone will be refreshed for dinner.
  11. Dinner. You have a lot of options here. Hotels and resorts often have buffets that come in very handy with the younger crowd. One tactic is to let your kids hit the buffet, and then put them in the room with a movie while the grown-ups have dinner alone in the restaurant. If you have friends with kids in town, hook up with them before the trip for ideas and then visit with them early in your trip. If your kids hit if off, they’ll be more comfortable in this new place, want to see their new friends again, and trust any babysitter recommended by the family. That’s right: Get a babysitter for at least one night. And room service for at least one night.
  12. As your kids get older, it becomes critical that they have some say in your plans. Let them pick destinations and activities that appeal to them. If they don’t have anything in mind, pick something they already do, or even something they could do in your home town, and do it in the new place. We took our kids to a rock-climbing gym in NYC and they loved it. Another tactic is to look up your destination on Atlas Obscura and plan a “weird” day. My son and I are visiting Richmond, and we plan to do a “weird Richmond” tour of our own design based on stuff we found on that website.
  13. It’s okay if they miss a little school. Some schools and school districts have different rules about how many days a kid can miss, but its worth finding out, and letting your kid skip a day or two. Kids learn a lot by traveling that they can’t learn in school, and it’s okay for them to know that this kind of learning matters too.
  14. Your trips should be a mix of the new and the routine. My kids love to visit the same dude ranch every single year. It’s the same dude ranch my mother-in-law started taking my brother-in-law to when he was a kid. My kids love knowing exactly what’s going to happen and have almost complete independence because of the security of their routine.
  15. Finally, leave them wanting more. Always stay for slightly less time than you think you need. For example, my husband loves to ski, and takes the family to Tahoe for Presidents’ Day weekend every year. By Monday, the kids are fried, so we’ve stopped “making” them ski on the last day. They leave feeling like they’ve skied just enough and can’t wait to come back.

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