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Traveling with Kids
"To travel is to live.” – Hans Christian Andersen
Over the last few months, air travel has been returning and we have started family travel again. Before COVID hit, our kids were young enough that most of our trips consisted of going to see our respective parents where we have been fortunate enough to have comfortable accommodations (cribs when we needed them, strollers, conducive room set up, kitchen, etc.). We mostly chose to avoid hotel vacations nor did we do a ton of AirBnBs because we have a cabin in the mountains that we use for family getaways.
With the pandemic receding our kids’ ages, we are also now in transition from pure vacations – just the fun stuff (ie beaches, Great Wolf Lodge, and Disneyland) – to trips that include cultural and educational significance. While our vacations have always been about quality time together – now it’s also a chance to expand our kids’ minds as well. So here is how we’ve been thinking about vacations with kids in the 4-8 age range.
Prepare for Adventure- make a plan, give choices, and set expectations
First and foremost, you should ask yourself:
Is this a trip of vacation?
Is the purpose to relax and savor quality time together?
Or is it to expand your kids’ minds with new culture and education?
Once you’ve figured that part out, think about what makes vacationing with kids most enjoyable/tenable for you:
Are you at your best when you show your kids something that you love/have experienced before?
Or do you want to experience something new for the first time together?
For Adam, it’s easier to be present and really connect with the kids when he is prepared as opposed to when experiencing a new environment at the same time as them. For Helen, it is to have a list of options and be able to pivot based on weather (of the skies and the minds). It will be interesting to see how this changes over the years as kids continue to grow. So here is what we have been doing that has been working:
Make a plan - While as adults, we love to wander and explore, with kids, it really does pay dividends to think about what the day looks like ahead of time.
Is there a fun playground/carousel nearby?
Is there an ice cream place to try?
A children’s tour of the city you are staying in?
It doesn’t all have to be tailored to kids, but being planful about what is and what is not, really helps.
Give choices/get buy-in – We have been practicing giving our kids choices about what to do for a long time now, so we bring that approach to travel. We do enough research in advance to give options of what we do, which helps our kids be bought in.
For example, when we were in Denver, there was a choice to go to a playground along the river or climb rocks and walk along the river. We were open to both options and when the kids chose the latter, we all had a good time.
Set expectations – when we were going to Hawaii a few months ago, we discussed what each of us was really looking forward to doing. Our oldest wanted to have a lot of pool time, Helen wanted to go on a family hike, our youngest was interested in trying new ice cream and Adam wanted to maintain his training schedule for his 15K that he was preparing for. We made no promises that this was all going to happen, but we discussed what everyone was hoping for which helped manage big feelings of anticipation.
Be prepared (the tactical stuff) – We try to be prepared for as much as possible when on the go. Layers, bandaids, snacks, sunscreen, a small toy or two each kid would like to play with when standing in line. It’s a balancing act of how much to carry with you, but worth thinking it through so that you are not scrambling.
For example, on our last trip to Denver, we underestimated the dryness of the climate, so needed to find chapstick and hand lotion for the kids – this was easily preventable (and also easy to solve on location).
Routines – keep them as much as possible but also go with the flow
Traveling as a family is a special time – it is when you create memories, try new things, and have formative experiences. Few questions we ask ourselves in this category:
How much of the pain of travel do you want to abstract away from the kids?
How much routine from home do you keep as comfort?
There is a fine balance to be struck between leaning in to “everything goes” on vacation and sticking to nap times and bedtimes. Since the beginning of 2022, we have already done two-week-long trips and a couple of shorter ones, and here are some of our takeaways:
Kids like to know what to expect. Iff there is always a quiet time for your family in the middle of the day, try to find 30 minutes during travel to accomplish that. If you always read books together before bed, bring 1-2 books with you. If you always have a snack in the mid-late afternoon, keep doing that while traveling. Busy Toddler did a great write-up on how to do Disneyland with kids and while our kids are past this exact age, there are some awesome tips in this post that are still applicable. A favorite nugget from this post that we have adapted to our adventures:
Our last day was when we went wild and skipped naps, stayed late, etc. because we didn’t have anything the next day to be ready for (just the plane ride home). It was OK for the kids to be absolutely wiped out the next day.
Airplane travel – this is not a time for parenting, it is a time for survival. In our family, snacks, screen time, games – anything goes to get through a flight. At this age, our kids are old enough to do iPads the whole time, but we also bring a few screen-free activities (cards, books) if a break is needed.
Don’t overdo it – we try to do a max of 2 activities in a day – ideally the one that involves the most patience in the morning and the most fun in the afternoon. We recently had a day during spring break where we miscalculated – did a walk and play by the river in the morning (which the kids loved) and Meow Wolf museum in the afternoon (which was exciting, overwhelming, a little scary, and crowded). We also skipped snack (more on that later). In hindsight, we should have reversed the order of the day for a better outcome.
Finally, it’s not at all a waste to have a recovery/chill day in a week-long trip. Kids need more time than we do to process and rest.
Having said that, the advice here is to have routines and also break them. Kids ARE resilient and travel does tap into that. So being overly rigid has not been our approach.
Travel – flights, accommodations and snacks
As the years go by, travel logistics get easier and easier with kids. When kids are under 3, you are oftentimes traveling with massive car seats, strollers, and portable cribs. Even though we are still traveling with booster seats, it is already a lot easier to travel. Here is what we have done to keep it manageable:
Flights – we optimize for direct flights as much as possible which means that our travel often takes a day each way because we avoid red-eyes. Of course, we have not yet traveled to Europe, at which point, the red-eye will become unavoidable but the point is, we avoid this scenario if we can.
For airplane seating arrangements , we do a 3+ 1 configuration. Both adults get an aisle seat and kids alternate who gets window vs. middle.
Housing – When deciding on where to stay, figuring out the location is our first step. We usually try to find places that are accessible based on what we are doing – if it is a tropical vacation, then good access to the beach and/or pools, if it’s a city vacation, then access to town is important. After that, we figure out if we want to do a hotel vs. a condo/house to rent.
We are not a family that does well when all 4 of us sleep in the same room. While doable, no one really gets good sleep. So if staying in a hotel, we try to either get adjacent rooms or have some kind of a separation between us and the kids (and the kids do better not in the same bed as well).
When we recently went to Denver for Spring Break, getting an Airbnb where everyone had a room and we were able to easily walk into town worked out well for us. The downside of this approach - no pool, gym or housekeeping.
However, when we took a tropical vacation to Hawaii a few months ago, we optimized for resort amenities – pools, restaurants on-site, awesome beaches – and for that, we found that to get everything we wanted, a resort was a much better set up for us.
Snacks and water – There is nothing worse than hungry and grumpy kids (or adults for that matter) in the middle of a crowded tourist attraction. So we carry a minimum amount of snacks and water most places we go. Things that work well are granola bars, fruit snacks, dried fruit, and trail mix.
Make time for a date night
On week-long vacations, we try to get away for at least one night when we do something fun for ourselves. This helps balance out the trip and helps us avoid being kids Cruise Directors. In Hawaii, we used Nanny Maui Connection with great success and relatively short notice. When we travel to see family, we always also make a point to get away for at least one evening.
Kids need to see that parents prioritize themselves as much as we need the connection time as a couple. So being explicit about it, helps us add it to our planning.
Summing it up:
Travel is a great excuse to practice discomfort and fortitude and remind kids that the world does not revolve around them. The goal is to get kids thinking and processing by being out of their comfort zone. As we’ve been exploring more places in the United States, we’ve been able to gauge their readiness for museums (mostly yes but no longer than an hour), hiking, new food experiences, and routine adjustments. It’s all a work in progress, but such a magical time for our family that we are savoring and enjoying.