When I told people about my family vacation to Spain with my three-year-old twins, the most common reaction was, “wow, that’s crazy.” I understand that perspective, spending two weeks away in a foreign country with two balls of energy isn’t easy, but I don’t think it’s at all crazy. With some completely reasonable preparation and planning, and most importantly an open mind, a trip away can be pretty smooth and incredibly rewarding. It’s time we stop perpetuating the myth that families with young children can’t travel, and it needs to start with demystifying travel and viewing it as normal rather than crazy.
For me, a two week trip with my kids is almost certainly the longest period of time I’ll spend in depth with them over the course of the year. Between work, solo travel, and daycare, I probably only spend about 12 hours on weekends and 1.5 hours on weekdays with them on average. During a vacation, it’s all day every day. That’s a lot of time together. And while it can be tough to be thrust into that much together time, it’s also the most quality time for family bonding and interaction I get all year. It’s the time I get to know my kids best and when their personalities shine through the most, and I truly get to appreciate what goofballs they are.
Sure, if you’re going from the type of travel where you just wing things on your own, finding a hotel the day of, going day by day without a plan, just stopping in wherever looks interesting by yourselves and suddenly have to switch to advance planning and preparation with kids, I can understand how that’s a big difference and one that seems daunting. But it still doesn’t mean the only possible family vacation is to the nearby beach or a road trip to Disney. While those can be fun too, it’s simply not true that they are the only option with kids.
There are a few things that need to be done differently when traveling with kids, especially when going abroad for an extended time. There’s an art to planning ahead while staying flexible during the day. For us, we like to plan out a set of fully booked up days to know what’s possible and the highlights of what to see and do in each place. But, rather than a firm plan set in stone, we know we’ll need to adapt this plan each day depending on the circumstances and how the boys are doing. Tired and cranky one day? Skip the extra stop to see the Cathedral since they’ll probably make noise and you’ll have to rush out. Doing great at night? Stay out after dinner for some drinks at a bar next to a playground while they run around.
Taken this way, the plan is like a menu, a set of options that you can decide on in the moment. You might want to try as much of it as possible, but it’s ok if you don’t get everything on it. Still though, the plan needs to be well researched. The most important aspects of the plan are hotels, transportation, and meals.
Good hotels can make a huge difference and make or break a successful vacation. While it might be more expensive (not always) to book rooms with multiple rooms or separate bedrooms from living areas, we found we absolutely need this in order to get the boys to sleep. There needs to be a physical and visual separation so that we can get away from them as they fall asleep. In many places where possible this actually gives us a great opportunity to relax with a drink, or occasionally order food and enjoy it in the room while the boys sleep or nap. Originally I hated that we might lose the chance to eat at a local restaurant if the boys needed a particularly long nap in the middle of the day, or needed an early bedtime, but I have actually come to enjoy the experience of delivery in a hotel in different places. Apps make this incredibly easy now and it’s actually often possible to find local cuisine for delivery as well.
Transportation, and in particular the timing, is critical as well. A poorly timed three hour train ride can feel like an eternity while one timed to nap time will fly by. Red eye flights tend to be stressful to us because we stress about the boys getting enough sleep which only leads to them not sleeping. Instead, we looks for daytime ones where a nap will be a nice bonus, but won’t ruin the day and the next if they don’t take it. Transportation can also be fun for kids like boat rides and subways if these aren’t normal every day occurrences.
This flexibility was the hardest part for me, a person who loves researching and building a plan, then executing it to get the most out of every minute. In the beginning, I hated missing out on things for naps or breaks. But, traveling each year and getting practice with our kids taught me to let go and make more out of each individual experience instead. The nice thing with kids is that every minute with them actually feels longer, so doing less can actually feel like doing more. On our trip to Spain, this actually encouraged us to embrace the local culture more as well. Had it been just my wife and I, we probably would have pushed through the midday heat each day to see everything possible, electing to traipse through Roman ruins and miles through cities each day. Instead, we made the most of the siesta time in the middle of the day for naps for the kids and a recharge for us. This also allowed us to stay out later at night and enjoy the night culture in cities we probably would have missed otherwise.
Traveling with kids isn’t at all crazy if done right. Sure, it’s crazy to travel with kids without a plan, but I think it’s crazy to travel alone without one as well. For some reason, that stops parents from traveling with their kids, but doesn’t stop individuals. But this notion is dangerous and damaging. If we continue to believe that traveling as a parent is crazy, fewer parents will take the chance, fewer kids will get the opportunity to travel and see and understand other cultures, and people who love travel so much that they can’t bear the possibility of not traveling might stay away from having kids.
All of these outcomes are potentially damaging to society as well as to individuals. Travel in my early years was a huge part of growing up for me and helped define a big part of who I’ve become and my values. I believe experiencing other cultures increased my tolerance and passion for others and has shaped how I work with others. Had my parents been afraid that traveling with me would have been too hard or cared that they’d be judged as crazy by others, I might have been robbed of these experiences. Viewed this way, calling parents crazy for traveling with kids is just another form of parent shaming and parents already get plenty of that.
If you’re a parent and love traveling, don’t listen to the others out there. Taking your kid on a trip isn’t at all crazy. You might feel pressure and judgment from others around your kids and parenting style especially on the plane and in restaurants, but forget the haters and just worry about what makes you and your kids happy. Don’t be afraid to get out there with them because it might just be the best trip you ever take. Plan ahead and remember to stay flexible and your kids might reward you with some unexpected and memorable moments. You’ll come together closer as a family and get to spend bonding time together doing something you love.