This time of year, managing motherhood often means managing your family vacation. We just got back from vacation, and although it was a lovely time, I was again reminded of how different it is to vacation with children. We’ve done it quite a bit with both boys, but it required an adjustment in our expectations. When he was 9 months, we took Tony to Brazil along with a study abroad trip I was chaperoning, and last summer when they were three and five months, we took Tony and Gus to Copenhagen and Oslo. This summer, we’re laying a bit low – a trip to New Jersey and the Catskills, and in a few weeks our family gathering at Long Beach Island. Along the way I’ve discovered some helpful ways to travel with children.
Lower your expectations. The most difficult trip we took was when we went to Brazil with Tony, because we had to stay in hotels and didn’t have much control over the itinerary since it was a “work trip” for me, involving visits with about 25 college students to cultural sites and local businesses. Staying in Rio was especially difficult since the hotel room was tiny and had no bathtub. We made do by holding our chubby baby in the shower, which was a new experience for him.
Since then, we know to keep expectations low. We usually have a mental list of a few sites to see and try to keep it at that. Scheduling no more than one outing per day with young children is about right. Luckily, our “hit list” on vacation usually includes visiting a farmer’s market or other food-related places, where there are plenty of distractions (read: snacks) for children.
On the other end, if you have your children on a strict schedule at home, now might be the time to relax it a bit. We aim to get them their naps and to bed on time, but if everyone’s happy we may skip a nap or let it happen in the stroller. Being too uptight about keeping baby on a schedule doesn’t make for a fun vacation. As long as the kids are fed and happy, keep on keepin’ on. You’ll know when it’s time for a break.
The key is to realize that this is not your pre-child vacation. Unless you can find a babysitter, there won’t be much late night dining and carousing. We tried to look for a place to stay with an outside balcony, so that once the kids were asleep we could sit out and have a couple glasses of wine.
Stay in the right place. We’re lucky that when we went to Copenhagen and Oslo last year that we stayed with friends, both of whom had children. Not only were their homes child-proof, but they were full of toys and ready-made friends for the boys to enjoy. Visiting old friends with children is a great way to create a new sort of vacation, but if you’re going someplace new, there’s usually an option to rent a small house or apartment. We’ve found that the cost of renting someone’s house or apartment (we usually check out VBRO) is about the same, if not lower, than hotels. Having a kitchen and living room where you can hang out is wonderful while kids are napping or playing. Making the place you stay part of the vacation, with a pool, balcony, or other amenities, is important since you’ll be spending more time there than you might have before kids.
If you do stay in a hotel, having a small refrigerator is key, and if you can get a suite where the kids can go to sleep where you stay up, it’s helpful too. Choosing a place with a pool or other kid-friendly amenities can make the stay more enjoyable. I always prefer a house because we can cook, hang out, watch TV and feel as if we’re in our own space. Maybe that’s my homebody nature.
Make time for yourself. Although sadly we usually spend the time catching up on work email, my husband and I try to let each other have a bit of down time each day we’re on vacation. When you’re not used to being with your kids 24-7 as a working parent, they can be a bit overwhelming. I take naps with the baby, and Bob will fit in a quick workout. If you’re someplace where there are friends or family, it’s also nice to get a date night for you and your partner as well. We’ve found a babysitter for a night almost everywhere we’ve gone.
Checklists, checklists, checklists. Packing the right stuff is key with kids. While I have found that when we inevitably forget something (baby wipes, why is it always the baby wipes?!?), it’s easy to buy, it’s also a pain to run out to the store. I also get so focused on packing for the boys that I end up with a random collection of clothes for myself that have no bearing on what season it is. Making a checklist is key, and unfortunately you’ll have to update it each year (maybe even each six months) depending on the child’s age. Diapers and wipes transition to training pants and many, many extra pairs of pants when you’re potty training. For yourself, there might be times when you need nursing bras, which then transition to running shoes because you don’t want to miss a workout. Printing out the checklist and bringing it with you can help in packing when you leave as well.
Bring the right bags. This is a shameless plug for my sister-in-law’s wonderful company Birdling, but I wouldn’t plug them if I didn’t love them. The Birdling Weekender bag has compartments so you can keep different kids’ clothes separate. I have a Weekender I use for the boys, an Overnighter I use for myself, and on my to-buy list are the Daytripper for our upcoming beach trip and the Essentials Kit for both me and my husband to keep our toiletries. The bags are generously sized and although the Weekender is technically too big to carry-on, many folks have (as long as it’s not filled to the brim). They’re sturdy and perfect for international travel, too.
I always find that I bring too many small bags when I go, but once you have children it’s hard to avoid! I aim for one big bag for the two boys, one bag for me, one bag for Bob, and a diaper bag. Usually I’m lugging along my briefcase as well. For that I love Wood & Faulk, another American company. If you can keep items organized inside the bag, it makes life a lot easier. It’s also key to have someplace to put the dirty laundry. It makes unpacking much easier, especially since when I don’t separate it out I have to wash anything that’s clean again!
Please note that I paid full price for all these bags – I love to support my sister-in-law’s company!