“You no longer get vacations, you get trips”
This was a piece of soberingly true advice I received once we were promoted to parents. After a rough family vacation to Cabo last year I was more than a little weary to reattempt family travel. Thankfully, now older and wiser, this year’s vacation was the closest to heaven we’ve been yet.
Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned about family vacations with small children:
1. There will be moments when your blood runs cold, like when your son pulls the hotel fire alarm. There’s no sugar coating it, it’s going to happen. Remember receiving that wedding advice that something is going to go wrong on your big day? There will be an f’ck up in your fantasy, and you’re going to have to roll with it. Same rule applies here. Let’s get that one out of the way first.
2. Do yourself a favor and choose family friendly destinations. We chose the north shore of Kauai. It’s a stunning, magical place that Ty and I fell in love with prior to parenting and knew it’s a place where children are generally liked and welcome. Sure, you could post up at some bougie resort full of romance seeking jet-setters and page-turning sun worshippers, unleashing your tropical storm of toddlers and reminding them to refill their birth control subscriptions… or you could get smarter and find somewhere with a water-slide into a kiddie pool, with other families just like you who are happy to share their pool toys and sunblock.
3. Hope for the best but plan for the worst. No part of me wanted a redo of last year’s vacation flying with “lap children.” My husband and I took turns with each child and I got to hold Knox on the way home, which turned out to be more like wrestling with a sleep deprived gorilla while locked in an airborne metal can instead of my original fantasy of cuddling with a napping bundle of sweet joy while I watched an in-flight movie. I actually threw my neck out on that jaunt.
This time around I was wiser. I packed toddler-friendly snacks and meals, extra clothes, travel activities, toddler headphones and emergency preparations including lollipops, DVDs & DVD players (for each child), and toddler-appropriate iPhone/iPad apps. We are very restrictive with screen time but apps were still part of the emergency plan. We also brought car seats on the plane now that the kids each had their own seat. My kids are extremely active and I wanted to ensure naps on the 5.5 hour flights, and we were renting a car where seats would need to be rented if we hadn’t brought our own.
I also had put together an itinerary of toddler-friendly activities for our trip. I know it sounds crazy but gone are the days of leisurely perusing Yelp to see what outing sounds fun for the day. When those sweet savages are awake, there’s no leisurely anything plus naps smack in the middle of the day mean if you want to be adventurous, you better be ready to roll. I found toddler-friendly beaches, farmer’s markets, shaved ice huts, botanic gardens and luaus. Having pre-qualified options at our fingertips was wonderful.
4. Be flexible and realistic. Yes, it was wonderful having a loose itinerary of activities but the pools at our resort were so great that it was fine tossing the plans too. No one likes traveling with that person who is so dead set on an action-packed vacation that it doesn’t feel like a vacation after all. Go with the flow and with the activities that fit the vibe. The farmer’s market in Waip’a was a blast with friendly local vendors who were happy to share smiles, smells and tastes with our kiddos and even one who let Knox and Camilla shake the seeds from dried loofahs. Of course, shaved ice happened too!
5. Prepare for priceless moments of triumph. Knox realized he was capable of doing the water slide into the pool by himself, which he enjoyed endlessly. Camilla loved that she could freely roam the kiddie pool, climbing on massive turtles spraying jets of water. These assistance-free accomplishments provided freedoms enjoyed by the entire family. Yes, we still needed to watch our kids to ensure safety, but this was one of the first times since becoming parents when we could just step back and enjoy. As a parent, that’s a big f*cking deal.
6. Make adult time a priority. Yes, it’s a family vacation but it all started with two lovers. Making the magic happen takes a little more effort with young ones in the picture. As part of the itinerary we scheduled two dates for just my husband and I. One evening we enjoyed a date night out in Hanalei. Our second date was setting off first thing in the morning to hike our favorite Kalalau Trail along the stunning Nā Pali Coast. We used the recommendation of a good friend to book Happy Kids and were overjoyed with our incredible sitter who covered both dates.
7. A door changes everything… and a kitchen. If you can swing it, book accommodations in a suite. Children who can see you at bedtime and nap time, own you. It is an unwritten rule. Simple enough.
8. Expect to be surprised in good ways. While traveling through airports, on planes, through rental car offices, etc. we met wonderful people. We met people who helped us shuffle seats, rearrange reservations, make funny faces to entertain our kids and told us on multiple occasions not only how wonderful our children were but also how well we as parents handled traveling with little ones. For me, a compliment in the thick of it really hits home.
9. It gets easier! I remember back when the babes were first born how hard it was just to get out the door to make a PEP meeting at a certain time. Now, with lots of practice under my belt, I’m a certified super mom. The more we travel, the easier it gets… for everyone. Stick with it and the work will pay off.
10. Roll the dice, take a risk. Sure, you could have a terrible time and reset your expectations of what adventures are a good fit for your family, and that is ok too. At worst case, you’ll stretch the capabilities of your family. Then again, you might just have an incredibly fun family vacation.