Summer is here, and by the time you read this article, I’ll be heading West in my trusty little toaster car to visit with family. It’s not a vacation—and I probably won’t have one of those until my kids are well out of college—but it is our family trip for the summer.
We took our first trip with a baby when our oldest was only 8 weeks old and a friend let us a cottage in Provincetown for the weekend. It was a disaster; we left early, somehow still got caught in Cape traffic and ended up eating pizza off the dashboard of our car while the baby screamed his head off in the back seat.
Not much has changed since then. I routinely eat dashboard meals, and the kids still scream their heads off from time to time. But I have started to enjoy traveling with them. A little bit. So today, I’ll share my five years of trip disaster wisdom with you so you can enjoy your trips, too.
Take Your Time.
Somehow, I expected traveling with kids to take the same amount of time as traveling without them. Some people might manage to do this… we are not those people. But that’s okay! I now know that it’s going to take Oregon Trail levels of time, and I tell anyone who’s expecting us we’ll be there at least four hours after the GPS says we will. Sometimes, we even manage to miss that mark. For the most part, I try not to schedule anything super important on that first day of arrival so I’m not stressed beyond what I can handle. Two years ago, we drove to Pennsylvania and due to rescheduled fireworks, potty training and a massive storm, it actually took us TWO DAYS to get there. So, hey, anything under that, and I figure we’re doing well!
We also build in many stops. My kids are movers; they get antsy and upset when they have to spend too long in the car. Since my oldest doesn’t sleep much when we drive, we stop every few hours. I try to find a playground or open space on Google Maps. Sometimes, we just look for strip malls with quiet parking lots. I try to keep a ball in the car so even the sparsest landscape can be fun. When it’s cold or rainy, I look for malls with play spaces—luckily, most of the ones near I-84 in Connecticut have them.
Some folks have success doing these trips after bedtime, but that’s never worked for us. Usually, we’re too tired, and then the kids don’t sleep anyway. My oldest son once spent two hours crying in the dark because he couldn’t see any grass outside. Plus, you can’t really drink coffee at that hour, so for us daytime travel with lots of stops is the best.
This doesn’t apply to airline travel, of course. It’s been years since I attempted that. I went once with my oldest when he was a baby, and I actually managed to arrive a day late that time, too, since my flight was canceled when the plane was hit by the catering truck on the runway. (Oops.) According to friends who have flown recently, I’d allow many, many hours of lead time considering the current state of the TSA.
Lower Your Expectations.
I know, I know. But I’m serious about this. I used to consider a trip a failure if we didn’t do ALL THE THINGS. That Ptown trip, for example, should have included: walks on the beach, delicious food and walks around town. What it actually included was sleepless nights, creepy paintings staring back at me at 2 a.m. and a husband with a cold who wanted nothing to do with the beach. Our son, thrown off by being away from home, was up more than usual, and we were wrecked. We admitted defeat and went home. But looking back, I’m pretty proud of us for packing up the toaster and getting out of the house. Considering how much crap I’d lug with me just for a trip to the coffee shop, this was no small feat.
These days, I assume my kids will sleep horribly. I actually have vacation sleep rules for my oldest (a.k.a. there are no rules). He gets to co-sleep, which he loves and can’t do at home, and can watch a movie before bed if we’re in a hotel. This eliminates the stress of trying to force sleep that won’t come, and he’s occupied while we try to get our toddler to sleep in his pack n play. I just try to be easy so everyone is happy, instead of enforcing the home rules that won’t work and will make us all miserable. We learned this the hard way.
Some days we can’t do touristy or family things if we’re wiped out by the journey. If that’s the case, we just go to the playground or find a kid-centered activity that will occupy them while we drink coffee. We figure we’ll just make up for it the next time… or, you know, when the kids are in high school.
Because I have challenging sleepers, my husband and I have learned to take turns with early morning duty so we’re not both tired and miserable. When we travel for a while (like the upcoming weeklong trip) we try to schedule downtime for each other so we’re not all working on a high stress level and low sleep reserves. Usually, we take turns getting up with our early riser(s), going for runs and doing things we like to do so we don’t burn out fast under the the demands of cherishing our together time.
Embrace the Chaos.
Family trips are messy. Own it. On that Pennsylvania trip, our car was a disaster. During an early morning coffee run the day after we finally arrived, a kind stranger helped me carry boxes of coffee and donuts to my car. “It looked like you have your hands full,” he said to me when I thanked him. Glancing at the back seat of my car he continued, “It seems like you have your hands full a lot.” A little harsh, but uh… it’s the truth. I can’t hide that.
BYO coffee and other essentials.
This one is new this year. I got a coffee sock so I could coldbrew my own coffee in the hotel when we stay with friends who have no coffee pot. When it’s my morning to get up with the kids, I can’t manage to get all three of us out the door without coffee, and now I don’t have to. You don’t even technically need a fridge to coldbrew, you can do it on the countertop (or desktop) at room temperature. (I have no need to refrigerate leftovers as I have none, but if you do, you probably should do that.) If you’re not a coffee person, bring what you need to be happy on the trip: a good book to look forward to reading in the hotel bathroom after the kids are asleep, a movie on the iPad or a bag full of coffee grounds. Whatever works. Make space for it so you can really enjoy the trip!
And don’t be afraid to bring stuff from home to help with the kids, too. I had to buy a roof container for the car this year, but the stroller, pack n play, and a few expandable gates are coming with us. It beats trying to physically block the stairs every time the toddler makes a run for it.
Make the best of it—and hey, have fun.
If pregnancy and labor taught me anything, it’s that I’m no longer in control of anything in my life. I’ve got to just go with what I have. Sometimes the trips aren’t the best, vacation homes smell of mold, no one sleeps (can you tell this happens to me a lot?), we can’t do it all… but that’s ok. Because at the end of the day, the kids will remember how much fun you had together even when you’ve missed your exit or the baby had a blowout. So try to have fun even if the whole thing seems to have gone sideways, because that’s what vacations (oops! I mean trips!) are for.
When all else fails, just think: In 20 years you can take that dream vacation. And you’ll probably even miss these days with small kids, because the human brain has a very good erase function.