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The Realities of Vacationing as a Parent of Young Children

Vacations are often expected to be relaxing getaways, a chance to unwind and recharge. But, as a parent of young children, I've come to realize that vacationing takes on an entirely different meaning when little ones are involved. I want to share my firsthand experiences and shed light on the realities of going on vacation as a parent of young children. And perhaps a few re-frames to help with the mental load of it all. From the challenges to the joys, the careful planning, and the necessary adjustments, let's talk about what it's truly like to embark on a family vacation adventure.


Vacation Preparation

In my opinion (and compulsions) vacations with young children require meticulous planning and preparation. I have always been a planner, but my vacation prep goes WAY over the top of anything I had to do before -- you know, when I was just packing for MYSELF.


And when I say preparation, I don't mean ONLY packing either. Let's run down some of the things that have changed while preparing to travel with young children.

Accommodations

I'm so grateful for vacation rentals now! Whether AirBnB, VRBO, or one of my favorites Sun Outdoors, rentals are the way to go if you're traveling with the family. I always like to make sure there is a kitchen space so we aren't eating out for every meal, and a common area to play or relax during down times. Also, if it's your season, don't forget to check and double-check if you need a crib or highchair. Or be prepared to bring your own. I used this amazing attached highchair all last summer!


Bonus Tip: I always get a rental with a washer and dryer! Pack less, wash more!


Mode of Transportation

We've decided that family vacations will be road trips for the foreseeable future. I'd love to fly to more exotic (for us) destinations but in an effort to keep stress levels a bit lower, this is the right decision for us, right now. Why? It's not just about cost savings (although the thought of purchasing 5 plane tickets, then renting a family-sized vehicle puts me over the edge).


It's honestly about logistics. When we drive to destinations we have flexibility - we can stop when my 3-year-old needs to urgently find a restroom, we can wake up at 4AM and drive for a few hours while the kids sleep in the back, we can change up plans at a moment's notice. That's the new spontaneity, folks! I love that we have our own vehicle at the destination, rather than a rental. A rental that I would either have to rent car seats for (eh...), or check multiple car seats at the airport. Plus, the thought of showing up at the airport with multiple car seats, pack-n-play, a suitcase full of only diapers, highchair, and snacks, plus all of our luggage sounds like my worst nightmare.


After a couple years of road-tripping across the country (almost -- so far our destinations have spanned east to Pennsylvania, north to Wisconsin, west to Colorado, and south to Tennessee), our kids are comfortable in the car. It's not to say I don't spend a lot of time handing out snacks to toddlers and making sure tablets are working, but to me, it's much preferable to navigating an airport and flight.


Packing

I'm a planner. I have a list. I make it a week in advance and adjust it as I think of things. It's a lot, but it makes packing day and driving day SOOO much smoother. Some of the tips and tricks that have worked best for me:

  • Determine ahead of time what you want to be accessible in the car (and then how you're going to reach it while you're traveling down the highway at 70 MPH)

  • Packing Cubes - we each have our own cube -- then I tailor which larger luggage it goes into based on how much room I have in the back of the car

  • Pack light -- or at least as light as possible. I always do laundry on vacation, so I don't pack enough clothes for a new set every day. This makes packing the car up at the end of the trip much quicker and means there's less clutter in our rental.

  • Pack light on food too. I usually pack enough snacks for the one-way trip to our vacation spot, including 1 packed meal (PB&J sandwiches or similar). I don't try to bring food from the refrigerator or any other food in the car. Not because we're not going to eat meals and snacks at the rental (we are), but because everywhere you go has GROCERY STORES. One of the first things we do on vacation is make a grocery run.

  • Rule of Thumb: If you think you "might need it" and you can buy it where you're going at a reasonable price, then DON'T PACK IT. Buy it if you end up needing it later. (e.g. cold medicine)

Bonus Tip: If you're leaving the house in early hours (before the kids wake up), have a bonus list with what you need to grab in the morning. Items such as stuffies, blankets, sound machines, etc.


Bonus Bonus Tip: I'm a passenger princess on our road trips. Which means I'm responsible for keeping the kids fed, happy-ish, and occupied. So I pack the car. I know exactly where everything is in the car and how to get to it. Snacks are strategically placed behind the driver's seat where I can easily reach them at a moment's notice. I know this adds to the mental load of packing, but it beats not being able to find the damn goldfish crackers when the 2-year-old is screaming for them.


Bonus Bonus Bonus Tip: Grocery Stores carry diapers, too.


Now that the mental load of preparing for a vacation with young kids is behind us, let's move on to making sure that we ALL have a good time on vacation. Notice I said "good" time, not "relaxing" time.


How to Turn Cluttered Chaos Into Meaningful Memories

Embracing the Chaos

No matter how well you plan, the chaos that comes with parenting young children cannot be avoided. Traveling with little ones means expecting unpredictable moments, tantrums, and meltdowns. It's important to embrace the chaos and remember that it's a natural part of the adventure. Instead of getting frustrated, finding ways to adapt and maintain a positive attitude can make all the difference. I'll admit turning the chaos into a positive is difficult for me. That's why the next tip has the most impact on my nerves during vacations.


Remember that these challenges are temporary and that the memories you create as a family will be cherished in the long run.

Adjusting Expectations

This is the big one for me. Accept that vacation will likely look different from your pre-parenting days. Rather than focusing on ticking off every item on your itinerary, be flexible and open to changing plans if necessary.


Some of the expectations that I adjust on vacation with young children:

  • Bedtime: I don't let it move too late, because I don't want to deal with early risers and over-tired kiddos the next day, but if bedtime gets pushed by an hour, that probably means we had a fun-filled day.

  • Balanced Diets: Our kids' diets skew heavily toward sugar when we're on vacation. (There are a lot of amazing ice cream places in this country!) So, I make sure they eat something besides sugar, and I make sure they drink plenty of water or milk. Oh, and I remind them constantly that this is a special vacation treat. Full transparency here: we definitely pay for this adjustment after vacation is over, but it's worth the happy faces, memories, and shared cones along the way.

  • Naptime: My youngest still naps every afternoon. When we're on vacation, I still have a major fear of over-tired kids. So I still make sure he takes a nap every day on vacation, but it looks different than normal. Sometimes he only sleeps for 45 minutes rather than his normal 2 hours. Sometimes he naps in the car while driving from one adventure to another. Sometimes he naps in the stroller or carrier while we continue exploring. I know he needs a nap, but he also doesn't want to miss out on the fun (and neither do I), so we make due and have fun.

  • Meals: As I mentioned, we don't eat every meal at a restaurant when we're on vacation. I actually prefer this mix because I tend to get sick of restaurant food after some time and eating meals out with kids is not always enjoyable. We tend to eat breakfast at our rental and either lunch OR dinner at a restaurant. Also, the dinner time / restaurant antics continue to worsen as the vacation goes on. So set the expectation: you won't have a nice last dinner on vacation with little kids.

  • The Hangover: I'd love to know if you've experienced this. Since rules are lax, overstimulation and sugar are high, and there are several days in a row of exciting adventures, the first few (or several) days at home after a vacation are rough. I'm talking tantrums, over-tired, sugar-withdrawals, and "boredom". I know it's temporary, and getting back into a routine and rules is imperative for getting back on track. But I have to know ahead of time that there's going to be a hangover effect when we get home.

  • Rejuvenation (NOT): One thing that I've learned without a doubt is that vacations with young children are not relaxing. I do not come home feeling well-rested and rejuvenated. I had fun and made memories, but I'm not rejuvenated. And then the hangover starts and that's the opposite of rejuvenation. So yes, I do feel like I need a vacation from my vacation when I get back home. I try to spend quality time in silence to manage overwhelm and get back into a routine. (And maybe schedule a massage in a week.) Another option depending on your circumstances is to schedule self-care time on vacation. With both parents on vacation, take turns getting a spa treatment. Or make sure to pick 1-2 activities that the adults want to do, like hiking the mountain or going to a delicious restaurant.


Vacationing as a parent of young children brings with it a unique set of challenges and rewards. The careful preparation, the chaos, the adjustment of expectations, and the quest for family-friendly activities are all part of the experience. Remember that the true essence of a family vacation lies in the joy and connection you share with your children. Embrace the adventure, laugh through the chaos, and cherish the memories you create together. Vacationing as a parent may require extra effort, but the joy and love experienced are worth every moment.

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