Is It Possible to Stay Sane on a Vacation with Your Kids?


Two years ago, we did something only the bravest of souls have ever attempted: We gathered up our four kids, packed their suitcases, loaded them onto planes, and with 20 hours of travel ahead of us, took off for Peru.

We took our kids to Machu Picchu (with a brief stop in Costa Rica along the way).

My husband Mark and I are big fans of international travel. We backpacked around Europe before we had kids, and wanted our children to grow up with the same love of travel and openness to new cultures. We wanted to get them outside of their comfortable little worlds and introduce them to new languages, landscapes, and ways of life.

We were so naive.

We ended up having a great time and accomplished a few of those goals on that trip, but we also learned a very, very important fact: Family vacations are not vacations for parents. Not at all. Those happy photos you see of smiling, traveling families? They are lies. Vulgar lies.

We made it to Machu Picchu, but not without breakdowns on friendly Peruvian streets, meltdowns in charming hostels, hysterics upon ancient ruins, and emotional distress during our one splurge at a five-star restaurant. And that was just me! The kids had an even harder time.

As we flew back from this trip, I began calculating the ways traveling with kids is hard on parents. For one thing, we still have to be parents on the trip. Most vacations are about getting away from a job or responsibilities. However, when you travel with kids, you’re still doing the job of being a parent …only you’re in a potentially more exotic place. You still have to dress your kids for the weather. You have to make their meals (or find a restaurant that serves food they’ll eat). You can’t lounge around the beach or the pool because you have to supervise their swimming. You can’t relax or nap or read because you’re either watching the kids or feeling guilty that you’re not documenting the experience with photos, because memories and stuff. You can’t stay up late, because kids need sleep, and will probably always wake up at the crack of dawn regardless of where you are. You can’t enjoy the beauty of Machu Picchu because your kids are teetering on precipices from which they could easily fall to their death.

And if you plan any awesome activities? They usually revolve around the kids. You learn to make choices that result in the least amount of whining. You try to find a place that’s not too hot and not too cold and not too hard and not too crowded. You know where that exact place is? YOUR HOUSE.

We learned some good lessons during that trip, and we’ve learned a few others since. To be perfectly honest, we’re still trying to figure out the best ways to vacation with our kids. We’ll try one thing and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, we’ll adapt it for the next trip. But here are a few of the things we always do:

1. Add extra time.

Upon arrival, we always give ourselves some time to settle in and get over any jet lag or travel difficulties before jumping right into an itinerary. Then we try to come back a day early before heading back to school or work. This gives everyone a day to readjust and unwind before the routines of work and responsibilities start back up.

2. Forget about nutrition.

Nutrition is a luxury we have at home. When traveling, it’s very hard to keep our kids on the ideal balanced diet of vegetables and fruits and healthy protein instead of processed foods and sugary drinks. I’ve largely given up this fight. We can get back on track when the trip is over.

3. Extend electronic grace.

Even if you have screen time rules at home, vacations are allowed to be different. Videos, games, and music can be the difference between everyone staring as your child throws a tantrum in the airplane aisle and you getting to enjoy your complimentary drink and peanuts in silence.

4. Be realistic.

Traveling with kids is hard, and many of the challenges are out of your control. Traffic, construction, flight delays, long lines, bathroom breaks, air/car sickness, disagreements between closely confined siblings … all these things may happen. You have to expect them. This isn’t giving in to pessimism. This is being a realistic parent. When these things do happen (and they probably will, in some form or the other), maybe you can handle them with a little more patience — because you knew they’d arrive.

Every family is different, but these are some of the ways we’re learning to save our sanity while vacationing with the kids. What about you? What rules or allowances have you made so your family can make memories — rather than kill each other — on vacation?

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