“A vacation is like love – anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort and remembered with nostalgia.” – Unknown
I just spent two plus weeks on vacation with my family. Consisting of my husband, our 4-year-old daughter and our 10-month-old son. My husband and I share a love for travel. Our romance actually began on a trip that started off as “friends” and ended as “lovers”. (I can’t believe I just wrote that. Barf!) Our mutual wanderlust made it imperative that, even with kids, we would continue to travel. That said, by the end of this last trip, after getting out of my airplane seat for the 458th time to swap a DVD, change a poopy diaper (not fun in a airplane lavatory), visiting the bathroom 10 times in 2 hours, answering the ever desperate cry of “MOM” (delivered as if the plane was on fire) only to find that a pillow needs adjusting or a water droplet was spilled… I start to feel like downtrodden, violated, poked and prodded Hooters waitress, serving drunk ingrates who are never satisfied.
As I push a loose strand of hair over my hallowed eye sockets, I want to yell “Kiss My Grits” to the lot of them. I love my family but I reach a point on every trip where I want to scream, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” The fact that kids famously lack the ability to feel empathy until later in life becomes highly magnified on a transcontinental trip. Kids just stare at you blankly when counter the inevitable “I’m too tired to walk” with an “I’m tired, too”-type statement. You realize quickly that they don’t care if you are tired or hungry or getting your period or sad, happy, angry, whatever it is. It is not about you anymore. Traveling with kids is like feeding a ravenous beast, a scramble to outwit and stay ahead of the monster who cannot be calmed.
So here are some lessons we’ve learned and some generally bad but nonetheless helpful travel tips. Bear in mind that we roll like a bohemian parade of nudniks, so these are not for everyone!
1) Raise a glass to lowered expectations!
Traveling will no longer be the romantic sojourn it was when it was just the two of you. Nor will be it be the eye opening, paradigm-shifting travel of your youth. The reality is that it is no longer your vacation and your expectations have to shift. For example, do things that both you and your kids will enjoy. 3 hours at the museum is not reasonable for two kids under 5 but 45 minutes is. Throw in one kid friendly thing in a day, even if it’s just a ride on a carousel.
1a) I want to point out that kids between the ages of 8 months and 2 years are impossible to travel with and I don’t have any great advice for this. That said, we’ve done it a bunch of times and lived to tell the tale.
2) Night flights.
We ALWAYS try to fly at night. Day flights are hell. Some kids won’t sleep on planes but most will. Expect to be exhausted when you arrive. That way, if you actually get to sleep, you will be pleasantly surprised!
3) The Joy of Cheap Crappy Toys.
Once your kid is over 2 1/2, go to the pharmacy and buy a bunch of junky toys that you normally never would let them have. I always bring a little surprise bag of stickers, pens, coloring books and little dolls that my daughter can play with on the plane, in restaurants, in the morning when you want to sleep, etc. Get things that are usually off limits as this increases your child’s joy manifold. We also bring a DVD player for when things get really desperate. People frown on this, especially in public, but we’ve found that it is a lifesaver.
4) Get Punk About Sleep Schedules.
My husband disagrees about this but I think that there is no point in getting your kids on their regular sleep schedules if you are going anywhere for under a month’s time. If you just let them party till midnight, you can go out to dinner. Otherwise you have to find a babysitter, which is expensive and a little scary, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language. Also, we let them sleep late. That way, we can sleep late too. I know this will all change when they are older but for now, the 7am sightseeing is not happening.
5) Redefine The Wailing Wall.
I’ve found that my kids can really throw some epic temper tantrums on holiday, much more so that when they are at home. Nip this in the bud. Clamp down, show them who is boss. We’ve become fans of the time-out where our child faces a wall, any wall, until they can calm down. In Jerusalem, this was especially entertaining. I’ve found that most people passing by are more supportive and less judgmental than I would have thought.
6) Rent an Apartment.
Rent an apartment! It satisfies all fantasies of what it would be like to be a citizen of Paris, Copenhagen, Tel Aviv, wherever! It’s much cheaper than staying at a hotel. You can cook all those gourmet meals for your picky kids – plain pasta with butter, dry toast, peeled cucumbers – without a snotty waiter judging you on your child’s terrible diet. There are tons of great websites for vacation rentals these days. You can also go about your business without worrying that your child screaming bloody murder will bother hotel guests or the super generous friends who are letting you stay with them.
Strollers are a big pain to schlep around. Double strollers are even more of a pain. The flip side is that you can walk for hours, sight seeing, stopping wherever you fancy. This has become our favorite way to see a city. We now walk more and see more than we ever did before our kids were born. Most restaurants are okay with a stroller as long as you can fold it and leave it outside.
Bring snacks you know your child will like. Expect good nutrition to go out the window. I had a lot of anxiety about this at first. Our daughter is an especially picky eater. As long as she keeps growing, I’ve decided not to force it, especially in a new place with “weird” food.
9) Be “with” your family.
Another good thing about a family sojourn out of the country is that you are forced (mostly for financial reasons) to turn off your data roaming and focus on your family! When I’m home, I am usually consumed with checking my varies devices for communiqués from the world of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls… it’s actually nice to have no excuse but to pay attention to your family on a committed, deep, non-ADD level!
10) Vacation From Your Vacation:
When you get home, take a vacation from your vacation: upon arriving home, after what usually is a daytime flight of chaos and toy juggling, spit up stained clothing and bags under your eyes that rival your huge pile of luggage, call out into the abyss that YOU NEED HELP! Get anyone – your sitter, your parents, your sibling, whoever – to come over and give you a break, for crying out loud! Do something that makes you feel great. Even if you only have an hour.
At the end of the day, these trips stand out as some of our best times together. They create the memories that my kids will share with their kids. For all the exhaustion, schlepping, complaining and sweating, it’s all worth it in the end. Showing my kids places that meant the world to me as a child is more poignant than I would have guessed. Taking my kids to Tivoli and Christiania in Copenhagen was one of my most important moments as a parent. I loved those two places so much as a kid. They informed my sense of magic, utopian fairytales, creative spirit and aesthetic. Seeing my daughter’s eyes light up at the very same things that lit my eyes wide at four was pure magic for me. And taking my young son there meant the beginning of a long tradition that I hope we carry out throughout his life. These moments will be dim in their memories but the photos and stories of our travels will be the yarn they spin to their kids or partners later in life. These truly “together” moments as a family, away from work and the grind, are what define us and teach us about each other. For my husband and I, they highlight our strengths and weaknesses both as a couple and as parents. Traveling forces us all to grow and learn.
We’ve been home for a week now. I look 10 years younger than I did the day we landed and already, I’m only remembering the good parts!