Several years ago, that brilliant source of “fake news,” The Onion, published a short piece entitled “Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties in Closer Proximity To Ocean.” This headline, which makes me simultaneously want to laugh and cry, highlights one of the sad realities of family vacations: It is unusual for all family members to thoroughly enjoy a vacation together. And it’s not the togetherness part that’s the problem. (Unless you have teens or preteens, then maybe it is.) It’s that not everyone’s enjoyment is taken into consideration during the planning.
Spending a week visiting museums and touring famous buildings in a European capital? Chances are the parents are enjoying themselves, but the kids are bored. Spending it at an Airbnb near the beach? More fun for the kids, but not for the person who has to cook and clean every day.
So how do you plan a vacation that every member of your family will enjoy? Here’s our step-by-step guide (including who to include in the decisionmaking process).
Step 1: What kind of holiday do you want? Beach or city? (Who decides: parents)
This first question is perhaps the most important, and it is entirely for the adults to choose. While kids absolutely need to recharge, they can pretty much do it anywhere. Adults, on the other hand, tend to need a more specific type of environment. Do you just want to lie on the beach for a week? Or would you feel more energized exploring a new city? Once you figure this out, you are ready for the next step.
Step 2: Where will you go? (Who decides: parents, possibly with kids in elementary school or above)
Once you’ve figured out the category of destination, it’s time to get specific. Within that category, what are some places on your bucket list? And what’s feasible given the amount of time you have, distances, etc.?
How often you travel is a key factor in deciding whether to include your kids in this part of the planning. If this is your only big vacation this year, you might want to make the decision yourselves. If, on the other hand, you’re a family that travels a lot, you might want help from your (older) kids. (Of course, if you can’t reach a consensus, the adults get the final say.)
Step 3: Decide when to go (Who decides: parents, possibly with kids in elementary school or above)
This may have already been decided before Step 1, and will often be dictated by things like school schedules. But if not, figure out if any events are occurring in your chosen destinations that you want to see or avoid. For example, we want to go back to Isla Holbox between July and September to maximize our chances of seeing wildlife.
Step 4: Pick the top 1-2 things you want to do (Who decides: parents and kids in preschool or older)
Throughout this blog, I’ve made note of our “top two” activities or places in each destination. Because families inevitably see less when traveling than childless travelers who can stay out late and eat on the run, I find it very helpful to find out from others which two things they say you “can’t miss” in our upcoming destinations. We then use these (sometimes with other research) to come up with our own top two lists, which we then use as anchors for scheduling activities and sights.
While this number makes sense in cities (where things are usually relatively close together), it doesn’t really work in rural or beach areas. If you are someplace more remote, I think seeing one thing per day is probably sufficient since half of most days will be spent relaxing and/or in transit.
The amount of assistance you will need to give your kids so that they can choose their own “top two” will likely vary depending on their age. Middle and high school kids will be able to research your destination on their own and make suggestions. For preschoolers and elementary students, you might need to make some recommendations based on their interests for the kids to choose between.
What about babies and toddlers? Asking for their input will likely be futile. But if they are old enough to have demonstrated interests, you can take those interests into account when filling out the rest of your itinerary. For example, my son has loved sea life since he was about one year old. So when we went to Lisbon, we added the aquarium to our itinerary (after slotting in the adults’ top two) even though we probably wouldn’t have gone to something so out of the way without him.
Step 5: Decide Where to Stay (Who decides: parents)
Now that you know what you most want to do and where it is located, figure out where you want to stay. As before, you should start by looking at the big picture: Would you rather rent a house or stay in a hotel? Once you know that, look at a map to figure out what neighborhood(s) would be most convenient. Then you can start researching specific options.
Step 6: Make Sure Your Itinerary Includes Enough Movement and Outdoor Time (Who decides: parents, likely with “feedback” from kids)
Traveling can really wreck havoc on a young child’s system. Three particularly common problems in our experience: constipation, jetlag, and general restlessness. Fortunately, two of the more natural treatments for all of these ailments are physical movement and fresh air. So do yourself a favor and review your highlights list from Step 4 to ensure that your kids will be getting the movement and/or nature time that they need. If not, figure out how you can change the itinerary. Two of our favorite “add-on” activities are going to playgrounds and science museums.
Step 7: Try to Maintain Your Child’s Routine As Much As Possible (Who decides: parents, likely with “feedback” from kids)
For us, one of the most challenging things about traveling with a toddler has been figuring out how, and to what extent, to maintain his routine. Virtually everything I’ve ever read about child development has stressed the importance of routine, some people even use it as a reason to avoid travel, and I’ve certainly seen what getting out of routine can do to our toddler. But our toddler has also shown me that you don’t have to maintain it perfectly—just the essential parts.
For us, this largely means making sure that Luca can still take his daily nap. Sometimes, this means going back to the hotel or apartment after lunch. Or if that’s not possible, we’ll plan on wandering around the city during nap time. Of course, this works best if you remember the stroller or carrier. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself like me (and later Fernando) in Verona, struggling to carry a 14 kg back of rocks (a/k/a toddler) across the city.
Step 8: Relax, have fun, and be prepared to change your plans
This last piece of advice is really for the parents. Young kids seem to have fun wherever they are (as long as they aren’t tired or hungry). Adults, not so much. Especially control freaks like myself, since things rarely go as planned when you are traveling with littles. So do your best to embrace (or maybe ignore) the craziness and just have a good time.
What are your top tips for planning an enjoyable family vacation?