Holidays with small children
March 6, 2018 3:05 AM   Subscribe

We've recently come back from a holiday with our small children. The seven year old was fun to be around and enjoyed the holiday and we feel like we parented well. With regards the three year old, she hated the change to her routine and was a bit of a menace. It made the holiday feel like the opposite of a holiday. We have come back more exhausted than we went away.

We went to bed last night wondering how normal this is, and whether we are holidaying "inappropriately" for the stage of life we are at. Basically we live in a country which doesn't get much snow and for our holiday we went for a week to a country which gets a lot of snow and we played around in the snow for a week (with regular inside 'down-time' with cocoa and the odd DVD).

What do other parents "do" to have a holiday that suits the kids as well as the adults (we're not really Centreparcs/Oasis people), what expectations do the parents have about the holiday (do they expect to come back in any way refreshed?!) and what tips/tricks do you guys have about holidaying with the very young?!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is just really, really hard. We tend to do trips to visit friends or family, because just spending time with the kids on our own in a foreign place can sometimes be like home, only worse. Hanging out with other people, it became fun, especially if they have kids too and can do reciprocal babysitting for evenings out.

As much as possible, we have rented apartments that were kid friendly (Kid & Coe is good for this, but expensive, and there are family-friendly places on AirBnB too). The best experience we had was a place that had lots of toys and real cribs, etc. Also I think just changing expectations really helped us. A good day was a new park and ice cream, or a trip to some ruins and ice cream or a short spell in a museum and ice cream. We suspend some rules from home (more screen time, less fussy about food) to keep people happy. Even little things (renting bikes) can be really fun for everyone.

Three years old is just hard! I think in another couple of years it will get better :). Really interested to read others' advice as well.
posted by caoimhe at 3:41 AM on March 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

My honest answer: my spouse takes one 4-day meditation retreat a year while I parent and I take one trip with my OSO a year while he does. We now have kids that a lovely to travel with, but this tradition started when they weren’t. So my answer is, build in other adult downtime.

We also do an annual cottage retreat which comes the closest. The huge thing was having a kitchen and cooking/grilling. Then we didn’t have to manage restaurants. Lots of fun was close at hand like go play on the sand, etc., but nothing where we felt we had to use our time efficiently like make the most of a lift ticket.

These years pass, hang in there!
posted by warriorqueen at 4:52 AM on March 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm not a theme park person either. My kids are 14 and 17. One thing I regret is not doing more "kid stuff" and theme parks when they were younger. There is a reason why theme parks are popular -- they are fun for kids. I wish I would have visited more theme parks and other kid-friendly trips when my kids were in grade school.

I live in Florida and my kids have been to Disney World's Magic Kingdom once (we did some other theme parks later in their lives but rarely went to theme parks). Instead I vacationed in cities domestic and internationally, and brought them to long baseball games and museums they weren't interested in.

I wish I would have dropped my "I'm not a theme park person" attitude and thought about their enjoyment more. They are only young once. Theme parks, swimming pools, boat rides, beaches, cruises, family resorts, camping, being around animals like horseback riding, kid activities -- that's the fun stuff for kids, in my opinion.

For three-year-olds, I would keep it simple. If I had to do it again I wouldn't drag my three-year-old on airplanes and such. Keep it simple until they are older.
posted by loveandhappiness at 5:00 AM on March 6, 2018 [25 favorites]

I found it difficult with one child to feel in any way relaxed during a vacation. The pool was always fun for her but that meant I spent 100% of my time in the pool with her. Even sitting next to a pool for long is not my idea of fun. At one point I considered a Disney Cruise with the all inclusiveness and constant kid activities being appealing even though I have zero desire to be on a cruise myself. After reading this article this morning about a travel writer's experience with his young daughter on a Disney Cruise I think I made the right choice to forego that experience. I don't have the desire to buy expensive cocktails to feel like I'm on vacation and I would not like being around Disney and the Disney obsessed parents for that long. Anyway, my post is more about what I decided not to do so as far as suggestions what to do, I would say staycations have been the most fun and comfortable when the kiddo was too young to care about getting away from it all to a destination. The key is to plan daily events of going to places around your area, like those mentioned above, that are new and not things we have done before. In winter there are small ski resorts around that have kid activities and it's fun to hang out in the lodge for cocoa later before heading home. New restaurants. There is also a huge indoor water park two hours away. In summer it's pretty easy to find activities at the lake such as boating, fishing, and various towns with old timey amusement parks. Camping can be challenging but we've had some fun with that. Movies and plays, science center, etc. Look at the events section in your local weekly social paper, like Scene if you're in Cleveland.
posted by waving at 5:01 AM on March 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're holidaying wrong, exactly, but the tricky thing here is that the youngest children don't necessarily understand that all these routine changes should be culturally understood as relaxing and fun and a lovely time away. It, I imagine, is actually not possible to have any three-year-old enjoy a holiday in the same way someone even a few years older would, because they don't know what a holiday is or what it's for.

Once kids start school, as you know, you can start to help your little ones plan the trip and enjoy things a bit more (albeit with loads of down time and support); as you mentioned, your seven-year-old had a great time, perhaps because (if they're in school?) they get the idea of what a holiday is (and school is hard work too!).

I'd try to think of trips like this as part of your children's natural development. Holidays are not necessarily an academic experience but can be a whole-person educational one.

If your older child's school took them to a week-long camp, for example, what would you expect them to be doing? Perhaps quite a few activities like nature walks with adults around making sure no one gets lost on a trail or falls into a lake, with some structured free time and social time with other kids around their age, and loads of space to tear around - a field, a garden, a beach, just somewhere to run. Perhaps you'd hope they'd maybe learn something too, either about the natural world or a new skill or physical activity - classics might include skiing, pottery, archery, horse-riding: those sorts of large-initial-investment activities the average family won't have access to on a daily basis. Food would be fun and quite participatory (making your own pizza and sliding into a wood-fired oven with adult help?), quiet kids would be welcomed and encouraged to make friends, kids having a bad day would have support to reintegrate into what everyone else is doing and feel taken care of. All of that is designed to support what kids at that age might want and need and expect, despite being from wildly different homes and experiences, and lots of holidays do in fact look like this: farmstays, campsites, the CentreParcs sorts of places you mention above.

For your younger child, if they're in preschool, what might they do during the day? Probably very structured activities like crafts with a teacher/caregiver, some reading/singing/language-related thing, some free play, and a lot of time for the everyday routine-building; think about how much of a preschooler's day is made up of the putting-things-away song, lining up for's quite a safe place to learn about what it means to live in a society entirely because it's structured and supported so heavily.

Here, it's harder to see how holidays with young kids can work when the majority of their toys, books, games, playmates and even the movement of the sun and weather are radically different. An older child can use their (limited) knowledge of the world/their family/how people work to ask questions about these differences, or prepare for them, or at least voice their approval/disapproval of them; a younger child really lacks the context to know that, for example, the holiday will end in five days and all their toys are safely back at home.

So some recommendations:

- If you have to take your holiday in a large-ish chunk, consider going somewhere smallish and relaxing - perhaps a rented cottage somewhere rural where self-catering is affordable and restaurant/cafe culture/food is simple and low-fuss. I'd aim for a place with some messy-but-safe outdoor activities nearby, especially animal and nature experiences, where the language you use at home is something the kids can use to say what they need to people other than you if you're not right by their side. Also, a place where you can share the load of parenting with other people you and your kids love and trust - a favourite auntie, grandpa, etc - can help everyone have a more calm and relaxing time.

- If you can take vacation time in smaller bits, say a few days every few months, think about what's local and fun and a nice day/afternoon out. Local museums, natural reserves, theatres and the like might all have kid-friendly days/experiences, and they're usually priced so families don't feel like they've lost too much if a child melts down and they need to go home. This also helps your kids become familiar with social expectations in these contexts so when you do go on larger holidays later the expectations aren't new or seem unfair: if you start now with we can look at the baby turtles but we can't touch them because it can hurt them as they grow, then you probably won't have to yellI told you to put that starfish down! later on when you're clambering across rockpools.

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 5:37 AM on March 6, 2018 [9 favorites]

This is very normal. When I want a fully relaxing holiday, I take a solo trip and leave the kid home with his dad (and vice-versa). Family vacations with a young kid are enriching but they are not relaxing. We took our just-turned-five-year-old to Ottawa last summer and he progressively became more and more of a pill over our 4 days there. My parents just happened to be passing through Ottawa on their way to their vacation rental in Northern Ontario and stayed the night in our AirBnB with us, which allowed my husband and I to go out and be adults for a bit, but most of the rest of the time was just kind of managing how much our kid could handle vs. what we wanted to do.

The thing is, though, as much as he whined at various points of the trip, he's talked about going back to Canada constantly since we returned. So he did definitely get something out of it and it was a valuable experience for him to see that whole other cities and other countries exist.

For our kid I think our best success comes not from a cabin-in-the-woods sort of approach, but a city or, yes, a theme park. Cabin-in-the-woods seems exactly like a weekend at home: scouring the house for stuff to occupy our kid, and supervising the various ways that he's bouncing off the walls. He's an active, outgoing little guy and he needs things! to! do! And honestly? The theme park we take him to (it's near where we live so no vacation necessary) is one geared towards small children and the first time we took him it was magical. His wonder and delight was so great to see. At the end of this month for his spring break, him and his dad are taking a boys' trip to one of those horrific-looking indoor water park resort complex places and I expect he will love the crap out of it because he's 5 and what's not to love about a place like that when you're 5?
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:12 AM on March 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm going to offer a different take on the Disney cruise. We went as a sort of "babymoon" in December, when our son had just turned 4. We had a great time and did not experience most of the slightly negative experiences described in the article. We weren't drinking due to my pregnancy. I read a lot (both guidebooks and Facebook groups) about how to prepare, and we didn't spend more than $100 on onboard incidentals--none of this $200 Bibbity Bobbity Boo makeover nonsense. The childcare is excellent, and I really felt like we got the perfect mix of kid and non-kid time. Probably the most challenging thing about it was that our kid didn't want to leave the kids club area. We are not huge Disney people (or cruise people, for that matter) so that wasn't a big draw for us. I think the Disney cruise can be a good option if you set boundaries about how much "extra" you're willing to spend, it can be really fun for everyone. There are tons of free activities for kids to enjoy so you don't *have* to spend more if you don't want to.
posted by emkelley at 6:12 AM on March 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

There is vacationing with children and then there is traveling with children. The difference is whether or not there is childcare (not done by you) available. Go to a resort with a kids center, hire a nanny, take a cruise, it matters not. All that matters for a vacation with kids to feel like a vacation is that you get some vacation from your kids during the vacation.
posted by Doc_Sock at 6:16 AM on March 6, 2018

When our kids were little, we did stuff on vacations that would be mostly fun for them, not us. But we also had fun experiencing them having fun! They weren't "vacations," they were TRIPS. The difference being: we never, ever expected to really have much downtime (still parenting 24/7 but now you're away from everything familiar). As they got older, we added in more stuff the adults liked (museums, theatre, solitary book reading).

And just because my husband and I are museum/theatre/solitary book reading people doesn't mean that both of our kids are. The eldest (just turned 21) likes that stuff but also wants to go see live music and stay out really late. The youngest (about to be 18) is happiest spending ALL DAY on a beach with a tiny smattering of museum-going and musical theatre.

What a three-year-old prefers to do on vacation is probably not what the adults want to do but it sure is fun to find out what that is and lean into it. They're only little for such a short time.
posted by cooker girl at 6:21 AM on March 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

We did a 9 day trip at about that age with our son split between Iceland and Paris. Iceland was tough because it was a lot of driving, and he didn't really get geysers and waterfalls and such. Paris was better because we made time everyday to go to playgrounds, and Paris Plage along the Seine and such. But the couple of museums we tried weren't great, and we did come back pretty tired.

The summer he was six we did a guided family trip to the Galapagos. It was great that there were other kids there, and the itinerary was prepared with kids in mind. He did great with the food and disruption to his schedule and everything really.

My wife believes that our earlier travels got him ready for some of the more recent trips. I don't think she's wrong, but I think the age is a big part of it too.
posted by thenormshow at 6:46 AM on March 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, traveling with a 3 year old is work, not a vacation. Last year we took it really easy with my 3 year old--a few days at a beach house, a few at a hotel for a family reunion. She was convinced that the vampires from Hotel Transylvania were going to be at the hotel and had a huge tantrum, and hardly slept or pooped at the beach house because of the disruptions to her routine. They're a little like cats at this age--they really just like sticking to their own territory.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:48 AM on March 6, 2018 [6 favorites]

This is normal. Heh, I'm smiling because you reminded me of a 4 hour each way car trip we took to a nearby city when my son was that age. Every time we dropped below 30 mph he would cry and fuss, we joked it was like the movie Speed.

Also seconding those that say it all comes together once both kids are in school and understand what a vacation is actually for. Until then, I suggest day trips with lots of running around exercise, and adults get their relaxation time when the kids go to bed early.
posted by BeeDo at 7:06 AM on March 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Kids vary in how well they adapt to changes in routine, food, environment. And for some kids, the extreme stimulation of a theme park is overwhelming. Kids who have trouble with those changes do better with lots of preparation for a trip, pictures of the ship, cottage, national park, whatever, and descriptions of what it will be like. Bring favorite clothes, a favorite stuffy, book, music, have some familiar foods. Those kids need more hugs and reassurance. But don't stay home; all kids need to learn how to deal with change. My kid was one who needed lots of preparation. He ended up loving camping and still loves being outdoors. He learned to adapt to change; it just took time.
posted by theora55 at 7:15 AM on March 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't think you did it wrong per se, just maybe a little too long and a little too unstructured for her. We have one child, also about three. What we do is keep the being-away part short, allow lots of time for travel, and build in lots of specific things that they'll enjoy. Last October, the kiddo and I went on a trip that was 120 miles by bus (their favorite vehicle ever) followed by 900 in a plane (lots of fascinating stuff to talk about) one day, two full days at the destination, then back again on the fourth, and that was about perfect. I planned a couple of hours between the bus arrival and needing to be at the gate, so there was no rush there. After we arrived at the destination, we went to the grocery store for a few types/brands of food they like, plus familiar but "treat" snacks (I don't always buy cheese crackers, for example, but on the trip I made sure to). Most everything we did during the days was something that'd be mutually enjoyable but definitely weighted on the side of their preferences, for example an interactive children's museum that we could do stuff together at, but where they'd also do their own thing and I'd get a bit of a breather. In advance, l had flagged promising parks/playgrounds, attractions, and restaurants on Google maps so I could pull up the app and quickly choose whatever we needed (bonus: it also told me where to get coffee). Most of the flags, we never got around to, and that's totally fine because they were always just options. Basically the same as being at home and knowing what's available to do, except being more indulgent about it. We were staying with friends of mine, so by the time the young one was asleep, they'd be settled home from work and we could hang out talking for hours, and was "my" part of the vacation. The kid and I also talked a lot about how the trip was a special occasion and how sometimes it's nice to do something different for a few days, but that sometimes being away from home is hard, and a couple of times just needed to sit with those emotions so the young one could process them (read: they cried a lot while I held them, then we figured out some words to describe their feelings, and then they felt better and could use those words going forward).

All that said, I'm sure it'd be more difficult with kids at different stages like yours are though, and then I can only think that the answer is to split up so each child gets what they personally need for a successful vacation, hopefully thereby creating pockets of vacation time for the adults that would have otherwise just been stress-pools.
posted by teremala at 8:33 AM on March 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

yeah, sounds normal to me for that age. We took our then-three-year-old to the beach last summer and honestly it was kind of awful. We both came back more stressed out than we had been when we left, we almost bailed two days in it was so bad (it got better). At that age the change in routine and location is REALLY hard and they need constant supervision, so....not relaxing. (We had taken her to the beach the previous summer, around age 2, and that was fun and not very hard, so this summer was kind of a surprise!) We took her to visit grandparents & cousins at 3.5 this fall, and that trip went better but was still kind of tough. I think it helped that we didn't expect we were going to have a relaxing good time for that trip, and kid adores her cousins. Honestly? A staycation sounds the most relaxing to me at this point!
posted by john_snow at 9:29 AM on March 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

When our kids were smaller we took trips with grandparents and other assorted family members which helped spread the childcare work around and allowed my husband and me to occasionally venture off on our own. These trips were still a lot of work, especially for me. Last year we took our first big just-the-four of-us trip with our then 5 and 8 year old and it was fantastic. It was a totally different experience than traveling with toddlers/preschoolers. Now we’re planning our next adventure, trying to fit in as many as possible before adolescence sets in...
posted by rebeccabeagle at 9:46 AM on March 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

The only actually relaxing vacation I took when my kids was little -- as in, we all had naps at the same time! -- was to Tyler Place resort in Vermont where they took the kids away every morning and gave them back after dinner. It was awesome. We all had a blast. I haven't done any other all-inclusive resorts, but I guess that's why people go to them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:04 AM on March 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

In part because our older child was very difficult about routines and things when he was tiny, one of our family mottos is "fun comes at a price". Traveling with little kids is hard! Sometimes they are uncooperative pains in the ass. You will indeed probably come home tired-er than you left. But that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile!

The majority of our trips have been to visit family, or where we meet the grandparents in a third location. These have been the most relaxing, because then childcare duties can be spread around. It's also better if you can find a condo or similar to rent, rather than a hotel room - being able to store breakfast basics and not having to eat every meal out makes a humongous difference.

And then, don't set the standards too high for what you must accomplish each day, assume that there will be some missed naps and exhausted meltdowns, plan for a little extra screen time and extra-fun snacks, and roll with it as best you can. You're making memories. They won't ALL be good, but some of them will be amazing. And honestly, I can look back and smile at quite a few of the not-so-good ones. (Not all. Some are just unqualified bad. But a lot of them pick up a fair amount of rose-color with time.)
posted by telepanda at 10:57 AM on March 6, 2018

We have three kids and travel frequently. +1 on “it’s normal.” Things that have helped us:

1. Not being too ambitious. For the past 2 years, all of our trips have featured renting houses on kid-friendly beaches. We can cook the same food we eat at home and maintain schedules, there’s space to spread out, and the beach requires fairly little work to enjoy.

2. Travel with other families. Other 3 year olds are capable of keeping yours entertained for far longer than you can.

3. Get childcare if you can

It won’t be like this forever.
posted by snickerdoodle at 2:20 PM on March 6, 2018

When my kids were younger and I was still together with their dad, I decided---after some horrible trips where two parents made for a chaotic, arguing mess of conflicted decision making and incompatible (but not wrong) parenting models-- that we would take turns being the point person for the kids, every 24 hours, with an overnight in the middle.

For example, I would be "on" with the kids from noon on Wednesday to noon on Thursday, and dad could do what he wanted during that time. He would then be "on" from noon Thursday to noon Friday, etc. It gave us a really short window to parent until our next "break," eliminated a lot of the confusion that happens when there are suddenly two parents and the kids don't know how to deal with a two-parent-24/7 system, and had the benefit of incorporating an overnight so the "on" parent was pretty rested.

Most times the "off" parent did do stuff with the other parent and kids, but it was nice to feel that you wanted to do stuff together and not that there was an unproductive command performance to do so. And even while the "off" parent was with family, they were not the go-to or the decision maker, so it was more relaxing. It was also waaaaaay more sane for the kids.

Because my kids and I also work well with structure, I decided that each day I was "on" would follow a basic format: eat, physical activity, snack, restful activity (read, draw, clay, etc.), then screen time, repeat. It relieved a lot of my stress at having to think "what now???"

As my kids have gotten older, and I'm now a single parent, I incorporate their interests. So we recently went to Iceland for two weeks. I chose one thing to do everyday, then kid one chose the afternoon thing (including playing video games, watching a movie, listening to a podcast, whatever--their choice). Next kid did the next day. I was happy because I knew we'd do at least one cultural/interesting thing each day, and they were happy because they knew there was an end in sight for that part of the day. (And once they each chose things that were "cultural" or only possible to do in Iceland.)

I'm pretty adamant about having a kitchen where we stay, and obviously less adamant about our regular screen time limits.
posted by cocoagirl at 2:43 PM on March 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I forgot to mention a wonderful place for a family vacation that is not Disney is the Tumbling River Ranch in Colorado. They have a kids' program for most of the day. We all had a blast! The food and accommodation are amazing, not to mention the pool, yoga, trout fishing, white water rafting if you choose. The horses vary from slow to crazy fast for any type of rider. The trail rides were phenomenal.
posted by waving at 2:44 PM on March 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've travelled with my kids a lot, and I think to some extent you just need practice. Over time you learn what works and what doesn't. When my girls were the same age as your kids, we went to Disney World Paris and it's the worst thing I ever experienced, and I swore never ever to go to a theme park again. I just told the kids that they were really unlucky that they had gotten an evil and mean mother and there would be no other theme-park holidays unless they could hitch a ride with someone else. It worked just fine.
We've been all sorts of places, and my youngest was with her dad and his new wife on a month-long trip through western India when she was ten and her step-brother was six. I think the important thing is to not give up because the first trip is stressful, and that both kids and adults adapt. Maybe you were a bit too ambitious, and maybe junior needs to learn that life can be OK outside their comfort zone. Both things can be true at the same time.
I learnt to always carry snacks, wet towels, and sometimes a fleece blanket, I still do, even as my babies are 24 and 19, which is helpful when my younger friends struggle with their small children. For a three-year old you need a stroller (or a nice sled with a sheep-skin in it). They may not still be napping, but they need to relax for many hours a day, like puppies.
When you are traveling with kids, you need to structure each day in a way that fits the kids' needs. This absolutely does not mean you should be catering to their interests. After that horrible Disney experience, we've had lots of great holidays visiting national parks and cultural heritage sites. But we have done it at their pace. We talked a lot about what we are doing and why, at a level they can appreciate. Sometimes I made tasks for them, like gave them a sketchbook where they could make some sort of drawings of their experience.
They really loved souvenirs, to the extent that my little one stole one in a shop once. They would play with them in the evening before going to bed.
posted by mumimor at 3:09 PM on March 6, 2018

Oh, and by 8PM, they should be completely exhausted, leaving lots of adult time during the evening.
Obviously you can't go out on the town, but I've chosen hotels with lovely restaurants and bars in house or close by where it was entirely possible to sit down for a lovely meal and not worry at all about the kids. (I've also had them come down to the upscale restaurant because they heard a noise, but it was totally OK, I put them back to bed and went back down to eat my dessert and have a coffee).
posted by mumimor at 3:21 PM on March 6, 2018

For the last few years we've just gone to hotels with really great, kid-friendly pools. We try to keep as much as possible to our regular routine, ie bedtimes, naptimes, and mealtimes. We have two kids, one who still naps and one who doesn't, so we trade off each day as to who will go up and take a nap with the younger kid. And we trade off who will get up at the crack of dawn when he wakes up, and take him out for a walk so the rest of the family can sleep for another hour or so. But yeah, there's no real sleeping in, and there's no late nights with booze. It's just parenting in a different location.

Still, hanging in the pool with the kiddo's is fun, and we're all so tired at the end of the day that everyone gets snuggly and then passes out pretty quickly and sleeps well.
posted by vignettist at 9:02 PM on March 6, 2018

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