Let’s be honest. Anyone who calls traveling with kids a “vacation” is delusional. That is called a “trip”—especially when the children are really little. No more lounging for hours with a cocktail by the pool and napping as the sun sets. No more gallivanting around a city, wandering aimlessly through museums, and popping in for a quick cocktail at 4 p.m. But! Traveling with kids can also be loads of fun. It’s important to have time away from regular life to be together, especially if one or both parents work a lot. Setting aside these days or weeks is vital for the health of the family unit, and shows the kids—and your partner!—that they are a priority. You never know what new parts of your kids or spouse you’ll discover when you’re on a totally new adventure.
When should I travel with my kids?
We went on our first trip with our daughter when she was 6 weeks old, and it was surprisingly easy. She could sleep and eat anywhere and was no trouble to carry around. The hardest time to travel with a kid is between about 9 months and 2 years, when they don’t have their own airplane seat, can’t really watch TV, and just want to move all the time. This is not to say that travel with kids can’t be fun—just that the journey probably won’t be easy. The best way to stay sane when you travel with small kids is to keep some semblance of a schedule. Do not throw out the nap. Do not stay out all hours of the night, expecting the kid to fall asleep on your lap at a fancy restaurant. These plans will most likely backfire. The kind of trip you have with a toddler will not resemble any other kind of vacation you’ve taken before or will again—so just embrace its limits and go small: a beach, a lake, an all-inclusive. Think of it as a particular kind of family time. There seems to be a sweet spot starting around age 3 or 4, going up to about age 13. Older kids are a total blast to travel with—they have the energy and stamina to go, go, go. But they can also sit peacefully in a restaurant without throwing food. Some kinds of vacations are better suited to certain ages, but mostly it depends on your own family values.
There are lots of options for getting a night out on the town sans kids when you’re away—but remember, it’ll cost you. A few recs: Some all-inclusive resorts will offer babysitting for a small additional fee, so you can factor that into the cost of your travel. Bonus: You don’t have to go out searching for a reliable sitter! They’re right there! Alternately, if you’re not doing an all-inclusive, you can look on sites like Care.com or UrbanSitter for vetted sitters (rather than a total stranger!), so you can have a little more peace of mind. If you have very little kids, consider bringing your own sitter along: How much help will you want? What will the childcare options already there cost you? If you think you’ll need more help than one night out with your partner—if you’re going to want another set of hands—this might be the more financially sound option. Or! My personal fave: Travel with another family. It’s a win-win: The parents have friends to hang out with, and the kids have friends to keep them busy. You can swap out date nights or share the cost of a sitter.
Where should I travel with kids?
Each family has its own particular rhythms and desires. My husband, for instance, loathes the idea of going to the beach for a week, but for others, this is a dream vaca—easy, calming, low key. He also hates going the same place two years in a row. But for a lot of families, going on the same vacation summer after summer (or winter after winter) is comfortable; you know what to expect and can plan accordingly. Sometimes the kids even make lifelong friends. Here are some time-tested options for families:
The Beach (and/or Any Big Body of Water)
“Entertainment for hours for the kids, and parents can sit in the sun,” says Rachel Graves, mom of two boys in Portland, Oregon. “This is especially great if you can get a rental ON the beach, so no packing up the car is required! It’s easy to go back for lunch and naps. Bonus if there’s also a pool!” Joyce Bernas, who has two young girls in Montreal, agrees: “I won’t go anywhere with kids unless there is a pool or swimmable beach,” she says. “No matter what else is around you, you know you have an activity the kids will love and not get tired of day after day. It’s basically my fail-safe back-up plan. You will also likely find other families to occupy your kids.” Some faves: Kauai, Hawaii; Wellfleet, Massachusetts; Malibu, California.
This one is not for the faint of heart. But if you love restaurants, museums, walking tours, and shows, this is the best way to go. This is a trip that is more manageable with older kids (think 5 or 6 and up) and/or a singleton. “We went to Seattle last summer,” says Kim Morchower, mom of 4- and 6-year-olds in L.A. “The Airbnb was affordable and nice. There were lots of things to do with kids: lake, hiking, museums, parks. Great town, perfect family trip.” New York City is always a blast, as are European cities—think Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna—which are extremely walkable. Some faves: New York City, Paris, Amsterdam, Austin, Seattle, Portland, Nashville.
Okay, to some this might sound like a nightmare, but to others it’s bliss: everything all in one place! A pool, views of water for miles, and activities galore. “We took our toddler on a cruise with extended family and loved it!” says Ginette Sze of Montreal. “It’s relatively clean and safe, and there’s so much good food available at all hours, and waves to rock you to sleep, and occasions to dress up fancy for a change. Some cruises have activities and programming for youth.”
Disneyland or Disney World (and Other Theme Parks)
“I took my 5-year-old to Disney world in January, and it was amazing,” says Sze, “but it wasn’t a restful vacation by any means. It was magical but also a constant obstacle course of boutiques and crap for sale and the food was ugh. We used FastPass+ to avoid some long waits, but it requires advance planning. The thing that’s the most fun about theme parks that I always recommend is the water parks (which is not included in Disney passes, by the way). They are truly fantastic. I have so many wonderful childhood memories at water parks.”
“Camping is great IF both kids are walking and there are nearby attractions like a lake or river,” says Grave. “But it’s a terrible idea with infants/non-walkers or bad sleepers.” Betsy Uhrman, a mom of two in L.A., adds: “When possible, we prefer group sites with no other sites nearby. Both for privacy and for when small children wake at random hours of the night … I feel less badly (though still feel badly) about disturbing people I know.” Some faves: Bandido Campground in Santa Clarita, California; Sequoia National Park.
“We’ve taken winter snow trips to Lake Tahoe two years in a row and stayed at Granlibakken Ski and Sled Area,” says Jessica Lattiff, mom of two boys. “Kids have a blast, and there’s stuff for grownups to enjoy, too. Really good breakfast included in the room rate, sled rentals and two different hills for kids, a small ski area where they can take beginner lessons, plus a heated pool, hot tub, sauna, and spa services.” Some faves: Granlibakken Ski Resort.
Who doesn’t want absolutely everything taken care of? No searching for food, activities, sitters—the all-inclusive, although often quite pricey, can be worth it. “Kinderhotels” in Austria are a prime example—they provide all-day childcare (including separate meals!) for guests. Some faves: Franklyn D. Resort in Jamaica, Kinderhotel Almhof in Austria.
We know, we know. Not with kids! But what if you can? Tots Too offers myriad luxury family vacations all over Europe and beyond.
Ah, hotels: They used to be so luxurious and lovely. Breakfast in bed. Room service. Someone to make your bed in the morning… With kids, this scenario is a little different. Usually you only have one room, so if one kid needs to sleep, where will the other kid go (and stay quiet)? Do you want to worry about waking the neighbor at 5 a.m.? And what if you need to put the kid down at 7 p.m. but want to eat, too? But there are still perks to hotels, usually in the form of a pool and breakfast, and sometimes childcare. When traveling with kids, Airbnb is usually a great option—but always check the reviews. The last thing you need when traveling with kids is to find yourself in a place that bears no resemblance to the pictures! What a rented apartment (or house) will give you is more flexibility, and it might end up being cheaper. You can cook meals, stock the fridge, and have more space to move about on your own schedule. Kid & Coe offers amazing homes that are equipped with stuff for kids! You can specify your desires (pool, beach, best for kindergarteners, best for babies) and voila! Everything is already there for you!
Tips for Travel With Kids
Plan, plan, plan.
Gone are the days of booking a flight a week before and winging it. Have at least one plan/destination for each day, keeping naptime and bedtime schedules in mind.
Stay (sort of) on schedule.
This is especially true if you have a napper. Do not expect the kid to nap on cue wherever you are. If you want to avoid daily meltdowns, plan your days as you would at home, with a big activity in the morning, followed by lunch and a nap. If you have a second (or third) kid who doesn’t nap, use that time to rest or have a little one-on-one adventure.
Some of our best family vacations were with other families. It’s a win–win! The kids have friends to play with and so do the parents.
Make sure everyone is getting their needs met—at least a bit.
It’s unlikely that you’ll plan a vacation that is perfect for every single family member at all times, but the best way to make travel with kids work is to make sure that everyone gets to choose at least one or two parts of the trip. Don’t love museums but your husband does? Okay, so go to one, or let him go alone while you take the kids out for ice cream so he can enjoy it in peace.
Divide and conquer.
You do not need to be together all the time. Especially if you have more than one kid, consider doing activities in pairs or even letting each parent have at least one morning or afternoon to him- or herself.
A whiny, hungry child is no fun for anyone, ever.
Put away your phone.
Really, stop working. Traveling with kids can be absolutely magical. Just remember: It’s a trip, not a vacation. It’ll be exhausting and incredible—and, let’s be honest, you’ll probably need an actual vacation soon after. So try to save a little moolah for a weekend away with your honey.