Traveling with toddlers can be a daunting proposition. This age group needs the same amount of attention as babies, but has the activity levels of older kids. There are plenty of satirical articles about how traveling with toddlers is exhausting, and if you bring the kids along you will never feel like you are on a proper holiday. The first few times we took our daughter (now almost 3) with us on trips, it was true: We were stressed and came home needing a vacation from our vacation. We have since learned the formula to traveling with toddlers and enjoying yourselves in the process — here are our top secrets.
Picking the right place to visit is a key factor in relaxing on a trip with toddlers. The style of this location will differ based on your personal preferences, but will align pretty well with how you preferred to travel before kids. If you never enjoyed beaches but get energy from being in a city, you likely won’t enjoy a beach holiday with a toddler. The same is true of the opposite: if, pre-kids, you were exhausted by visiting cities but loved mountain getaways, it won’t be wise to plan a city break with a lot of sightseeing. Pick your location based on what brings you joy, and you can work in activities for your young one accordingly.
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Finding the right balance of time when traveling with toddlers is key. If your trip is too short, your child won’t have a chance to adjust after the tiring logistics of getting to a new place. If it’s too long, parents might get tired of unfamiliar meals, different sleeping arrangements, etc. I like to base the duration of our trips on how long it takes to get to a destination when possible. Are we driving 2 1/2 hours to a nearby beach? This is great for a long weekend. Do we have to fly 5 hours with a stopover? We’ll want four to six days. Obviously this will be determined by the amount of time you can take off, but keeping these guidelines in mind might help guide the location choice as well.
Of all the facets that make for a laid-back trip, accommodations are the most important. Having young kids with you means you likely will be in the room more frequently than your pre-kid days due to naps and early bedtimes, and a room configuration that eliminates the need to hide in the bathroom after your child has gone to sleep makes a huge difference. In an ideal world, two bedrooms is the best setup. If budget or availability prohibits this, a suite with a living area separated by a door is helpful. If a suite doesn’t fit your need, find something with a terrace or balcony, which can make for a great evening of watching the sunset and playing cards after your little one goes down for the night.
Personally, when I want to relax on my getaways, I always choose hotels. While apartments have a convenience factor, cooking breakfast and cleaning does not make me feel like I am on vacation. I like the ability to wake up and go immediately down to breakfast, and not worry about taking out the trash before I check out.
While we focus our vacations on quality family time, we have had some really wonderful stays at hotels that have kids’ club facilities, like Martinhal Lisbon Chiado in Portugal or Verdura Resort in Sicily. These areas provide an outlet for playtime, either all together or for our daughter while my spouse and I have some quality time of our own. It isn’t the concentration of the trip, but allows us to relax, knowing that she is having fun while we pursue activities that may have bored her. Even if we don’t use the childcare services, it’s nice to have a lovely play area that removes the pressure of finding something for our toddler to do.
Picking the right things to see and do on your getaway will make a big difference in your enjoyment. We choose a mix of toddler-friendly activities that interest us along with options specifically to engage our daughter. For example, in Rome, we paired an express tour of the Vatican (the short duration kept her from getting bored, and she loved the art) with a trip to the Borghese Gardens and the zoo to run around and play. We still got to see the things we were excited about, but having options tailored for her eliminated the stress.
Other activities we have loved have been cultural experiences that we all got to enjoy together as a family. Cooking classes are always fun — to our little one, pizza dough is basically Play-Doh, so everyone is entertained. We also have loved taking food and wine tours that incorporate a fun experience for our daughter, like a wine tour that stops at a farm where kids can run around with goats and adults can taste cheese. These special excursions have created great memories while providing us with a relaxing and fun day.
When putting together activities for our trips, we are careful to be cognizant of our normal schedule at home. While a late bedtime or no-nap day can work a couple of times on a vacation, if you do this consistently, your toddler is likely to melt into a puddle of tears by dinnertime. We try to stick to our routine as much as possible, which allows us to fully enjoy the time that we do have. Naps break up the day and make it harder to pack in as many activities as you would have before kids, but there is nothing that makes you feel more like you are on vacation than the opportunity to take a rest.
Take into consideration time zone changes when scheduling activities. If you are traveling to Europe from the U.S., take advantage of the jet lag to have leisurely, late dinners like the locals do. If you are going west and jet lag has you up early, enjoy that quiet time to run and play in an empty pedestrian square or open beach. Avoiding crowds at this early hour can create special experiences with your kids.
If you take all of this advice — pick the right location and great accommodations, plan wonderful activities and stick to your routine — but you try to force the same vacation habits you had pre-kids, your vacation won’t go smoothly. This one was the hardest for me to learn, but when it clicked, it allowed me to really enjoy our time away from home as a family. I remember the first time I went to the beach with my daughter. I had visions of reading a book while she played happily in the sand. Instead, she decided that the only place she wanted to be was in the water trying to jump over the large waves, so I spent the day trying to keep her from getting lost at sea, longing for relaxing time in the sand like the other moms were having with their toddlers.
The next time we went to the beach, I employed a different strategy. Sunscreened up, we headed straight to the water, where I focused my energy on splashing around with her and being delighted by her giggling at the waves. We must have spent an hour in the ocean before she tired out and wanted to head back for a snack. We had zero time in the sand and didn’t even unpack our bag (certainly not like the beach days of my past!), but I couldn’t have been happier. Shifting my expectations of how the day would go made it fun rather than stressful, and I never felt like I had missed out.
The conundrum of traveling with a toddler is that it is the first major shift in how you operate away from home. Even when traveling with a baby, you still get to plan the day around what you want to do. If you try to focus your vacation with a toddler on what interests the adults, it is going to feel like work. This might be OK for the trip you have in mind; perhaps the goal is to see or do something you have always dreamed of, kid-friendly or not. But if you want your trip to feel like a true vacation, adjust your vision of how the days will go and focus on the gift of spending time and making memories with your family.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Katie Brown.
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