The Puke and Tears Behind the Smiling Family Vacation Photo
We've hit some of the highs and lows of family travel first hand, many of which has been shared here. We've missed flights and not known how we will get home. We've gotten sick in hotels. On planes. In airports. We've been up way before the sun quietly watching cartoons in the hotel bathroom thanks to timezone issues. We've missed naps and had the ensuing meltdowns. We've been so tired that I've had to flag down an airport cart when the little one couldn't take one more step. We've sworn "never again" more than once.
We've also been so happy we explode into song like in the cartoons. We've danced in the ocean. We've experienced beautiful moments. Met beautiful people. Ate delicious food. And, most importantly, made lasting memories together.
The good absolutely outweighs the bad when it comes to family travel, but I have also learned slowly but surely to try and not bite off more than we can comfortably chew. I probably canceled as many trips in my second daughter's first year of life as we took. I then scaled back on the type and number of trips planned in her second year based on what I had learned in the first. I'd rather have small victories than big defeats, so our travel schedule has been a bit, well, smaller. It was and is the right call.
But, I'll admit when I see fellow travelers online back jet-setting the world on a regular basis with children not yet old enough to talk I sometimes wonder why I can't quite always replicate the adventurous nature shown in their photos. Or at least I wonder why it often feels like so. much. work. to me in order to have those moments of joy.
Since we have a one year old, most of the of time I'd rather not uproot our sleep schedule and lives just to go have a long weekend away. At this point, we are usually better off doing our regular weekend routine closer to home and then occasionally take a very well planned out longer jaunt away somewhere together. We no longer dash out of work early on Friday to head to the airport and drag back in the door Sunday night.
Now, I get the irony. As a family travel blogger I am often the one sharing the photos of the happy family enjoying somewhere exciting. I also keep it pretty real with sharing many of the not-as-fun moments, but it can be easy to see the happy moment captured in the photo and just key in on that moment of reality.
Along those lines, I recently remember seeing some online photos posted by fellow family traveler Richard Kerr (who writes for The Points Guy, runs the Travel Hacking 101 Facebook group, and more) on a trip to Arizona with his wife and two little kids and thinking that they must know something I don't because hotel hopping, hiking, time zones, and more with a baby and a toddler sounds beyond exhausting to me. While my memory may have been faulty, I seemed to vaguely recall several other recent trips his crew also took thus solidifying their amazing energy levels and/or my obvious boringness.
And then, as the good ones always do, he shared the other side of the story, that is certainly worth a read. Behind the beautiful photos there was indeed puke, exhaustion, crankiness, and a promise to not try and convince his wife to pack everyone up again, at least for a few weeks.
As we already know, there are no magic super hero parents or children who are immune to exhaustion, illness, time zone difficulties, and meltdowns. For every amazing family travel moment with little kids, there is a whole lot of effort that goes into getting everyone there and back, and it's okay if you don't have the energy reserves to move your pack every other weekend.
In our current phase of family travel where I value small wins over big failures I've learned that we are usually happiest in a similar time zone within a nonstop flight radius of 3-4 hours or less. If possible, I don't want us to have to wake-up early to head to the airport, or stay up too late past our normal bedtime to get to our destination. We need easy family-friendly food and activities like swimming readily available, and if at all possible a kid's club, babysitter, or Grandma is a very added bonus. Our spring break trip to Hawaii will blow a few of those guidelines out of the water, but for the most part most of our recent or upcoming trips fall into those parameters.
After Richard's most recent venture to the desert he shared five things he learned when traveling with young kids which I agree with 100% and want to share again here.
- Go to a single location for a trip less than five full days, and stay. Hopping around is too much for everyone on a short trip.
- Adjust the kids at least two days before the trip towards the new time zone, even if it is only a couple hours difference.
- Keep plastic grocery bags in the onboard diaper bags to quickly fetch in case of “Dad, I’m going to puke” body language.
- Put effort into planning healthy meals before the trip. Feeding a toddler on the fly usually results in them eating less than desirable nutrition. Plan ahead a few restaurants or grocery store visits where they’ll get their required food. I noticed a large difference in my son’s (and normally very health-conscious wife’s) overall behavior when eating junk all week.
- First thing in the morning flights may not be as great an idea as I thought, given the early wake up times needed and then a full day ahead after landing. Evening arrival times followed by bed immediately may be better.
To me, most of it comes down to one of two categories....keep the logistics simple and keep some things as similar to home as possible. This isn't the same thing as saying just stay home forever-and-ever-amen, but it is still a good reminder that even the most experienced travelers can be whammied by the realities of traveling with young kids. After 18 months being primarily home and tethered to my sweet Baby S, I am actually really itching to get out there again, but I have no doubt that by the time some of our upcoming trips are finished I will again be ready to just sit online and watch the adventures of others for a bit while I recover.
Travel with young kids is possible, it does have its own precious magical moments, and it is worth it....but maybe just not too frequently. I'd love to hear where your family is with balancing travel with the rest of life's responsibilities and realities!