Family vacations can be a great time for building memories, bonding with your kids and showing them the world, or they can be remembered for torturous days of such bickering and whining that work starts to sounds more relaxing than vacation. To try to avoid the latter, I’ve compiled a few tips for what I’ll call “Mindful Family Travel”* that helped us when we took a year-long journey with our then-12 year old twins. And, yes, most of them we learned the hard way.
1 – Time is not on your side
You may be an experienced traveler, but your kids probably aren’t. Young children may not understand the concept of timetables and short layovers. You know how it can take you 30 minutes to get out the door with your kids at home? Add to that suitcases, carry-ons, missing toys, and occasional meltdowns, and your leisurely hour to change trains may turn into a stressful 60 minutes of bribing and cajoling your kids to move across the station in time.
2 – I need my space, they need their space
I’m not just talking about physical space here. 24 hours of togetherness can be a tougher adjustment than you think. Give each other some down time, especially if there are introverts in the family.
You may all be crammed into one car, RV, or hotel room, but you can still give each other some mental space, even if it’s just letting dad head out for coffee on his own, or giving your 10-year-old time to read a book or, more likely, play Minecraft on the hotel computer, or letting mom watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the hotel bar.
Remember that different personalities have different requirements for relaxation. For me, a day of shopping in open-air markets followed by a massage sounds heavenly. For my husband, this would be like pulling out his fingernails. So sometimes we split kid duty for a day so we can each get what we need out of our vacation.
3 – Emergency snacks. Always.
This may seem obvious to some, but if you don’t normally see your entire family during the day, you may not realize just how much food they require to make it through the day happily. Growing children sometimes have growth spurts that make them much hungrier than normal, and much grouchier when they’re hungry. Adults may not have a problem skipping a meal, but kids don’t normally function well without adequate calories. Keep a package of nuts or crackers on hand for emergency meltdowns.
4 – You are getting sleepy
Similarly, don’t try to do so much that everyone is too exhausted to enjoy themselves on your trip. If you’re on a short trip in a different time zone, you might consider keeping to your home time zone schedule with young kids. Maybe you can get up a few hours earlier than you would at home, or go to bed a few hours later, depending on which direction you’ve traveled. There’s lots of research telling us that teenagers require more sleep than adults and young children, so if you’re traveling with teens, consider letting them sleep in while the rest of you go to breakfast. And then watch in horror as they devour three lunches to feed their growing bodies.
5 – Have fun, dammit.
Traveling is a wonderful educational experience on its own, and visiting museums and historical sites is a great way to bring history to life. But don’t overdo it or you’ll risk making your kids dread going to museums. I’ll never forget the looks of horror on my kids’ faces when they saw the size of the Louvre after we had visited several smaller museums in Paris. Rather than spend the afternoon dragging two reluctant preteens through the crowded museum, we headed for the nearest Vélib station to rent bikes instead. The Louvre will still be there when they’re old enough to appreciate it, and we got a view of Paris we’ll never forget.
If you are dead set on seeing a particular museum or site, check to see what kind of programs they have for children. Many museums have programs for kids these days, ranging from scavenger hunts in the galleries to drop-off hands-on arts-and-crafts classes. At the underground archaeological site of Coudenberg in Brussels, kids receive a backpack containing a costume, a map, a puzzle and a flashlight, and they are given a secret code to access the site.
6 – I mean actual fun, mom.
Sometimes kids (and some adults) just get to a point where they need to run around, and if they don’t everyone in the family will pay the price in screaming, kicking fits. We like to call this a “Frolic Attack.” The easiest treatment is to go to a local playground so they can burn off some energy. Many traveling families I know insist on staying at hotels with swimming pools for the sole purpose of addressing the Frolic Attack. Few things are as refreshing at the end of a long touring day as an evening swim. It has the added bonus of wearing out energetic children so they’ll sleep soundly. One traveler I know swears that the chlorine in the pool irritates the kids’ eyes just enough that they want to shut them when they get back to the room.
7 – Make good choices
It’s one of my favorite bits of parental guidance to my kids when they leave the house: make good choices. But it works for the grownups, too. If something goes wrong – and something almost always goes a little bit wrong – be an example for your kids of how to roll with the punches and make lemonade from lemons. The strongest memories are formed when things don’t go according to plan, so resolve in advance to have a happy ending to your travel stories – more like: we missed the train so we decided to hop the next train to a different town where we met someone who told us where to get the best gelato ever; less like: we missed the train and then dad threw a fit and mom didn’t speak to him for the rest of the day.
Mindful family travel requires, um, mindfulness.
I can’t promise that you won’t have some family squabbles along the way, but if you are mindful of everyone’s needs along the way, you should be able to create some good family memories during your travels.
Pin this to remind you of Mindful Family Travel later:
*This article was adapted from an earlier article, “How to Travel with Your Family without Killing Each Other,” which originally appeared on Hostelworld.com in 2013. Maybe I’ve matured a little since then.