The Puke and Tears Behind the Smiling Family Vacation Photo

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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.

Are we having fun yet?!

Are we having fun yet?!

The journey into London after an overnight flight

The journey into London after an overnight flight

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.

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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.

Smiles during the day, but little sleep at night.

Smiles during the day, but little sleep at night.

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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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. Adjust the kids at least two days before the trip towards the new time zone, even if it is only a couple hours difference.
  3. Keep plastic grocery bags in the onboard diaper bags to quickly fetch in case of “Dad, I’m going to puke” body language.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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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!

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Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

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Comments

  1. Very cute and nice post…thank you! I have done a ‘ton’ of travel with my 2 kids and I can ‘second’ this entire post. I have learned to ‘slow down’ while traveling as it is better to see less and have happy kids then a forced march.
    Thanks again for all of your contributions…

  2. Having read your blog for a longtime I think that you traveled a lot more easily with just one child. I know (from your posts) your second angel has been a lot more challenging then Little C was. Could that be shaping your view? I only had one child and we traveled everywhere (in J and F) from the time he was 18 months and it never stopped. He was (and still is as an adult millennial) incredibly easy going so that made it very easy to travel as a family and sometimes just him and me.

    I give you credit that you are still traveling. I would not have the patience to travel if I knew I’d have to look forward to melt downs, irregular schedules and crying jags. I’d rather do a staycation and wait to the little one is older. Then travel could be enjoyable for all involved.

    I always appreciate you don’t sugar coat things. I know I was incredibly lucky with our son and reading your post makes me even more appreciative of those great moments.

    BTW, love the picture of Little C on the beach at sunset.

    Keep traveling!

    • Well, one is certainly easier than two in most all respects. Two increases the risk of problems and work for sure – especially on the road. I’m sure those with 3, 4, 5, kids snicker a bit at saying two is work. But, with our first daughter we didn’t really travel with her very much at all until she was just about the age that our second daughter is now. To her credit, she was really just about as tough as a baby, just in different ways…so much so that we didn’t even try to travel with her the first 11 months of her life, and then just a tiny bit more than that for the next half of a year. I think our biggest challenge was just trying to keep up with normal-ish life with a baby when that equation just doesn’t really work. I’m hoping now that our second has rounded the corner of being closer to two years old than one year old that our small wins can grow. Fingers crossed…. Thank you for reading!

  3. My 10 year old daughter is a competitive gymnast..she gets 1 week off a year. Needless to say, travelling is extremely difficult, but we try our best to go on quick vacations as often as we can. She loves and appreciates travelling as much as I do, but yes between school, work, and sport-related activities, travelling as much as we would like to is nearly impossible!

  4. I am definitely in the “go somewhere and stay there for a minimum of five days” category. Before kids, our trips were typically 9 days (I never think 7 is enough), so now with the kids (who are 1 & 4) it is a 7 day trip, for sure. Any less than that the stress of getting there (and, MY GOD! the packing!) doesn’t seem worth it. We do weekends at my mother-in-law’s beach house (about an hour and a half away) but it still feels like we’re packing for a move from Friday to Sunday.

  5. Funny timing – I did a blog post about traveling with kids this morning! My take on it is that honestly I prefer to leave my 3 year old home with grandma! I feel really guilty sometimes when I see all those bloggers and travelers going all over the world with their kids (more power to them!!) I just don’t want to do it until she is really old enough to appreciate it. It’s just not in me to deal with all the extra “stuff” that comes along with traveling with a small child. She does go on some trips with us but those trips involve lots of family (aka babysitters). Right now I just really value the one on one trips I get with my husband. I spend all day with my daughter, I really don’t want to take her on vacation with me (man, that sounds awful when I write it down!) Just my two cents…

  6. My 17 year old daughter’s sports schedule isn’t as bad as Lisa’s situation, but it is consuming, year round and absences not tolerated. Once the younger is a bit more settled, I. wouldnt hesitate to take Little C out of school to start a vacation early, or end late or whatever until she hits high school, baring some real complications. I notice a huge difference in award availability around holidays depending on whether we look at dates a day or two after spring break ends, for example, as opposed to whether we are trying to get back on a Sunday. I also have not hesitated, well ok I’ve winced and gone ahead with, paying way too many miles because that way I could get the seats I absolutely wanted, as for example using BA miles rather than American to fly Cathay Pacific because the calendar opens earlier and I could get the precise dates I needed and could still accommodate school/ sports. Those are “bad” redemptions for some but when it makes a trip possible to do in greater comfort those are great redemptions for us.

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