People ask me all the time about how (or, ahem why?) we travel with our brood of four kids. We’ve been doing this since they were young and have developed a set of habits that, I think, have optimized the travel experience and have instilled a love of travel and adventure in my children that will last them a lifetime. I’m proud of that, so I thought I’d share a few (five) tips for traveling with a large family.
When my kiddos were babies and toddlers, our travel strategy was to take a big trip every few years with multiple smaller long weekend trips interspersed between. We found that a few days was juuuust long enough that we could get away with wreaking havoc on small kids’ schedules and still have fun. (Starting at about day 4 or 5, the fact that junior’s nap schedule was nonexistent and he was eating finger food for most meals would start to put everyone in a bad mood). Plus, short trips are … well, shorter. So, with fewer meals and fewer nights of lodging, it was easy to see much of the east coast without breaking the bank.
These short trips also served as ‘training’ for the kiddos. They learned what was expected of them on long car rides and on planes and trains and in hotel rooms and in restaurants, and put us in just the right mind set for when we took longer trips.
Resist itineraries and expectations.
Whether in a nearby city or a faraway land, we have learned that we have to keep the expectations for each day low. We’d generally plan one sight or activity early in the day while everyone was happy and chipper, and then see where the collective mood took us in the later afternoons and evenings. Sometimes this would lead to long days chock full of adventure, but if the writing on the wall suggested sitting inside by the fireplace or immersing ourselves in the culture of a local playground before a long afternoon nap, that was OK too. If there were too many “must see/do” items for a given trip, that’d make a good excuse to return again in the future.
Stay in a house, apartment or suite whenever possible.
We’ve been staying in AirBnBs since before AirBnB was even a thing. Using sites like VRBO and Homeaway or just recommendations from friends, we have always liked finding a place with some extra room for our family to stretch out a little. Paradoxically, these are almost always significantly less expensive than the cost of an equivalent space in a hotel, and importantly they almost always have a kitchen and a common space. This allows us to stock up on big-family staples like bread, milk, cheese, peanut butter, jelly and coffee, wine and beer. A combination of these ingredients can stand in for breakfast, lunch or dinner when we just can’t swallow the thought of going to another restaurant or leaving the room after dinner in search of nightlife. The kitchen or coffee table becomes game central when we’re looking for a low-key family activity, and everyone always brings a book with which we can retreat to far corners when the situation calls for time alone.
Use jet lag to your advantage.
I’ll always remember the cottage we stayed in during one of our first family trips to Ireland. It had thick, heavy blackout curtains in every room. Pulling these closed meant that our little people didn’t know it was morning in Ireland, and could sleep in until several hours after the sun came up, closer to their at-home natural wake-up time. This felt like winning the lottery. Babies and toddlers who slept well into the daytime were much better equipped to handle a full day of activities and the European practice of late-night dinners and family visits. (My 7pm bath, story and bedtime kiddos would have had a hard time with that had they gotten up with the Irish roosters!)
My pre-teens and teens don’t need blackout curtains to stay asleep well into the European daytime these days. All we have to do is not wake them up. And if we want, we can pretend we’re on a kid-less vacation for those several hours. Grab a coffee in a local cafe, or explore a new neighborhood in the early hours, when the place is just waking up. (Can you say faaaaaavorite time of day???)
Every time we visit a new place, we buy an ornament for our Christmas tree, so that decorating the tree each winter becomes an annual walk down memory lane. When the kids were small, we’d get a touristy soccer ball in every place and that would serve as the blow-off steam activity when one of those felt necessary. Card games are definitely a tradition in airports and during downtime in our airbnb. More recently (in the past 5 or 6 years or so), my husband surprises us all toward the end of every trip by pulling out a worn copy of a poem by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy from his pocket and reading it for us all. This one gets me every single time, so I’ll just put this here:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Translation: Edmund Keeley
Well, duh. I’ve already said plenty about getting forever-value out of your vacations by freezing and keeping your favorite moments – most recently, I shared an article I wrote a few years ago with some tips on How to Take Meaningful Family Vacation Photos. And my Cobbler Series drives home the importance of organizing these photos and putting them in books that will live longer than any of us, right? Still, if wouldn’t feel right to not mention that here.
There will always be reasons why travel with a big family might feel like a crazy idea. The cost is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you wonder whether underdeveloped memories and toddler tantrums (or, you know, unformed cerebral cortexes and sibling bickering) will ruin the magical mood you’re imagining when you’re in the planning stages. For our family, we have found that the dividends on our investment are much greater than any similar investment we could make as a family. The family bonding time, the shared adventures, and the resilience gained from jointly overcoming bumps in the road are all character-forming. The shared memories are priceless. The new perspectives and appreciation for how big the world is – especially during phases of kids’ lives when their worlds can feel so small – are intangible benefits that, I think, help form who we are as a family.
Happy travels, my friends, and thanks for looking!
Jaye McLaughlin Photography specializes in documentary style family lifestyle photography in Westchester County, NYC, Connecticut and beyond. I would love to begin planning your family photo session. View more of my work in my family portfolio HERE. Check out some brand new sweetness in my newborn portfolio HERE. If you’re interested in a family, newborn or maternity session and would like to learn more, click HERE. To get in touch about a travel session, just go HERE, or email me or call me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914.263.0236. I look forward to hearing from you!