After Williamsburg, a cruise, Washington DC, and now Chicago, I'm feeling a lot braver about traveling with small children than I was a year ago.
These are eleven things I've learned about making it less stressful and more fun for all parties involved.
- Pack snacks. I rarely take snacks along for my girls when we go on outings. Ella will eat every snack we have and then no dinner, plus it makes me crazy when the snack becomes the focus of the outing instead of the ACTUAL OUTING, so I basically just skip the snacks entirely. But on vacation? I pack snacks. After I bought these Fruit Shoot juices for a sponsored campaign, Ella specifically requested them for our Chicago trip (I had to break the news that we couldn't take juice on the airplane). Besides drinks, I also like Clif Bars, string cheese, apple slices, dried fruit, and nuts. This also means that if we eat somewhere the girls (aka ELLA) don't like, I have some backup options instead of ruining my long-awaited vacation meal.
- Take the stroller. Preferably a double stroller. We have a double stroller, but I worry about it getting damaged on the airplane (thanks to our single stroller getting damaged on an airplane), so we took our old $20 second-hand Graco travel system stroller which made getting through the airport easy since I could snap Ani's carseat right in, but then when we were in Chicago and could leave the carseat in the car, both girls could sit in it (even though it's a single stroller and this is probably strongly not recommended by the manufacturers, but it worked like a charm for us).
- Don't skip naps. I know that it's super tempting to just skip naps since you're paying a ton of money to be wherever you are, but squeezing in a nap will make everyone's life a lot better. Ani's transitioning between two naps right now, so we just did one nap every day. We'd go out in the morning for breakfast or to do one thing, then come back, have her take a nap, eat lunch, and then head back out again. Plus, it gave us some nice downtime to read, relax and rest our tired feet. Ella doesn't nap, but having her do quiet time helped her decompress a little between outings.
- Prep your kids for what you'll be seeing. Ella was really excited about seeing the Lincoln Park Zoo, going on an airplane, and visiting the Museum of Science and Industry. Knowing a little bit about what we'd be doing helped her be excited about the trip and have some feel for what we'd be doing.
- Just expect to not get a ton of sleep. When we went to Seattle in September 2012, it was our first real city traveling experience as a family. I decided that I would just expect to get up super early every morning, and then when that happened, I was okay with it.
- Be serious about bedtime the first night. We went to Houston for one night when Ella was about 18 months old. She didn't love being in the crib in the hotel room corner, and we got her out to comfort her, then tried to put her back in, but she'd figured out we were softies and it was a huge pain to try to get her to bed. We learned our lesson and when we went on our cruise, we put Ani to bed the first night, turned out the lights, and went into the hall. Not a peep. She went down without complaint the rest of the trip except for one night when it took us a minute to get out of the room after she was in bed and I felt bad she was standing up in bed whining to be picked up, so I got her out of bed and. . . what do you know? She didn't want to go back in and fussed a lot when we put her back. Hold strong the first night and they are less likely to fight you about it the rest of the trip.
- Your kids will do better than you expect. When we booked our cruise tickets in March, I was deeply worried that no one would get any sleep. Here in North Carolina, both my girls have their own rooms, and they'd never shared a room before. But, you know what? It was fine!
- Don't overpack toys and entertainment. I hate a heavy bag, so I always pack really lightly for the girls. For the plane, I download library books onto the Overdrive app on my iPad so I can read to them without packing a bunch of heavy hardback picture books, I stick in a pack of Uno cards, some crayons and a notebook, and some play dough. When we're out and about, I'm kind of a stickler for not having them glued to the phone or tablet playing games while we're experiencing a new city, and they are surprisingly happy just taking everything in as we walk. Ella loved walking on every retaining wall, Ani wanted to point at every bird and dog, and we pointed out cool window displays, letters on signs, and anything else that might interest them.
- Over-plan and expect to do half of it. I had a good list of things to see and places to eat while we were there, but of course we didn't get to a lot of it. Every night, we'd figure out what from the list we wanted to shoot for the next day, and then we'd work it around naps and see how it went. I'd rather have a great time at one thing with the girls than push to do two things and have us all miserable throughout it all.
- Pick kid-friendly things. This might seem totally obvious, but this is not the time to try and spend 3 hours in the art museum (unless your children are way different than mine). We try to visit the public library, do a lot of walking, scope out parks and zoos, check out the children's museum, and run around at outdoor gardens and memorials or monument. I also am not interested in eating at lousy places when we're on vacation, but I recognize a fancy sit-down meal might not be a great fit with two tired children. This is a great time to visit hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food trucks.
- Don't rush. I have to really fight my urge to GO GO GO GO during vacation with children (or making the whole family miserable by my inability to let go of my "schedule" that's being thwarted by a too-long nap). I try to remind myself that the point of vacation is to have fun together as a family first and to get to know a new city second. Ella wanted to walk a lot of the time, and so we let her, even though it was much much slower. We spent a good 15 minutes at the Art Institute watching the girls walk up and down the marble staircase inside the lobby. And a 5 minute walk to get some cookies during one of Ani's long naps took 40 minutes because Ella wanted to pet every dog, look in every window, and balance on every retaining wall. But the weather was beautiful, she loved every second of it, and, when I stopped trying to rush it, we enjoyed a lovely afternoon together.
Of course, all my pretend knowledge will really be put to the test when we go to Europe this fall. If you have tricks for traveling with children, share the wealth!