You used to be a globetrotter, planning weekend trips to Miami or Mexico and extended vacations throughout Southeast Asia. Then you had kids, and now the most traveling you do is from the grocery store to the preschool.
That scenario might sound familiar, but Christina Valhouli isn’t having any of it.
“Live the life that you want to lead and drag your kids along,” she says. “If you put everything off until they’re twelve, it will never happen.”
A travel writer since 2002, Christina has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Rough Guides, and other publications. Rather than allowing her two sons, now ages nine and six, to interfere with her passions, she and her husband simply took them along for the ride. Now the family’s traveled everywhere from Utah to New Zealand to the French Alps.
We asked Christina for her best tips on how to travel with children in tow and still enjoy a grown-up vacation.
Visit A National Park
America boasts 60 national parks, 87 national monuments, and hundreds of other sites affiliated with the National Park Service. With her boys, Christina has visited Acadia National Park in Maine and Dinosaur National Monument at the border of Colorado and Utah.
Exploring a national park, which can cover millions of acres, sounds daunting to many adults, let alone those with kids. Christina says, “One thing I hear a lot from fellow parents is, ‘My kids are too young to do a national park,’ or they think your kid has to be able to hike 12 miles to get something out of it.”
That’s a misconception, however. National parks offer trails that cater to all ability levels. And by being outdoors, you’ll allow your children to expend their built-up energy, a useful trick to keep them calm during long car rides.
Always Be Prepared To Make A Quick Exit
Young children tire easily—that’s inevitable. Besides taking measures to avoid overcrowding your day, you should also avoid being trapped in a single location.
Practically, that means refraining from group tours. Tours lock you into a predetermined itinerary with limited flexibility; if you need to return to the hotel early, you’ll need to forfeit the rest of the trip. Since most tours charge per person, you’ll also see your money go down the drain.
Christina found the strategy of working in an easy exit essential for a family trip to visit the Mayan ruins of Coba, near Playa del Carmen. “Because my kids are young, I didn’t want to sign up for a tour because then you’re going on someone’s schedule. We just rented our own bikes and did our own thing. We lasted an hour and a half, and I think it’s better to go for a short amount of time than to not go at all.”
Do What It Takes To Make Flights More Bearable
For many young parents, the number-one fear associated with flying is being stuck on a plane with implacable children. Save yourself the anxiety, and the ire of your fellow passengers, by assembling a war chest of goodies for the kids.
“I have no problem letting my kids watch six hours of movies on the plane,” says Christina. “As a parent, you just have to do what you have to do, whether that’s candy, iPads, or bribes.”
You might also find the added convenience of a seat upgrade worth the additional cost. Christina has a personal favorite: “Air New Zealand has this brilliant thing called the Skycouch. It’s an economy row, but a footrest comes up on each seat that makes almost a twin-sized bed, and it’s nowhere near the price of premium economy.”
Ask For Pasta At Restaurants
We’re living in a time when travel is synonymous with food: the more unfamiliar the flavors, the better. Unfortunately, for those with picky eaters in tow, local dining experiences are often the first thing to forgo.
You don’t have to settle for places with a children’s menu, though. The trick at any dining establishment is to order at least one crowd-pleasing staple, like pasta, rice, or noodles. “Just about any restaurant will make a plain plate of pasta for you,” says Christina. “You just have to ask, even if it’s not on the menu.” If you’re doing a road trip, drop by a diner that serves breakfast all day.
Not all restaurants are accommodating to young diners, unfortunately, but remember there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: kids become more adventurous as they grow older. With a bit of nudging, Christina got her older son to eat oysters and grilled octopus. So can you.
Buy Time With Movies
A three-course dinner with wine may sound like a well-deserved treat after a long day of sightseeing, but for the kids? Not so much.
Selective palates aside, one thing that many young children struggle with is the length of formal meals. “Kids don’t want to sit through appetizers and stuff like that,” observes Christina.
This is where an iPad or tablet computer becomes your best friend. “If we do go out to a nicer restaurant, we’ll say to the kids, ‘When you’re done eating, you can watch a movie,” while my husband and I have dessert and coffee.”
You can use the same strategy whenever you’d like to spend extended time in one place, such as a museum or historic building.
Look For Hotels That Offer A Babysitting Service
For nights when you and your partner need one-on-one time, a nanny may be the only option. Luckily, the babysitting service your hotel provides may be the answer. “If you don’t want to do the all-inclusive things that have a kids’ club, that’s a great way to get a babysitter for your kids,” Christina says.
Going through your accommodations to hire a nanny also alleviates some of the anxiety of employing a stranger. Because hotels prefer to stick to a limited cohort of service providers, you’ll probably be matched with a babysitter whom dozens of guests before you have hired and been satisfied with.
Incorporate Your Children's Interests
One of Christina’s most rewarding trips was a midsummer vacation to Utah.
“At the time, my kids were really into dinosaurs, so we went into a state park where you can look for dinosaur tracks along the lake. Utah was perfect for that stage in my life.” When children are excited about their destination, you’re much more likely to have an enjoyable experience.
You’d be surprised at how far you can go with this strategy. For an upcoming trip to Europe—a region associated with culture and history that are typically lost on children—Christina is taking her elder son to the Netherlands. How did she manage it? Television.
“My son is obsessed with a show on Nickelodeon that’s set in Amsterdam. His connection to it at the moment is just through a TV show, but as a parent, I’m like, ‘That’s a start.’”
Find Places That Everyone Likes
In the end, the best strategy for keeping the kids happy while still having fun as an adult is to choose a destination that everyone will enjoy. By opting for places well-suited to her outdoors-loving family, Christina’s been able to take her two boys across three continents—a feat that many parents find unthinkable.
Rewarding trips can be found closer to home, too. A favorite of Christina’s is the Berkshires. “When we visited the botanical gardens last summer, they had set up a display with all this art. It appealed to everybody on a different level.”
In the end, it’s not about children versus adults. The ideal vacation will make all ages happy.
All images courtesy of Christina Valhouli.