We all need a break, and family holidays can be the highlight of the year. But not knowing what to do and where to go when you have young children can really take the fun out of it all. It’s different for everyone, but here’s my guide to planning a fun and stress free, family holiday with young children.
Before children, my husband and I would plan these lovely city breaks where we would spend our evenings checking out the local food, drink and culture and our days meandering the streets whilst recovering from the night before. We’ve never really been beach-lazing or country-walking people. But when our first daughter arrived, we suddenly realised our night-owl holidays would need to change dramatically. But to what?
Some families manage these amazing long haul holidays, and their children magically fall into a new routine. Sadly, we are not that family, but we didn’t learn that until our first holiday together.
We went to see my family in the states. We planned flights to correspond with sleeping times. (She was too excited to sleep). We were going to one of my best friends’ weddings. (And ended up leaving the evening of dancing and drinks far earlier than hoped, due to jet lag and a very unhappy baby). And planned a return to work the following week. (My husband had 24 hours in London before flying back out to the states for business). It was a disaster, and both of us finished the holiday more stressed and exhausted than before we went.
Since then, we’ve been much less ambitious with how far we go and how much we plan and it’s worked out so much better for us. Once the girls are a bit older we’ll definitely plan some bigger adventures (I can’t wait to take them to Japan, for instance). But for now, here’s a snapshot of what works for us.
1. Direct flights only, and under four hours away
When we flew to see my family, we had a connecting flight in Chicago. On the long flight, our daughter was pretty amazing even though she’d been awake almost the entire time. But when we had to go through security a second time and board a second plane, she lost it. And then we lost it. There were tears on both sides. So now, we plan things so that the airplane ride is part of the fun, and the girls can crash once we reach our destination. Where possible, we also fly out of City Airport, as it’s so close to our home and SO easy!
2. Book into an AirBnB or KidandCoe
We had grand illusions of booking a suite in an amazing resort with a pool and restaurant. And then we realised we’d all be sleeping in the same room and we’d have to head to bed or hang out outside so not to risk waking the girls. Luckily, there are so many options nowadays that are set up for families travelling (high chairs, travel cots, children’s cutlery, toys, and a local guide to the neighbourhood) that it’s easy to find accommodation where the adults can hang out once the kids are asleep, and they have space to run around without bumping into other visitors. It’s so low-stress that it has completely transformed the way we travel and we’ve decided to save the boutique hotels as a special treat when it’s just the adults travelling.
3. Find a destination with a good mix of outdoor and indoor activities
The weather is not dependable, and we’ve always had terrible luck. In the past, I’ve joked that our friends should prepare for a heatwave in London whenever we go away, as often the weather is better back home than it is wherever we’re going. But we’ve found if we plan for a bit of everything, we won’t be disappointed or attempting to keep kids from going stir crazy if our sunshine holiday is a total washout.
4. Look for family-friendly cities
One of our favourite holidays to date was a short trip to Amsterdam. The city is AMAZING for kids of all ages with so many enormous parks and playgrounds to explore. The restaurants embrace children, and often have a toy box in the corner as well as a good kids menu. The museums are very family-friendly – often with activities for the kids and space where they can run around. And their science museum was so much fun that my husband and I happily spent the day there.
5. Eat out for lunch, and home for dinner.
The girls hit a wall around 6pm and if we’re not ‘home’ for dinner, bath and bedtime it is not pretty. We’d once ordered food, only to ask for it to be boxed up so we could run out the door with a tantruming toddler. Lunchtime, however, is another story and it’s a nice excuse for us to sit down, people-watch, and rest a bit.
6. Take familiar foods as back up
I pack a snack bag and restock it at the local supermarket so that we always have something on hand that I know my girls will eat. It means I’m not stressed, and we can always put a swift end to a hunger-related tantrum. We’re also happy to encourage her to try local foods, without panicking that either girl will go hungry.
7. Read travel blogs before you go
There are so many families far more adventurous than ours, who travel all the time. I’ve found them an amazing resource for insider’s tips on where to go and what to do, depending on your children’s ages. A Cup of Joe and Somewhere Slower are two of my favourites, but a quick Google will give you loads of inspiration.
8. Keep it simple
Don’t over-pack or create a complicated agenda. We try to limit ourselves to one suitcase for everyone, and one carryon for each adult. As the kids get older, they’ll be allowed one carryon bag as well as long as we don’t end up carrying it too. We keep our days open and flexible, with a holiday-long hit list that we can tick off in any order and on any day. With low expectations, we’re always pleasantly surprised.
So there’s our current fail-safe guide to planning the perfect time away as a family. We’re thinking this summer that the Italian Lakes look like a nice mix of downtime, nature and culture but would love to hear where you’re planning too! And any tips you have, please do share in the comments below.