Today, I want to tackle traveling with a big family. But that’s a really broad topic! So I’m going to focus in a bit. This post isn’t about time on the plane or how to pack or where to go or where to stay. Instead, I’m going to share everything I’ve learned about what the days are like (and how to make them awesome!) once you are at your destination. Sound good?
I have lots of tips, so I put them in list form. And I hope as you read them, they’ll remind you of your own tips — which you should totally share in the comments, because I would LOVE to learn from you! Also, as the title declares, yes this is about travel with a big family, because that’s what I know best. But the reality is, most (if not all) of these tips would work for small families, too. So really, this is about travel with kids.
Here it is! All my travel knowledge, in no particular order:
1) When thinking about your day, plan based on the lowest common denominator, meaning the youngest in the group. If you’ve got a little one, they can’t walk all day and they don’t suddenly have new or different schedule needs because they are in a new place. So keep the schedule really simple and be ready for lots of stops. In Rome, we’d take gelato breaks like 5+ times a day.
2) Only put ONE big destination/activity on the schedule each day. That’s it. Only one. “Visit the Van Gogh Museum.” “Go horseback riding.” “Take a city bus tour”.
Yes, if it was just grownups, you could pack the day and see a million things. But with kids, it pays to be less ambitious. Keep it simple. If things go wrong, and they often do — maybe you get on the wrong bus, or have a hard time finding a lunch spot, or the weather turns crummy — it won’t wreck your schedule. You’ll feel great that you accomplished your one big thing, and when you’re done, if the family still has lots of energy, you can always add on a bonus activity.
3) On the way to your big event or tourist spot of the day, stop at every park you encounter along the way. Why? Partly because it’s fun and part of seeing what this new place is like. There are so many different kinds of parks, big green spaces, urban asphalt parks, tiny neighborhood play spaces. Your littlest kids probably won’t remember the trip, but spending time at parks will make sure they have a wonderful day, and that helps the whole group.
It’s also a way of losing time, or of filling the day in a positive way, without stressing anyone with a packed schedule.
4) Bring water. It should be the only heavy thing in your pack. If you don’t want to carry it, know where your water sources are quickly and easily. Having clean water on hand is essential. First, for thirst, but also for rinsing scrapes and cleaning off sticky hands.
5) Instead of packing them ahead of time, buy snacks in local grocery stores. It’s a small adventure in the larger day. Use it as an opportunity to explore a non-touristy piece of the place you’re visiting. There’s nothing like going to a grocery store — especially in another country — to give you a glimpse of what it would be like to live there. What do their milk bottles look like? Do they refrigerate the eggs? How are the fruit and vegetables packaged and sold? Any new veggies you’ve never seen? What does the toothpaste look like? Is it a huge supermarket or a tiny corner grocery? Any familiar brands? Maybe with different flavors/products than you have at home? How about the candy aisle?
6) Even if you’re past the diaper stage, always carry a package of wet wipes. They come in so handy! They can wipe down a table at a restaurant, and they can wipe down a bottom when the public restroom is out of TP. You already know how awesome they are.
7) As you wander and explore for the day, only carry one day bag for the whole family. Make it a backpack, so that you can keep hands free. And pack light — only the essentials for that day or that outing. I mentioned water and wipes, and we also carry sunscreen, sunglasses, and a tiny pouch with Advil and a few bandaids. Sometimes we’ll add a small guidebook or map. During diaper days we would add a few diapers and a spare romper.
Try to leave it mostly empty so you can throw in stuff throughout the day — like your toddler’s jacket when he gets too hot, or maybe a souvenir.
If there’s only one bag, and it’s light, everyone (or at least the big kids and grown ups) can take a turn carrying it and no one will get worn out.
8) For breakfast, know what you’re going to eat the night before. Have cereal and milk, or pastries, or yogurt ready to go. Or if your hotel includes breakfast, eat that. Knowing what breakfast is ahead of time relieves pressure in the morning when everyone is getting ready and might be cranky from hunger. And if there’s a change of plans — sick kids, rainy day — you’ll know that at least everyone can eat something while you figure out plan B.
9) For lunch, an impromptu picnic is our go-to. If you see a farmers market, use it. Buy carrots or snap peas, a loaf of crusty break, whatever fruit looks good. If you have a pocket knife on you, maybe you can add a small block of cheese. Eat your picnic at the nearest table or green space.
You can also do this same meal with items from any grocery store. Think easy open — a jar of pickles, a can of olives with a pop top — and don’t forget to buy a small package of napkins.
10) For restaurants, go during off hours, so the place will be mostly empty and it will be easy to sit your big group. When everyone is finished eating, have one adult take the kids outside, while the other adult pays. I don’t know what it is, but those last 10 minutes while waiting for the check is when things often fall apart. So skip that scene, and get the kids out of there.
11) As you plan your day remember this is what you’re up against: The kids are going to get hungry, tired, bored, too hot or too cold. So you need to plan for those moments, or plan around them.
12) At art museums, start in the gift shop, have each child pick out a favorite postcard from the collection, then make it an adventure finding the original in the museum.
13) Depending on location, size of family, and age of older kids, it’s often best to skip the stroller. We found this to be especially true throughout much of Europe, and at National Parks too. Too many stairs. Too many cobblestones. Not enough space on the public transit. No where to stash it during a tour.
Use an on-body baby carrier or sling instead. Or, if you have older kids, you can even skip that and everyone can just take turns holding the baby. In France, there were five of us who could carry baby June. No stroller necessary.
14) Every time you see a restroom sign, point it out to the whole group and take a moment to asses if anyone needs the potty. You’ll see signs in parks, at restaurants, at museums and tourist spots. Even if you’re tired and want to get out of there, take a moment and do a potty check. Emergency restroom searches are a nightmare. Oh. And make sure everyone has used the bathroom before you set out on your daily adventure in the first place.
15) Remember, going through the day in a new city or place IS the adventure. I mentioned putting only one big event per day on the schedule, and that’s because all the stuff leading up to and around that event are also activities. Navigating with a city map is an activity. Eating is an activity. Walking somewhere and taking photos is an activity. Getting lost is an activity.
16) Put on your adaptability hat. Things happen. Traveling can be frustrating. So make a good plan, but be willing to adapt in a snap.
17) Remember: SEEING and BEING in the new place is the goal. Traveling means a break from your normal schedule and routine. It means a fresh view for tired eyes. If you do nothing but just be there — in a park, or on a bench, or on an aimless walk — that’s still traveling and it’s still wonderful. So even if you thought you would do twice as much as you actually end up doing, no stress. It was still worth it, I promise!
18) One of our favorite traditions: Recap on the way home. Someone be the scribe and write notes, while everyone calls out highlights from the trip.
Do it right away as you travel home. In the car or while waiting for the plane. Yes, it makes a nice little record, but that’s not really why we do it. We do it because recalling the highlights of the trip together, cements all the best, happiest parts in our minds. Even if it was a sort-of mediocre vacation in the big scheme of things, we walk away saying, “Wow! That was an awesome trip!”
Okay. Now it’s your turn! What would you add to this list? And since every family is different, is there anything you disagree with? What works best for your family travel-wise? Chime in!