Traveling With Kids…


When I was young, going on vacation was going to visit family – either my mom’s mother in Florida or my dad’s family in Virginia. Before the interstates were built (we’re talking the ‘50s), that often included staying in what was then called a Tourist Home – sort of like a Bed & Breakfast, but usually without the breakfast. Along the highways, people would rent out rooms to travelers in an informal arrangement. There were also Tourist Courts – little individual one-room cottages or the beginnings of what we now call motels. I remember my dad saying we could afford the $5 for all four of us to stay there.

We also picked college towns for some stops, because he said they had good food at a reasonable price. And occasionally, we might get breakfast at a Howard Johnson’s. Otherwise, we carried an “ice chest” with sandwich fixin’s – other than breakfast, meals in restaurants were too expensive. Because my dad was a good bit older than my mom, his views about money were even more frugal than hers, but it was obvious we weren’t rich. So our trips were always as inexpensive as humanly possible.

And once the interstates were completed, it was easy to drive straight through, sometimes arriving in the wee hours and napping in the car till the sun came up and our relatives came looking for us.

These family trips yielded side excursions to places like Washington, D.C., Luray Caverns, and Natural Bridge in Virginia, and Daytona Beach and Clearwater in Florida. But those were only day trips – no overnights there. It was too expensive.

Sometimes we went camping in the mountains. That was fun and cheap. I remember the quiet after dark, and how many stars you could see away from the city. It smelled good too, like wood smoke and clean dirt and water and pine. And bacon. And coffee. Does anything smell better?

As a young adult, my ideas of vacation changed a bit. I still visited family sometimes, including the family of friends who lived near the beach. But I’d discovered motels right on the beach – you could just walk outside, and there you were! And in those days (moving forward to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s) you could get a decent room in the off season for not much more than my dad wanted to pay in the ‘50s. Since I was independently wealthy (making $500 a month), it was easy to drive to the beach for a weekend. And so I did, as often as possible.

My husband and I started our lives together by traveling to New York City and Orlando, as well as a number of trips to various beaches. By the time our children came along, we were experienced travelers, often including a dog or two. And so our horizons continued to expand. I remember the trip we took to Panama City Beach, with three dogs and a baby…probably not the wisest decision we’d ever made. But it was fun, and we had a great time.

While our first son was still a baby, we took a trip that included a niece and nephew, to New Smyrna Beach, where we stayed in a friend’s beach house. Not content to just stay there, we included a day trip to Disney World. And we returned to Atlanta by way of Savannah – a temporary family of five. No dogs that trip…

As our own family grew to four, we enjoyed multiple trips each year to Disney World and various beaches, but we got more adventuresome. Our first “big” trip was to Kauai, the “garden isle” in Hawaii. On the flight over – non-stop from Atlanta to Honolulu, then a smaller airplane to Kauai – our almost-two-year-old kicked the seat of the woman sitting in front of us. Over and over. If you’ve been on an airplane for 8 hours or whatever with two kids under ten, you know that there comes a time when you “just do the best you can.” I’d apologize, give him “the look,” and he’d stop for five minutes, then start up again. I consoled myself with the thought that we’d never have to see her again.

You guessed it – she was staying at the same resort. We got to see her at the pool. Every day. So we mostly went to the beaches we found through one of those “underground” travel books. The ones that lead you through sugar cane fields on sandy roads you’re not sure you’re supposed to be on. This after the same book warns you against “wandering away from commercial or residential areas” because the pot farmers got a bit disturbed when strangers visited… But we found some absolutely stunning beaches where we were often the only humans around. The boys loved digging for treasure and building “ships” to travel the seas. It was one of our favorite trips.

A couple of years later, we decided to go to Europe. It was kind of a “family” vacation, because we were planning to visit relatives in Belgium. But we landed in London where we had reserved a rental a car…again, not our best move. Because I’d wanted to travel as economically as possible, I’d reserved an “economy” car – one with a floor shift…and right-hand drive. So as I tried to read the minuscule type on the map (no GPS in those days), my husband tried mightily to drive on the “wrong” side of the road and change gears with the “wrong” hand…and I screamed every time we went around a corner and headed straight for the car coming toward us. I don’t even remember if the boys screamed too or not. Maybe they were asleep…our flight had included lots of excited, talkative teenagers on a school trip, so needless to say, we didn’t get much rest on the airplane.

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Anyway, we got to the hotel where my husband’s uncle had reserved us a room, because he often traveled to London, and that’s where he liked to stay – The Columbia. It’s still in operation, believe it or not. Looking back, it was a picturesque intro to Old London. Great location near Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.  Stately outside, tiny “lift,” winding hallways with wallpaper peeling toward the floor. At this point, I was truly ready to scream – at my husband, for getting us into this; at his uncle for choosing this horrible place; at the kids for being grumpy…

And then we unlocked the door and went into a “four bed room.” That’s right, the uncle had reserved a room for four, and that’s what we got – four twin beds, all lined up in a row. Something else to be furious about, but at that point, it probably was the best idea… The boys and I dropped into our separate beds and didn’t come up for several hours. My husband, as usual, went out to explore our new surroundings. And at breakfast the next morning, our then almost-four-year-old exclaimed excitedly to our assigned waiter that “Mommy and Daddy don’t have to sleep together here – they each have their own bed!” At least we had a private bath!

All in all, it was a fabulous experience for all of us. We visited cities centuries older than our home country, saw sights we’d only seen on postcards or travel posters, communicated with people using “bonjour” and “pardon” as our only French, dusted off our high school Spanish, traveled by train from Paris to the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean, saw magnificent examples of architecture and art and culture. And when we returned home, we couldn’t understand why everyone was in such a hurry…

We’ve taken other trips as a family – to places like New Orleans, St. Augustine, Washington, D.C., Toronto, New York City and Beijing. And through our travels, I think we’ve all learned a few things about traveling with kids.

First, plan your itinerary, but be flexible. Don’t be afraid to spread out a blanket and have a picnic in that park or field. Take a side trip where everyone can get out and climb on the rocks in a stream. Realize that you don’t have to do every single thing you’d planned.

Take frequent breaks. One of the saddest things we’ve seen on our trips is families at Walt Disney World, dragging around little children in tears, trying to fit in “just one more ride,” or see “just one more show.”

Yes, you’ve spent a ton of money, but if you take a break – go back to the hotel, have lunch, take a nap, cool off in the pool, or just sit down in a quiet corner and enjoy an ice cream bar – your children will be much more cooperative and everyone will have much more fun.

One of our favorite retreats at WDW is the Hall of Presidents. If you have a hot, cranky toddler or teenager, slip in for a show. It’s cool, it’s dark, and it’s a wonderful place to relax and regroup. And the show is long enough that the little ones – or big ones – can actually take a nap! Take a raft ride to Tom Sawyer’s Island, sit on the dock, let the kids crawl through the caves. Relax! Take a deep breath! Enjoy your surroundings!

Take along snacks and water. There’s no need to carry a bunch of food if you don’t want to. But be sure to include a little something as a treat.

Check out the local parks and playgrounds. Carry a swimsuit or extra change of clothes for each child. Many cities now have “splash pads” or fountains where kids and their parents can cool off.

If you’re in a city where they offer them, take a tour. It’s a great way to get an overview of what’s available so you can choose what you want to go back to and visit at your own pace.

Whatever your budget, whatever your schedule, take the time to enjoy your children. Show them your favorite places. Tell them the stories your parents told you. Make new stories for them to tell their children. Listen to them. They might have a great idea for your next vacation!

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