Frequent Flyer Club

Here's How to Vacation With Small Children and Keep Your Sanity

traveling with kids
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I love my daughter. She is the light of my life, the apple of my eye, the person in my home most likely to pee in the bathtub. She makes me believe, in my core, even the sappiest of parenting clichĂ©s, even if I'm reading them on Father's Day cards in a CVS while waiting to buy adult wet wipes. 

And yet, as much as I love her and would do anything for her, she has destroyed the idea of vacations. Before having a child, a vacation was something where annoying words like "unplug" and "refresh" actually meant something. Now, with my beloved angel in tow, things are different. My friend Charlotte, who has three kids, put it this way: "Before vacations were vacations. Now they're just trips." 

As true as this is, it sort of bummed me out. Because, like most humans, I don't want to give up my hard-won vacation time -- or, worse, start missing work while slogging through a "trip" and spending all of the money I made at work. So I've developed some sound strategies for making sure your vacation with kids isn't a diaper-strewn hellscape. 

To be clear, I'm referring to vacations involving younger children, the sort who can't be reasoned with using logic and/or guilt, because they have not yet developed those cognitive abilities and are still little adorable sociopaths. I've been told older children present different kinds of issues, like asking you to explain NAFTA and tell them what God's face looks like. Anyway, here's how to survive to those tween years with sanity intact.

little kid in airplane
Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock

Don't go away for the entire vacation 

It might be tempting, as you're booking that trip to Minnesota to see the world's largest two-story outhouse, to spend the entirety of your vacation away from your home. This is a grave error. Vacations with kids, even when they're going well, are tiring escapades, and there is something uniquely relaxing about being back on your home turf a little early, with at least a couple of days to recover. We try and always fly back on the Saturday morning before returning to work the next week. A bonus of this strategy is that airplane travel on Saturdays tends to be relatively light, ensuring that significantly fewer people witness your pride and joy trying to bite the side of the metal detector while going through the security line. 

Limit grandparent-related travel to four nights, max

Everyone loves their parents, OK? And grandparents can be so useful for trips -- they will love their grandchildren, and offer to watch them while you and your husband/wife go actually experience vacation-related activities, and tell them stories about the '60s that are confusing and alarming. But here's the thing: they are still either your parents, or your in-laws, and even if they are as normal as possible, and willing to pay for things without guilting you, and don't bring up their crazy politics until after they've had a couple of sparkling wines, they will still drive one of you mad. 

Four nights is plenty of time to get all those loving grandparent-related perks in, before the insanity swells to a fever pitch. 

I've developed sound strategies and advice for making sure your vacation with kids isn't a diaper-strewn hellscape.

Divide and conquer 

Assuming you're not single-parent vacationing (and if you are, holy shit, I commend you/am praying for your trip), you and your significant gotta distribute time with the kiddo such that you both get some vacation-like aspects out of your trip. It starts with the airport. My wife and I realized that if one of us got on the plane with all of the stuff during the normal boarding time, and the other hung out with our daughter, running her around and preventing her from eating pennies she found in the garbage until the last possible second when they closed the boarding door, it meant 20 fewer minutes of containing a wild toddler on a plane, which in toddler-containing airplane time translates to three days. 

And this works on the trip as well. Obviously you're going to do stuff as a crew during the day, but breaking up other time into little mini-vacation hours for each other can be a lifesaver. 

kid in car
Oleg Mikhaylov/Shutterstock

A correct sample vacation day itinerary is as follows: 

7am: Wake-up/mini-vacation one

One parent gets the child and perhaps walks them to a nearby bakery for breakfast foodstuffs and coffee while other parent sleeps in and/or works out and/or streams Stranger Things on an iPad. 

8:30am: Breakfast with everyone together! 

Love is in the air, because one of you got to watch Stranger Things and the other brought back bear claws. 

9:30am-12:30pm: The day activity 

This is a group activity involving everyone, so just try and get through it -- er, have fun! Also, eat lunch. Involve grilled cheese. 

1-3pm: Nap time/parental hang 

It is not fair for the other parent to use nap time as their mini-vacation alone, so you guys should spend time together doing relaxing vacation things and complimenting each other's hair. 

3-4:30pm: Mini-vacation two 

One parent gets the child up from the nap and goes for a walk, or shows them how to ride a horse, or explains the concept of the "potty." The other parent who didn't go on vacation in the morning gets to spend 90 minutes doing whatever the hell they want. 

5-7pm: Dinner 

If you go out, dinnertime can also be broken into some mini-vacations, in which one of the parents walks around with the child while the other drinks wine at an alarming rate. If your child will sit respectfully while you and your husband/wife discuss the events of the day, congratulations, you are the one couple for whom that annoying book about raising your kid like the French actually worked. 

7-8pm: Child sleep prep 

I have no idea how you put your child to sleep, as everyone seems to have a different routine, but incorporating that Sesame Street episode where Elmo and Abby have a sleepover isn't a horrible idea. 

8pm-Bedtime: Parental hang two 

Now you can do whatever you want! Watch more Stranger Things! Drink more wine! Put on that movie where the Farmers Insurance commercial guy is a really angry band leader! Either way, you've just had a somewhat relaxing vacation-like day! 

Final bonus pro tip:

If you happen to be in Idaho with your in-laws and your daughter, do not plan a nine-hour car ride to a friend's place in Montana with very few places to stop except for one convenience store that keeps its very large collection of Bowie knives in an open display case that is right about toddler height. Y'know. Hypothetically. 

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s national writer-at-large, and is likely not going to send this story around to his family. Share your parental secrets with him @KAlexander03