Vacationing with Tots: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

My dear mother initiated a fabulous new family tradition this year.  For her June birthday, she would like to host an annual family vacation with our family and my brother’s family. Between his two kids and ours, we have an almost 7 year-old, almost 5 year-old, a 3 1/2 year-old and a 21 month old.

Last Thursday, we embarked on our first trip together to beautiful San Diego – a family-friendly destination with weather that had one Austin family seriously contemplating a move for about 48 hours.  We came full circle on this fantasy after realizing that despite the weather, we’re really in love with Austin, our community of friends and all that is creative and cool about our town.

It’s just those painful Austin summers! Humidity and serious hotness — high 90s — for months. And the damn mosquitoes.

In San Diego, we’ve been in perfect weather nirvana for five days. Delightful mid-70 degree, dry, bug-free air.  We deeply inhale and relish it every day.

Sea World – huge hit.  Lego Land – amazing, but better for older kids (4+).   The aquarium – solid choice for our drizzle day.

Yesterday we took the kids to check out the beach and we all wore pants and jackets.  No one was up for playing in the water, but we went to take family pictures for Christmas cards.  Our Littles were just thrilled to walk in the sand and collect sea shells.

Today, the San Diego Zoo. Absolutely amazing. What a treat.

As with anything, we learn as we go every day on what works and what doesn’t with our tots.  Our lessons learned may or may not apply to your little ones, but I’m posting here in case they are useful to anyone.


Leave the car seats at home. If you plan to rent a car on your vacation, leaving the car seats at home cuts your luggage load in half and the rental car seats are perfectly fine. (Exception to the rule:  perk to bringing the car seat is for the 2 year-old that lacks the maturity to fully appreciate sitting in his or her own airplane seat.  A year ago, when our oldest was 2, if I could time a flight around nap time, having the car seat and her blankie was critical for her falling asleep within minutes of the plane taking off. Without the car seat, she totally freaked out in her own seat, refused to put on the seat belt… can imagine the rest.

Bring the small, lightweight stroller. We picked up one for $38 at Target after we arrived that we’ve used every day.  Slightly better than the average umbrella stroller with four very valuable additions:   the under basket, the over shade, the reclining seat, and the tray with cup holder for snacks or a drink.

Stay with friends, family or a Residence Inn. When you stay somewhere that you can store your own groceries, you can a ton of money on food, eat healthier food and give your tots a comforting taste of home with familiar breakfast food and packed lunches and snacks to eat while out on daily adventures.

Stay close to planned activities. We all know that car time is rarely appreciated by small children –  you can minimize the meltdowns by minimizing the time on the road with a centrally located hotel.

Keep your schedule flexible. If your outing pushes the nap schedule or requires you to skip them altogether and the children sleep in the car, you can let them sleep in the parked car rather than wake them up.

Remember to pack A LOT of healthy snacks. Finding healthy food while on the road or at amusements parks is typically impossible.  The standard is fried food, pizza, and refined sugar sweets.  Dried fruit, nuts and apples have been hits for us and having something for the car rides home can be the ticket for a more peaceful driving experience.


Forget your camera. You can forget toiletries, diapers, and all kinds of other stuff and replace it at little cost.  But who wants to buy a new camera?  I’ve used my iPhone camera here and there, but have been kicking myself all week not to have the real deal.  We’re relying on my sister-in-law to send us her copies.

Skip naps. We’ve opted to prioritize fun over rest and we’re not sure it was the best choice.  Getting our two families out the door and on the road to the daily destination, we’ve generally arrived at each place (Sea World, etc) by 10:00 or 10:30 a.m.  If we had remained dedicated to their nap schedule, we’d call it a day at 1:00.  But the ticket prices are sizable and the draw to fun huge – so every day we’ve opted to let our 3 ½ year-old skip nap and hope that our 20 month-old would fall asleep in the stroller.  It’s been 50/50 for our Littlest to catch a stroller snooze.

Today, our last full day in San Diego, we’re going to the zoo and are opting to call it a day by 2:00 so the girls can get a decent nap at a decent hour.

Go out for dinner. In combination with skipping naps – going out for dinner is definitely not optimal.  Our least stressful evening with our tots was the night that we ordered in instead of going out.  If you’re more on top of meal planning than us, making dinner would be an easy, more cost-effective way to go too.

Stay for a week. Unless your family vacation means visiting family at your parents’ place, I’m of the opinion that a week is too long.  We have collectively gone past the excitement phase and into the grumpy phase and would have been better off keep the trip to four days max.


The time out of town together with none of the day-to-day distractions is wonderful. It’s all about adventure, excitement, new places, new people, new experiences — and all of that generally has huge appeal for everyone — even a 20 month old.

AND — anyone who has already embarked on a family vacation knows the truth about having to redefine the word “vacation.”  Unless you build into your adventure some time when your children are cared for by someone they know and love and you trust completely, you’re still on 24/7 and the ability to experience Rest & Relaxation just never really happens.  My kids are still solidly awake at 6:30 a.m. every day.

This may not be true for every family, but for us — when we don’t build in time for each person — toddler, 3 year-old, Mama, Daddy and our extended family members — to check out in whatever way serves each of us every day — the goal of having fun together from dawn to dusk extends farther and farther out of reach until it becomes an imploding joke as each of us unravel in our own way with palm trees and amusement parks in the background.

Have some of your own idyllic family vacation stories to share?   Would love to hear them!

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