Our annual vacation of choice is southwest Michigan. Matthew and I were drawn to it when we first got married. We woke up one Saturday morning, found ourselves with nothing to do, and decided on a spontaneous beach day. Packing a picnic and beach bag that contained nothing more than a book, sunglasses and sunscreen, we put on our beach attire and drove north. We crossed into Michigan and ended up in New Buffalo for the day. With the sand in our toes and the sun kissing our skin, the view of Lake Michigan was only topped by the relaxation of a beach day getaway and the company of one another.
Several years and three kids later, I can assure you our annual Lake Michigan trip is nothing like the first time we dipped our toes on that southwest Michigan water. Now we make the drive up in our minivan, full of kids and all of the "stuff" that comes with kids. There is nothing relaxing about our trips to the beach anymore, but somehow the memories we make are just as sweet as the first time we drove up there years ago.
So how do we make such sweet memories with kiddos? Here are few tips that I've found help make our annual vacation as stress-free as possible. Although let's be honest, with kids it will never be completely stress-free!
Short and Sweet
I try to remember that vacationing with children, particularly young children, is not really a vacation! What it is, is a lot of work! For us, four days is the right amount of time to be away from the comforts of home with kids in tow!
It's a long enough span of time to do all sorts of fun things with the kids, yet short enough that we aren't completely exhausted when we come home. Not to mention, only doing a 4 day/3 night vacation helps keep our lodging cost at a minimum. I personally prefer to go Tues- Fri, allowing plenty of time to prepare before the trip and unwind after the trip. Or if for whatever reason we are limited on paid vacation days that year, a four day vacation gives us the option to do an extended weekend and only use up two vacation days.
Not too far Not too Close
We live in the Midwest. For us, we could drive 3-5 hours in any direction and have a place to vacation. St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Chicago, Gatlinburg ~ These are all places that we could get away, without being too far away. The idea is to drive instead of fly with kids to keep cost down, yet we also don't want to have a crazy-long drive with kids! .
Time everything around Naps!
Seriously! We plan our drive around naps, as the kids always sleep well in a vehicle. We plan our itinerary around naps. We plan everything around naps!
This year, the boys typically nap from 12-2, so I planned the beach for one part of the day and an outing with a meal the other part of the day. Last year, the boys were taking two naps a day. This meant that we did the beach every morning before going back to our place of lodging for morning naps. And we went out an about during the afternoon, before coming back to take afternoon naps, and then finishing the evening with parks and walks on the pier.
Make a plan - a kid-friendly plan!
I wouldn't be me if I didn't do my research and make a detailed plan of what to do and when to do it when we are on vacation! It's just the way I am wired! With kids, I'm researching kid-friendly places to stay, places to eat, and activities and beaches. Every part of the plan has the kids in mind! Once I've researched, I make a basic itinerary and do my best to stick to the plan!
Although the average American thinks you have to spend a lot of money to go on vacation, that's really not true! We have never spent a lot of money n "things" when we travel. Rather, if we splurge with money, we try to spend it on an experience. Whether that is an adventure or a place to eat that we can't get back home, we'd rather spend our money on making memories, not on souvenirs or a local shopping mall.
To keep the budget down, we stay somewhere with a kitchenette. This allows us to bring our own food and only splurge on eating out once a day. And of course we are always looking for free things to do. So for our annual Michigan trip, most of what we do is free. Beaches, parks, splash pads, piers, blueberry picking, visiting Chicago.....all free! The only thing we pay for is parking in Chicago, which is outrageous by the way!
Expect the Unexpected
Even with the best plan, when taking kids anywhere you can expect the plan to not go as planned! Whether it's weather, cranky kids, kids not napping or kids getting sick, you can expect something not planned to happen!
For example, last year Ethan took off his diaper in the car before the blueberry patch, unknown to us of course, and peed all down himself while we were picking blueberries! And of course, I didn't bring a change of clothes! This year Charlotte decided she needed to eat, so I found myself breastfeeding while picking blueberries. Or one time on our way back from TN, one of the twins was vomiting the entire five hour drive back home, as he picked up some sort of virus while we were away! Talk about a long drive home!
Take lots of pictures!
As the saying goes, when you vacation with kids you are not vacationing, you are just making memories! There is 100% truth to that statement, so take lots of pictures to remember the memories.
I even invested in a tripod and a remote for the camera this year for our annual beach picture. My boys are two years old and impossible to photograph, so I thought the remote would be a good idea. It was a good idea, but it didn't really make them any easier to photograph! Even so, my pictures are my memories! I wouldn't want to vacation with a camera to capture the memories!
Organization is the Key to Success
I firmly believe that organization is the key to success. Here are some things that help me stay organized.
~ Make lists! Lots of lists! List what to pack. List food items to bring. List what to buy last minute. List baby/kid gear to grab last minute. If you want to get really organized you can even keep a master vacation list for the following year.
~ Research before you go and have a written itinerary of what you are doing and when you are wanting to do it. And then stick to the plan!
~ Pack light and pack early! I try to be packed and ready to go a few days in advance.
~ Pack the vehicle with items that need to be nearby in mind. In other words, don't pack the diaper bag on the bottom of the van!
~ Bring a few toys, books and electronics for the kids. Just enough to entertain them when you are stuck inside.
~Unpack and do laundry right away! This helps me feel less stressed out when we get home, knowing everything is ready and back to normal!