If you’re in a family, you’ve no doubt experienced the feelings brought on by the phrase “summer vacation,” and those feelings are cruel panic and hideous terror. Breaks are restorative and sunshine is fine or whatever, but the term is generally a hilarious oxymoron when used in describing something that involves 14-hour Caravan rides, forced interactions with anthropomorphic mice, paying $24.95 for a horse feedbag-sized serving of chicken fingers and attempting to apply sunscreen to the shrieking face of a 6-year-old. Yet because we at The Loop are optimistic sorts who strive to find the good in anything, even naked Greg Norman, we like to focus on the positive. As such, we’d like to submit these few ways that you can make your family vacation seem dangerously like an actual vacation.
First, Splurge on the Extra Room for the Kids: Actually, we take that back. “Splurge” isn’t the correct term for a decision that will encourage sleep, create important space and facilitate the ability to wake each morning actually rested. Yes, it costs extra. Yes, accommodations are already expensive! Yes, it’s worth it to avoid returning from a busy day of swimming, roller-coastering or jellyfish throwing to two queen beds jammed into 73 square feet of hotel real estate. Or, if you can…
Splurge on a House, Apartment or Multi-Room Shack: At the risk of sounding like a huge travel cliché, It Has Never Been Easier to Search For and Rent Places That Are Not Laughably Wee Gerbil Boxes Whose Biggest Draws are Ice Machines and Bad Cable. Try out something bigger. Pluses: Extra space, a kitchen to help cut down on food costs (especially breakfast and lunch, which can be judiciously handled in-house), decent chance for in-unit laundry and the invaluable opportunity for family members to regularly go into separate rooms and close the doors. Plus, chances are good you drop yourself more into the local culture than you would at a standard hotel.
Have Your Groceries Delivered: This will cost a little extra and make you feel like ancient royalty. Do it anyway! No one wants to spend the first afternoon of vacation crawling through an unfamiliar grocery store, and yet that’s how like 80% of us start our vacations, doing the thing we basically planned for a year to escape. Let someone else handle that noise.
Trade Mornings: You wake up on Monday with the kids, and your spouse wakes up Tuesday. Repeat.
Don’t Go to Disney Unless You Have To: When our son was 2, we received from my parents a decent-enough stash of Disney Cash, an unspendable sum in the real world that came with the understanding that we were to take him at the earliest opportunity. You know what 2-year-olds remember? NOTHING. We will never understand the cruel phenomenon of parents toting half-melted toddlers through It’s a Small World at 3:15 p.m. when they would be just as happy either 1. Sleeping or 2. Swinging on the exceedingly free playground at someplace that doesn’t require $9.95 for 4½ sips of chocolate milk. Save Disney — and similar thrilling and pricey parks — until the kids are old enough to forge tangible memories.
Build in Off-Days: This may seem counter to the idea of squeezing every last drop of blessed fun out of your allotted vacation time, but interrupting your plans with the occasional day of nothing has a truly restorative effect, and will help ease the pace for the balance of your trip. There’s nothing quite as magical as the feeling of waking up with nothing to do, which, incidentally, is why you’re on vacation in the first place.
Pack Light: Helpfully, we’ve covered this.
Preload Your Screen: In literally the only positive news to come out of the airline industry since 1923, planes have begun screening mostly free movies and TV shows in the back of the seats your children are probably kicking. With a single pair of headphones, your cross-country flights can be set, and you can watch a grown-up movie while your children thrill to Captain Underpants: The Last Stand or the movie where John Cena is a moose. (Well, one of them.) If your travel involves cars, download a couple extra movies to your laptop for emergency purposes. And before you leave the warm, blissful comfort of your Wifi network, load up a wealth of new and novel apps and games. Even if the new apps are variations on the ones your kids already like, the newness will be a novelty.
Rent Equipment When You’re There: We’re not trying to deprive you of the joy of shoving folded-up strollers through malfunctioning scanners in the 5:30 a.m. security scrum at O’Hare, but unless you’re big into safaris or mountain climbing, the place you’re going will likely offer strollers, car seats, umbrellas, cribs and high chairs. If you’re feeling saucy, stop by a local Salvation Army or thrift store and pick up a few toys, then re-donate them when you’re headed home.
If You’re Not Into Podcasts, Start At Once: Literally nothing makes miles melt away faster than good podcasts. Happily, the Internet is full of kids’ tales that will, when they are not looking, even teach valuable lessons and positive impacts and stuff. We’re big fans of NPR’s Circle Round, Brains On!, Wow in the World and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s invaluable Star Talk podcast, which, with its talk of exploding stars and wormholes and multiverses, never seems over anyone’s head, even though it very clearly is.
Bring the White Noise: Are you traveling with someone who has specific sleep needs, and/or possibly snores like a rhinoceros with a nasal disorder? So is my family! You guys should really talk, it would help them out a lot. Download an app that offers pleasantly distracting background noises, such as white noise, ocean waves, forest buzzing or gorgeous Icelandic whale song, for your unfamiliar sleeping arrangements. (NOTE: Whale song is actually very annoying.)
Let them Buy Souvenirs: As a father of pervasive cheapness, the process of purchasing souvenirs is generally a source of reliable disgust that ends with me lecturing my 6-year-old in public about why he in no way requires a $15 two-inch-tall dinosaur toy. And yet, nothing makes children quite as happy as random stuff picked up in gift shops. Despite their best efforts to appear otherwise, gift shops do offer quick, reasonably expensive options. Fight your natural impulse to avoid paying for garbage and chalk it up to the price of a smile.
Bring Little Surprises: In the same way that a $5 plastic cast of a brontosaurus will probably end up more of a memory than you could possibly imagine, getting a little surprise in the middle of a trip will be a shockingly memorable memento.
For the Love of God, Slow Down: It is customary, if not required, for American parents to want to maximize their fleeting vacation days by jamming as much irrational activity as possible into their down time. (Your humble author was once force-marched into the 12:30 a.m. showing of the Hall of Presidents because, as his dad accurately yet hideously pointed out, the park was not closed yet. I contend to this day that it’s why I hate history.) This, of course, is the opposite of vacation. If you’re late to your destination, who cares. If you miss a dinner reservation, it’s fine. If you don’t make it to every last corner of the theme park, everyone will survive. Breathe deep, and remember that this is one of the rare breaks you get from commuting, the Internet and the news. And when you get back home, try to keep a little of that mindset with you.