WHITNEY: Vacationing like a pro as parents

Last time we took a “real” vacation of any kind was to visit Chicago. That way was almost exactly two years ago, and I was hugely pregnant. I remember standing on a street corner near the Chicago River and saying to Bryan, “Next time we come, I’ll probably be pushing a stroller.”

I was right.

Last weekend, we decided to pack our kid in the car and attempt our first family road trip. When we found out my old college roommate would be in Chicago for a conference and staying with some other college friends, we knew we had to be there.

To say this trip was different would be an understatement. There were no late nights out and I didn’t manage to do an ounce of shopping, even after breaking my sunglasses and cutting my face with them. Instead, we pushed the stroller – for the first time all summer, actually – up and down the city’s streets as we trekked from our apartment (more on that in a moment) to our friends’ apartment and to lots of parks and attractions in between.

All the memory-making aside, there was a lot of lesson-learning for us still-floundering new parents. (Are we still ‘new’ at this two years in?) Here’s what we know now that we didn’t know before.

  • Pack lots of animal toys. – Olivia has one favorite stuffed animal she carts around pretty often. But even he couldn’t entertain her when the car ride seemed to be taking forever. Sitting in the back seat with her, I busted out the little plastic horses and we crashed them and made them run and talk. It staved off the crying for a little while.
  • Get a place with a kitchen and a bedroom. Stay out of restaurants. – This is a big one when your kid is still small, as we’ve found when we’ve taken other smaller trips with our baby. It’s nice to have a place to store some milk and to have a door to shut between you and the napping child. We booked an entire studio apartment through AirBNB.com, which saved us a lot of money and gave us a homier place to come back to at the end of a long day. We ended up cooking at our friends’ apartment, but if we hadn’t been visiting them, we probably would have cooked all our dinners “at home.” Restaurants, like backseats, aren’t exactly conducive to toddler behavior.
  • Scale back. – There’s a real temptation to do and see everything when you travel, but kids don’t have the tolerance for everything. So you have to do less each day if you want to enjoy anything without an exhausted, cranky kid. We kept our plans flexible, did less and spent more time just hanging out at parks than we normally might have, but it kept our kid happy and gave us a chance to chat with our friends while she played.
  • Stay longer. – Yes, stay longer. This helps with scaling back because you feel less pressure to pack more activities into each day. You won’t feel rushed or stressed and you won’t push your kids too far. It also gives you a chance to establish something resembling a routine.

Did we do it exactly right? I don’t know, but it worked. We all came home exhausted, but renewed in a way that only comes after a change in scenery and a reunion with people you love. We’re already planning our next adventure.

Whitney is the Pioneer’s parenting columnist. After four years reporting and editing at the paper, she’s stepped back to spend more time with her family. Read more here each week and reach her at whitney.buffa@gmail.com.