How to Vacation with Children Without Losing Your Mind

Last week our family went on an adventure. We loaded up the car with clothes, snacks, and kids and headed out for the open road. We had a loose agenda and up to 8 days to spend.

It was the longest trip we’ve taken in the last five years and the only one in which we really had a lot of freedom of choice. And, quite honestly, I think it was the first true vacation since we’ve had kids. We’ve traveled before, but not solely for pleasure. And much of the time, busyness, finances, and pregnancies have usually kept us homebound. So this was a rare treat.

Here are some of the things that we did to make our vacation fun, special, and as chaos-free as possible:

We kept the day’s drive short.

My childhood vacations were cross-country trips from California to Minnesota in as little time as possible. My dad would often make the 1800 mile trip in 36 hours with very few breaks. In retrospect, he says he was just trying to get us there quickly so vacation could begin.

And while there is wisdom in that, this trip we chose to enjoy the ride, too. It helped that we had time on our side — and friends and family to visit along the way. We spent no more than four hours in the car in a given day which was very doable for adults and kids alike.

We stopped at parks and beaches often.

Since we were driving up the California coast, GPS in hand, we were able to stop whenever necessary to stretch legs and run off excess energy. And since we were visiting places where we’d lived before, we already knew some of the best playgrounds and beaches.

Stopping in familiar locations not only gave our kids a sense of comfort, but also gave us an opportunity to relive old memories.

We went during the off season.

We chose a hotel in Monterey that is right. on. the. beach. By timing our visit in September instead of the height of summer, we were able to avoid crowds and get better pricing. This is especially helpful since our family needs two rooms. We paid $100 per room per night. If we had gone during the peak season, we could have easily paid twice as much.

How fun to have the beach virtually to ourselves! Well, us and the jellies. Monterey Bay has a preponderance of sea nettles and moon jellies. Quite a few were washed up on shore, making for a very interesting and impromptu science lesson. We weren’t really sure what they were (except for maybe jelly fish parts) but were able to clear up the mystery at the Aquarium the next day.

We focused on being kid-friendly.

Early in the planning stages, I realized that I needed to adjust my expectations of things we would do, and specifically where we would eat. Five star restaurants are for the honeymoon and parents-only weekends. I realized that fast food and take-out are splurges at home, so they could be our “splurges” on vacation.

We found a number of restaurants that were not only kid-friendly, but also easier on the pocketbook than fancier restaurants. Pizza places, hamburger joints and Chinese food restaurants typically lend themselves to feeding a family for less.

If you happen to hit Monterey anytime soon, check out Me-n-Ed’s Pizza in Seaside. We fed our entire family stuffed to the gills for $30. Pretty sweet. Carl’s Jr is right up the street from the Aquarium, a nice change from the more expensive tourist traps along Cannery Row.

All along the coast, there are plenty of decent fast food places about. In-N-Out Burger, Blenders in the Grass and Giovanni’s Pizza are also great finds along the Central Coast. And of course, Gopher Glen is a must-stop.

We had no strict agenda.

I’m amazed at myself, Miss Julie the Cruise Director. We really didn’t make any hard and fast plans. I guess we’ve finally learned that with kids, all plans are subject to change.

We knew we were going to visit Monterey and had made our hotel reservations, but other than that, we were free to go where wind and whimsy took us. We stayed a night at the grandparents’. Friends invited us to stay a night at there house. And then at the end of the trip when we were saddle sore and not really up for a long haul home, we made a last minute pitstop at the grandparents’.

It was quite remarkable — and relaxing — to be so spontaneous with six kids in tow.

We paid cash.

Long ago, we might take a trip and use a credit card. We might wonder how much it was going to cost. We might cringe when we saw the bill at the end of the trip. May it never be again! Those times were never really quite relaxing.

This time was amazingly different. While we didn’t set a strict budget, we did pay for everything with money that was truly ours. That made a huge difference in how the vacation “felt.” We’d worked hard, and now we could play hard.

We “lucked out.”

Despite all my best plans, I know from experience that things won’t always work out the way I hope they will. So what a pleasant surprise it was when things came together without much effort.

  • We made a stop at Krispy Kreme on our first day. While I was in line paying and contemplating if I should buy some milk for the kids, I remembered that I had packed a partial gallon jug of milk in the cooler because I didn’t want it to spoil while we were gone. Since we were eating outside on the picnic tables, I asked for a few cups and we ate our donuts and drank some milk, too.  I saved a bundle on beverages, prevented waste, and the kids enjoyed a much better donut feast.
  • We really didn’t know what to eat while we were in Monterey. It was new territory for us. We happened uponMe-n-Ed’s Pizza after a drive around the block. It turned out that they had a $10 pizza special, enabling us a feast for a fraction of the regular cost.
  • On a stop at the beach, FishPapa commented that he wanted to go buy a kite. Luckily, I had remembered to pack our Park Bag and had an inkling that there just might be a kite in there. Whoo! There was. Free fun at the beach!

We took notes.

One way that we cope with unexpected mishaps is to try to figure out how to do it better next time. We had an awful lunch experience our first day out. Once we got loaded back in the car, we talked about what we would do differently the next time. I even wrote a list.

As we talked with friends we found out more helpful information about improving future travels. For instance, there’s a website called Six Suitcase Travel that helps large families find affordable hotel accommodations. If you have more than three children, many hotels require that you reserve two rooms, making your “family vacation” feel splintered.

We also asked our kids what they liked, what they would like to do again, and what they would rather not include next time around. It was great to get their feedback — and sometimes comical to hear what was special to them.

God was so very gracious to us in giving us safe and happy travels. It makes us look forward even more so to the next chance to go on vacation. It was a beautiful week of making memories with our kids.

What do YOU do to make family travel pleasant?

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  1. Stephenie says:

    This post made me want to load up my six children and go on vacation! Thanks for all the tips. Looks like you had a wonderful time.

  2. You did a GREAT job!!! Way to go!

    We, too, take road trips with a travel trailer!! Lots, and lots of road trips. With 7 children! Planning is the key for us. We live so far from the places we usually go, that we do not have the luxury of having short driving days. We try to space out the really long driving days with shorter days in between. We plan LOTS of really fun “in-car” activities to help get through the long days. I have bought many wonderful games from Timberdoodle that we love to play in the car. ( We severely limit videos and video games. We also take lots of books. Our road trips have exceeded 4500 miles in 18 days! And we still all like each other!!

  3. You’re kids are so cute, it’s ridiculous. We have only taken short roadtrips upstate to visit family and my kids are really little still, but we did hit up a farm and go check out some of the animals. As for pleasantries? I tried to time the drive with naps so that the kids didn’t fuss too much. I’m looking forward to when they’re a bit older and we can do more fun stuff in the car. 🙂

  4. Great advice. It looks like a great, relaxing trip. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to pack up and go on vacation, maybe in two more years when my baby is as old as your littlest.

  5. All of your Monterey pictures made me feel nostalgic! We lived in Pacific Grove from 2004 – 2006. We moved there when our oldest was 8 weeks old and our second child was born there. We lived one mile up the hill from the aquarium. Such a magical place! We have THE BEST memories! Glad you had a good trip!

  6. I didn’t know Me-n-Ed’s could be found outside of Fresno. That’s the pizza that Devin’s fam most loves. Glad you guys had a real vacation and that it was so relaxing.

  7. we spent a few years exploring california when my dad was stationed there while I was in middle school. your monterey trip was a walk down memory lane for me. thanks.

  8. Aw, I really love this post, especially because it reminds me of the awesome driving trip we did in July/August. We used a lot of the same ‘coping strategies’ that you outlined and it ended up being the most amazing trip. Of course, we only have three little ones, so I’m in awe of your six-kid-trip!

  9. What a fun vacation!

  10. We borrow audio books from the library. Sometimes we don’t even want to get out the car once we “get there” because we are in the middle of some suspenseful part of the book! We do like road trips a lot and we LOVE audio books!

  11. Some great ideas! I’ve only got one kid… One thing I’ve done is pack a goodie bag ahead of time with dollar store/thrift finds – even wrapping some of the stuff to make it more exciting – it makes the road trip smoother.

  12. Perfect timing. It’s not exactly a vacation, but the 7 of us are loading up and driving 15 hours to Wyoming so we can be a family for 3 weeks with my travel-for-work husband since we never see him. Milk in cooler. Check!

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