When I was expecting my son, I started to watch YouTube channels about traveling with kids. I felt a little smug sometimes watching a young child run happily through a World Heritage Site during a polished montage set to an indie track. “Oh, please,” I scoffed. “This kid was probably happy for five minutes the entire day and they managed to capture that on film.”
These videos can be addicting. Travel vloggers capture beautiful moments and take arresting panoramas of gorgeous places. It’s what they’re paid to do. For example, a vlog may begin with a shot of a mother and toddler cuddling on the couch in full view of a Santorini sunrise. She sips hot coffee. You can see the steam rise toward her nostrils, and a breeze rustles the hair around her face. (The window screens are open! Aren’t there bugs everywhere? Why isn’t anyone sweating?)
So, as you might surmise, I didn’t buy completely into the dream of a perfect family vacation, but I had hope. I held on to the daydream that I, too, had a travel aesthetic worthy of a quirky, indie soundtrack.
Despite the well-meaning friends who encouraged us to wait until our 2-year-old was old enough to remember the trip, my husband and I booked our first family vacation to Ireland this past May. Our excitement to share the wonder of traveling with our son overpowered our desire for toddler-regulating routines. We decided that the only part of our routine we’d keep firmly in place was nap time.
We stayed in Dublin, a city we’ve traveled before, at an apartment that was less than 300 feet away from the River Liffey. Family-friendly pubs, playgrounds, and the Dublin Zoo were all within walking distance. We managed to do one short excursion per day. One particular highlight for our son was a visit to the (free) Natural Museum of Ireland with its hundreds of animal specimens. “I won’t knock it over,” he assured me as his father took a picture of us in front of a Irish giant deer skeleton.
So what did our imaginary travel vlog aesthetic look like? A light mist hangs in the air. The camera sweeps low over the rushing water of the River Liffey. A green sweatshirt bobs against the stone walls of the river in a collection of plastic bottles. Pan over to the adjacent road. A sweaty 30-something-year-old woman power-walks a stroller on a sidewalk next to a road teeming with double-decker buses. She wears a determined look that only fellow parents recognize as the look of a woman who needs to nap her toddler before it is Too Late. A man, her husband, jogs behind them unwrapping a snack for the hungry child. They’re all tired. Very tired.
The reality of our trip was that we spent most of our days doing toddler-friendly things. We allowed our kid to survive on crackers, cheese, and french fries. Museum tours were out of the question because it just felt like a bad idea and our afternoons were spent in the apartment for nap time. Occasionally, one of us would take a solo venture out during this time to visit a book shop or enjoy a Guinness in a pub.
My advice to parents traveling with young kids is that it will be stressful, but it will be worth it. Maybe your kids won’t remember the trip, but taking a journey somewhere different could have a profound impression on the way they experience the world going forward. As I pushed my son through the discomfort long plane rides and new sights and sounds, I saw him adapt. He engaged pub staff and taxi drivers in conversation, something he would not do back home. He also acclimated to our temporary living situation. Whenever we returned to the apartment from a morning out, he called out into the dark entryway, “We’re home!”
Whether you are planning a trip to South Carolina or Paris, France, you are probably going to want to change your travel standards if you go with small children. I’m not saying you should lower your standards, you should just prepare to feel out of your element. Isn’t that what traveling should feel like, anyway?