The Case Against Family Vacations (Revisited)

If you are having family “vacation” reservations about traveling with young children, this is your yearly permission slip to NOT DO IT.

The Case Against Family Vacations (Revisited)
STOP. You don't have to take your children on a "vacation." 

For those of you who are new to The Double Shift, I want to re-share with you one of my all-time favorite newsletters. For those of you who’ve been with me a while, I think this one is worth re-reading yearly, especially on the eve of summer travel bonanza 2023. As we transition from end-of-school "May-hem," there is truly no rest for weary parents. Experts are estimating that more Americans than EVER will be flying this summer, and if you are having family “vacation” reservations about traveling with young children, this is your yearly permission slip to NOT DO IT.

My current family situation is that our oldest is almost 8 and our twins are now three. The twins are way more manageable than they were on the fateful trip from Hell in 2021 described below, but I also don’t have any faith in their abilities to be good travelers, sit in a restaurant without running around like wildcats, or sleep in an unfamiliar room without our jerry-rigged tent/mattress contraptions that keep them from jumping on each other all night. So, guess what? We aren’t taking them on any trips this summer! We’re repeating our plan of some one-parent excursions with my older kid, and tabling a summer family trip 'til next year, when they’ll be 4 and I think they’ll be able to roll their own suitcases through the airport. We’ll be spending our travel budget on a short childfree getaway within driving distance for my 40th birthday this fall. Everyone is winning. So, without further ado, here’s my original August 2022 newsletter with a few edits, The Case Against Family Vacations.

Let me tell you a little story about our first big trip as a family of five during 2021’s Hot Vax Summer. For obvious reasons, we hadn’t really traveled since our twins were born in February 2020, and having missed the annual trip the year before, we forged ahead with a “vacation” to my parents’ beach house with our 6-year-old and twin 17-month-olds. It was, in the words of my older son, “a nightmare.” The pandemic toddlers were at peak stranger danger, and every friend and relative who excitedly came to meet them were met with howling screams of terror, including their own grandparents, who they already knew. Any time they were outside, they would bolt in opposite directions and put rocks in their mouths. Trips to the beach required a short car trip and mountains of stuff piled into a dingy guided across a pond, backpack leashes to keep the twins from suicide missions of plowing into the ocean, lots of crying and not a single moment of relaxation for the multiple adults required to manage all three children. Halfway through the trip we had a dramatic falling out with the caregiver we had brought along to help us with the kids that compromised our childcare for when we returned. The trip required two plane rides each way, and on the final leg of the journey, we sat on the runway in Philadelphia, delayed for two hours due to summer thunderstorms. Long past bedtime, one twin eventually conked out while I held the other who just kept reaching new levels of maniacal exhaustion; howling, kicking, jumping on my lap, moving the arm rests up and down, grabbing my face and hitting the tray table. I felt my soul leave my body. As I looked down on myself from above, sitting in the back of this plane, praying they weren’t going to cancel the flight and we’d have to stay overnight in an airport hotel, the only two words I could think were, “never again.”

I am here today to give you loving permission to not travel with your small children. As a direct result of that trip, our twins have not spent the night away from our house in almost a year, and this summer we are completely skipping a “vacation” with the whole family. We aren’t planning to travel again anywhere overnight with the twins until they are almost 3, taking a full 18 months off. Maybe the unique burdens of having twins has made us succumb to this absolutist stance, but it’s also allowed me to step back and question why traveling with young children has become such an unchallenged norm in middle-class and above social circles.

Why is it that we even attempt trips with little kids?

I think traveling with children a couple of times per year has become normalized because during the last few decades the social and economic conditions for travel were a lot better than they are right now. For many years, airline flights have been abundant and relatively affordable. But even before the pandemic, weather delays and increasingly poor service have made it tougher and tougher for families. Now, we’ve reached next-level masochism. Airline travel right now means astronomical prices, understaffed airlines and airports, big delays, lots of canceled flights and epic luggage mishandling. And of course, unmasked passengers and rampant COVID. Do I want to add my toddlers into that stew of misery? No thank you!

Until 2022, Americans have often enjoyed low gas prices making road trips appealing. But artificially low gas prices have been canceled and may not come back, so family road trips may continue to become more and more unaffordable. And for those of us who took a big break from traveling at all during the pandemic, there may be a feeling of needing to “make up for lost time.” I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to.

Who’s trying to convince you to travel?

Of course, there’s omnipresent social media full of happy family pictures, tricking you into believing everyone has a great time on their family vacation. There is also a $11.7 billion a year baby product industry pouncing on parents to convince them that it’s not the travel that’s hard, it’s just that you don’t have the right stuff. All you need is the right travel crib, the right portable highchair, the right easy-fold stroller, the right beach tent... These companies exist to convince us that we can purchase our way of travel woes with the right prep and the right gear. But remember, they do not care if you have a good time. They just want to take your money.

Be honest about the cost. When looking for places to rent within a few hours drive of my house in North Carolina for a week, even not fancy lodgings for large-ish families, peak summer in a desirable destination is going to cost probably like $5000. This 2021 survey found nearly 50% of people were likely or definitely going to take on debt to fund summer travel, with millennials and people with young kids more likely to incur vacation debt. The immovable bottom line for me is I really don’t want to spend that kind of coin and not have a good time myself. Obviously, many people don’t have any vacation budget. For more on this, I highly recommend Kathryn Jezer-Morton on vacationing with kids while broke.

That “nightmare” trip was not expensive financially. We used credit card points for the airfare and stayed at my parent’s beach house. But it was emotionally expensive. It was incredibly stressful, and I came back more depleted, exhausted, and more burnt out than when I left. There was no mood lifting from a change of scenery, no breaks to give me energy for my “regular” life. It is ok to say no to traveling with young kids purely to save yourself the logistical burdens added to an already overwhelmed mental checklist, inevitable poor sleep and the overall negative psychological toll.

But don’t mistake me for a killjoy homebody who hates travel. I actually LOVE travel. Some of the happiest and expansive moments of my life and in my relationship with my husband have been in the context of traveling. It’s perhaps because I love to travel so much that the burdens of traveling with kids are so tough for me to swallow. I have desperately needed the benefits of travel over the course of the pandemic but have come to accept that I’m not going to get those benefits if I bring my children along.

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Some Solutions:

Use your vacation funds on yourself. Kids under five are likely not going to appreciate the difference between a day hike 10 minutes from your house and a breathtaking national park journey across the country. They do not care if the pool is the community pool you go to every weekend or at a fancy resort that took 13 hours of hellish airplane travel to get to. In my opinion, the effort and money is wasted on them. So if you do have a budget for trips, spend them on trips YOU will actually enjoy and find restorative, and leave your kids at home. Factor in babysitting costs for an overnight sitter if you don’t live close to family who could help. If a getaway with a partner is off the table, take turns going on your own solo trips or with your separate friend groups. If all of this seems impossible for whatever reason right now, skip a year of a taxing family trip and save the money for a trip you’d actually want to take, sans kids, for next year. If you feel like you don’t have anyone you can trust to leave your kids with, spend the year cultivating some of those connections to make this kind of travel more possible.

Invite people to come to you. Part of the motivation for travel is that so many of us live in nuclear families and are far away from extended kin, so seeing grandparents and other beloved friends and family means someone has to travel. I admit my “just don’t travel with them” doesn’t address every situation, like seeing your great-grandma who’s in a nursing home who is adamant about wanting to meet a new baby. But If you have kids under 5, I would suggest aggressively but appealingly pitch people come to you. Spruce up your guest room, donate airline points, offer to chip in for an AirBnB, or treat everyone to a restaurant night out, or find a local attraction that appeals to your group and make coming to you feel like a win for everyone.

Older kid with his BFF, being good travelers.

Know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Despite this entire newsletter about all the reasons you shouldn’t travel with little kids, kids grow up and become more fun to travel with. I can give you this anti-family travel screed because I am simultaneously enjoying the fact that it won’t last forever. My husband and I have taken turns taking my older son on some shorter trips without the toddlers with friends and family and he’s honestly a joy to travel with. He rolls his own suitcase in the airport and happily watches his iPad in the backseat with minimal fuss. To him, there is no greater luxury than the Comfort Inn & Suites’ Williamsburg, VA breakfast buffet. I know there is a rewarding summer family trip in our future with all three kids, but I’m not going to pretend that day is here yet.

For this week’s members-only thread, inspired by our hangout with Abby Davisson yesterday, I’ll be asking, what’s a big life decision that you’ve made in the last few years, and HOW did you make the decision? Sometimes we focus on the outcome rather than what it took to get there. Check your inboxes tomorrow! Also, in theme of this week’s newsletter, feel free to go back to the members-only thread from a few weeks ago and chime in: what are you most looking forward to this summer?


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