One of my fondest memories of traveling as a kid was the day my parents let us have lunch at a McDonald’s in the Ginza district of Tokyo, relenting to our utter dismay about the lack of familiar food. Thirty years later, on a trip to Italy with my own kids, our first meal was at a McDonald’s in Milan.
The point is, when you’re traveling with kids, it is okay to eat fast food, to miss the major museums and go to a movie instead, to stay in an apartment far from the city center, and to take less than 1,000 photos of your trip. You have our permission to vacation your way — here’s why.
1. Memories can’t be manufactured.
I asked my 10-year-old daughter to recount a favorite memory from our travels.
“That day we were having lunch at that outside restaurant, and the chicken came up to our table because it wanted my French fry.”
“You mean, that trip to Grand Cayman where we swam with sting rays, snorkeled in the Caribbean Sea, and stayed at the five-star Caribbean Club right on the beach?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
It’s the family vacation version of giving your child a toy, only to watch them play with the box. I think it boils down to this — what do you want your child’s memories to be of their trip? Making friends at a local playground, or being dragged through ten museums? (Not that they would let you get to 10 museums — they would revolt long before that point.)
The most important thing is to not miss any of these potentially memorable moments, however simple and common they feel at the time. Share them, don’t just record them. You’re taking this trip for your family’s benefit, not to entertain your Facebook friends.
2. Living like the locals is a great way to travel.
In order to get those authentic and memorable experiences, it makes sense to rent a house or an apartment in a residential neighborhood. Home stay rental websites have exploded in popularity over the past few years. My brother Mike and his family have stayed in apartments in Paris and Venice. My neighbor Jen stays in a house on the Greek coast on their biennial trips to visit relatives. For both, this means immersion into the day-to-day lifestyles and customs of the destination.
“Every morning, we do what a lot of Greeks do — walk to the bakery to get a pastry and coffee for breakfast, and then go eat on the beach,” Jen told me. She has three kids under the age of 7, and going to the beach has become their daily routine — as well as a lasting memory.
3. A flexible itinerary = happier kids.
We have pre-conceived notions of what the perfect vacation looks like (thanks, Instagram), and those include all the attractions we should visit and the activities we shouldn’t miss. Try telling a 7- and 10-year-old that trudging through the ruins of Ephesus is a fun way to spend a hot day in Turkey. My dad attempted this; my brother and I were not convinced.
Let go of crammed itineraries, and don’t overestimate how much ground you will be able to cover in a day. Find parks where your kids can run off steam, climb trees, and just be kids. Don’t expect them to be raring to go as soon as your plane touches down, especially if there’s a time difference. When they get to Greece, Jen knows her kids need a few days to settle in. After that, she says, “We plan on at least one meltdown every day.”
Above all, respect the naptime — siestas are good for everyone.
4. Know that sometimes, you all need the comforts of home.
This may mean dinner is the Tsukimi Burger or a McWrap con Petto di Pollo. Or in my neighbor’s case, store-bought chicken nuggets, purchased for those occasions when she needed them “to actually eat something.”
One of my favorite-and frequent-parenting mantras is: “Whatever it takes.” No matter where you bring them, they’re still kids. Whether you’re traveling to the next town over or the opposite hemisphere, they’re going to be out of their normal element. For everyone’s sanity, especially your own, do whatever it takes to make them comfortable.
If that means letting them order French fries, so be it. Hey, a chicken might just stop by your table, too.
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