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How to Have a Great Vacation (With Kids)

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We had a good vacation! We had a good vacation!

If you read this and think, “Well, of course you did, vacations are by definition, ‘good,’” then you don’t have children.

But I have three. Three beautiful, smart, inventive, fun-loving, determined, high-pitched, high-drama, high-everything, terrifyingly-themselves, children. And each year, my husband Bill and I take them on one or more vacations. Fourteen years we’ve been doing this, folks, and we have the battle scars to show for it.

I could regale you with stories of the disasters we’ve survived, merely by pluck and lack of any other alternative. You, though, probably have enough of those tales of your own. Instead, I’m going to deliver the information you truly want, and need: how to make this thing called “a trip” work. Or at least (not pushing my luck here) how it worked once, for us.

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1. Screen time till it hurt. My editor April wrote in this space recently about keeping her kids unplugged during their summer vacation. I think April deserves a big round of applause. We did not do that. The kids packed their iPods, the PS Vita, their laptop—the works. When we arrived at our rental house on California’s Central Coast, roughly a four-hour drive from our home in Los Angeles, we let them have at it. Big screen TV, too, with the Netflix, the HBO, the whole thing. All year long I nag them to “Turn it off! Now!” But this was my vacation. I wanted, and took, my break.

2. Zero cultural nourishment. We could have toured a major university nearby. We could have taken the kids to Hearst Castle, a jewel in the crown of the National Park Service, and just a 45-minute drive up the coast. We did not do either of those things. We did not ask them to think hard for even a moment.

Enough time to have fun together, but not enough time to get sick of each other.

3. Ran it like a camp. When they weren’t in front of a screen, they were on a schedule. We resisted this for years. After all, aren’t vacations about hanging out and relaxing? Turns out our kids crave regimentation. So we scheduled a kayaking tour of Morro Bay. We slotted in times for boogie boarding, eating, souvenir shopping, and, yes, even hanging out and watching TV. They knew what they were doing and when they were doing it, and this avoided untold amounts of anxiety, and hence, tantrums.

4. Rented a house. When someone did feel the compulsion to yell (I said it was a good vacation, not a perfect one), there was no one but us around to hear it. No name-calling in the hallway while some guy in a suit tries to complete a business call. No eating with their fingers in a hotel restaurant or whining, 10 minutes after the food arrives, that they are done and asking if we can just leave this very second. We ate out at lunch, which is a) cheaper than dinner and b) a time of day when we are all brighter and cheerier and more patient. I made simple dinners—broiled chicken, nuked potatoes, steamed broccoli. Finished early? No problem—there’s the TV.

5. Kept it short and sweet. Four days. Enough time to have fun together, but not enough time to get sick of each other.

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Of course, there were some mitigating factors as well, which you may or may not be able to duplicate. We brought along our dog Georgie, a very obedient and malleable labradoodle, who provided hours of entertainment as we tried to introduce her to the ocean at Morro Bay’s dog beach (we don’t have one of those near us in L.A.). Also, we only traveled with two of our three children—the 12-year-old boy and the 9-year-old girl. Our 14-year-old son was off at sleepaway camp. It totally changed the dynamic with waaaay less fighting.

Next month we go for a week to Oregon. No dog. All three kids. Can we do a second good vacation in one short summer? Wish us luck!

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