A long time ago, my friend Mary Ellen wrote about how traveling with a family is a “trip” and not a “vacation.” This was an “ah-ha” moment for me, because it helped me to change my expectations and to understand why I was so exhausted after vacations! In an ideal world, I think, everyone needs a little bit of vacation, but for most couples it is hard to get away without the kids. This weekend, we took what was most obviously a trip — three days touring Gettysburg National Battlefield, as a culmination of our year long study of 19th Century American history. This was a homeschool field trip, but it is also all the vacation that I am going to get this year, so I really wanted to make the most of it. We had a wonderful time, and I have been reflecting on the success to try to make little trips like this go well in the future. Here is what I learned:
1. Do less in more time
You could cram Gettysburg into a very intense weekend, but we took three days, since it was a holiday weekend, and we also made a crucial decision to limit what we planned to do — in this case, sticking only to the Civil War activities, not the Eisenhower House or any Pennsylvania Dutch stuff. This meant that when the children wanted to spend some extra time climbing around on the cool rock formations in the park, we could do that, without feeling rushed to move on to the next thing.
2. Take an Afternoon Break
This is another way to make good use of a built in extra time. My kids tend to flag in the early afternoon, especially on hot days, and a few hours back in our hotel room, indulging in the unlimited air conditioning and ice were a vacation from our trip. They all had books and an activity pack from the Ranger station to keep them occupied, but in the future I would pack some coloring books or other quiet time activities for this break, to ensure it is also a break for the adults. This also gave time for a change of clothes and to freshen up before dinner and some extra sight-seeing in the evening.
3. Take Joy in the Time Together
As a busy momma, I don’t always give my children the one-on-one attention that they (and I) crave. During the three days of our trip, I tried to make sure that I noticed and really enjoyed each one of them individually. What a wonderful gift! For me, taking photos also helps with this, because I am trying to make sure that I catch each one in a cute moment so that no one is left out of the album. Honestly, I came home with an increased love for each of my children. The cute moment I caught my husband in, which was not photographed, was when he made funny faces at a rambunctious toddler in front of us in church. Her momma was seriously losing patience (it was hot, we’ve all been there), but my husband bought everyone a few moments to cool off by getting the little girl to quietly smile at him. I was so proud of him as a man in that moment.
4. Have plenty of water and snacks
Meals on vacation always seem to get complicated, activities take unexpected amounts of time, or you make a choice to skip lunch after a big breakfast, and someone winds up in a hypoglycemic meltdown. It is amazing what some pretzels, an apple and a bottle of water can do to revive the spirits and allow everyone to charge on. If you pack these things, you won’t have to worry about overpaying for them in a tourist gift store.
5. Don’t be a Joy Stealer
This is a tough one for me, but ever since B-Mama wrote about her experience with a joy-stealing acquaintance, I have been more self aware of the times when I slip into that category. When you are traveling, things are bound to go wrong, and you won’t get your way 100% of the time. Keeping a smile on your face and a cheerful tone of voice, rather than complaining, can help the whole group turn things around. Even during a slow, bad meal at an overpriced restaurant, there is joy to be found in the presence of your family. Play little games, get some good stories going, try hard to make the best of things.
This tip comes from Mr. Red, actually, but it goes a long way towards keeping me out of “joy stealer” mode. As you are walking through the historical home, if you are thinking too hard about whether it is worth the $27 you just paid to get your family in, you are not likely to enjoy it. If you are skimping on small indulgences, like a beer with dinner, because you are seeing dollar signs for the entire hotel bill in your head, the whole trip will be miserable. The big expense is the hotel and travel, and once that is paid, you might as well make the most of where you are and have fun with it! A family vacation requires ice cream and cheap souvenirs, and while you might set some appropriate limits, you don’t want to be a total killjoy!
7. Get some alone time
My husband got up each morning and took a long run, alone, on the battlefield. I think that this went a long way, for him, in turning the “trip” into a vacation. If I had been thinking, honestly, I would have gone somewhere for a pedicure during one of the quiet times, and I think that is going to be my personal “thing” during all future trips. Unless maybe I learn to take joy in running, as he does, but I’m not going to hold my breath on that front.
8. Make a plan for Sunday Mass
Gettysburg is just 10 miles from the Basilica Shrine to Mother Elizabeth Seton, who is one of the patrons of our homeschooling journey. Because we looked up the Mass times there in advance, we were able to plan our weekend around Sunday Mass at the Shrine. In Orlando, there is an incredible Basilica which was built with donations from tourists over many years. Wherever you go, there is bound to be an interesting church with some history to it, and if you plan your Mass in advance it will feel like a special part of the trip instead of something that you have to scramble to fit in. A mistake I made, and will never make again, was not packing special church clothes for my children — they all noticed, and did not want to go to Mass in their “play clothes.” What a nice message it would have sent to them if I had set those clothes apart, instead, they got to teach me, that Mass is important to them and how they dress is part of that.
9. Get the children to help with the packing and unpacking
We go away often on the weekends, mostly to grandparents, so my children each have an LL Bean Tote Bag with their name on it. They line up the bags in the kitchen, and I write a packing list on the big white board. Each child, even my 3 year old, can do tasks like bring “3 pairs of shorts” or “your toothbrush” to the kitchen. After the clothes have been checked, they go into the bag. In this way, I pack for 6 kids all at the same time, and it takes about 10 minutes. Always on the packing list are your “lovey” and a book, but they are not usually allowed to pack any other toys. For unpacking, I asked each of them to empty their own bags and put dirty clothes in the hamper, toothbrushes away, etc.
10. Plan on a car wash after you get home!
Every time a dirty kid got back into the van, I just kept telling myself that we would get the car washed the first week that we were home. Where I live, you can get your car washed and vacuumed for about $15. Before the car wash, I have a child go through with a trash bag and a laundry basket and get all the stuff out of the car (sort of like the clean up before the cleaning lady – bonus!).