It’s been a year now since we first ventured out on a big vacation with small children in tow. The babies are older, which adds a new dynamic, but I think we’re getting better too. So, for anyone not only wanting to take their toddlers and preschoolers on vacation, but who is wanting to cart them all over the alps, here is the advanced course in traveling with small children. This time we went to Switzerland, the country of my ancestors and perhaps my favorite place in Europe. I have loved many places we have visited, but there is nowhere I would actually want to live as much as Switzerland.
1. In Traveling 101 we mentioned that you will not regret bringing friends with you. If you can convince multiple friends, especially those with older children, to vacation with you it will be even better. Invite yourself along on another family’s vacation if you have to (we did!). You will appreciate having other adults to feed your kids when you run out of snacks, to hold your babies when your arms are about to give out, and to keep you company and laugh with you when your children are making things oh-so-difficult. You will really appreciate the other kids who convince your preschooler to keep walking by playing “Dora” and “Buzz Lightyear” for hours. (Thank you Elijah!) We hardly saw Annika the entire vacation and despite all the beautiful things we saw, what she remembers is that she spent a whole weekend playing with her friends.
2. Take a pack mule. An actual mule might be nice, but if you can’t find one, a really strong husband (who doesn’t mind a compressed spine) will work. You might be foolish enough to think that your older child will want to walk most of the time. When she is begging to be carried ten minutes into the day-long hike you’ll try to bribe her with fruit snacks walk just a little bit farther. When you run out of fruit snacks you will find that you do have to carry her. This is where the pack mule comes in. Even though Brad was already carrying a baby on his back and all of the excess gear I felt we needed to bring (just in case!) he hefted Annika up on his shoulders and just kept on hiking. I tried carrying Annika and a baby just once on the hike and I only lasted a few minutes. Brad kept it up all day. I’m so glad because that all day hike through the Alps was the highlight of the trip for me.
3. We included this in the last course, but it needs a refresher. You should pay to go and do things that you want to do. Just remember that your children are going to enjoy the free things the most – splashing in the ditch, eating picnics on the grass, playing in the park, and going hiking. We paid to visit the Ballenberg Open Air museum. It was a very cool collection of authentic houses and barns and animals from Swiss history. We saw people making cheese and working on a loom, we saw cows and chickens and pigs, and we toured the inside of many beautiful old half-timbered houses. However, all of the kids were the happiest when we bought them popsicles and let them have a water fight with the mini-squirtguns that came with their treat. Eventually we just left the kids at the park and took turns visiting some of the houses nearby.
4. Bring a lot of food. Especially junk foods and sweet cereals that you wouldn’t ordinarily feed your kids. When they get tired and cranky a bag of chips or a packet of fruit snacks will be the perfect distraction. Nothing brightens up a preschooler’s morning like a bowl of lucky charms. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t bring good foods, but you are only on vacation for a few days, so a couple of bags of chips and some swiss candy bars are not going to kill your children and just might save your sanity. If you forgot to do this and only packed oatmeal and apples, refer to item number one, and borrow some food from your friends who came more prepared.
5. Allow time for bathroom breaks and diaper changes. Lots of bathroom breaks and diaper changes. Remember that you have a potty-trained preschooler now and that when you are driving on the autobahn and she yells “I have to go potty!” you have about five minutes to find somewhere to pull over. Keeping a little red potty in the back of you car will help with these emergency stops. If you try to stretch this time so that you can combine your potty stop with a stop for gas you might end up with a wet little girl and a peed-in carseat. It’s probably not worth it. When you are hiking these potty breaks are easier, but you might want to perfect the “mommy potty” because you’ll be holding your girl over the bushes a lot.
6. When you vacation with your family, you learn a lot about each other. The stresses and excitements of traveling bring out the best and the worst in you and your kids. For example, we learned that Annika and Elise are afraid of almost everything. At the end of our hike we had to walk down a steep trail in a thick forest. Brad put Annika in the backpack and kept Lucy in the front pack. It probably took us half an hour to forty-five minutes to get through this section of trail, and Annika screamed the whole way. The forest terrified her and she thought she was going to fall. Despite all our reassurances that she was safe, she kept yelling “No! No! Stop! Daddy, stop!” while clutching at Brad’s hair and face. Frustrated, he finally asked “Annika, what do you want me to do?” She didn’t even pause, “hike back up, please!” Elise whimpered and cried in my backpack, but Lucy smiled and giggled as she bounced down the hill. Annika cried on the gondola ride down from Gimmelwald and she refused to look at the waterfalls when we visited Trummelbach Falls, even when we were holding her. We knew that she could be timid, but we didn’t know that so many things really scared her. On the other hand, we learned that our children are resilient and flexible and we were reminded of how much fun they are. We did carry Annika quite a bit, but we were impressed with her strength and how far she was willing to walk. For only being three, those little legs carried her a long way. And she eventually overcame some of her fears in the falls and enjoyed climbing stairs in the “tunnels.” Lucy and Elise were remarkably happy and content to just be outdoors and were continually pointing to new things that excited them.
Hopefully this trip taught our children some things about us as well. The way you decide to spend your time and your money when time is short and things are expensive teaches your children about what is most important to you. We visited the Bern, Switzerland temple on our way down and we made sure we attended church on Sunday. Even though we spent most of church in the foyer with three grouchy children, I hope our kids saw that even when we are on vacation our spiritual welfare is important.
7. When it seems like everything is going wrong, just try to remember that someday it will make a really funny story. Or maybe a good sacrament meeting talk. Perhaps both. It started to storm when we were leaving the temple, but let up when we got to the campground. Right about the time we were getting our tents set up the sky opened and it began to pour! About that time the Johnsons realized that they had a tent but no tent poles. Heather was busy trying to get dinner ready in the rain, but our dinner plan was to grill hamburgers and hotdogs. So Isaac and Gracie stood over the grills with umbrellas while we cooked the burgers. I rushed to get the rain coats out, but by the time I got everyone bundled we were already soaked. The Johnsons eventually got a cabin and we decided to move dinner over there, where at least some of us could be dry. One of my favorite memories of this trip is the image of Spencer and Alex wheeling the grill down the road across the campground with the hamburgers still cooking away and Isaac trying to keep the umbrella over it. Everything about us setting up and cooking in the rain, with no picnic table and shoddily assembled rain flies was so ridiculous I laughed so hard I cried – not that you could tell with the rain running down my face.
I guess what we’re learning is that traveling with children is not only feasible, but a lot of fun as long as you are prepared for everything and you expect nothing. You can lay the very best of plans, but nothing will go quite the way you envisioned it and everything will take longer. Traveling with children is unwieldy and inconvenient. Oftentimes it is frustrating. But it is also extremely rewarding. These times we have spent together away from work and cell phones and internet have not only been memorable but have brought us closer as a family. I think that’s worth all the effort.
Whew! That was a long post with a lot of pictures! You should get some kind of award if you made it through. Now stay tuned, because we go on vacation again next week, this time for 14 days. We’ll see if we can heed our own advice.