Monday, December 14, 2015

The Thrifty Traveler Turns 1: Tips for traveling with toddlers

I started this blog one year ago as a way to re-ignite my sense of adventure (something that was temporarily put on hold when I had two kids under the age of 3). As a family, we had found ourselves in an enjoyable, but pretty predictable routine of spending our weekends hanging out in the neighborhood, enjoying time with our family, visiting our local farmers market and preparing for the upcoming work week. I felt like our weekends were flying by and when I would reflect on the previous month or two, it was all a bit of a blur.

One year and nearly 50 day trips/local adventures later I know without a doubt that the decision to get out and explore with our kids has been a game changer. The kids ask us every weekend "where are we going today?" and their eyes light up when we tell them about our upcoming trips. I can only hope that their willingness to participate in these family outings continues as they grow older.

Here are a few things that I have learned from traveling with toddlers this past year:

1. It's not easy, but it's not as hard as it might seem. When I started the blog our girls were 1.5 and 3.5 years old and the idea of packing them (and all their gear) into the car for a day trip was overwhelming to me. I was already pretty exhausted from trying to keep up with the kids and planning and executing a day trip seemed like it would only further deplete my energy levels. I was wrong. REALLY wrong. It turns out that entertaining your children at home is A LOT more work then letting them be entertained by a new place. And the drives to our destinations that I had been dreading turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for me to drink my coffee without a kid climbing on me! Our kids also have a tendency to nap on the way home, so we return home in the afternoon to a clean house (because the kids hadn't been destroying it all day!) and well rested kids!

2. It doesn't have to be expensive. This was probably one of my biggest hurdles to overcome. We have two kids in daycare (expensive!) and we live in the Bay Area (even more expensive!) so we don't have a ton of disposable income. Spending money on a trip that might turn out to be a disaster was nerve wracking to me. Turns out that there are a lot of amazing things you can do for FREE in Northern California. Most of our day trips cost us between $20 and $50 for the entire family and that includes gas/toll and food. I found that having a budget for a specific trip (and likewise having a travel budget for the whole year) made it easier for me to spend money and not feel like I was spending frivolously. I'm naturally VERY frugal, so even spending $2 on a cup of coffee when I know I can make a similar cup for 20 cents at home would be a source of stress for me. Now I just spend within my budget for the trip and let myself enjoy that cup of a coffee!

3. Have realistic expectations.  This one is really important. Almost every trip that we go on there is some sort of whining (I'm hungry, I'm tired, I need you to carry me). The way I look at it is that there would probably be far more whining and tears if we were at home. Despite the occasional setbacks, there hasn't been a single trip that we have taken where I look back on it and think "I wish we hadn't gone on that trip". The memories that stick with me are of when the kids decide to hold hands and run out ahead of us or the squeals of excitement when we do something particularly adventurous. On the same note, if you are planning on overnight trip, it is best to expect a horrible nights sleep. Our oldest does pretty good at night, but our youngest is still known for squirming in the middle of the night, talking in her sleep, falling out of beds we rarely sleep well when traveling (thank you coffee).

4. Have some backup clothes and lots of wipes on hand. Something I learned on our very first trip is that our kids are prone to motion sickness! We have had quite a few incidents in the past year. Good news is that kids are exceptionally resilient and once their stomachs are empty they seem to be good to go! Most of the time we have wipes on hand and a change of clothes. A few times we didn't have extra clothes, which is when your kid ends up wearing a sweater with no shirt underneath or their little sisters leggings :)

5. Do a bit of research/planning ahead of time. Having a rough idea of where you plan to eat and visit before you set out can eliminate a lot of unnecessary stress. I get really cranky when I am hungry and searching menu's on my phone in search of a kid-friendly and budget-friendly restaurant becomes a really irritating task that often results in settling on food that I'm less than excited about. Having a flexible itinerary for the day is a must. I always try to have our food options picked out ahead of time and then a plan for what order we want to visit things, knowing that everything on our list might not get accomplished. Researching an area can be fun, but also exhausting and time you can always cheat and steal ideas from the blog :)

6. Traveling with young kids is worth it.  Before we started traveling, the idea that my kids would probably not remember most of these trips definitely crossed my mind. What I know now is that it doesn't matter if they remember the trips from when they were toddlers. The experiences are helping to shape their sense of exploration and hopefully creating a love of new adventures that will stay with them as they grow into young adults. Our oldest daughter asks us regularly to list off all of the upcoming trips we have and will quickly remind us if we forgot to include one that we previously mentioned.

7. Prep your kids ahead of time. We like to get the kids excited for upcoming trips by telling them a little bit about what we are going to do a few days in advance. It's fun to create this big image of a grand adventure in their minds and I think it makes them that more excited when it's time for the trip.

8. Plan a balanced trip. I always try to plan a trip with everyone's interest in mind. While the zoo and kids amusement parks are great for the kids, they are not all that appealing to me. Likewise, a day of wine tasting might sound great to me and horrible to our kids. If we are planning to do a beer or wine tasting, I try to find venues that have open space for the kids to run around, live music or farm animals (here is an amazing brewery with goats and a winery with goats and a river). I will also include outdoor activities such as a hike in the redwoods, a visit to a swimhole or a trip to the beach to give them a chance to let loose. Small treats during the adult portions of the trip like juice while we taste wine or fruit snacks also go a long way.

9. Traveling with other families or grandparents can make things a lot easier! Having an extra set of hands and eyes can make traveling with kids much easier. We are lucky to have both sets of grandparents nearby, so we will often try to include them in our day trips. It's a great way for the whole family to create memories together and the extra help means that you can relax a little bit more. Likewise, taking a trip with another family means the kids can typically entertain each other and you can get some much needed adult interaction!

10. Bring food/snacks from home. Trying new food is often an exciting part of traveling, but it's also an area where the dollars can add up quickly. If we are going somewhere that is known for exceptional food, coffee, ice cream etc...then I make room in the budget for it. Sometimes this means sharing an entree or not leaving stuffed (which can be a good thing). This may not be the route I would take if money were no object, but it gives us the opportunity to sample the local cuisine and not stress about the cost. If we are going somewhere that is not known for it's culinary excellence (like Pinnacles, which is a National Park located off the beaten path) or is known for having exceptionally inflated prices due to location (such as Big Sur) then I will bring a picnic along and pack lots of snacks to keep costs down.  I love good food and have been spoiled living in the Bay Area, so paying for mediocre food makes me a bit sad and is something I try to avoid.

11. Make the trip to/from the destination part of the adventure.  If you are planning a longer road trip, do a little research on places to stop along the way. It might make extend the time it takes to get where you are going, but it is also an opportunity to take an otherwise uneventful drive and turn it into a memory. Some of my favorite stops have been on the way to our final destination. A few examples to get you in the spirit for tackling a long drive are drive through Sutter Creek and Hope Valley on the way to South Lake Tahoe, our hike at Pinnacles National Monument on the way to San Luis Obispo, our return drive up Highway 1, a swimhole and local brewery on our way to North Lake Tahoe, and another awesome brewery and amazing hike through an abandoned railway tunnel on our drive back from that same trip.

What tips do you have for traveling with kids?


  1. Audrey, your blog is so inspiring! So glad you started it!!! I've bookmarked quite a few of your posts already :)

    1. Thanks, Lauren!! Your comment made my day :)