How to make travelling with children feel like a real holiday

When it comes to a trip with little ones, R&R often goes out of the window. Here are some tips for parents to enjoy their break

Children's clubs and ice creams at the beach can help parents unlock much-needed downtime. Photo: Natalya Zaritskaya / Unsplash
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The voice note a friend left me before my family and I flew to Thailand was wonderfully optimistic: “I hope you’ll have a lovely relaxing time away with the kids.”

Relaxing, as a verb, has not been a word used in our holiday vocabulary for almost a decade since our son, who's now 10, discovered his legs could be used to toddle himself away from mummy and daddy and how much "fun" it was when they chased after him.

In my family, we refer to holidays as “surviving abroad” or “keeping the children safe in a different country”; the word relaxing doesn’t make an appearance in either scenario.

On her blog The Parent Cue, family writer Sarah Anderson notes: “I heard someone say once that a vacation with little kids is like an away game. You’re doing the same stuff you do at home – the same work, the same disciplining, the same schedule, the same requirements, but in an unfamiliar place. With lots of sand.”

If you’re a parent to children under 12, your holiday will not be a holiday as you had previously known it.

So, put aside your jealousy of all those older parents casually traversing piazzas or newer ones lying flat on sunloungers with babies safely next to them in pushchairs; worry not, their time will come.

Here’s how to make a holiday with children vaguely resemble a holiday …

Two words: children's club

On our recent holiday, we stayed in two resorts, one of which had a terrible club with no planned activities, one (unengaged) member of staff and approximately three board games and a pack of Uno cards.

The second had one with plenty of staff, hourly planned activities, a gaming area, a pool table, air hockey, outdoor treasure hunts and more.

Bottom line: When going abroad, the children's club at the resort can make or break the vacation.

Look for clubs with multiple staff and good online reviews, then aim to send little ones in at a set time each day. The best times we found are mid-morning, after lunch or late afternoon, allowing for a much-needed couple of hours off for mum and dad.

Pools are not just for swimming

The pool is another vital component to the success of holidays with young children.

To a parent, the Instagrammable aesthetics of an infinity or sunset pool pales in comparison to a swimming pool that entertains the children.

The pool is where you will spend most of your time watching your fingertips grow wrinkly, so look for options with additional entertainment, such as a slide, waterfall, splash pad or shallow area for toddlers.

Just accept that you will not sit down or read a book.

Yes, your towel will go on the sunlounger, but that’s it. Once it's secured, you will be on your feet until snack time.

You will walk, swim, chase and do that awkward bent-knee squat in the pool when the water’s too deep for kneeling and too shallow to swim.

You will be splashed in the face, required to blow up inflatables, watch the children go down the slide a hundred times, referee the bickering, watch them in the deep end, find goggles and myriad other things.

What you will not get to do is crack open the latest Jonathan Franzen.

Don’t make any plans

Gone are the days of planning a fun vacation itinerary of places to visit, cobbled streets to stroll down, photo ops and lovely little bistros to dine at.

Successful family vacations are far easier when you make no plans apart from arriving at the hotel with all the luggage intact and having avoided a Home Alone-type situation.

Holidays with children mean you never know what might happen. They might get sick or have a tantrum that turns into an all-day bad mood. Alternatively, the weather may not be right and you end up at the waterpark during a downpour.

Unless there are activities that need to be booked in advance, my advice is to loosely make each day’s plans during breakfast each day.

Keep dining casual

Going out for lunch or dinner requires the same arsenal of entertainment you use when dining out at home. But if you want to limit screen time, dining out requires a little additional planning.

Choose family-friendly restaurants designed to accommodate little ones with special menus and an easy-going approach to children running around.

Beachside restaurants are another good idea allowing children to play in the sand or collect shells while you wait for your food to arrive.

If you want to do a little shopping after dinner, avoid dessert at the restaurant and go out for ice cream afterwards. A well-filled cone can buy you at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted retail therapy.

Just don’t forget the wet wipes.

Updated: July 12, 2023, 12:33 PM