Has it really been four years since we last took a big travel adventure? I wondered as I pulled out my backpack suitcase ready to creatively stuff with all of the items two kids and two adults needed for six days away. Why has it taken us so long? I pondered. But I knew the answer to that. First, since we no longer live a quick car ride to our family and friends, time off is primarily spent with family as the main destination. But in reality, how can we possibly travel the way we used to as two young kids without two young kids? Gone are the days of train hopping from London to Paris or Germany to Italy. Hope you had fun. See you in 20 years when we can mooch off of the study abroad program with one of our toddler turned college student children (my heart stopped for a second even typing that sentence imagining my babies as collegiate.)
But the travel itch was stronger than the fear and here we found ourselves one night sleep away from heading out for what seemed like the Next Great American Adventure for the Nevergalls. Really, it was just 5 nights in Boston, we’ve done longer overseas. Piece of cake, right? Throwing two kids into that mix and all I could think was I want to take a nap. But we did it and I am forever thankful we didn’t listen to the naysayers. We did Boston, and did it so well we almost never left. Right away, I knew I needed to share our experiences to inspire other families to brave this adventure with their young kids. I hope this is the encouragement you need to get out and explore, and not go crazy in the process.
Rule #1. Travel with your parents.
We were lucky enough to have Mike’s parents along with us on this trip and I am so thankful for that for so many reasons. From the very first day we were grateful. It gave Caroline something to look forward to as soon as we got off the plane. It meant we had an extra pair of hands to push a stroller, grab a hand, hand over a snack during one of the most difficult parts of travel -- the commute from airport to hotel with all of our luggage and two cranky children (and two cranky adults for that matter.) Beyond that first day, we were so lucky to have our parents to take Caroline to a park while we went on a boring-to-the-ears-of-a-toddler history tour. And when the afternoon seemed better spent taking advantage of a clear day to continue to walk and explore, they were able to take Caroline back home and catch a nap before meeting us back out for dinner. A win-win for all. In addition, we had not just one but two date nights and two date afternoons (one with Elliott but he didn’t mind being the third wheel.) Seeing as we never have family around to have spontaneous movie or dinner nights, this is always a luxury we take advantage of when grandparents are around. But when traveling to a new city this felt even more special. To have a conversation and take in the sights without the fear that at any moment you might have to abandon plans to ease an impending meltdown, that is a true blessing. And to know that our kids are in the loving care of grandparents who are just as excited to be with them, well that’s perfection right there.
Rule #2. Rent an Apartment.
We used Airbnb to find ourselves a one bedroom apartment in a little family community and this made so much sense. Having a space that felt a little bit like home made the kids, and the grown ups, feel more at ease. It gave us space to relax during nap time or bedtime. It gave us space to spread out a little bit, since we brought along two extra adults (see rule #1). Having a kitchen to make breakfast or simple dinners in gave us so much freedom. (I’ll talk more about food in rule #3.) But my favorite part about staying in an apartment is the neighborhood. We chose a location that was still very easy to public transportation, a half block to the train stop on one of the major lines taking us 25 minutes to downtown. But it was also a family centered neighborhood. We hiked up the hill behind our apartment to check out an awesome park with a beautiful view of the city. We walked the kids to dinner one night and sat among all the other parents and their rambunctious kids enjoying a regular Friday night pizza in their neighborhood. We strolled to grab coffee one morning, jumping in piles of leaves before picking up the bus to explore. Knowing this is a neighborhood where other young families feel safe and comfortable to raise their children meant that we would feel safe and comfortable to enjoy it with our children as well. And being in a neighborhood makes you feel a part of the life of the city and not just a tourist passing through.
Rule #3. Minimize sit down restaurants.
If there was anything that is on the top of my list when I travel, it is diving head first into the cuisine of that culture. I learn about a community through my stomach. Now let’s compare that to the one thing that brings more anxiety to parents of babies and toddlers -- eating out in a restaurant. First you have to eat extremely early so that you keep the hangry beasts at bay as well as trying to avoid the crowd that went out to eat to escape children in the first place. You hunt for something on the menu that won’t break the bank because likely only 3 bites maximum will be consumed, or you choose something yourself that maybe they will eat and then realizing that means not ordering the one thing you really wanted with all of the green vegetables and raw cuts of meat. You maybe try to sneak in conversation but you never finish or even remember what you were saying in the first place because each phrase is interrupted by a plea for food, your phone, to go potty, or you are playing “Eye Spy” and “What’s Missing” until eye balls bleed.
So don’t go out to eat, you say? Spend every meal at McDonalds? No and definitely no. There is a way to both enjoy the cuisine of the culture without feeling like your ticking time-bomb is about to explode milk and crayons all over the fancy restaurant.
Breakfast, as mentioned, was always in the apartment, which was a must. Caroline wakes up announcing what she would like for breakfast and is promptly sitting in her chair 27 seconds later waiting for her order so waiting to eat breakfast out and about was never going to happen. Also, there are no rules throughout the day on too much snacking. If food keeps them happy, then food is what they will get. French kids and their snacking rules be damned.
A big win for the trip was packing a picnic nearly every day. We hit up Trader Joes in our neighborhood as soon as we got settled in (another reason for Rule #2). We had deli meat, cheese, crackers, hummus, vegetables, fruit and a few kid snacks (for kids at heart too.) This meant at any point in the day when the hangry whining begins, or even before it begins if you are really intuitive, we could find a bench, or a table in a park, or the museum cafeteria, and enjoy a simple lunch. This was a strategy Mike and I used in Europe quite frequently and I realized it is a great rule of thumb for any travelers. This gives you an affordable and comfortable way to fuel up and enjoy the view at the same time. Restaurants have great people watching but if you are worried about your children standing on their chair and shouting “I don’t like this food!” for all the world to hear, you aren’t enjoying your atmosphere any way.
We did enjoy a couple nights out as a family. One was at an Italian restaurant in the North End which felt safe to bring a family. Any place with spaghetti on the menu and other loud families in the restaurant felt welcoming. But we were there early, had a reservation, and brought our dessert on the go so there was something to keep spirits up on the train commute home. Our other meal out was in our neighborhood, as mentioned above. We walked, we ate with other weary parents and didn’t worry about the food on the floor or the screeching from the baby because we weren’t alone. Then we had the kids back and in bed at an appropriate time and a glass of wine poured to sit on the couch for a movie date night in.
Probably one of my favorite meals was the first night. I had on my list of Food Must Do’s to try clam chowder, specifically at Legal Sea Foods as this is the restaurant that supplies clam chowder for every Presidential Inauguration. But that first day we arrived the thought of dragging two kids into a restaurant after a long and trying day of travel sounded like murder to me. So instead, we grabbed a couple quarts to go, fed Caroline peanut butter and jelly, put the kids to bed, and enjoyed our soup along with a big salad and crusty bread we picked up at the grocery store. This was a fantastic way to enjoy the local cuisine, without breaking the bank or our spirits. If anything, this taught me a great lesson from day one that travel with kids involves careful compromise to keep both kids and parents happy.
So you have heard a little bit about who to bring, where to stay, and how to eat. Have I got your attention? Want to hear more? I found so many helpful tips along the way, this rule book got LONG. I’m breaking it up over a few days, followed by one big scrapbook by the end of the week for those who geek over other people’s travel itineraries, like I do. Stay tuned all week for more tips and even more (I mean MORE) pictures to come...