I like to travel. I haven’t done nearly the traveling that I plan on doing in this lifetime and I know there’s still a long list of places that I don’t even know I want to visit yet. The thrill of laying my very own eyeballs on something or somewhere I’ve only read about and have it meet my absolutely every expectation is so exhilarating. The deep contentment I feel all the way down in my bones when my family is with me to experience big city lights, the roar of the ocean, the stars where it’s darker than anywhere we’ve ever been, or mountains bigger than life, is so completely soul satisfying. And I’m good at vacationing. It is one of my true talents, like making amazing guacamole and writing funny Facebook posts. Not just the enjoying of the actual trip itself, but I’m good at planning it, good at prepping for it, good at packing for it, good at seeing the value in it, and good at knowing what my family needs to have fun.
I didn’t travel much as kid. We didn’t have the money and then my parents were divorced and we had even less money and that was that. I was a college freshman before I ever did a Baywatch slow motion run into the ocean and dove head first into a wave and twenty-one before I flew in an airplane. And then I got married and we had four kids, so with small kids and limited funds, we stuck to Omaha and Kansas City and lots of camping for a lot of years. And then, before we knew it, our kids were all school age and we had more money to go places and so we decided it was time for us to go and see some amazing sh*t.
A few friends have commented on our vacations and asked how we decided to do this or that, basically because if you’re Facebook friends with me you have no choice but to go on vacation with me (#SorryNotSorry). So, I decided to offer my advice on how to vacation like you mean it, for those of you who are itching to see the world…or Omaha.
Step 1- Know Your Family.
It’s easy to look at pictures another family’s vacation and think, “OMG…we have to go there! That looks amazing! My family would love that!” But would they? In my family of six, we have all the personality combinations that you could possibly have on one vacation so what is pure bliss for your family, might result in my kids being left behind in another state and a divorce in mine. My husband and I have VERY different ideas of what constitutes a good vacation, not even counting the kids’ opinions, so making sure you’re planning something that everyone in your family can handle can be a tricky process.
For example, three of my four kids and I love to go to the beach. We could spend all our days like sea lions in the sand and surf, browning up and growing a mermaid tail, eating fruit and sandwiches with a fine coating of sand from a cooler and be perfectly content. My husband and the other weirdo child love the beach for about 45 minutes. After they’ve swam a bit, found a few shells and breathed in the sea air for 30 seconds, they’re ready to go and move on to the next activity. My feelings about this are: What? What’s wrong with you lunatic people? How could I have made such a colossal mistake in choosing a spouse? How did I birth a child who hates the ocean? These people are dead to me. Fine, my new favorite kids are right over there burying each other in the sand and reenacting Blue Lagoon like normal beach-loving people do.
My husband’s feelings are probably something like this: What a gorgeous day. The sun and breeze feels nice. The water is warm. Kids are having fun. Jamie’s in a swimmy…nice. Ok, I’d like to put my shoes back on, shake off this disgusting sand that keeps sticking to me and DO SOMETHING ELSE THAT COULD NOT POSSIBLY BE MORE FUN THAN THIS. I may have exaggerated that last little bit, but that is basically the gist. But we have a role reversal when it comes to museums. Scott and the aforementioned weirdo child could spend eternity perusing any art museum, walking miles to see another Picasso, Renoir, or Van Gogh, talking art, breathing art, appreciating art, admiring art, becoming one with the art, sketching the art, talking to the art, blah, blah, blah and I am lying dead of boredom and aching feet in the Roman sculpture room while my other kids cry for snacks and drinks and take pictures of the Roman privates.
We have similar differences in opinions on other important vacation variables like; how much a vacation should cost, how long a vacation should be, where in the world we should go, how often we should eat out on while on vacation, how many consecutive days of stopping for ice cream is acceptable on vacation, how sketchy is too sketchy for an apartment in Staten Island that we’re barely going to sleep in because we’ll be in the city all day, how long we should spend at Plimoth Plantation when the kids all CLEARLY want to go because they are putting themselves in the stocks begging to be sent back to England or anywhere but here on the Mayflower replica, the list goes on.
It’s tricky, but incredibly important, to make sure that you’re negotiating all of the above the best you can before you start to plan, or else you’re going to wind up going to battle with your spouse in a fight to the death over something as ridiculous as whether or not you should spend a small fortune buying the kids a Gatorade from a street vendor on the streets of New York City…or something like that I would guess.
In the Seitz family, here are the four main guidelines we’re going to stick by on every vacation to help us avoid many of the fight to the death moments over the above negotiations and so that the kids know what’s what:
- Because we are a big family and it costs us approximately $1 million to go out to eat, especially now that 3 out of 4 of the kids have the audacity to require more food than comes in a kiddie meal and need to eat off the adult menu, we don’t eat out that often while we’re on vacay. We cook a lot at “home”, pack a lot of picnics and snacks and water, and plan out our eat outs pretty well. When we do eat out, we make it count. We try to eat locally, something delicious and preferably not a chain restaurant. And much to the kids’ dismay, we almost always order just water, which is BORING and UNFAIR according to all the Seitz kids, but much cheaper. On the flipside, we do stop for ice cream more often than the average family.
- We are going to see some serious sh*t. We do not come all the way to Niagara Falls to go to Ripley’s Believe it or Not (nothing wrong with that guy, just not what we’re here for…and for the love, they are on every damn corner of that city!). We’re going to get on The Maid of the Mist, dance in the falls, throw our arms out, heads back and get soaked. We do not drive an RV to Moab, Utah to just drive through the Arches National Park and take pictures out the window. We’re going to hike through the 200 degree desert and have a picnic next to Balanced Rock with a smile on our face. We didn’t come to Plymouth, Massachusetts to see “the rock” (which admittedly is not the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen) for five minutes and buy a keychain. We’re going to live like a damn Pilgrim for the day and watch your dad take his pike lesson too seriously…and then yes, eventually we will your dad to cool it, he’s not actually a Pilgrim, and that the reenactor he’s been bothering all day is not actually THE Thomas Cushman, the great-great-grandfather of the man that later moved to Des Moines and built our house, he’s just a dude from Jersey with an impressive fake accent so leave him alone.
- We’re going to see something that each one of you wants to see. I promise. And while you’re waiting to see it or after you’ve already had your moment of glory, you’re going to enjoy the rest of the trip too.
- We’re aiming for middle of the road in terms of accommodations. We’re probably not staying in a 5 star hotel with spa and personal butler unless I find a sweet deal, but I’m also scrolling past those VRBO’s that have a long list of complaints on exactly what “cozy” meant in the description. And if we’re camping, I’m promising you that that we’ll have showers.
So, when you take a look at your own family, if you all prefer to eat out 3 meals a day because you’re a millionaire and you all love the beach for ten straight days, consider yourselves lucky and book that sucker. But if you’re like us and have some differences of opinions, do your best to honor each of your peeps because who the heck wants to do what one person wants to do for your whole vacation?
Lastly, be realistic. If you have been waiting your whole entire life to scale the top of a mountain in the Grand Tetons, don’t do it when your kids are toddlers. Unless, of course, a big part of the dream vacation you envisioned was climbing for hours with a wiggly, unhappy, hungry, whiny, heavier than-hell-after-a-few-steps, A-hole strapped to your back. They won’t appreciate the view, probably won’t cooperate or nap when you’d like them to, and will probably fall off the side of the mountain, putting a real damper on the trip. I know not everyone agrees with this but do the vacation that is really doable for your kids, or leave them at home and climb the mountain with your spouse…unless he or she would be a whiny, hungry A-hole that you’d have to carry too.
Step 2- Do Your Research, But Know When to Pull the Trigger.
Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time, there was a very lovely, young, hilarious lady who had been dutifully planning an epic RV vacation to the West for a few months. She was ready to book her spot in Yellowstone good and early because she had been told that you had to do it months in advance if you wanted to stay in the park. She had narrowed her search to three spots, which had been difficult to do because not every campground in Yellowstone has room for a 31 foot RV, not every campground has electric and water hook ups and all that fun stuff, and plus Yellowstone is huge so you need to make sure you are camped in the area of Yellowstone that you are dying to see. She was finally prepared to make a final decision and she consulted with her husband to get his input. The husband was fantastically smart and handsome fellow, but he was also indecisive. He liked to think about it, and think about it some more, and then see if there were any other options, and then think about it a little more. And when they had finally agreed, what do you know? The spots were taken. And so were all but ONE spot in all of Yellowstone, which technically did not even fit their 31 foot RV. But because that lovely, young, hilarious woman was so determined to stay in Yellowstone, she may have fudged the length of her RV on the registration and booked that spot anyways and prayed that two extra feet of the RV wouldn’t be hanging off a cliff or anything perilous.
Scott and I now acknowledge that he doesn’t enjoy making final decisions about vacations. He really likes to explore all his options, but making something final is stressful and he would rather not decide. So, he gives me his input at the beginning of our planning and I tell him what I’m thinking as I go and we discuss it, but I make the decision. It’s written in our How to Vacation Together Without Getting a Divorce contract.
So the moral of the story is, there will always be something better or different, until it’s too late and there isn’t. If you wait too long or keep searching for the exact right house, rental, hotel, excursion, price, etc. you might miss it. So do your homework, read the reviews (for goodness sake…READ THE REVIEWS!) and then go for it and decide that it’s going to be fantastic, flaws and all. Find what you want, what you can afford, where you want to be and book it. And do it early. Especially if it’s a National Park, book in February!
Step 3- Be Prepared.
Being prepared isn’t just about making sure you packed a swimsuit and enough underwear and proper walking shoes (because teens don’t seem to realize that Converse are not really conducive to walking all damn day), but it’s about preparing your family for taking a radical vacation. I happen to believe the more you talk about where you’re going and pump your kids up about all the things you’re planning, the more genuinely excited your kids become about the trip. Let them pick a place or two that are must see’s for them. Start teaching them young what it looks like to plan for and look forward to something monumental. There are a few ways that we’ve done this that have worked well for us.
Have your kids do their own research. On our RV trip out west, I made lists of tourist destinations, State and National Parks, and possible adventures for every state that we would be staying in. My lists were a good place for them to start googling, but they each chose a state and wrote down the highlights they found or crossed out the things that didn’t look like much fun. Plus viewing some of the parks and sights on Google images was way better than me just trying to explain what I had never actually seen myself. It just so happened that this year, as I was planning our trip to the East Coast, Ella’s class was studying the different regions of the U.S. Because I had chatted with her teachers all about our trip and because both of her fantastic teachers had both been to the area and loved it, they assigned Ella to the Northeast region and Ella became an expert on where we were going and recommended several places.
Tie in anything you can to where you’re going, regardless of how insignificant you might think it is. Before our first epic road trip, we sat down to watch National Lampoons Vacation so they could see what we were getting into. Language was bit much, but I believe it toughened them up for the language they heard from their mom when we blew our brakes in the Grand Tetons and had to sit in the middle of nowhere for two days. (Patience is not my friend.) This year, we were headed to Niagara Falls, so we watched Bruce Almighty which takes place in Buffalo and pointed out the scene where he goes on the Maid of the Mist, which we had tickets for. I begged my kids to read From the Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler before we left because it was the book that made me fall in love with New York City and The Metropolitan Museum of Art fifteen years before I ever got there. Since Ella is the only one who read it, she and I alone shared a private moment of awesomeness and superiority when we sat on the edge of the fountain in the Met that Claudia and Jamie “borrow” money from to buy some groceries. Cameron had just finished studying rocks and minerals before our vacation out west, so he could identify almost any rock type that we came across. Jolie loves music so Strawberry Fields and the musicians playing Beatles tunes in the Central Park was heaven for her. Maggie loves animals so we talked constantly about the kinds of animals we were hoping to see in Yellowstone. And when we saw the buffalo and a wolf in Yellowstone, it was pretty much the greatest day of her life. My kids’ favorite movie of all time is School of Rock, so we knew we had to see that on Broadway in NYC this summer. The great-great-grandfather of the man who built our house in Des Moines came over on the Mayflower and was a well-respected leader in Plymouth, so we made that a big deal. Tie it all together. They remember it better, for longer, and it will always mean more than something that you didn’t take the time make significant. And if for no other reason, it shows your kids that you care about them caring about it. What better way to teach your kids to be generous, empathetic, thoughtful and connected humans?
Prepare for the downtime. On vacation there’s lots of downtime, on the drive, the flight, when you’re waiting in line, when you get back to the hotel or to the campsite, so prepare for it. On our RV trip, we decided that movies and electronics could only be used if we were driving for more than 4 hours at a time otherwise our kids would be glued to their phone, IPod, kindle, DVD player, you name it (because they are all screen addicted punks), and the rest of the time they could color, draw, read, workbooks, crosswords, play games, etc. I also made each kid a Folder of Fun (don’t roll your eyes, but it totally works when it’s just for them!) with a license plate game, a vacation scavenger hunt and some other fun games. We also knew that we would be staying in a few KOA’s so we gave them a quarter for every math or geography worksheet they finished, and two quarters for every book they finished. It was a win/win, because they liked having the money and we knew they didn’t spend every waking moment on screens. With lots of time in the car, I also had each member of the family make a CD of music that they love, and then we took turns jamming to their tunes. I am the master of mixed CD’s, in fact I make one for Scott every year for Christmas, and I hope I am passing on that timeless skill to my kids. I am a firm believer in the power of a sweet mixed CD to enhance your 3300 miles logged in a minivan. Jolie’s mix stretched from songs from Hamilton to the Beach Boys, Maggie chose most of the soundtrack from Lion King, Ella had a good mix of old and new Taylor Swift, and Cam had Highway to Hell. Of course.
Lastly, go over the top in at least one way. The YouTube video that Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard made of their vacation to Africa, lip synching Africa by Toto may have changed my life for the better. (If you haven’t watched this little slice of heaven yet, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgL3puDfuRg Go watch it now and then come back and finish reading the rest of this. Seriously. Watch it now. ) I’ve watched it about 100 times because it literally makes me smile from the inside out thinking of what fun they must have had to make this hilarious project, and it also gave me the brilliant idea to do something similar with my family on our East Coast Vacation. What a great way to go over the top, to capture all the places we visited, all the things we saw, and to have a living, breathing, moving memory of us being nutballs together.
We started to brainstorm songs that we might use, but it wasn’t until we heard the new Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling”, that we knew exactly what we needed to do. (You should go ahead and watch that video too because it will totally make your day and you won’t be able to sit still in your seat. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ru0K8uYEZWw )
Our vacation project is in the final editing process but we can’t wait to share it with you. My kids sang and danced their way across Canada and up and down the East Coast. We made fools of ourselves in public. We broke out our sweet dance moves on the beach, in the city, on the street, while we waited for the subway, in the car, on a boat, with a goat, in the rain and on a train. We brought the locals into our crazy sometimes, and sometimes they turned us down. We yelled at Scott when he gave us too many director’s notes, Scott yelled at the kids when they rolled their eyes and flat out refused to dance anymore, and Scott yelled at me when he thought the camera wasn’t in focus when I was filming. Some of that yelling even made it into the bloopers reel, and when it’s finished, it will be this amazing, real-time memory that we made together set to a song that makes you want to boogie.
Step 4- Have a Few Things Planned, Keep the Rest Low Key.
Unless you are a millionaire or you have a money tree, most of us can’t do everything you ever dreamed of on a vacation and expect to have enough money left to get groceries when you get home. You have to pick a few things that you know you’ll regret if you don’t do, and then fill in the vacation gaps with some inexpensive and low key activities. This has everything to do with knowing your family (Step 1) and being smart about picking the special things that your family will remember forever. Every family’s budget is different, so that will obviously decide how many activities you’re doing, but keeping some low key time will make it easier on your mood too.
For example, some of our big stops/activities and things we had to plan ahead for on our East Coast adventure were The Maid of the Mist boat ride at Niagara, our whale watching excursion, Plimoth Plantation, the Statue of Liberty, a Broadway show, and our bike tour of Gettysburg. What we would call low key activities are beach days, hiking around our island in Maine, art museums, wandering around NYC and Portland, National monuments and parks, and although those aren’t boring or sitting in our rental cottage watching The Price is Right, they don’t cost much, you can usually bring a picnic, and we got to really experience something beautiful.
When I’m planning a vacation, I try to find things that we can’t experience in Iowa. I would rather spend more money doing something that I can only do in that part of the world, than less money doing something that I could recreate back home. For example, my kids can’t see whales in the open ocean anywhere near where we come from, so paying to take a boat out to the middle of the sea and scan the waves for ginormous whale tails was a no brainer. My kids love going to the Civic Center and The Playhouse in Des Moines and we’ve seen some fantastic Broadway shows like The Lion King and Wicked here, but experiencing School of Rock in the beautiful historic Winter Garden Theater on THE BROADWAY that it was created for was like nothing we’d ever experienced before and will forever be a highlight for them.
I feel the same way about eating out while on vacation. If you do it a few times and make it really count, you’ll appreciate it much more. If you can eat locally, pick somewhere that comes highly recommended or eat something you can only eat there like lobstah rolls in Maine or a footlong on Coney Island, it completely adds to the true enjoyment of being on vacay.
Step 5- The Meltdowns are Coming.
Here’s what I know for sure. Kids are punks. Husbands are buttfaces. The mom is basically delightful and perfect, but even she has her moments where she can’t take one more person whining, crying or looking at her. And all this is at home on a regular Wednesday. So why would anyone think this would be any different when you are all crammed into a car for 13 hours or sleeping in a hotel room clearly designed for one single solitary person traveling alone, or when you’ve been together for sixteen solid days and you’ve taken every meal together and looked at each other’s stupid faces with no breaks day after day after day after day? Duh. The meltdowns on vacation are coming. For you. For your husband. For your kids. Sometimes you’ll know it’s coming, like when the dad tells everyone for the 800th time that the trail mix is only for times when you’re hiking and you’re not allowed to eat one peanut, one raisin, or one butterscotch chip during non-hiking times. And because the mom and the kids can’t possibly roll their eyes any harder without their eyeballs falling right out of the skulls onto the ground where we are CLEARLY not hiking at the moment, the mom breaks down because she rarely has any patience and declares that the stupidest rule on the face of the Earth and then launches into a laundry list of other grievances she’s been saving since Mt. Rushmore.
But sometimes you won’t know their coming at all. You’ll be going along swimmingly, thinking that creating this family is basically the very best thing that you’ve ever done with your life and you’re planning to celebrate with an mind blowing hike to the most glorious rock formations anyone has ever seen in Arches National Park with bags of trail mix…because we’re hiking. When suddenly your oldest child throws such an epic fit on the trail about absolutely nothing and refuses to hike anymore. She might go on a rant about being bored or not caring about rocks or thinking the Arches are dumb or just wanting to hang out with her friends at home, so you send her back to the blazing hot RV (because it is 100 degrees in the desert), confiscate her bag of trail mix (because she’s no longer a hiker) and let her pout for an hour while the rest of your explore to your heart’s content.
I take the prize though for the most epic meltdown to date, sobbing to the cab driver who drove behind our RV being towed to a primitive campground with no water and no electricity in the Gros Ventre mountains because there was no vacancy in Jackson Hole. No one could do a thing to fix the brakes until after the weekend, making it impossible to get to our reservations in Bryce Canyon and Zion. My string of expletives was impressive, (think Clark Griswold: “cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, fore-fleshing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, d*ckless, hopeless, heartless, fat-*ss, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey sh*t he is. Hallelujah. Holy sh*t. Where’s the Tylenol?”) and I’m sure my children’s therapists will have to dig deep to discover why they all have an unconscious aversion to the Grand Tetons.
The important thing to remember is that a meltdown does not mean the vacation is over or is a failure. It just is a part of the fun. One meltdown a day is a pretty realistic goal to shoot for, in a family of six. And then miraculously about 2 months after you get home from vacation, those meltdowns become the funniest part of the trip, what your son writes about in Writer’s Workshop, and what everyone will always remember about you. Example: Dad takes trail mix VERY seriously and Mom will turns into the Dad from A Christmas Story when she can’t go to Bryce Canyon and Zion…or when plans go awry (FUUUUDGE).
Step 6- Be Present. Experience it. Soak it in.
I think this is easy to do when you’ve planned a great vacation that you are in love with before you even get into the car and buckle your seatbelt. But things like money and driving in bumper to bumper traffic while your kids fight over who gets to use the car charger next because their electronic device has, God-forbid, dropped below 50%. Or when you’re grouchy because you are a little sunburned and you’re one of those freak wack-a-doos who doesn’t love the beach to begin with (stupid), or when you’ve fallen off your bike and split your elbow open and your kids alternate between asking to see it and ramming into it as they run by you, it becomes difficult to stay present.
But between those times, look around and be amazed at the world we live in. Enjoy the people next to you on the subway speaking German and even give the Naked Cowboy in Time Square a nod of support and solidarity in being comfortable enough to do your thing. Notice that the sky in Maine seems bluer than anywhere else you’ve ever traveled and that your curly-ish hair has never looked more amazing here because there is almost no humidity. Slide down the buttes in the Badlands and get butte-rash (which is still hilarious two years later), do handstands on the beach to impress your daughters, bother the Pilgrim reenactors with questions until they have to call security, take one million pictures of the Statue of Liberty and lay on your back next to your son and marvel at the Northern Lights.
Your kids won’t forget these moments if you really do it with them, alongside them, hand in hand, letting them see that you’re so excited to be dipping your feet in the ocean that you can’t hardly stand it. Show them how to be properly stunned by the beauty of the world, by the fullness of God, and the pure joy of adventure. Teach them to be curious about who they meet, to enjoy the sound of a different language being spoken, to feel a comradery with whoever is standing next to you taking in the same spectacular sight to the point where you almost hug it out because you’re both seeing this radical thing. Model it for them because if you don’t, you could take them to the most glorious destinations and they won’t be moved by it. Teach them to be moved to tears by the world. By its people. By its possibility. Teach them to find joy in traveling.
Step 7- Do it often.
After 16 days on the road together, in the last hour of a 13 hour drive back home on the last day of vacation, just after we’ve crossed back into Iowa and we are deliriously tired, crabby, injured, bleeding, cramped and ready to sleep in our own beds and one kids asks,
“So, where are we going next summer?”
And they all lean in to wait for our answer.