We just came back from a fabulous week-long vacation in Cape Cod. This was our first vacation with the kiddos where we didn't have family traveling with us - or at the destination upon arrival - which meant no helping hands around. I'm relieved things went well - because going into the trip, the thought of not having any breaks from my 5 and 3 year old for 7 straight days scared me. Here's what we tried that worked well - and allowed Frank and I to have wonderful moments all week long with the kids, and without the kids.
1) Tire them out! Here's why: For many of us, sleep arrangements typically change when traveling (the kids are either sharing a room or a bed). That means lots of opportunities to talk and not sleep, which over time, results in ridiculous crankiness. We packed the days with lots of physical activity (a.k.a. Fun!): multiple trips to the beach in one day (some days once in the morning and then once after dinner before sunset), biking, day trips like our whale watching venture, playgrounds, etc. Our goal was for them to pass out by 8PM - which then meant Frank and I had 3 hours to ourselves each evening.
2) Always have a "carrot" in your back pocket. I used the carrot in front of the horse method, in other words, bribing with forethought. I tried to plan things so that we could get the kids to move onto the next item on our agenda without tears. For example, ice cream always came after the beach or pool, not before. The playground turned out to be an excellent carrot to be offered at the end of the day (made leaving the beach and pool much easier).
3) Supply your kids with entertainment. Portable dvd player (and lots of DVDs that we borrowed from friends). Leapfrogs. The iPad. It wasn't just technology though. We brought Usborne workbooks and activity pads. If you haven't heard of Usborne books, then get to know them - because they are all about engaging your kids through travel friendly activities (all you need is a pencil or crayons, and their books often come with stickers). Fun ones to check out: Fasion Designer Summer Collection and Lots of Things to Find and Color. When we needed downtime, in lieu of a babysitter, this worked great.
4) Don't overschedule the day, roll with it. While we certainly kept ourselves busy, we also allowed ourselves to take our time getting out of the house, and made sure to keep activities that required getting somewhere by a certain time to a minimum. I find that having to get my kids some place by a certain time increases the likelihood that I will yell at my kids ten fold. Why? "Mommy, I need to go potty." "Mommy, I forgot my bucket." "Daddy, I spilled my milk." Terrible 3's = Everything is, "No, I don’t want to!" I could tell the not overscheduling strategy worked when by the end of the week, I realized that I had yelled at my kids only twice. Twice. The whole week. That's a record (in a good way) for me.
5) No guilt allowed. We broke house rules. We enjoyed our wine and beer every night. Give yourself a break. It’s Ok. You’re on vacation.