Traveling with kids isn't always a day at the beach. Here's what moms and experts have to say about fitting in some actual relaxation.
I was sitting in an aisle seat, nearly home on a night flight to New York, when we started shaking. Then the rattling became more of a swoopy bounce. A flight attendant, who had been speed-walking toward her seat at the front of the plane knelt down beside me, bracing herself between my armrest and the one across the aisle. It looked like she could have been praying. I have since learned this is not protocol. On my other side, my almost four-year-old daughter. “It feels like we’re going down and not up!” she shouted, in a silly voice she might use to point out that her shoes are on the wrong feet. I had to laugh. Both because I needed her to know everything was fine, and because it was hilarious to me how not-fine it seemed to be.
We were on our way back from the Bahamas, where I’d been invited to experience a family vacation at SLS Baha Mar — a resort with a reputation as something of a bachelorette destination, but that’s also decked out with amenities for kids and the parents who travel with them. For three days and two nights, I would take us into a whole new environment, and try to answer a question I’d been turning over in my head since my first beach-with-a-baby experience three years prior: Is it even possible to relax on vacation with kids?
A few weeks after the plane landed (safely, I should add), I posed that question to psychologist and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids (and InStyle contributor) Dr. Jenn Mann, who answered emphatically and with a laugh. “No!” Several more laughs followed.
“Will you relax on a trip with your kids? No, absolutely not. Especially if you’re traveling alone. Can you have an amazing family experience traveling with the child? Yes. Can you expose them to new and wonderful things? Yes. It will be bonding, it will be exciting to see new sights and sounds and tastes and smells with your child — but it will not be relaxing.”
In the Bahamas, it’s in the high-80s and sunny every day, the sky and sea in constant competition over which can be the brightest blue. Though more than 700 islands make up the commonwealth (including private ones owned by celebrities and the one where Fyre Fest didn’t happen), the main tourist destination is Nassau, its capital, 21 miles end-to-end and a straight shot from the manageably sized airport to the resort of your choosing. Baha Mar is a grouping of three: a Rosewood property for the ultimate in luxury, an SLS (which was plenty luxurious for the kid and me), and a Grand Hyatt rounding out the more affordable end (right now on Hotels.com, rooms start at $220 a night). Branded rubber bracelets determine guests' level of access to the pools and nearly 40 restaurants across all three.
SLS Baha Mar first greets your nose with a signature scent, and then the sight of a grand lobby that opens to a bar serving coffee by day and drinks at all times; decorative marble tables overflow with orchids in glass vases that feel a mile high. “It’s BEAUTIFUL,” my child shouted through the otherwise serene scene. Being in a place like that with her felt incongruous, and then super stressful. Oh god, what if she touches something.
The property boasts six restaurants ranging from a Katsuya to an Umami Burger food truck, a casino (I overheard a guest saying he saw Matt Damon there), a rooftop bar, a wildlife preserve, and the Explorers Club, the resort’s childcare-meets-camp environment where kids can be dropped off. That day, they were visiting the onsite Flamingo Cay, where dozens of birds live year-round, managed by, I kid you not, a Chief Flamingo Officer.
We checked into our room, a residence-like suite complete with a full kitchen and washer-dryer, and two balconies overlooking the swimming pool and out to the ocean. The king bedroom closed off from a living room with an optional pull-out (plus a second bathroom) — promising the ability to sleep, or at least hang out, separate from your kid. I let her decide how we filled the two hours before dinner, while I tried not to imagine the many ways we could mess up the all-white space.
At her behest we slipped into swimsuits, sunscreened up, and went straight to the pool that was closest to the hotel entrance. As we splashed around, I saw a cluster of women I thought might be our group, looking very hot and sweaty, in the middle of a tour. It was the first and not only time on this trip that I asked myself, Gladiator-style, Are you not relaxed?!
In comparison to being on the subway, rushing to get to or from daycare or work, yes, of course I was. In comparison to being on my honeymoon, pre-kid, in Tulum, where my husband and I watched from a bed on the beach as a fisherman pulled a squid out of the ocean and walked it into our hotel’s restaurant (at which point we ordered calamari to said bed) — well, vacation changes when you have kids. But there is one thing that stays the same.
“We can’t just be loose and easy and just go have dinner at 8, because then they will lose their minds,” writer Emily L. Foley tells me while on vacation with her kids who are 8 and 3. Her solution is a well-orchestrated schedule that feels fun and spontaneous, to the kids, but that is the result of her hyperfocus on staving off hangry meltdowns. “I try to create the illusion for them that it’s total relaxation, but I’m still implementing some kind of schedule. Because there’s nothing relaxing to me about being the one with the screaming toddler at the pool, or with the angry children in the restaurant, because they are hungry and tired.” Her strategy? “I literally buy just an obscene number of snacks.”
From grabbing one or two extra bags of Cheez-Its from the Jet Blue flight attendant to letting my daughter indulge in the turn-down service cookies in our room, I found this strategy to work. There are few problems on vacation that aren’t caused by a lack of snacks, and swiftly soothed by their presence. Foley also says that while on vacation, she stocks treats her kids don’t normally have — a special kind of gummies, for example — and for their annual 4th of July week stay in Rosemary Beach, Florida, she buys a metric ton. Convincing the kids to leave the beach and dry off for dinner? Gummies. Restaurant service feeling a little sluggish? Tide them over with gummies. That’s it, that’s the tip. Snacks.
Dr. Jenn is into the only-on-vacation idea, too. “The novelty factor is really important with kids,” she says. “The first thing I always recommend when traveling with kids is to bring novelty toys. You bring some of the old standards that you know they like, but you need to bring things that are new to them, because that will maintain their interest longer.” I found this to be true in that I brought old favorites for my daughter, but after she painted a paper unicorn mask in the Explorers Club, that became her prized possession which she wore to the $45-a-head breakfast buffet.
I can not tell you if I was doing this mostly for my daughter’s benefit or my own, but as we approached the airport on the first day of our trip, I began talking her through what was to come. When you get to an airport it’s like a big, open space, and you have to find the right desk to go to or machine to use, to get your ticket for the flight. Then, you have to wait in a long line — and sometimes take off your shoes! — and walk through a little tunnel where security guards peek inside your bag, to make sure everyone is safe and following the rules. So on, and so on. Sometimes I do this in regular life, too, pointing out where restaurant bathrooms are, “just in case you were wondering, they do have one.” Later, Dr. Jenn confirmed narrating plans and easing transitions are both helpful for kids on the road.
“Kids respond well to structure. When kids know what to expect and what’s coming next, they tend to thrive. On vacation you can loosen up the schedule a bit, but helping kids with those transitions is key, and there are a lot of those on vacation,” she says. Specifically, she recommends countdowns any time you need to finish one activity (“we are leaving the pool in five minutes,” e.g.). Incidentally, keeping such a close eye on the time, the plans, where we were and where we were going next made everything feel kind of easy for me, too.
“What you need to do is put systems in place to lower your anxiety," Dr. Jenn says. "Put a schedule in place so you know what’s happening each day. Have a first aid kit. Have backup lovies. Have your novelty toys. All the things that allow you to parent well and feel like you’re covered.”
Pack so that you feel as if you are prepared for anything. You’ll still need to roll with the punches, but no sense waiting around for a blow. If you have snacks, how bad could it be?
On the final night of the Bahamas trip, the kids were going to Explorers Club in the evening to watch a movie and hang out, and the grownups were being treated to sunset drinks and then a steak dinner. My daughter was not entirely psyched.
Of course the amenity precisely is the ability to leave your kids with someone whose job is to care for them. You might even assume that the service being offered by a hotel means the business is taking full responsibility for the well being of your child in their care, but the waiver I had to sign put it another way. Point being: Taking advantage of these clubs or sitters requires both of you to be kind of brave and comfortable letting go.
There were no bones about the night apart being a big ask for my daughter. In exchange, I let her choose how we spent the afternoon leading up to it. We went from a shallow pool where you could lounge in a chair right in the water (unless you’re playing with a kid, of course), to one that had a grotto behind a waterfall, and a swim-up aquarium filled with sharks and tortoises. Afterward, she was wiped. I had run out of snacks. I made the grave mistake of ordering something grownup from room service for her dinner, and she barely ate. Then I shuttled her, tired and hungry, into the door — where the grownups were welcoming, the kids were happy to see her, and she put on the pout to end all pouts — and I had to go.
Merici Vinton, founder of Ada’s List, a network for women in tech, lives in London where she has 25 vacation days a year and uses travel sitters a lot. She likes not having a kid’s bedtime when on vacation, and the resorty clubs let her 1- and 4-year-old children meet others to play with. (My only child also enjoyed this benefit.) For first-timers, she suggests reading reviews and booking childcare in advance to be sure the process is transparent and comfortable from start to finish. (Some that have come recommended to me: Rosewood Mayakoba in Mexico; Atlantis, another Bahamas locale; Club Med in Florida; and Nannies of the Valley for on-call childcare at any hotel or home around the Napa Valley.) Also try a short outing for your first go. “Of course your kids won't be super happy about it — they love spending time with their parents! — but over time it gets easier for you to leave, and for them to have fun, and I think you all become more resilient, together,” she says.
It's not for everyone. “I just can’t turn off motherhood,” Foley tells me, describing why she’s never used such a service herself. “I would be very worried — even though they would be FINE, I want my kids to be better than fine.” And that’s how our night went. Did I have a drink at Skybar as the sun set on Nassau? Yes. It came with herbs and fruit floating around in a French press, and it was as refreshing as it was gimmicky. Did I have a wildly indulgent steak dinner at Carna by Dario Cecchini — the legendary butcher's only outpost outside of Italy — with attentive service and nice conversation? Sure did. Was I relaxed? Not particularly, no.
By the time dessert rolled around, all of the moms declined. We all said we were full from the meal, and anyway all those turndown treats in the room. I suspected I wasn’t the only one secretly anxious to get back to my kid.
I’m not nervous about travel in general, but I think people who are mostly feel anxious about what they don’t know: the unlikely catastrophes waiting in the great beyond. What I found to be the hardest part about traveling with kids is just the regular stuff that’s hard about having kids. Your schedule is not your own, entirely. You worry. If your child has trouble sleeping and gets weird about shoes, they will sleep badly on vacation and whine about their shoes (honestly just pack the shoes they love. It’s fine). Your kids are your kids wherever you take them.
Mine has a roll-with-the-punches, except-not-always-with-strangers attitude; I have always thought I got off easy with her, and this trip was no different. We jumped on a big bed, and laughed about waking up with each other’s elbows in our faces; we plundered the buffet for all of its fruit and bacon, our shared nonsensical breakfast of choice, and played shark with the other moms and kids in the ocean. A month after the trip, my daughter asked if, for her next birthday, we could skip a party and bring the whole family to Baha Mar. (She has drastically overestimated the cost of her playground parties, but the thought counts.) It was a lot of fun, if a new kind of fun for me — and a new kind of relaxing. Even if I never picked up a book or napped on the beach.
As for the flight home. It had been delayed nearly five hours, and my daughter spent the day happily wandering here and there in the airport, as if constantly moving gates was just one more activity on our itinerary. After that, and after we boarded, and after saying the plane felt like it was “going down” because of all the shaking, she added, “this feels kind of good, actually.” Three minutes later, when everyone else began loosening their white-knuckle grips on the armrests, she fell asleep. And I read my book.