For ten years, I worked crazy hours from January through March. Consequently, I couldn’t travel during the brutally cold winter months in search of a break from the “Chicago tundra.”
This year, a new position within my company offered a change in the seasonality of my work. I now had a chance to take a break from the frigid winter in exchange for time with family in the southern California sun.
You guys, I didn’t realize what I was missing!
We opted not to haul the whole family out for a few short days and a long plane ride. J’s not quite old enough to hang for that type of trip.
M stayed back with J, and I took T on a special trip, just the two of us. It was so nice to spend a ton of time with T by himself, and we’re hoping to make these one-on-one trips a tradition.
When I planned the trip, I wanted the whole weekend to be about T. I didn’t intend to spoil him, but I wanted a weekend that included plenty of time for him to play, relax, rest, and do activities I knew he would love. In that light, I thought I’d share a few ideas that worked well for us for a wonderful one-on-one long weekend vacation with a little one.
Find Great Parks
While planning lots of location-specific activities makes sense on vacations (we all have parks in our hometown, right?), spending time at the park each day gave T a chance to expend his ‘little kid’ energy. We picked Los Angeles as our travel destination because my sister lives there. But we also wanted to enjoy some bright sunshine and warm weather. The parks gave us a perfect opportunity to do that.
Having a sister there who knows the area definitely helped in the search for a great park. They aren’t always in the most obvious locations. If you aren’t meeting up with friends or family on your trip who know the parks in the area, ask the locals. At restaurants, grocery stores, whatever makes sense. They’ll certainly know a good place to find some space to run around and enjoy a playground. It doesn’t hurt that these are typically free.
As a last resort, search the local parks and recreation website for the area to which you’re traveling. They all have sections for parks on their website (duh, right?). It sounds obvious, but I had never done it. Next time, I’ll have to heed my own advice.
Hand Over the Camera
While I might be brainwashing him so he will be my future outfit photographer, T is starting to love taking photos. He’s still young, and I’ve invested in a camera that’s expensive enough that I’d be really bummed if he broke it. But we’ve established some rules about when and how he uses it, and we always discuss how fragile it is and the importance of being extra careful. For example, he knows he’s never allowed to have the camera without the strap around his neck. And I don’t let him stray far from me when he has it.
I love, though, giving him a chance to capture our trip from his own eyes. Not only do I get to be in the picture, but I get to see what stands out to him.
He took the photo of me below. I’m a little blurry, but this is how he sees the farmer’s market we visited on Saturday morning. Even more important, I get a chance to be in front of the camera. So when we put together a photo book, we’ll actually remember I was there!
He also doesn’t feel like I spent the entire trip hanging out with my camera, leaving him as a second thought. We’re in this whole “let’s document our trip thing” together.
Stay Local and Simple
During our weekend, we didn’t jam pack the trip with loads of crazy adventures. We thought about Disneyland, but T isn’t quite tall enough for the rides we wanted to take him on. So we “unfortunately” decided we’d “have to” come back next year when he’s tall enough.
On Saturday morning, we stopped by a local farmer’s market just a few blocks from my sister’s apartment. We grabbed a couple things for dinner and checked out the array of tropical fruit that’s not so readily available in Chicago.
It was really great to wake up when we woke up, have a relaxing breakfast, and not be on any specific timetable to rush through an over-scheduled itinerary. At his age, that certainly would have ended in meltdowns.
By staying local, for the most part, we had more opportunities to relax, take nice walks, spend quality time together and ensure we didn’t spend half of our short vacation traveling from place to place.
It also saved us quite a bit of money foregoing all the spotlight activities and focusing on just one or two for the trip.
I know it sounds a bit counter-intuitive to spend money on the plane tickets and use the vacation time from work and then not take advantage of all the area has to offer. But I really think highlighting just a couple of the top hot spots makes the whole trip so much more relaxing and enjoyable, just as a vacation should be.
T also took these shots of me (photographer already in training – ha) as evidence that I may have borrowed some clothes from my sister while we were there. The thrifted boots and jeans came from Salvation Army in Chicago. But I scored the shirt from her closet. In a likely ‘over-ambitious’ packing mode, I brought with me a couple dresses, some shorts and all short sleeve shirts and tank tops. I know I was in Los Angeles, but it’s still February… live and learn.
Remember when I told you about my Kelly Moore bag that’s been my go-to as a purse / camera bag / kid’s bag. It was back in action and perfect for our plane rides, layovers, and day trips in Los Angeles.
T’s eyes lit up when we passed this fire truck on our way to another park in the area. He already had my camera in hand, so I encouraged him to shoot away and capture what he loved.
Choose Meals They’ll Love, But With Discretion
Yep. That’s Donut Friend. That was breakfast Sunday morning, sort of. It was really “breakfast dessert.”
I didn’t want to spend the entire trip at fancy restaurants, which certainly wouldn’t have been enjoyable for T. But I did want to hit up a few places I knew he would be excited to try without entirely trashing health and nutrition.
For a sweet indulgence, we added Donut Friend to our itinerary. But T had to “earn” his donut by eating a healthier scrambled egg breakfast before overdosing on straight sugar. Not only did that prevent the sugar rise and crash, but it also meant we showed up at the donut shop a little later when it wasn’t so crowded. That’s a win on both fronts.
(Confession: I’d be lying if I didn’t admit donuts as breakfast dessert wasn’t exciting for me too, but that’s beside the point.)
Throughout the weekend, we ate a few of our meals at fast casual restaurants and made the rest of them at my sister’s place. It was great that those meals gave T a chance to slow down and re-energize while we cooked (instead of making every meal yet another big production).
If you’re not staying with friends or family, consider renting a suite with a small kitchen or checking out something like Airbnb. (Save $35 on your first booking with this referral link.) Having a little kitchen and a bit more space really helps manage a trip with little ones. Airbnb often isn’t much more expensive. And even if the price is a bit more, it will likely be offset by lower meal costs when you’re not eating out at restaurants all the time.
Stick To One Main Event a Day
On Sunday, we scheduled our one big “touristy” highlight, a visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum. I’m not a “car-geek” by any means, but this place was really neat.
T loves cars and also loves the Disney/Pixar movie Cars. We knew he’d love to see all the crazy, high end cars at this museum, including the full-size Lightning McQueen. He couldn’t get enough of the Formula One racing cars and loved the Forza Motorsports simulation.
They have a more impressive simulation than the game he played, allowing you to sit in a driver’s seat and steer the wheel, push the pedals, etc.. but T wasn’t tall enough. He was more than satisfied though with his first encounter with Xbox. This was his first video game rodeo, and he wasted no time falling in love and learning the ropes.
After our trip to the museum, we stopped by to see a friend of mine from high school who lives in the area now. Just a few hours of planned activities left Ty beyond exhausted.
When planning a trip, it’s easy to get excited and overly-ambitious. But that just seems to end in disappointment that either plans had to get changed or the kiddos were too tired to make the experience enjoyable. Consider having just a few hours of one or two activities around which to plan the day. The rest of the time can be adjusted or shifted to work around the natural and expected ups and downs of tired and unpredictable little ones.
These silver and orange cars are from James Bond movies. The Batmobile is hiding out in the back (fitting, right?). I’m the opposite of a movie buff, but it was still pretty neat to see all these cars.
End The Night at Home
Instead of racing up against bed times with planned activities or late dinners, we made sure to be home a couple hours before T needed to go to bed.
One night, my sister pulled out a small disco-ball like contraption (I’m not even sure what better word to use) and thunder sticks that light up. T thought these were the best!
For nearly an hour, with the lights off and the “disco-ball-thing” lighting up the ceiling, we rocked out to some tunes and had sword fights with the flashing thunder sticks.
Consider What They’ll Remember
When I asked T about his favorite parts of the trip, he talked about playing Super Mario with my sister and her boyfriend, pretending to battle with the light up thunder sticks, and playing with the foosball table in the courtyard of their building.
His favorite meal was the molten chocolate lava cake I made after dinner on Friday night. (I know that’s not really a meal, but that’s what he loved.)
And really, although he didn’t say it, I’m pretty sure his favorite parts overall were spending time with my sister (who he doesn’t get to see often) and being the center of attention for three days straight.
I thought he’d love the Lightning McQueen car at the museum. He appreciated it for about 10 seconds and then moved on. But that’s how kids are.
In the end, taking vacation with our little ones, especially one-on-one trips, is really about stepping out of the everyday routine and spending time together in new ways.
It’s wonderful to check out some sites and expose children to experiences they can’t get at home. But it’s really about the time together, and that doesn’t have to happen at the craziest, fanciest tourist spots all day every day.
Keep it simple, fun, manageable, and memorable.
Bonus Tip ~ Airport Valet Service
Not all airports offer it, but Chicago’s O’Hare airport and many other large airports have valet services that offer door-to-door pick up and drop off. In Chicago, it’s called O’Hare Personal Valet (and this referral link gets you a free wash while you’re away).
Instead of parking in an economy lot and lugging children and baggage on shuttles and through long concourses, you meet the driver in your own car at the departure door when you arrive at the airport. The driver parks your car in their economy lot while you’re gone, and they may even wash it for you while you travel.
When you return, they bring your car right to the arrival door at baggage claim. We took a red eye home from Los Angeles and arrived at the airport at 5:00 am. I sure as heck wasn’t carrying a sleepy three year old, a rolling bag, my carry-on, and a car seat back to an economy lot after overnight travel.
They manage timing through texts on your phone. I waited four minutes from the time I let them know I received my luggage until my car arrived at the arrival door. It’s amazing. Seriously amazing! (And their customer service is also fantastic.)
P.S. Be sure to also check out my 12 Tips for Traveling Internationally with Toddlers. We’ve taken our boys all around the country and, on a few occasions, around the world. Be sure to read these tips for some helpful ideas to make your next air travel, especially across international borders, a success.