My husband and I first took a kid-free vacation when our daughter was one, and since then we’ve enjoyed many vacations with just the two of us.
It’s natural to feel some guilt about leaving kids to go on vacation, but there are a lot of great benefits to taking a vacation without the kids. It's good for you, it benefits your relationship with your spouse, and even the kids can appreciate a break from their parents sometimes.
Traveling with young kids requires tons of prep. Surprisingly, I’ve found it takes an even greater level of logistics and preparation to travel without the children. Here's my prep check list for a stress-free vacation without the kids.
1. Make a detailed information binder for your kids' caregivers
To a former project manager like me, the actions of compiling documents in a three-ring binder and ticking off lists are the stress-reducing equivalent of five minutes in downward-facing dog pose. Some parents are more laid back and some caregivers already know the daily routine, but I take nothing for granted.
Our binder includes:
- Kids' documents: official birth certificates, passports, immunization records, insurance cards
- Daily guidance: typical schedules, food preferences by brand with any allergy considerations, localized activity guide and outing ideas
- Contact information: names and numbers for our pediatrician and dental clinic, our travel itinerary, important phone numbers abroad and how to contact the people taking care of our house in Seattle
- Research: Local children’s hospitals and walk-in clinics with address and phone numbers. Also, a handy guide for when to take your child to the emergency room and tips on preparing for a doctor or emergency visit.
I also put copies of all the documentation up in the cloud so that we and the caregivers could access the information from anywhere, at any time.
2. Think about how much to tell your kids — and when
It can be tricky to figure out when and how much info to share with the kids about your trip. Obviously the older they are, the more they can understand but for some kids, focusing on mom and dad going away is distressing.
“Kids have a different sense of time,” says Olivia Rogers, a Seattle mom of two who traveled overseas without her kids. She and her husband didn’t prepare their kids much except to say that they were “going on an airplane.” Knowing their oldest child’s temperament, they didn’t want her to become anxious or worked up. “She knew what would be happening without knowing all the details,” Rogers adds.
When my husband and I traveled to South Africa, we began talking to our then 2- and 5-year-old kids about the “big adventure” they were going to have in Portland with their grandparents a few months prior to the trip. My eldest asked me how long the adventure would be and I told her 14 days because that’s how long they needed to “have all the fun.”
3. Help your caregivers stock up
Whether staying at home or going elsewhere, a little slice of familiarity goes a long way. Our kids usually stay with their grandparents in Portland. I pre-order from Amazon our kids’ favorite non-perishable snacks, diapers, wipes, disposable sippy cups, plates, storage containers, sunscreen, shampoo, bibs, medicine and other helpful items. As an added bonus, all of that stuff will be available at Grandma and Grandpa's house for subsequent visits.
4. Provide comfort items
As a kid, missing your parents is completely normal so here are some ideas to help them get through it:
- Have your kids help make a sticker chart or calendar to count the days until your return date
- Pre-record songs, stories or day-in-the-life videos for kids to access anytime on Vimeo or YouTube
- Have a few small gifts ready so caregivers can reward good behavior or soothe over tough moments
- Create ‘picture pillows’ on Shutterfly or another site. Put your loving face on a pillow that kids can hug (or throw). I loved this idea so I had one made for each of our children.
Melanie Jones, a mom in Charlottesville, Va., says “I think the kids really like things that they can access any time they want to experience it. Kids are kind of self-oriented, so they may not be in the mood to talk when you call, but they might really like to play a recording or hug their pillow when they recognize that they really are missing you.”
5. Create a flexible communication plan
While many families often video chat with grandparents or relatives, they may not enjoy it as much with their parents on the other side of the screen. Melanie mentioned their youngest son who was 2 years old at the time of a past trip became “panicked” by video-chatting with mom and dad because it was “too abstract.” So for the Joneses, daily emails and calls every few days worked best. Find out what works best for your family and stick to a plan for regular communication during the trip.
6. Get your legal stuff in order
Nothing’s pleasant about thinking about worst-case scenarios, but it needs to be done. Right out of the gate put life insurance, a will and a long-term guardianship plan in place if it isn’t already. Let your will’s executor know about your travel plans and how to access those documents if necessary. Once you’ve nailed that down, you’ve created a layer of protection for your kids and eliminated a bunch of vacation-wrecking anxiety.
Two other documents to put in place that require notarization are a medical release form and temporary guardianship form. The medical release allows the people you designate to have access to medical information and obtain non-emergent medical care for your kids. No matter what, though, kids can get emergency care.
“The Emergency Room and hospital will provide care to a minor child in the event of a life-threatening emergency without parental consent. However, a letter authorizing [caregivers] to consent to medical or dental care is sufficient in non-emergency situations,” says Amy Johnson of the Oregon Health Sciences University legal department.
If the caregivers in charge of your children are not the same people named as the guardians in your will, a temporary guardianship form gives them permission to make decisions and sign documents (like permission slips or school enrollment forms) on their behalf.
With all this sorted, you can relax and enjoy your trip!
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2014 and updated for 2019.