My family makes trips to Santa Barbara for work and to see friends and family once or twice a year. My husband still works remote for the university and when we first moved to Modesto we were optimistic that our visits would be well-timed, quick, and fun. But we are well into the third calendar year of the pandemic and none of the trips have been very well-timed or convenient, but there have been lots of moments for fun.
I’m excited to document what it’s like to travel and do an extended stay with a young family. This is a unique type of travel because it’s not a vacation! These trips are typically open-ended, meaning we don’t know when we can return home and have to extend the stay one day at a time to fit the needs of Nick’s work. Our last two trips were 8 and 11 days long, but were projected to be 5 and 7 days long, respectively.
My partner puts in much longer hours on these trips, around 10 hours, but it’s not out of the question for him to do a 12 hour day. When working from home he works a typical 8-5. His trips might loom on the horizon for months, but we never know the precise dates until a week or so before, which makes planning really hard. (He’s had to take emergency trips solo, too, as it’s just the nature of his job.) It’s also important to remember that usually I am not solo-parenting at home, but it feels that way on the trip. We live out of a hotel room, have one car, sometimes have to keep up with school, and have had very limited access to services during the pandemic (no housekeeping and no room service).
Tips for doing extended stays with a family:
1. Buy your food from the grocery store, and only eat out when you must or when it’s been planned.
It’s expensive and emotionally and physically taxing to eat every meal out, particularly with little kids who don’t want to wait or sit still, and those with food allergies. Generally, I don’t think eating out at restaurants with my kids is fun. There, I said it. Now you know I’m not a cool mom.
Make a shopping list and a menu plan, and really be intentional about when you eat meals at restaurants. Before every trip I think about what I want to eat and where. We lived in Santa Barbara for 15+ years, so I have a lot of favorites. I think about the days/hours restaurants are open and closed (Google or Yelp are your friends). I try to plan dinners out first and then work backwards–deciding if we get takeout, eat leftovers, or get something from the grocery store.
Keep meals simple. For breakfast, we alternated between cereal or Danishes (a request I made to my mother in-law who lives in Solvang). We kept fruit, store-bought hard boiled eggs, and vegan yogurt on hand for breakfast or snack. I made and packed our lunches most days–usually sandwiches with chips and fruit. Dinners had to be low-prep and no-cook, so we ate a lot of bread and charcuterie and salad kits. I absolutely let my kids eat roast beef, cherry tomatoes, and cereal a few nights. We bought jugs of water to refill our bottles, chilled wine and beer, and too many bags of chips to count.
2. Eat your leftovers.
On the days we ate lunch out, I always took whatever the kids didn’t finish to-go. Either they’d want the leftovers for snack when they got hungry or Nick or I would eat them. Usually we ordered way too much food for dinner, whether it was takeout or at an actual restaurant, so it became leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. This only really works if you have access to a refrigerator at your hotel. On one stay we didn’t have a mini fridge and could only keep food for a day in the cooler. I do not recommend this.
Plan to eat up all the leftovers over the last couple of meals. One night we served half of a leftover breakfast from a restaurant, half of a salad kit, two cold pizza slices, a granola bar, and a bag of apricots from my in-laws’ garden. It didn’t look like much in the fridge or all that appetizing, but it hit the spot and saved us from having to go out for one more dinner.
3. Create ambience.
We made a point of eating dinner poolside at the hotel. We had a lot of picnics at parks and at the sunken garden at the Santa Barbara Courthouse. We had a decent-sized hotel room with a table and four chairs, but any place can feel claustrophobic the longer you stay, especially with kids. Also, eating outside makes clean-up super quick.
4. Be selective about creature comforts.
We made stovetop coffee in our Bialetti Moka Pot, which we discovered was the easiest coffee setup for a hotel room with a kitchenette. I don’t love hotel coffee makers because they generally make pretty weak coffee, and we didn’t have the option of getting any from the normal continental breakfast because it was closed due to the pandemic. We contemplated bringing our Aeropress or our French press or a pour over system, but the Moka Pot was the most streamlined. This may seem kind of fussy, but coffee is very important to me. And on one trip we spent a small fortune on coffee shop visits (sometimes going multiple times a day), so we learned our lesson and decided this would be worth it to pack.
5. Think ahead about all the things you need a lot to survive in a hotel with kids for over a week.
- Paper towels because you know there are going to be spills.
- Sanitizing wipes (during COVID there was no daily housekeeping and surfaces get nasty with grubby little hands touching everything).
- Dish soap, a sponge, and dish towels to do our dishes.
- Hand soap and full sized toiletries (I can’t live on tiny bars and bottles for that many days).
- Paper plates, napkins, plastic utensils, ziplock baggies.
- Chip clips (I recommend the small utility clips from Home Depot) that can be used for so many things, not just chips.
- Real garbage bags because when you’re feeding, entertaining, and changing diapers, those little tiny hotel bathroom garbage cans just won’t do.
- Repurposed produce bags for anything you want to toss in the dumpster on the way out.
- Laundry detergent and a laundry bag.
- Beach towels (I feel really weird taking hotel linens to the beach or park).
- A picnic blanket or a nice Gathre mat if you fancy like me.
- A decent sized but not huge cooler, plus personal lunch bags and ice packs.
6. Cull the kid gear.
On both recent trips we brought our portable high chair. In a hotel room this might be the only safe option if you need to contain a little one when the room is not child proofed (it won’t be). Space was at a premium in our trunk because Nick had to transport a lot of gear for work, so even though I would have preferred our own pack and play, we borrowed one from the hotel. Just remember to bring your kiddo some extra sheets and blankets. We finally bought an umbrella stroller, because it took up a quarter of the space as our regular stroller. We could have possibly let Iris walk instead of push her in a stroller, but don’t forget that little kids get tired and backpacks and purses and lunch bags are heavy, and even heavier if you’re carrying a child who collapses before their nap. Strollers can hold stuff for you so you’re not a human pack mule. A play mat that folds up nicely was a bonus, for indoor and outdoor use.
7. Edit your entertainment.
I brought busy bags for both kids and they got very little play on either of our most recent trips. The kids got gifts from friends and family plus souvenirs here and there. I could have brought way less and they would have been fine. Same goes for the adults. I knew I wouldn’t have downtime so I left my laptop at home. Nick thought he’d have time to goof off on his iPad and never once broke it out after working 10-12 hour days. I brought stacks of books, but my kids aren’t at the stage where I can ignore them at the beach or a park safely, and I was too exhausted to read at night. The only thing that has been a hero on all these trips is our Roku. You can hook them up to the hotel TV and access your regular content you already pay for and it’s seriously quick and easy.
8. Timing is everything.
I struggled with timing on our June trip because I hadn’t accounted for my youngest being uncontainable. She had just learned to climb out of a pack and play, and it wreaked havoc on our sleep schedule and my ability to shower and get ready in the morning. One day I came out of the bathroom to find her dumping a saltshaker out onto the floor and the oven turned on. I knew I had to find another way to get our morning routine done quicker so we could get out and enjoy ourselves.
Hotels and even vacation rentals aren’t typically toddler safe. I started to shower at night, and in the morning while everyone else was eating breakfast, I’d try to put on some makeup and get dressed before Nick had to leave for work. If you do have access to a car, try putting makeup on in the car after everyone is buckled in. That worked on the couple of days I got to keep the car after early morning drop offs. If you have a napping little one, build your day around the times you need to be at the hotel or if they are fine sleeping in the car, take a drive and hit up some drive-thrus or do a grocery pick-up.
9. Let people in.
This tip may not be super useful if you’re traveling somewhere you don’t know anyone, but our trips are more enjoyable when we make plans with friends and family. I met up with my parents, who had come down to celebrate my daughter’s birthday, and I had them watch the kids while I got ready one morning. Another night they stayed with our kids at the hotel while my husband and I went out to dinner. Playdates with friends also broke up the long stretches of parenting in public. I’ll never forget my friend Dessi watching my kids for five minutes at lunch while I went to use the bathroom. Alone. My mother in-law came and spent a couple days with me and the kids, and she had no problem staying in the hotel room while my daughter napped and my son listened to music on his iPad. I wandered down to the pool and decompressed for an hour.
If you’re headed somewhere you don’t know anyone, think about how you could let someone in to support you. Schedule a FaceTime date with a loved one for the kids so you can take a ten minute shower. Ask a grandparent to send a care package. Ask a neighbor to come over and watch your kids for the hour you frantically pack the car before you hit the road. Ask a friend to restock your fridge at home with basics so when you wake up the first morning back you have something to feed the family. Let people help you when you need a hand. I am still grateful to the hotel maintenance worker who saw me struggling to heft my umbrella stroller downstairs while holding my kid’s hand AND carrying multiple bags–he came over and helped me collapse the stroller and took it downstairs for me. (I learned my lesson and would take multiple trips instead of trying to get out in one go!)
10. Build in breaks.
It’s not sustainable to always be on the go. I would be so physically exhausted during these trips, so I really tried to take advantage of my daughter’s nap time to get some rest. Use headphones if you have other kids who want screen time. If you don’t have any nappers among you, might I suggest quiet reading time in the afternoon? There’s a natural lull in everyone’s energy, but it’s all about figuring out your family’s rhythm.
This isn’t just a helpful tip for extended trips–it’s nice to allow blank space in your scheduled outings even if it’s just a quick trip. Packed itineraries lead to burnout for parents and tantrums for kids. Listen to what you and your kids need. Bring coloring books and beach towels to the park and set up in a nice shady spot. It may not be your ideal way to decompress, but it may be the only option available to you if you’re away from home for an extended period of time.
I’ll be back next time to share more of the unique challenges we have as a family doing extended-stay trips and the solutions that have worked for us.