One year ago I wouldn’t have considered going on a kid-free vacation; mostly because all our family is far away and I felt too guilty asking for childcare from any of them when I already see them so infrequently. And my list of reasons went on for a mile. Then one day, while talking with my wise friend Carma, she mentioned that she and her husband leave their kids for a week every year or two and how good it is for their relationship. This caught my attention because not only is Carma the most dedicated, organized, fun mom I know, but she also lives far from family…oh and they have six (well-mannered, I must add) children! As she had many times before, Carma generously shared her genius with me and now I’m sharing it with you. Just as much credit goes to another of my parenting mentors, my childhood bestie Melissa. She joined her husband for a weeklong business trip in Europe just last year, leaving four children home. She has some mad organization skills and passed on some fabulous templates invaluable to my preparation.
The essence of the following is to organize your children’s “vacation” to maximize ease for their caregiver(s) and peace of mind for parent(s). In short, if you’re worried about home then you’re not on vacation; prep your little heart out before you leave and then let your mind take a complete holiday once you walk out that door!
Phase One (4-6 months before, if possible) of Planning your Kid-Free Vacation
- Find Childcare. Your list of people you trust to care for your children for x amount of time is individual to you. My top pick is my parents, but Lee trades vacation time mainly with her sister (who has three children). I have friends who have split time between two sets of grandparents, traded vacation time with family friends who have a similar number of children, and others who use trusted (often recommended) adult nannies. Whatever your choice, contact her/him/them very first to learn their availability. If your dates can be flexible it’s best manners to work around their schedule. Also, it’s polite to offer to pay any travel expenses on their end.
- Lee thinks that many people will not attempt a child-free vacation unless they have family nearby or can afford to fly family to them, but she disagrees with this. Before her sister moved to Virginia, Lee had been asking trusted local friends with 1-3 kids (she has 2) if they would be willing to trade days or weeks for childcare and was shocked at how many people were willing to do so. Just like Lee at that time, these other friends didn’t have family nearby either that could help with childcare. Generally, one trusts her family above all others, but hopefully you have at least one friend with whom you could trust your little ones. It may not buy you as much time as you’d have leaving your kids with family, but even a few days away without kids is wonderful for your marital relationship!
- Finalize your travel dates. Most of us have employers and very specific vacation days available, so everyone coordinate and put it on the calendar.
- Once you know your dates, pick a destination! Consider climate, bucket lists, relaxation level, adventure level….
- If international travel is your goal, set some searches on your Hopper app. Seriously, have you tried this app? It’s the reason we flew to Italy at literally half price. The Hopper searches require dates and locations, so if you know for sure where you want to go, just set a few searches from all possible departure airports. If you’re willing to be flexible on the location and just want the cheapest flights you can find, set searches for multiple locations until you see a price you like! Obviously if you’re part of a rewards system with an airline, go that route.
- If you don’t want to go far or are on a tight budget or plain old want to keep things simple, start looking at getaways within driving distance. All our favorite road trips came from National Geographic.
- Once you have a destination and (if applicable) flights, work out the details of your itinerary. Rich and I personally prefer to leave room for spontaneity; we research the highlights, but feel that scheduling every minute of each day sets one up for frustration, especially in an unfamiliar country (I learned this well living in Russia where I couldn’t read signs and business hours are a very fluid concept). However, it’s worthwhile to research whether some aspects of your trip will be better/cheaper if planned far in advance. For example, we traveled mostly by train in Italy and waited until the last minute to buy tickets. We discovered too late that if we’d purchased the intercity tickets 90 days in advance they would’ve been a fraction of the price. Like 65 Euros vs. 16 Euros. Oops. Most people feel more secure finalizing their lodging in advance, but you can always hostel, Airbnb, or VRBO the day of, if necessary! We’ve done it both ways.
- Passport, if necessary. If you’re traveling internationally and don’t already have a passport (or it expired like Rich’s did last year), get on it as soon as possible. The process regularly takes several months and rushing a passport is very expensive (not to mention risky) so do not procrastinate!
Phase Two (1-3 months before) of Planning your Kid-Free Vacation
- Get your documentation ducks in a row. **Bonus: the below underlined documents mentioned are linked to sample, editable documents you can download for yourself.** A will is always a good idea, but especially if you have small children and/or are traveling internationally. Our trip in March really lit the fire under us to get a will written; it was intimidating and required lots of decision-making and paperwork, but I felt such a weight off when we finally put that official will in our safe. These peace-of-mind details, friends, are the real key to a relaxing holiday with your partner. Fun fact: if you’re in the military you can write a will through legal services free of charge! Other documents that are a great idea (credit to Melissa Merrell): a signed Consent to Treat in case a child is ill/injured in your absence, kids’ ID kits (photo, fingerprints, height, coloring, etc.), and local emergency contacts (especially if someone from out of town is staying at your home with the kids). Next, a list of local kid-friendly outings for if the babysitter wants to get out of the house. I even wrote an instruction sheet on how to use all the electronics in my house.
- Freezer meals. If your kids are staying home (as opposed to staying at Grandma’s house) you might consider making meals (that you know they’ll eat) in advance and freezing them. My main objective here was to make life as easy as possible for my parents by reducing meal prep. I also left enough cash for everyone to eat out every meal if they felt so inclined (in this case the freezer meals aren’t wasted because I don’t have to cook during recovery week). I originally planned to make eight freezer meals all in one day, but realized making double portions of our favorite meals throughout the month was more realistic for me. Then I typed up a corresponding dinner menu with suggested sides for my parents’ reference.
- Set up play dates and arrange rides to extra-curricular activities. This one also only applies to kids staying in your own home with the sitter. I set up morning play dates away from home for my oldest son five of the eight days. Why? Because spring break and more than usual time to fight with brother. Because I didn’t want my parents to never come back. I contacted the mothers of my son’s closest friends, asked if/when they were available that week, and requested that I be able to return the favor soon. I printed out a calendar of a week and wrote every detail of the play dates for my parents: name of child, name of mother, mother’s phone number, address, time of play date. Do the same for sports practices and lessons, if possible.
- Purchase any new distractions for the kids. In our case this was an age-appropriate workbook to keep Jamie occupied while out of school for spring break, a set of four kids’ card games since our son is just getting into cards, and a few snacks they like and don’t usually get. I know some parents leave gifts, such as books, for the children to open each night and feel loved; we aren’t those parents, but it sounds nice. While I was at it, I also purchased gifts to thank my parents for sacrificing their time (and probably sanity) to care for my children. Books and movies to entertain them while at my house, a babysitter one night of their stay in Texas so they could go to a famous local restaurant and dance hall, and then a local getaway for after they returned home.
- Preliminary packing list (mainly to see what you may need to purchase before your trip). First, I recommend searching the Internet for suggested packing lists for your destination. After you’ve synthesized all that information make your list. I love Trello for this. I made an “Italy” board with a few lists and cards under categories such as “toiletries,” “clothing,” “accessories,” and “electronics.” I do this for a few reasons. 1) I tend to panic if I have to remember everything as I’m packing and inevitably forget something, so this gives me time to remember things and add them to my list long before departure day. 2) The list really helps me recognize where I can consolidate to encourage minimalist packing—packing no more than a carry-on is our goal when traveling to multiple cities in one trip (and yes, we did just that for Italy). And 3) a list lets you see far enough in advance whether you need to make any purchases. From my Italy packing list I concluded that I was lacking a leather carry-on bag, silk scarf (Ebay), leather booties, and mini shampoo bottles. Plenty of time to shop! (Yay, says Rich.)
- Schedule hair appointments, etc. Anything you want done right before you leave and don’t want sneaking up on you.
- Notify financial institutions of international travel. To avoid any unpleasant inaccessibility to your bank or credit cards when you need them most, you must notify each institution of your destinations and dates before you leave the country. So it doesn’t look like your cards have been stolen. I found this process surprisingly quick; just searched the website of each credit and debit card and filled out a teensy questionnaire about my upcoming travel. I learned I could do this up to a year in advance.
- Research your communication options. If you’re leaving the country and want to stay in communication with your children’s caretaker this matters. Not long ago it meant swallowing outrageous roaming fees, but now cell phone companies have great options for seamless international mobile service. We have AT&T and went with their Passport add-on, if you’re wondering. Ten dollars a day only for the days you use your phone out of the country. We just used one phone for the week, mostly for Google Maps. Did you know, by the way, that you can push the little bus icon and it will give you the closest bus stops, routes, and bus numbers to reach your destination? We conquered Rome with this feature. Take that, Caesar.
Phase Three (1 week before) of Planning your Kid-Free Vacation
- Write a detailed kids’ schedule for each day you’ll be gone. If events like bedtime routine are the same each day, write it on each day anyway. With kids as young as mine (a newly weaned one-year-old), things are constantly changing so I decided to wait to write this until the week before our trip. If your kids are older you could do this step much further in advance. Again, I was trying to make things as easy as possible for my parents. If they ignored the whole schedule I would never know, but if they were ever stuck they could find answers in the schedule!
- Compile all relevant documentation for the caregiver’s convenience. My binder included the following: kids’ hourly schedule (one day per page), play dates schedule, soccer schedule, local kids’ activities/outings, chores, favorite time-filler activities, consequences for fighting, dinner menu, lunch favorites, favorite smoothie recipe, how to use electronics, important phone numbers, consent to treat, child ID kits, how to claim life insurance, will/personal property memo, passwords.
- Load up and charge your Kindle. Or buy/borrow real books. I generally prefer holding a book in my hand, but like I said, I’m a minimalist packer so only eBooks travel with me. Since I prefer to borrow them from the public library I can only do this so far in advance; can’t have them expiring in the middle of vacation!
- Check the forecasted weather at your destination; make any necessary adjustments to your packing list. For example: no rain forecasted, so leave the umbrella home.
- Laundry. Obviously do your own laundry to facilitate packing, but also do the kids’ laundry. Enough clean clothes to last the duration was another way I could ease my parents’ burden.
- Pack your bags. Hopefully this is a quick, calm process using your handy Trello list made long ago! If the kids are staying somewhere besides home, pack their bags too.
- Grocery shop. Your freezer meals were done last month, but grab all the remaining fresh groceries for the upcoming week. Forget manners—it’s downright cruel to ask the babysitter to take all the kids grocery shopping.
- Clean the house, if you’re super human and still have time. If you’re this organized and disciplined, I don’t even want to know.
If you’re thinking at this point that this is all far too organized and uptight for your own kid-free vacation, let me reassure you: I’m not this organized either. I even complained to several friends the month before our trip that all this planning was unnatural and irritating. But I am telling you it’s so very worth it. Continually repeat to yourself that if there’s anything you can do to make your precious getaway more carefree then it’s worth it. Because it absolutely is. Our very first kid-free vacation was all but flawless because I left all my worries at home, turned my phone off, and relished in my freedom and husband’s attention.
Let me know if you have anything to add! Mostly for my future reference.