Since we got married I’ve dreamed about taking family vacations around the world and how wonderful it would all be. We would create memories and laugh and eat great food and there would be lots of pictures of our beautiful effortless smiles, kind of like what people like to portray on their instagram feed. However, as a new parent I quickly learned that the picturesque version I had created in my mind, just like what you see on insta doesn't quite fit reality. In reality I had to learn how to travel with kids. First of all, the word vacation and kids don’t go together. When they are involved no matter what’s happening, it’s a trip, not a vacation. On a vacation you can go with the flow, do what you want, go where you want. That is never the case when you vacay with family. So, I could get annoyed at every turn, refuse to plan another trip as a family or figure out how to enjoy myself regardless. I chose enjoyment. I had to release whatever expectations I had before of what these #FamilyVacations looked like. Now after 7 years of traveling with my husband, son and my husbands’ parents, I feel like even though things still come up, I’ve learned some of the best ways to travel with kids.
We’ve made this tradition of going on yearly “big trip” as my father-in-law calls it together. Last year’s was planned as 7 days in Cancun, Mexico just a few weeks before Christmas. Since its taken me a minute to write this post, the same area has been in the news recently with a shark attack and some other incidents. It’s not new to hear the news referring to happenings in Mexico seeing as though they are our neighbor. My response to anyone worried about traveling in the area is to do your own research when traveling anywhere and that we can only speak to our own experience so here’s how our trip went:
Our flight left early on a Tuesday and was a direct shot to Cancun. Our first challenge came before we even left the airport. We gave our taxi driver the address to our Airbnb assuming it was pretty simple to get directions and we’d be on our way. For some reason they didn’t know where it was. With us not having phone service or wifi we weren’t sure how to search or find a better answer. Luckily within the Airbnb app even without service or internet you’re able to call your host’s number on the listing. Never before had I had to use that feature but I was grateful it was there. So after 10 minutes of figuring that out, calling our host on the app and us trusting that the taxi driver understood her directions, we were on our way.
As we drove to where we were staying more on the local side of town in Puerto Juarez and away from the resorts, it came to me we had no clue what the place looked like from the outside. We’d only seen pictures of the inside. When our driver pulled up to the building we could tell why. He announced we had arrived. “Is this what we booked?” RANG in my head. There wasn’t a door way, entry, window without bars or some form of gate attached to it. The gate around the parking lot was falling down. The building itself looked like it might be next. Thankfully our host greeted us and walked us through the process of getting in. Starting with a locked gate to get into the building from the parking lot, up a flight of stairs, then another locked gate to get to the front door, followed by the actual locked font door. But once inside we were relieved to find the exact replica of what we remember booking months ago on Airbnb. Boston even said “We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” And he was right. Relieved and with our whole day of travel finally behind us. We asked our host if she knew of a good ‘food’ place that would be open and that was within walking distance. Simple, she said, just walk straight and you’ll find the old man at his taco stand. She was adamant that we should only buy from the old man. So off we went and 5 mins down we found the old man and some of the best tacos and tortas we’ve had ever. We were ready for some delicious street food and we got it.
The next day after we had breakfast down the street from the old man at another local spot which from the sight of the packed tables we figured was pretty delicious. It didn’t disappoint. Next we headed to Playa de Chacmool. Our host said this was the nicest beach and her favorite to visit. We found a bus that went directly to the hotels and tourist side where the beaches are located. There’s signs everywhere directing you. We found Playa de Chacmool. The beach was empty. But for 2 or 3 small groups of people, it looked like we were the only ones there. At least that’s what we thought when we arrived. Turns out we were on the residential rental side, just a little ways down from the hotel side. Doesn’t matter, either side the sand and water was beautiful. There was just more people and a DJ on the hotel side. After a few hours of fun in the sand, crashing in the waves and getting sprinkled on with a short and sweet tropical rain shower it was getting dark and we needed to find the bus back to the Airbnb.
Tension definitely creeps in when you’re taking public transportation, its hot, humid and raining, you’re not exactly sure if you’re going the right direction, no one speaks the language and the sun is starting to set. But like the rain shower, it can be short lived and relief came can come in the form of the right bus and tacos. It’s hard to stay mad when micheladas are being served and chips and salsa are on the table.
Our second day we travelled to our next destination, a resort where we would meet up with Felipe’s dad and his girlfriend or as I like to call them “THE GRANDS”.
Vidanta Riviera Maya Resort. Vidanta Resort is amazing! My first impression, an exquisite resort and HUGE property. I learned later that it is the only 100% Mexican owned. It had been voted best hotel in Mexico for its decor and customer experience. It has a water amusement park onsite called Jungala as well as a Jack Nickleson designed golf course, 10 different pools, a private beach, delicious food and a full grocery store. Like I said its a huge property. Literally there’s a Disney theme park style shuttle service that takes you from building to building. If you want to get your steps in however (and get a little lost) it is a really interesting walk through what seems to be the most luxurious tree house ever built. You may even knock your head on a tree only to read a sign “we were here first” as you walk past the biggest iguanas you’ve ever seen. With everything on property you could decide to just stay on the resort grounds for your entire trip and you would have a blast. We chose to leave for only 2 reasons: 1) to visit Chichen Itza and swim in a cenotes and 2) experience this adventure park called Xplor, a real “Mexican Disneyland”.
In order to get our rest days in and also satisfy our need to do things, we would sandwich our excursion days in between our relaxing do-nothing-but-lay-by-the-pool days. Setting the expectations at the beginning made it better for everyone. We all knew what we were doing, it felt like a vacation and we got to see some stuff without feeling like we were go go go the entire time.
About Chichen Itzá - it was a 2 hour long drive from the hotel. Most people we noticed would go with a tour and by bus, we knew before hand we wanted to rent a car which allowed for more flexibility. The drive was very straight forward. There are many signs telling you were to go, just a lot of traffic due to the construction that’s going on. You drive through a lot of small towns. There’s a lot of souvenir shops and small eateries along the way. The perks of having a rental car is we could stop when we wanted. When we finally arrived at Chichen Itza and after paying our fees (this is not a free park). The grounds are extensive and the remains pretty incredible to experience. What’s left is still just a small portion of what was and we’re talking over 1,500 of years ago. You have an option to get a guided tour, at an additional fee, which we opted out of, but it seems like you would get a lot more out of the ruins with that history. There are a few plaques that give background to what you’re looking at but nothing extensive. As a historical site its pretty impressive though to just walk around.
If getting souvenirs is on your list, don’t worry then you will get all the souvenirs you desire as you walk through or on the drive up.
On the drive back we spotted a sign for an Authentic Yucatan Food. It looked pretty good so we stopped for dinner. I wanted desperately to try something I’ve never had before (within reason of course, I’m not Andrew Zimmer). I saw something on the menu called Chaya for the first time. None of us had heard of it before so we asked “What’s Chaya”. Our helpful waiter said “That’s Chaya” and pointed to a plant just next to our table. We learned Chaya is known as a “tree spinach”. So after ordering the Chaya and Queso Empanadas. Chaya and Cheese. I can describe Chaya as having a very lime-heavy flavor. The chaya is mixed in the empanada masa as well as inside with the melted cheese. It was crispy on the outside and tons of melted cheese. I can see why they might know it as a spinach but it tastes more like a cilantro. But they were big, crispy, cheesy and delicious. The chips were served with a bean dip instead of salsa which was delicious and reminded me of a Cuban plantain and bean combination. Of course everything else was really good as well: tacos, beans, chips, salsa. We were stuffed and had leftovers (which were enjoyed later that night). Having a room with a kitchen has it perks. By the time we arrived by at the hotel it was time to crash. The next day, you guessed it was spent poolside.
We needed to get our energy back because the following day would be spent at Xcaret and Xplor Amusement Park. This was the one thing we had booked before we landed.
If you’re not already familiar with the Xcaret Brand in Mexico, you’ve got to check it out. It’s a water, theme and adventure park positioned in the middle of the jungle that highlights Mexican culture and old traditions in a fun and entertaining way. It’s actually several parks that vary in their experience and activities. After initially going to the main Xcaret park a few years ago on our last big family trip where we swam in a cave. This time we wanted something faster paced so we opted for the adventure park, called Xplor. At this park you can drive an amphibious vehicle, take a raft through a Stalactite River Swim inside ancient caves, ride on a hammock zip-line into a pool and take two circuits of seven zip-lines each (2.4 mi total distance) through the jungle, which include some of the tallest in the Riviera Maya.
I’d consider it a very inclusive park, as your ticket includes entry, your safety helmet, a locker and a meal and unlimited smoothies and cookies from the juice bar. Whether you want it for lunch or dinner the full service buffet is worth it. The food was delicious and fresh. They served freshly grilled meats, and vegetables. Salads and pasta dishes, pizza, of course all of the Mexican favorites including fresh guacamole. If you’re a vegetarian they had you covered as well. We finished up with coffee, tea and a little dessert before getting to ride the hammock splash for the last time. We were all super impressed with the experience. You’ll want to bring a towel, wear water shoes and bring a water proof cell phone case.
We started with the amphibious vehicles. The car seats 4 so, Boston rode in the back, with Felipe driving and me shotgun. The Grands were in another car. But the trail goes through caves, over bridges and feels like a mini roller coaster ride.
Boston was big enough to go on the zip lines with an adult attached and the safety gear and protocols made us feel very safe. The Grands did as much as they could. My father in law actually took the zip line circuit with us and his girlfriend rode the hammock splash. It really is a park for the whole family. If you get tired there’s hammocks all over the park you can lay in.
One thing that Xcaret understands is the instagram world we live in. All around the park you’ll find photo opportunities. Your helmet and bracelet help them take and keep the pictures together. If you opt for the photo pass you can go hands free and still get all the pictures you want of your group. So when you’re zip-lining through the trees you don’t have to worry about taking your own selfie. There’s a scale the more members in your group the more you pay. For us family of 5 it was about $140 US. In the end we had about 70 good pictures of us. But again your pictures are unlimited so it’s up to you in how many you want to take.
Tickets can range, $110 to $160 for adults and $90 to $140 for kids, depending on which park you visit. When you go book on the site you’ll find there are many promotions you can take advantage of especially if you’re interested in visiting multiple parks. We booked more than 7 days in advance for just the Xplor park and got a 10% discount for 4 adults and 1 child it was about $1000.
Our last day was spent laying by the pool and getting those tan lines in for one last time. Then, that night the resort hosted a Christmas themed party on the beach. Basically, a party for the kids with a pinata, candy and champurrado, a thick hot chocolate drink that we couldn’t get enough of.
One of the perks of the hotel was that they had live music every night somewhere on site. So the last night, after The Grands and Boston went to sleep we went to a bar that was featuring a 80s band. We had a blast drinking Micheladas and dancing to Depeche Mode and Earth Wind and Fire covers. A midnight walk on the beach followed and was the perfect cherry on top of our trip.
All in all Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo was a very fun, pleasurable, and reasonable trip. We didn’t break the bank, we stayed at a very nice hotel, drove around the country side a bit, experienced some historical sites, ate some delicious food, drinks and felt safe the whole time. I felt like we ran into people from all over the world. Being able to fly there directly (booked through Southwest) with no major problems in our travel makes it a very desirable location for family trips. With all trips do your research before you book anything and with all follow your intuition, meaning do what feels right for you.
5 THINGS THAT HELP ME REALLY ENJOY A FAMILY VACATION:
1) Get a room with a kitchen. You’re on vacation and I know don’t want to cook but having a place to warm up food is a life saver when your child utters those words “I’m hungry” at 10pm.
2) Consider bringing the grandparents along. Especially if you don’t live in the same area or state. You get to build that connection and you have another set of eyes on the kids, allowing you to relax a bit more. There’s always give and take, so give just consider what the pro’s are and if they out weight the cons. We all love our parents and our kids but make it work for your own situation. (Additional rooms, staggered travel plans so you have some time before or after with just you guys, etc)
3) Do a little research beforehand (either together or on your own) and find a few family friendly excursions before hand. Have them booked in advance and not on the same day. Being flexible is key, try to find tickets that you can use on different days.
4) Get your travel gear in check. You might not have to travel with everything. Airbnb hosts are now packing their units with kid-friendly gear, cribs, strollers, playpins etc. Search for listings with more of the things you need so you can leave them at home and travel lighter. Here’s our list of the Best Travel Gear in 2023 for Parents. Biggest thing is that kids really need to be entertained. It’s always a good idea to have them pick a few of their favorite things to bring along. Looking for new toys or activities other than screen time for the plane? Here’s a list of Toys Perfect for Travel with Kids. Anything you pack will double as entertainment when you want to go out to eat, so you might want a few options.
5) Lastly and this can apply to being a parent in general. One major thing I’ve learned to do to over the years is, let it go. If things don’t work out, I just look for the light in the moment and settle there. Thank God the light enjoyable moments always outnumber those frustrating ones. Either way I try to learn as a parent and try not make the same mistake twice (or at least definitely not a third time).
Want a fun printable? A few years back when Boston was three and we were going on a long flight back East, I put together this airport version of bingo. We played it as a family while we waited for our flight and he absolutely loved it. I thought about it as I was putting together this post, so naturally I took some time and improved the game a bit. I added more options. If you’re a fan of Bingo you’ll love this playing this game as a family, just beware not to have so much fun while you’re waiting you miss your flight. Download Airport Bingo Here. Stay tuned an in-flight version will be dropping soon!
Hope you enjoyed this. Would love to hear your feedback below.