traveling vs. vacation

Hello! I know I’m late to the party, but I’m here. Kind of. Which is not the normal for me – I am not one of those fashionably late girls. Fashionable nor late. I arrive to parties within 10 minutes of the start time (never early, how gauche!). I bring good wine and usually some delicious appetizer. But here I am, without wine or food. Sorry. I have a really good excuse. I was in Italy for 5 weeks with my family. Yes, you read that correctly. FIVE weeks, with a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. And my long-suffering husband. We will get to that later, but long story short, I was working for about 2 weeks, and 3 weeks were traveling. So, let’s take that last word and expound upon it, shall we?

Recently, the illustrious blog coauthors were having a conversation, trying to find a time to meet for brunch (why isn’t this easier?! Oh ya, never mind) and brainstorming some future post ideas. Kristi mentioned vacation (check out her 4-part post on vacation). I jokingly said, “what’s a vacation?” She appropriately responded with a shocked “what?! You just got back from a 5-week vacation.” I laughingly said we were most definitely not on a vacation. Vacation and travel are VERY different; she was not convinced, thus I said I would write about it. So here we go…

Vacations and traveling are two very different things. My family is lucky to be able to do both; and both are important for families for different reasons. Vacations are a relaxing (or as relaxing as you can get with small children) break from your normal routine. They are more of your “lay on a beach, no cares, no cooking, everything is EASY,” type of deal. Vacation is an all-inclusive resort or spa, or a cruise ship where a majority of the essentials (lodging/food/basic itinerary) are taken care of for you. It can also be a quick weekend to a hotel near a winery or mountain town, where you can decompress, maybe hike or ski, and eat good food.

Our Mexico beach view

Sounds delicious doesn’t it? My family tries to do one or two of these trips every year. For us, they are short – 3 or 4 nights. We do a vacation in January to Mexico for about 4 days. Lay on the beach, eat good food, just relax. Perfect break from our routines, work, and rules. Before kids we occasionally stayed in all-inclusive resorts. Now we rent a small bungalow on the beach and it’s perfect. We also try to go to our favorite Colorado mountain town, stay in our favorite hotel (the off season is the only time we can afford it!), swim in the pool, enjoy the scenery, and eat ourselves silly at the monstrous hotel breakfast buffet (really, it’s that good).

These are vacations. Ok, so some parents say any trip with young kids is NOT a vacation, but that’s probably for a different post. Let’s refocus. Sara, we think we understand what you mean by vacation, so what is traveling? I’m glad you asked, faithful reader.

Traveling is something my now husband (of 10 years this year! Yay us) and I have done together for over fifteen years. Traveling is living in another place, sometimes for a short week or ten days, sometimes for numerous weeks or a month. It means renting an apartment, villa, or house (or in our case, even a tent). For us it usually means off the beaten path Europe, but we’ve also traveled through India. You get to know a place. You shop in local stores. You get into a regular groove and routine. You cook. You do laundry. You find delicious neighborhood restaurants. You visit as many interesting historical and cultural sites as you can handle (this number has gone down exponentially since our tiny humans have joined us on these travels, but we still do it)! Traveling is rewarding and amazing. Getting to really know a new place is reward unto itself.

Paestum ruins, Campania, Italy (with our then 3 year old in foreground)

It can also be stressful, trying, and messy. You must navigate and figure out the language, because odds are you are not in huge tourist areas or you are traveling outside the regular tourist season (see future post on choosing time/place). You accidentally order something disgusting in a restaurant in Lake Ohrid because no one speaks English, your Macedonian is terrible, and the only translation says it is called Grandma’s Pan (I should have known better). You must take time out of your week to do laundry, because you physically cannot pack enough clothes for every day while you travel. You learn to pack a clothesline, clothespins, and detergent. You become an expert in sink laundry. You don’t pack the cutest outfits your kids own and definitely don’t worry about matching, because they will get stained and odds are a bird will poop on your drying laundry at least once on this trip. I totally get this is not for everyone, but it is for us. Skimming the surface of new places is not for us – jumping into the mayhem is.

My makeshift clothesline while we traveled the Amalfi coast.

Yes, it’s messy, but it’s also wonderful (as my two year old says). I’ll be honest – it was about 1,000 times easier before two kids. Heck one kid was a cakewalk compared to two. My hat goes off (heck I’ll give you my hat) to families who travel internationally for long periods with more than two. A zone defense in a foreign country, with three littles? Amazing. But we do it. Because it’s so worth it.

As I said at the beginning, we were in Italy for five weeks this summer. Even though we have spent a great deal of time there, including living in Florence for two months, I still feel like we are scratching the surface of this amazing country.  We don’t vacation there, we travel. Our trip included 2 weeks of me teaching and leading a study abroad course for 6 university students, while my husband hung out with the kids during the day. This experience was extremely rewarding but also completely exhausting (did I mention I had major surgery one week before we left and couldn’t lift more than 20 lbs for 3 weeks?). The remaining three weeks included some early down time in Vernazza, then two weeks in Sardinia. Traveling this time included: exploring a completely new place – Sardinia; adjusting on the fly at 11 pm when the apartment in the old town did not in fact have parking; dealing with a full-scale meltdown in a grocery store; locating and decoding a Florentine pharmacy when a bug bite turned dangerous; cooking usually two meals a day; exploring and seeing so many new sites, often when the little one would say “I thought I told you I didn’t want to see another church!”; figuring out driving in an ancient city and describing tricky turning maneuvers as “doopy-doops”; keeping two kids busy and entertained; exploring new restaurants and deciphering menus in Sardinian; and amazing beach time.

The two year old meltdown in dramatic fashion.

Traveling is really getting to know a place. It’s finding a good neighborhood restaurant and returning. It’s figuring out how to buy fruit at the local market. It’s walking the streets, learning to drive through the countryside, figuring out the local transportation. It’s seeing familiar faces at the local boulangerie. It is making a personal connection with the family or amazing single woman who owns your apartment. Waking up to the street sounds of a foreign place. Smelling the burning of grape vines in the early morning hours. Seeing an abandoned castle on the hill across the valley and driving to it, spending twilight hours exploring, all alone. Going to an out of the way neighborhood restaurant and making new friends and sharing a glass of wine. Having an itinerary, then throwing it out the window, deciding to stay 4 extra days in an apartment in Croatia, because you can.

Sardinia beach time

Now, you may have questions. The most common is: Is this way of traveling expensive? It can be, depending on what you do, but most often it’s cheaper than an all-inclusive resort and we’ve priced it to be cheaper than a week at Disney. Buy groceries (markets are great places to learn about a place) and cook a few meals at your apartment, stay away from overpriced tourist restaurants, stay in apartments outside city centers or forego the really expensive one, and be open to flying economy, and you can do this.

So, Sara, was my cruise of the Greek Islands or down the Rhine traveling or a vacation? Why? Good question, inquisitive readers. Vacation is about most things being covered for you. On a cruise, you don’t have to worry about most of your meals, and definitely not your lodging. You spend at most, one or two days in a location, always returning to the boat at night. You are doing “excursions,” but you’re not really immersed. Can you do real traveling on a cruise? Sure, in a way and on a diminished scale, but I still believe you don’t get a true feel for a place. Cruising is a great way to vacation, but it is not made for immersion in the culture.  You do get the wonderful opportunity to visit a number of places, but it is only an appetizer, not a full meal. You don’t get to see how gorgeous the streets are at night, filled with locals, all enjoying a walk, or live music, or a gelato.

Now, is traveling for everyone? Again, absolutely not. Many families only have enough vacation days with mom or dad’s job to take one short trip per year. I get that – we deal with that in our family (my husband saved up for two years to do our trip this summer). With limited days, families choose a vacation with sun, sand, and surf. They want to RELAX – they don’t much care about cultural immersion and definitely don’t want to cook on their days off. That works for them. What I argue is both ways are important for families, and children especially. Exposing your children to other cultures, languages, foods, and ways of doing things is beyond important. They must adapt to new routines; they are outside their comfort zone. They absolutely must try and eat new food. They learn history where it happened. They become citizens of the world, with their eyes open to new experiences, with an inherent love and acceptance of people. It makes them resilient, and they appreciate home just a little bit more.

Quiet streets while traveling

If you’re considering something like this, I say DO IT! If you have questions (or need help), let me have ‘em below! I have helped friends and their families with travel abroad questions. I hope to post some of those tips in the future. In the meantime, where have you traveled with kids? What did you learn? What didn’t work? What was amazing?

Share this Post


  1. Pingback: Should we travel with kids? - Juggling Normal

  2. Pingback: Sara's Completely Biased Guide to Holiday Travel, Part 1: France - Juggling Normal

  3. Pingback: Sara’s Completely Biased Guide to Holiday Travel, Part 3: Italy - Juggling Normal

  4. Pingback: JN Group Q&A: Spring Break Virtual Trips - Cruise Ships? Yes or No, and Why - Juggling Normal

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.