Family travel can be so overwhelming and full of challenges for parents who prefer unique destinations instead of amusement parks and beaches. Yes, finding bed-and-breakfast inns that will welcome a child, awesome chef-driven restaurants that aren’t too stuffy for children and cultural attractions the kids won’t find boring is pretty hard. But the biggest challenge I’m discovering? It’s scheduling family travel around school.
I never in a million years thought we’d be parents who were concerned about scheduling family travel around school. Just two years ago, with our son finishing up his last year of preschool before the start of kindergarten, we traveled to Europe in May, meaning he missed the last two weeks of preschool. No big deal, we thought. Now, as he’s in the second grade, we are discovering multiple challenges to scheduling family travel around school. And I don’t like it.
To be sure, we’re not concerned if our son misses a few days of school here and there. I will always feel the experiences he has traveling will be just as important to his overall education as sitting in a classroom learning the basics. We don’t want him missing long stretches of school, but we are discovering ways to be able to travel through the school year while minimizing his classroom absences.
But that’s not the only challenge to scheduling family travel around school that we’ve discovered. Over the past few months I’ve talked to traveling parents from all over North America. I’d say every one of them has expressed some sort of shock when I’ve told them that our son’s school started back on Aug. 4. That’s right, our son is starting his second week of the new school year while many students across North America still have a few weeks remaining of summer vacation. That means travel in August is not an option for us.
For whatever reason, many public schools across the South start in early to mid-August. I guess there are some positives; Colby has been out of school since just before Memorial Day in late May. Some of my Northeastern and Canadian friends didn’t start summer vacation until late June.
But as we entered summer break and realized we hadn’t really planned our travels, we were left scrambling to cram in several trips in a small window. Throw in a couple of work trips to start June and end July, and my wife’s high school reunion, it meant if we wanted to make the trips we had in mind to make over summer vacation, we’d have to cram things in. There was a stretch this summer that saw us travel seven of eight weekends. We needed school to start back just to have a break.
How do parents deal with scheduling family travel around school? We’re still learning, but here are a few thoughts.
Use Summer Break
I’ll start with the obvious one, which is also the most expensive. Most school systems operate on a calendar that schedules at least a couple of months off in the summer. So all parents try to cram in family vacations in the warmer months. And that’s fine. Just know that destinations are more crowded and probably more expensive.
My advice is to go somewhere that isn’t as crowded in the summer. Many Mexican beaches and Caribbean islands are actually in a slower period during the summer. Of course my suggestion is to choose those Caribbean locales early in the summer break to get ahead of hurricane season.
Hurricanes do occur in June, but if you look at weather history, you’ll see that many of the early season storms develop closer to the U.S. and in the Gulf of Mexico. The monster storms that develop off of Africa and build strength over several days traveling west tend to occur in August and September.
I’m not sure if that had anything to do with Puerto Rico being a great destination for us in early July, but the rates were reasonable at the San Juan Marriott Beach Resort and the crowds throughout the city seemed to be manageable.
Use Holiday Breaks
Another obvious time to consider scheduling family travel around school and one I wish I would have used this year. I have 18 vacation days this year and not a single one of them has been used along with the built-in time off that comes with a holiday weekend. Our schools are out and I’m off work for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas break. We have no travel scheduled for the glorious three-day holiday weekends this year. And that is such a wasted opportunity.
Looking ahead to next year’s travels, we’re contemplating a few international destinations, including Montreal. I’m thinking a visit to Montreal over July Fourth weekend or Labor Day makes sense because the American holiday weekends means it won’t be a busy time to visit a Canadian city.
Trying to get a good deal or find smaller crowds in a destination like New York City, Philadelphia or an American beach isn’t going to happen on Memorial Day weekend, for example.
But as traveling parents, we also know sometimes we have to deal with crowds and higher prices to be able to travel without our son missing school.
I’ve discovered a great time to travel when prices are usually good and crowds are low is October. Our son’s school gets a week-long fall break, which takes away some of the sting of starting back to school in early August.
We have vowed to travel during his fall break every year. Last year it was New Mexico, which turned out to be a perfect time to visit. This year it will be Las Vegas. Since he’ll be out of school that means he can spend some extra time with grandma while we enjoy Sin City.
Of course everyone knows spring break and I think many of the typical Florida destinations have the spikes in prices to make a few extra dollars off family travelers.
If we travel during spring break our thought will be to go somewhere the crowds don’t think to go in mid-March. That might mean some European destination during shoulder season, or a national park where the cold weather might keep the crowds away for a few more months. It definitely does not mean I will go to a Florida beach or Orlando with every other American family.
Teacher In Service
I don’t recall having these random days off during the school year that are termed teacher in service or work days, but we have them now. Having a random three-day weekend is great for a short city break. We’ve really wanted to visit Traverse City, Mich., and had hoped to make it happen this summer. But with such a busy schedule in June and July it just wasn’t possible.
So I looked at the school calendar and discovered this beautiful teacher in service day, meaning no school for the kids, on a random Friday in September. So we’re going to take Colby out of school for a couple of days to tack onto that in-service day and have a nice long visit to Traverse City when most kids are in school, meaning the crowds will be very low during a time that the weather will also still be warm.
We won’t always do this; I mean, I still have to take a vacation day for us to take advantage of those teacher in-service days. But it’s nice to have a random three-day break from school that is not tied to holidays.
That’s about it from me. I’m not as experienced at scheduling family travel around school as other parents. We only have one child and he’s in second grade. So we’re learning.