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Big family trying to see too many sights every day
A Day Spent on the Move.  Our Big Family in Barcelona's El Prat Airport.
One lesson we learned the hard way is:  if traveling with young children, stick to the One Thing Per Day Rule.  In this post, we'll explain why...

The Reason
It's tempting when visiting any place for a short time to try to see and do "everything."  But kids, and even the adults accompanying them, will get tired faster than you might think. And it always takes longer to get some place and get back than you might think, when traveling.

By following our One Thing Per Day Rule, you can avoid having the kids become tired, cranky, or inconsolable while you're out. (It works for the parents too!)

How it Works
The One Thing Per Day Rule says that a big family, especially one with young children, should attempt to accomplish no more than One Thing per day.

What might count as "One Thing"? Going to an archaeological site. Or, going to tour a castle. But, if you go to that site and also tour a castle, all in one day, that's Two Things. And depending on the age of your kids, you might be asking for a meltdown. For us, One Thing might be:

"Going to the museum." But let's break that down.  That means

  • Walking from the apartment to the metro station
  • Figuring out how to buy tickets (kiosk or agent? cash or credit? cash only? Where's an ATM?)
  • Finding your train and getting everybody on board when it stops for 20 seconds
  • Making sure none of the kids get left behind or caught in a closing metro car door
  • Diligently staying in possession of your cash and camera or phone no matter how many people are standing within inches of you
  • Keeping up with the metro stops in another language while reminding kids not to lick things
  • Getting off at the right stop when the doors open for 20 seconds
  • Walking to the museum - always a longer and hotter walk than anticipated
  • Spending maybe an hour or 90 minutes at the museum
  • Walking back to the metro
  • Catching the right train to get back - Isaiddon'tlickthat!
  • Walking from the metro to your rented apartment
How hard is it to figure out the metro in Europe?
Riding the Metro with a Big Family in Athens, Greece

When you look at it that way, even doing One Thing is actually a whole series of mini-challenges, for a big family. Any step in the process can involve unexpected delays, confusion, or frustration (getting lost, or there are 6 different kinds of tickets at the metro kiosk and none seem like a simple one-day round-trip ticket, and the agent's ticket window is closed or has 10 people in line).

As they say, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich actually involves a 37-step process, depending on how you look at it!

For us, it can be One Thing to simply plan a special meal at nice restaurant, get there, order, wait for the food, eat, then come back!  And it's One Thing (on a different day!) to take a short bus ride to a tourist attraction, see that one place, then come back.  Having the special meal and going to an attraction in one day would be Two Things.

Adding Something Light & Easy
After the museum, it's arguably still just "One Thing" if we stop off at the museum cafe for ice cream. That's still One Thing, I'd say. What would be a recipe for trouble is:  when I insist on going to "the best ice cream shop in town," which may or may not turn out to actually be the best, but happens to be 30 minutes away from the museum. (Kids don't care if it's "the best" - ice cream is ice cream!)

What to do in Europe on vacation with a big family
There's Always Time for Gelato!
Getting in some good licks in Barcelona, Spain.
But try walking there, then getting lost, and maybe you find it an hour after you set out. Maybe your shortcut through the National Garden turns out not to work, because there is, inexplicably, a padlock on the gate in the middle of the day. But you eventually get there.

Then after the ice cream, which might not be much better than what was available at the museum anyway, you still have to find your way home. So when we add something small and quick to our One Thing, it needs to be in the same neighborhood, and preferably so close that we can see it!

Travel Days are Wasted Days
Are you taking a plane or train today?  If so, I'm sorry, gang, but, that’s your One Thing.  No, you will not want to go out to a restaurant after you arrive in that city and unpack, I don’t care if it’s only 2pm. Could you? Sure, sure. But would it be worth the physical and mental cost?  Probably not. Better to devote the day to travel, then rest in the afternoon. Plan some time to hang out and do nothing, after a hard day of dealing with airports or long train rides.

Squeezing in More Things
Some of our hardest travel days were from breaking this rule which we had discussed, but had not yet implemented. One time we trudged off to see 700-year-old art at the Poldi Pezzoli museum on the day of arrival in Milan, after we had already taken a 5-hour train ride that day, and had already been lost for an hour looking for the apartment in Italy. Then we went out for a special meal after the museum (train + museum + special meal in a different neighborhood = 3 Things!  Oops...). Long before day's end, we were all totally wiped out.

A Frenetic Pace
We also broke the One Thing Per Day Rule when we went to tour a castle and have a nice lake swim in Switzerland on the same day that we had just flown to Switzerland from Spain. That day we got up at 4am, and after a short flight and a short train ride (oops, that's Two Things) we arrived to the city of our destination by 930am. But since it was far too early for check-in (see this post about arrival times), we passed the time doing additional activities while we waited...

Before we even located our apartment, we had dropped off our bags at a train station locker, and rode a 10-minute local bus to the next town to tour the castle (that's a Third Thing). After the swim (a Fourth Thing), we came back to the town where we were staying, and went out for pizza at "the best pizza place in town," (a Fifth Thing that day, since it wasn't nearby but instead required a 20-minute, uphill walk to search for it...and we got there only to find a sign on the door saying they were temporarily closed that day). So we had to backtrack to another pizza place we had passed up on the way to the good pizza place. (Check out this post about whether a big family should walk everywhere while traveling.) Doing so many Things that day set us up for a disappointment later that day...

When Things Go Wrong
After all that packed into one day, we still had to backtrack to the train station to collect our bags, then go find our apartment using the excruciatingly bad directions the host had provided, which caused us to get lost, on foot, with bags, for a very long time, attempting to complete the "10 minute walk" from the train station (see this post for how we dealt with that).

By the time we finally got to our rental in the early afternoon, about an hour after check-in, our kids were confused: What day is this? Did we have breakfast yet? Is this still Spain?

So both kids and parents were just exhausted, ready to shower and collapse until dinner time. But then our biggest challenge of the day happened: the apartment had not been cleaned before our arrival, and the host was out of town. More on how we handled that little situation in a future post.

Leave Yourself Time to Cope
Before sundown that day, we were all very fatigued of being on the road and away from home. It was a Sunday so the grocery closed early, and the few restaurants in town were all a very long way away from our apartment (not far as the crow flies, but a very steep walk away - and the kids were already exhausted from being on the move since 4am). So we ended up going to bed without dinner. If we had followed the One Thing Per Day Rule, we would have had a much easier time of it, and would have discovered the problem with the apartment sooner, and would have had been able to eat that night!

Leave Time for Kids' Discoveries
If you're a parent like me who is also a major "Planner," then there is always the temptation to have a strict itinerary with every hour of the day researched ad nauseam, until you feel like you just can't stop for anything because you'll be late for the next thing.

Before each trip, I research and research and research. I usually spend way less time on the trip itself than I actually spent getting myself mentally "ready" for the trip, with lists of places to eat, and backup places to eat in case those ones are closed, and where to go and where to stay and what to do and what else to do after that.

But when you travel with young children, it's nice to have enough flexibility in your plans for there to be room for them to make their own discoveries. You're on vacation, after all - so you want to be able to say "Yes, sure!" when they ask to:


  1. Stop and play at a playground they spotted
  2. Get some ice cream
  3. Stop and explore something that you would have walked right past without slowing down

How a big family plans its schedule on vacation in Asia
Our kids spotted this play area in a mall in Thailand.
It was not something the adults had planned, but we grabbed
a bench when they asked if they could stop and play.

Following the One Thing Per Day Rule is a travel secret for making sure you and your family have a more enjoyable and pleasant trip. It leaves you some space for relaxing, for discovery, and for the dealing with the unanticipated. We encourage you to give it a try on your next trip!

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What About You?
Are you a "See and Do it All!" type of traveler, or more laid back? Which do you think works best with kids?

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