10 Tips for Taking a Vacation During the School Year

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It may come as a surprise, but my daughter misses very little school to travel. In fact, last year, I pulled her out for 5.5 days. And the half-day is because I read the school calendar wrong and thought Veteran’s Day was on a Monday when in reality it was Tuesday.

With creativity, we travel during school holidays and occasionally take trips on our own. I took a bucket-list trip to Germany’s Christmas markets while my husband held down the fort. Then, he took a trip to Central America while I kept things running at home.

I often feel paralyzed by the school calendar when it comes to planning trips, but in reality there is plenty of opportunity to vacation during the school year without missing school if I plan and execute in advance. Here are some other tips that have worked well for us in reaching a compromise between the school, ourselves and our daughter.

1. Find Out School Policy

This goes without saying that you should research what your school and school district absence policy is. What parents do after the fact is entirely their business, but I am of the mind that if I don’t respect these policies then how can I expect my daughter to?

2. Look at the School Calendar Well in Advance

Toward the end of the current school year, the following school year calendar may be posted on the district site or elsewhere. Make a note of every single holiday and/or minimum day as soon as you can. Then start thinking about the types of holidays that you can schedule during these days or partial days off and be prepared to execute.

3. Plan Travel Well in Advance

As someone who is notorious for impulse travel, this remains difficult for me but it is the wisest way to vacation during school holidays. Book travel that overlaps school holidays as soon as possible—even a year in advance—to avoid accommodations selling out and inflated airfare.

As an example, you’d think that six months ahead of time, I’d be able to book my accommodation of choice in Beaver Creek during President’s Day weekend. Wrong. The entire property is fully-booked.

4. Plan to Pay Peak Rates

If you like to travel but don’t want to pull your kids out of school to do it, you may have to pay high season rates. I take a deep breath and embrace it.

We went to New York City during the holidays last year and while the hotels were operating at eye-watering rates, the experience of ice skating at Rockefeller Center and magic of New Year’s Eve there was so worth it. And, my daughter didn’t miss a single day of school.

5. Consider Taking Kids Out on Contract

Our school district allows kids to vacation while on what is called a “contract” if the scheduled absence is five days or longer. I do not like traveling to Hong Kong (where she was born) during the summer  because it is so, so hot. Instead, I take these five days around spring break to create an extended holiday.

Last year, my daughter’s teacher arranged for five days of school work to be taken with us, which my daughter studiously did for blocks of time here and there while on on the plane to Hong Kong or in our fabulous luxury hotels. Everyone wins this way. The school and school district are happy and my daughter doesn’t fall behind at school. Plus, this gives her something to do during downtime.

We completed it all and returned on the day she returned to school with no issues.

6. Work with School Staff

We, probably like you, have had teachers who support learning outside the classroom (travel) and those who don’t. And, both sides usually have good arguments proving their points.

Reasonable people disagree, but these are the people that you have made responsible for your child’s education while they are not at home. Move them to a different school or homeschool if absence due to travel is heavily conflicting with school policy.

I am told (by friends who are teachers all over the country) that there is a problem with children not completing assignments sent with kids who are missing school due to vacation. Then, the teacher is often forced to catch the child up during class time. Don’t be that parent. Make sure the work gets done and isn’t disrespectfully rumpled because it was shoved in a carry-on.

7. Give Advanced Notice

Of course, sometimes things happen and you need to pull your child out of school at the last minute. In the event that you can plan in advance, let all parties involved know as soon as possible so that they can plan accordingly. I find that as my daughter gets older, there are group activities in class or things due that need to be planned around.

Even though we pull our daughter out of school to travel less than most, I always lob in a conversation with the teacher during fall conferences that travel is a part of my work and important to our family because my daughter was born in another country that is a huge part of her self identity. Managing expectations in advance can never hurt.

8. Consider Your Child’s Wishes

If there is a particular day at school with a certain activity that your child loves, do your best not to miss it. In Kindergarten, my daughter had book buddies with a second grader every Friday that she absolutely loved. As inconvenient as it was, we did our best not to miss Fridays at school for that entire year (which was a drag, admittedly).

The one time I missed an assembly that she really wanted to attend because of a family vacation, I heard about it throughout the entire trip. It was so not worth it.

9. Don’t Be Selfish

Just because you want to travel (and, I do), doesn’t mean that your child always wants to. And, I suspect this becomes more of an issue as kids get older.

Also, be careful with how you present your vacations to other parents. You never know who might feel that multiple absences for travel are an abuse of the system, especially in public schools.

Not being selfish also means moderating discretionary travel for mom and dad which can be painful, trust me.

10. Add an Educational Piece to EVERY Trip

This is something we, like many travelers, make an effort to do regardless of where we’re headed. My daughter was born in Hong Kong but every time we go I can find more age-appropriate, educational things for her to do. We made our first trip to the Big Buddha last spring and found new-to-her museum. Next time I think I’ll take her to more temples and perhaps the UNESCO Geoparks.

The brilliant thing is with apps and travel books geared toward kids, drumming up tidbits of knowledge to chat about during a family vacation is easier than it used to be!

Taking a family vacation during the school year? Here's how we minimize school absences and keep up with school work when traveling.

Final Thoughts

There are brilliant people all over the world who for one reason or another did not have the opportunity to travel as children. And, of course, there are those who benefitted tremendously because they did. Remember that global citizens can be raised with good parenting close to home or afar. Either choice you make is likely a good one for your family.

Do you pull your kids out of school to travel?

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8 Comments

  1. August 25, 2015 at 8:34 pm — Reply

    I have four school aged kids in grades 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 7th. We do pull our kids out of school and actually quite often. With such a large family we cannot afford peak rates so we do independent study (our version of taking them out on contract it sounds like).

    We do make sure there are additional educational experiences on each trip. The biggest benefit I see is in family bonding. Being an adoptive family bonding is HUGE and travel has really brought us all together.

    My kids are all honor roll students and missing school really hasn’t been an issue. Although, they are now trained that airports and airplanes are times to cram 😉

  2. August 23, 2015 at 8:36 am — Reply

    My oldest just entered Kindergarten and I’ve been stressing about this for a year, especially since my sister planned her wedding on the opposite coast for a Friday in late September.

    After researching, we found a charter school that starts early, ends late, and closes 4 weeks in December. Also it has long days Mon-Thur, but half day every Friday. I knew this would allow for weekend trips and trips to India in December. It would also allow for long travel when most schools are closed.

    In addition, they also have an independent study policy for 3 or more days. I talked with parents and the principal and both encouraged us to take my son our for the full week of the wedding, convinced time with family and learning at home to the history rich places we are going would be better for him. Right then and there I knew I was going to like this school.

  3. August 22, 2015 at 3:57 pm — Reply

    I appreciate that the general theme of this post is Respect. Respect for teachers, who are responsible for results whether kids are in class or not, regardless of the reason. Respect for administrators, who typically don’t make the rules, but need to enforce them, regardless of the reason. Finally, respect for kids who love to learn and have other interests outside of travel.

    My husband is a school administrator. Most attendance rules are not made for families who pull their kids out of school for enriching experiences like travel. Even then, it is difficult to replace attendance at test time. Whether the child takes work on vacation or makes it up afterward, it usually makes extra work for the teacher.

    We still take our kids (and my husband) out of school occasionally, usually piggybacking on school breaks and weekends. We have learned that it’s always the off-season somewhere. My children have never had to take school work with us and have never had trouble keeping up. When they move to Jr. High and High School, that will likely be more difficult and we’ll accommodate them. We can make great family memories close to home too.

    Thanks for the tips! Will share.

    • August 22, 2015 at 6:39 pm — Reply

      Hi Allison! That is a very good point… the school staff is responsible for enforcing rules as part of their jobs. I think everyone can and should be able to relate to that in some way. I’ve seen such a lack of respect for that and it really bothers me when I see people in the travel industry especially brag about getting into trouble with the school for absence like it is a badge of honor.

  4. Beth
    August 22, 2015 at 6:31 am — Reply

    Some very good tips! The additional challenge as they get older is their sports schedules! Without fail, if they have a 3 day weekend from school there is probably a sports tournament scheduled. Finding the balance is sometimes hard. We are traveling less as they get older but we still have a blast when we go.

    • August 22, 2015 at 6:34 pm — Reply

      Hi Beth! I haven’t pushed sports for that reason though S is only 8 so I’m sure she’ll grow into a weekend obligation like that as time progresses. I am coming to terms with the fact that travel isn’t a necessity for us and will gradually become less frequent. And, I keep telling me that it’s O.K. because it really is!

  5. August 20, 2015 at 7:40 am — Reply

    This is spot on. We plan WAY in advance and I’m always the first to grab that school calendar in the spring. We plan 4-5 day trips around school holidays, inservice days, and weekends, and while I’d rather travel in the off-season, we do the vast majority of our travel during school breaks now. I figure this will only be a sacrifice I need to make for a number of years, then it will be back to travel in shoulder season for nice discounts.

    Interesting that you mentioned Christmas Markets…we just finished planning a trip to Europe I wanted to take in spring, but am instead taking at Christmas break, so the kids would not miss school. While winter was not our first choice, we will be making the best of it by re-working our itinerary to include activities that shine in December, like the markets!

    • August 22, 2015 at 6:41 pm — Reply

      You won’t regret it one bit. December in Europe is magical and it will be a trip you’ll remember over a lifetime. There are so many fantastic markets to visit. I am hoping to go back this year but am not sure!

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