The beauty of a family vacation is that you can be the master of your own destiny and get some much-needed play time together. However, it’s not always easy with kids when they’re hungry, bored or because you haven’t packed a favorite toy, sweater or snack. But fear not. With a few tips and a little extra preparation your entire family can enjoy time away from their regular routines and come back refreshed, connected and with some wonderful memories.
After clocking hundreds of travel hours with my family in tow, here are a few of my top family travel tips for this year’s trip.
Start with a plan—but be flexible. No matter where you’re going or how you’re getting there, it’s always helpful to have an idea of what you'd like to do when you arrive. But remember, things rarely go according to plan, especially when kids are involved. So build in some flexibility and be prepared to change your plans on the fly. Travel is a great life lesson in embracing plan B.
Choose your destination and lodging wisely. Take into consideration the ages of your children, their interests, and any medical conditions that may need to be addressed when choosing a location and hotel. Having easy access to a drugstore or supermarket will alleviate a good deal of your family travel challenges.
Plan your itinerary and admission tickets in advance. Map out what you want to see and do each day of your trip, considering the needs and interests of all members of your family. Allow each member to plan and research a part of a day and aim to have something for everyone to look forward to. If you’ve got teenagers, make sure there’s some speed or adventure in that itinerary as well as a little solo time without parents. Whenever you can, buy tickets in advance to cut down time spent waiting in line. In most major cities CityPASS allows you to buy advance tickets to major attractions at an average 40 percent discount.
Keep everyone fed and hydrated on a budget. Hangry children are cranky children, so make sure everyone has had a good meal before embarking on your travels. It’s also a good idea to pack snacks and drinks for the journey so no one gets too hungry or thirsty enroute. Supermarket stops whenever possible will help curtail crazy travel spending of $4 for bottled water and $6 snack bars at parks or airports. I always have a bag of fresh snacks around in the hotel room to avoid late-night minibar fees.
Pack wisely, and plan in laundry time. When packing for your trip, consider what everyone will need and try to pack light. Choose accommodations that offer access to laundry machines. Doing laundry can often be a lifesaver and make packing much easier. If you’re going on a road trip, consider one large suitcase (this has worked out well for us on numerous road trips) for all to cut down on the quantity of bags to schlep. Use packing cubes for everyone (give each person a different color) and label them in advance.
Take photos early. When you get to a new location and feel fresh and fabulous, take a few great photos. You'll be much happier snapping shots at the start of your trip when you get everywhere rather the end of the day or end of trip when people start to look and feel a bit more exhausted.
Try to book a hotel with a pool. It will really help the activity level for kids, and it’s a perfect way to unwind after sitting for so many hours during a travel day. I’ve been known to join my kid at 50 to 60 degrees just to shake off the journey. Extra adult happy points for hot tubs, and teens will often be grateful for a gym.
Book a hotel with breakfast included. A hotel with breakfast included is a family travel non-negotiable for us. We can’t start any adventure on an empty stomach. Any buffet is fine, we just don’t want to have to start the day negotiating where to eat and sitting in a restaurant. Any sort of easy grab-and-go buffet will be able to satisfy even the pickiest eaters and give adults a moment to fill up with essential amounts of coffee.
Embrace the silly, the absurd, and the ridiculous. Family holidays should be fun, and many times kooky can win the day. On our holidays we have explored many places that have amused us for different reasons. We have seen the largest Paul Bunyan statue, the largest potato chip, and have even driven through the world’s largest tree (it was an eight-minute destination, but it was memorable). The bed and breakfast where we once stayed during a road trip turned out to also be a Pokemon Stop, and our son was thrilled. We’ve also visited some ridiculous local museums in our time and bought many silly mementos that we love. Who doesn’t want to dig into a box of chocolate candy shaped like bear droppings?
It can be easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of travel, but try to slow down and enjoy the journey, especially if you’re traveling with young children. Take time to explore your surroundings and just soak up the experience of time together. After all, that’s what travel is all about! Also, bring a blanket and prepare for crash landings. Travel can get exhausting, and kids can fall asleep anywhere, so just incorporate it into your plan. Wherever you stay, remember to play. That’s what the best family memories are made of.