A little strategy goes a long way when traveling with kids, so if you want to prevent a holiday in hell, check out these 24 essential vacation tips for parents
If the children aren’t happy on the vacation, no one will be. So factor them into all trip decisions: destination, style of lodging, activities, restaurant selection — the works. You’re begging for battles and a whole lot of whining if you disregard kids’ needs, interests, attention spans and (in)ability to sit still during a four-course meal and be dragged wherever you want to go. This doesn’t mean you have to spend your week surrounded by cartoon characters, eating nuggets and pizza. Instead, compromise with a vacation that’s an easy mix of playing, relaxing and exploring. The beach usually does the Trick.
Not many tourism establishments turn away business by admitting they aren’t for children. To differentiate between those that truly cater to kids and the pretenders, ask about activities and amenities that are geared toward your child’s age-group. Be skeptical, and don’t overcomplicate things. Most kids love animals, but for younger ones, a petting zoo may be more appropriate (and, honestly, more fun) than a safari. And before a child is heartbroken, ask about age minimums or other activity requirements (pools at resorts and on cruises, for example, often cannot be used by kids who aren’t potty trained).
3. Don’t Pack Everybody into One Room
Even at the most ideal destination, it’s hard to have fun if no one sleeps well. Bleary-eyed parents will always regret cheaping out by cramming everyone into a single tiny motel room. Home rentals, multibedroom condos and hotels with adjoining rooms or just partitions separating kids from adults cost more, but they’re well worth the added expense.
4. Don’t Try to Save Money by Forgoing a Pool
Kids have the amazing ability to forget about 4 a.m. wake-up calls, surly TSA agents, three-hour flight delays and their need for the vomit bag upon first splash in a hotel pool. And pools have the blessed ability to make seemingly tireless children sleep well at night.
5. Don’t Let Someone Else Pick Your Seats or Room
Always, always, always choose airline seats at the moment you book the tickets, and pay extra if you must. If you leave seat selection for later, there’s a decent chance your family will be divided into three separate rows, what with flights increasingly being sold out or overbooked. And call the hotel with room requests, double-checking your preferences at check-in, or else you may have to listen to rowdy guests exit the hotel elevator well after kids’ bedtimes.
6. Don’t Book on the Basis of the Cheapest Travel Plan
efore booking a flight, factor in nap schedules, bed and feeding times, traffic on both roads and runways, and the door-to-door duration of the trip. Saving a few hundred bucks isn’t worth it if the trade-offs are endless waits and all-too-predictable tantrums. Red-eye flights are especially risky, when even kids who are normally good sleepers might decide to fidget and cry. You should know what times and routings are less than ideal for your family, but for a little help, scout options on the new search engine Hipmunk.com, which has an “Agony” feature that ranks flights according to the best departure times and the connections with the fewest hassles.
7. Don’t Travel Far in a Short Time Period
Make sure that a distant destination is worth the aggravation of a potentially torturous travel length. If you need two days to recover from a journey, it’s probably too far a trip for a weeklong vacation. This rule goes for daily excursions too. After all, once you reach your vacation spot, the last thing you want to hear is yet another “Are we there yet?”
8. Don’t Pack for More than Four Days
Considering that nearly every airline now charges for checked luggage (Southwest and JetBlue are the main exceptions on domestic flights), it’s a good idea to pack lightly. This isn’t always possible, but no matter how long your trip is, pack only four days’ worth of clothes. Pick items that can be mixed and matched easily and that can be dressed up or down. Do laundry when necessary — most hotels offer the service, or you can save (and meet locals) by using a Laundromat in town. And if you run out of things to wear, you’ve got a nice excuse to hit a shopping center and buy a practical souvenir to put to good use.
9. Don’t Preboard
Some airlines allow parents with young kids to be the first ones to board a plane. A smarter move is to be the absolute last passengers on board. The goal here is to minimize the amount of time a squirmy, curious, potentially ill-tempered infant is stuck in a confined space. Rather than preboard, run kids around the airport to tire them out. Just before boarding, visit the terminal bathroom, which will have way more space than the plane’s for changing diapers and helping older kids use the facilities.
10. Avoid Planning Too Many Activities
Kids don’t travel with checklists, and neither should you. Your goals should be having fun and spending quality time — simple as that. One official activity or excursion per day should cut it; seek more than that and you’re asking for a meltdown. And try to maintain some flexibility, because plans could and probably should be changed according to uncooperative weather, foul moods, sleepless nights or bad sunburn
11. Knowledge Is Power
It is wise to be spontaneous and milk opportunities for goofy fun for all they’re worth. It is equally wise to know in advance the locations of nearby playgrounds, ice cream shops and children’s museums, along with hospitals (ideally with a pediatric ER) and 24-hour drugstores. Smart-phone apps like Yelp’s can help you find what you need without your searching the entire Web. And for children’s museums, try the Association of Children’s Museums.
12. Don’t Be a Dictator
When planning a trip or a day activity, ask children for their input — if for no other reason than not having to shoulder all the blame for a lame time. Consider allowing each member of the family to pick one afternoon’s activity, with the requirement that everyone must participate and refrain from complaining. Also, give children ages 2 and up their own knapsacks, with full autonomy to store whatever they want — coloring books, Super Hero Squad guys, a favorite hat, whatever. Kids won’t just be excited by making adult-like packing decisions but will also get a literal feeling of carrying their own weight.
13. Don’t Abandon Discipline and Routines
Vacations are special, so it’s O.K. to let children stay up a little past their bedtimes and indulge in the sickeningly sweet cereal that’s banned from your pantry. Too many days of skipping naps and eating garbage, however, can result in cranky kids with upset stomachs. Keep some semblance of life as Junior knew it (for example, serve ice cream after dinner, not for breakfast). The same goes for discipline: loosen up, but maintain lines that cannot be crossed. If your child starts kicking the seat in front of her on the plane, state loudly and clearly that the behavior will not be tolerated. If nothing else, nearby passengers will be less peeved because they’ll see that you’re at least trying to enforce discipline. Walking kids up and down the plane aisle can help distract and tire them out, but don’t do it when beverages are being distributed. Block the aisle and flight attendants will give you the hairy eyeball.
14. Don’t Eat Out for Every Meal
Too much fast food isn’t good for anyone, and asking kids to dine at too many restaurants may result in disaster. To give your pocketbook (and patience) a break, mix in picnics prepared with the help of local grocery stores. Request a refrigerator and microwave in your hotel room for yogurt, milk and leftovers. When deciding which meal to eat out, defer to breakfast, which is always the fastest and least expensive.
15. Avoid Micromanaging the Kids’ Souvenir Purchases
We all know it’s better to buy things that are exclusive to a destination, not the dreck lining the shelves at Walmart. But kids won’t care when their hearts are set on the new Fairy Secret Barbie. If you’re allowing kids to pick out souvenirs, set a dollar amount and then back off. Doing so will give them an exercise in financial decisionmaking and help avoid an argument.
16. Get Off the Highway
It would be a shame if kids thought the country were simply a string of fast-food chains, gas stations and convenience stores. For many families, though, that’s the entirety of the road-trip experience. There’s no denying it takes longer to leave the highway and poke around back roads, but if you’re hoping to show your children their country, you really should show them more than the generic stops.
17. Don’t Spend Too Much Time on Your Butts
Avoid extended periods in the car, on bus tours, in IMAX theater seats or anywhere else with little room to move. Kids get fidgety, as do adults, and everyone sleeps better after riding a bike, splashing in a pool or ocean waves, or just taking a brisk walk along Main Street.
18. Avoid the All-Education Vacation
Don’t you like to turn your brain off on vacation? Well, kids do. After visiting an art museum or even an interactive historical learning experience, allow them to veg out with video games or SpongeBobwhile you have a glass of wine and catch up on Facebook.
19. Don’t Stick with the Crowds
For every two days spent at a theme park, national park or beach, mix in a quiet day at a hotel pool or on a hiking trail. Doing so will be good for the soul and give your family a chance to relax and reconnect.
20. Don’t Forget the Locals
Moms and dads who live in vacation destinations are loaded with the kind of wisdom and knowledge you’ll never find in a brochure or guidebook. When you stumble upon a local parent — perhaps at a supermarket, church or Laundromat — interrogate them for information. Ask what restaurants they eat at with their kids, what time is best to collect seashells at a normally crowded beach, how to find discounts for museums and attractions, where the best playgrounds are and so on. Also, ask if they’re interested in taking their kids to meet you at any of these places for a playdate — a good opportunity for a break from nonstop parent-child bonding.
21. Avoid Documenting Every Moment of Every Day
Everyone loves vacation photos and videos. (Well, you love them when you’re in them.) But remember that your vacation is not a reality-TV show. Pausing to take pictures all the time interrupts the fun — and may even spoil it. Eventually, pointing a camera lens in your family’s face 24/7 will turn even mild-mannered children and spouses into Sean Penn ready for a tussle with the paparazzi. So stop driving everyone nuts, put the camcorder down and try to enjoy the moment.
22. Don’t Insist on Driving Everywhere
Whenever feasible, leave the car behind and use public transportation. Kids love trains, ferries and buses as well as the thrill of riding next to — rather than behind — their parents. Public transit is often cheaper and more convenient than driving (don’t forget about parking), but even when it’s not, you’ll be less stressed, have more fun and see and experience more by handing over the responsibility of navigating a foreign city to someone else.
23. Stop Checking In with the Office
Smart phones are great for finding directions or booking hotels and excursions on the fly. But technology, and the need to constantly stay in the loop, can kill quality time. If your child tells you to put down the iPhone more often than you tell him to turn off his Nintendo DS, there’s a problem.
24. Don’t Forget the Essentials
All travelers need to pack clothing and toiletries. But when you’re traveling with young kids, there are other things you need to have handy, especially if you’re about to board an airplane: snacks, crayons, a few favorite (small) books and toys, and even baby wipes and a change of clothes, no matter what ages your kids are.