I firmly believe that kids should be exposed to travel as much as possible when they are young. It’s important to show our children that there is a big world out there beyond their own backyard. An appreciation for culture and diversity is best learned by seeing and experiencing firsthand the variety that this world has to offer.
I also will freely admit that traveling with kids can be a nightmare. As someone who has cried at Disney World, I know the perils of a poorly planned family vacation intimately.
As with any travel experience, the difference between a great trip and a stressful disaster lies in proper planning and healthy dose of common sense.
14 Tips For Happy Traveling With Kids
1. Don’t eat all your meals in restaurants.
Of course you will be buying most – if not all – of your meals if you’re not visiting family or friends. But even the most kid friendly restaurant can be a stressful experience for the entire family. Every meal you have in a restaurant requires at least an hour – depending on the speed of the service – of sitting still and keeping relatively quiet. While it’s important for children to learn how to behave well in public, asking them to practice such restraint three or more times a day for several days in a row is just asking for a meltdown.
Take advantage of your hotel’s continental breakfast. Order pizza to be delivered to your hotel room. Grab lunch from a vendor stand and eat lunch on a park bench. Pick up snacks or breakfast items at a local grocery store and keep them in the mini fridge. You can’t – and shouldn’t – spend your entire vacation eating on the run, but mixing it up at mealtime can make the restaurant experiences much more enjoyable for everyone involved.
2. Remember sunscreen and bug spray.
You remember to lather your kids up at home before they play outside. It’s important to be just as diligent when you’re on vacation. In fact, it’s especially important to take care to reapply sunscreen (and bug spray, if necessary) if you’re spending an inordinate amount of time outdoors enjoying vacation activities.
A sunburned kid is a miserable kid, and a miserable kid is no fun for anyone to travel with. Neither, by the way, is a sunburned adult. Make sure everyone in the family is well protected.
3. Get plenty of sleep.
There’s nothing wrong with sleeping in or going to bed early on vacation. If you have kids, I would encourage it. Kids need plenty of rest whether they’re getting it in their own beds or in a sleeping bag. Try to stick to their regular sleeping schedules as much as possible. If a special event calls for a late night, allow time in the itinerary for everyone to catch up on sleep the next morning. If you’re traveling with kids who still require nap times, make every effort to allow for midday rest.
4. Don’t over schedule your vacation.
Children are walking X factors. You never know what will come up when you have little kids around. Having an itinerary with every minute planned leaves no room for adjusting to the unexpected things that will come up. Give yourself plenty of wiggle room in your schedule to allow for the unplanned detours you can’t avoid.
5. Plan for free time.
While I don’t believe in scheduling every minute of your trips, I do think it’s important to make sure you give yourselves downtime. Give the kids a break and time to run free. Making sure you’ve left room for unstructured play will keep everyone’s stress levels at a minimum.
6. Look for kid friendly lodging and restaurants.
When you’re planning your family vacation, look for hotels and restaurants in the area that cater to kids and family. A relaxed environment will set the tone for your entire vacation. The less often you have to force your kids to sit still and be quiet, the better time they – and you – will have.
7. Give everyone enough room to sleep comfortably.
I have forgotten this tip more times than I care to admit. In my efforts to save a buck, I have repeatedly booked rooms that were too small without enough space for everyone to sleep. I’ve told myself “they’re kids! They’ll be fine! The little one can sleep with us!” And every time I regret not booking a larger room with a pullout couch.
As I’ve already mentioned, it’s crucial that everyone gets enough rest. That means making sure no one is sleeping with a foot in their ribs all night or complaining about being shoved out of bed by an older sibling. Some kids are used to sharing a bed and do just fine, but be realistic about what you’re asking everyone to endure each night of your vacation.
8. Find the local parks.
We’ve already discussed the importance of free time. A great place to enjoy some free time is a local park. And by free, I mean it doesn’t come with a plan or a price tag. There’s no line for the swing set and no one is selling souvenirs at the bottom of the slide. Your kids will get a chance to run, climb, jump and yell without anyone harping on them to settle down.
Sure, you probably have a park you can go to back home – but little kids love trying out new parks! You don’t have to worry that they’ll be bored by the familiarity. A local park should be at the top of any “attractions to see” list for a well balanced family vacation.
9. Don’t over pack.
The moment I dread the most during a family vacation is the walk to the airport terminal with two kids in tow, three bags in my hand, and two backpacks on my shoulder. I’m tired, my back hurts, and I’m definitely at my most irritable. An irritable mother creates irritable children.
Traveling with kids certainly requires more packing than traveling alone – but be careful not to overdo it. Get backpacks or mini suitcases that older kids can help with (even my 4 year old carries her own books and games in a tiny backpack in the airport). Do whatever you can to pack compactly, remembering that whatever you bring will probably have to be carried by you – and you alone – at some point in the trip.
10. Ask for everyone’s input – even the children’s.
The key to a successful group vacation is to make sure everyone is getting to do something that’s special for them at some point. It’s no different when you’re traveling with kids. Getting kids involved in the planning process will instill a sense of ownership about the vacation. They’ll be more likely to take responsibility for doing what’s necessary to make it a successful trip.
11. Have a morning meeting about the plans for that day.
Kids behave best when they know what to expect. Each morning before you head out, spend a few minutes going over the day’s plans. Recap what you’ll be doing and what order you’ll be doing it in. You don’t need to hand out timed itineraries and coordinated watches, but a general idea of what’s coming next can go a long way towards giving your kids a little bit of the structure they’re used to.
12. Don’t take a vacation from discipline.
You’re not being a mean parent by insisting on good behavior – even when you’re on vacation. Boundaries and consequences are just as important on the road as they are at home. A deserved timeout issued early in the vacation can head off continued breakdowns in behavior for the rest of the trip.
13. Plan for a rainy day. Or two.
Most of our family vacations seemed to be centered around getting outside and enjoying Mother Nature. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is even less predictable than children. Before you leave, be sure to scope out local attractions that can be enjoyed if the weather takes an unexpected turn for the rainy or cold.
14. Avoid unrealistic expectations.
The number one obstacle between you and a great family vacation is the desperate hope that you all have a great time. A great time. A perfect, wonderful, memorable time that would make Norman Rockwell proud.
Relax. Chances are that something will go wrong and at some point someone will cry. That’s OK. Let go of the idea that everything has to go perfectly in order for you to have a successful vacation. Ultimately, a great family vacation is about spending time together and experiencing new things with one another.