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Family vacations are the ultimate memory-makers. New places and experiences help our little ones understand that there’s a bigger world out there. Time spent together, away from all the distractions of work, school and chores, bonds us closer. When you look back on years past, do you remember the errands and the dentists appointments or that fabulous family adventure?
Sure, there will always be hiccups when traveling with children–lost loveys, airplane tantrums and carsickness have all plagued my family–but a good way to minimize the hassles is with some smart advanced family vacation planning.
WHERE TO STAY
Whether you’re headed to the beach, the city or the theme park, there are so many choices for accommodations, all with their own pros and cons. Here’s what to look for:
Hotels – There’s a lot to be said for hotel amenities such as housekeeping, room service and concierges who will help you plan and book activities. But eating at a restaurant three meals a day can get pricey and will also stuff you silly. Look for hotel rooms that offer mini fridges or even a kitchenette so you can throw together an easy breakfast without adding to your bill. A lobby coffee shop with pastries and fruit works in a pinch. Rooms with a balcony or patio are a huge plus when traveling with kids so they can play outside safely while you’re getting ready for your day. And it goes without saying that a heated pool and Jacuzzi make every vacation better!
Pro Tip: All-suites hotels give you a lot more space for a reasonable price.
Rental Homes – Booking a vacation home through sites like Airbnb and VRBO may afford you more space and a better value than hotels, plus many of the comforts of home like full kitchens and entertainment centers. Rental houses are also ideal for joint vacations with other families because you can split the cost, share the common areas and enjoy some grownup time since the kids have built-in playmates. Just make sure you read reviews so you’re not in for any surprises.
Pro-Tip: Overwhelmed by all the options? Kid & Coe curates a list of trustworthy properties geared towards families with features like bunk beds and game rooms.
Home Exchanges – Remember that movie “The Holiday” where Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet swapped their very opposite abodes? You can do it too, either informally with someone you know or by using a website like Love Home Swaps, which charges about $13/month for its services. Home exchanges let you travel on the cheap but you’ll need to do some legwork advertising your own house and preparing it for exchange–cleaning, storing valuables, providing instructions for appliances, etc.
Pro Tip: Save more money by swapping cars, too. Some swappers even agree to care for each other’s plants and pets!
All-Inclusive Resorts – One way to remove the stress from vacation planning is to let someone else do it for you. An all-inclusive resort takes most of the decisions out of your hands, plus they offer an affordable way to score a luxury experience. It’s a great choice if you’re okay with spending most of your time at the resort, but not as good if you’re hoping to experience local culture.
Pro Tip: Before settling on your all-inclusive resort, find out what the Kids Club offers. If you’d like your kids to spend some time there, you want fun, varied summer camp-style activities and not just a TV and a couch.
Cruises – Similar to an all-inclusive resort, a cruise can be an easy vacation for families because everything you need is right there, including evening entertainment. And what kid won’t appreciate an unlimited buffet with all the dessert? Choose a cruise line that caters to families (such as Disney) and offers Kids Clubs as well as babysitting so you can partake in the on-board spa or have a romantic date night with your honey.
Pro Tip: Ask your pediatrician about sea sickness remedies like Dramamine for Kids just in case.
Camping – Cooking out under the stars, toasting s’mores and sleeping in a tent can be unforgettable experiences for kids, but a smooth camping trip does require careful planning. Campsites book surprisingly early, 6-12 months out. Choose a campsite with built-in activities like hiking or swimming in a lake, and bring some analog games or crafts for downtime. If you’re traveling with younger kids, you may want to consider choosing a campground with running water and flush toilets. No judgment if you’d rather “glamp” in a cabin!
Pro Tip: Have a plan for each meal and how you’ll make it, prepping as much in advance as you can. Freeze homemade burritos to toast on the grill or crack eggs into a mason jar so they’ll be ready to pour onto a hot pan.
HOW TO GET THERE
By Car – Besides the obvious financial benefit of traveling in your own car, road trips are pretty convenient, requiring little advanced planning beyond gassing up and turning on the GPS. It’s nice to have room for extra baggage such as favorite stuffed animals and blankets from home, which can sometimes make or break a trip for a little kid. And in a car, you’re not locked into a strict time table–no fear of missing flights or long delays. But if your car trip is so lengthy that you’ll have to stay overnight en route, it might be worth considering flights.
Pro tip: Movies on an iPad can be great for passing the time, but so are children’s books read aloud on CD (borrow them at your public library) or kid-friendly podcasts such as NPR’s “Wow in the World” or “Story Pirates.”
By Plane – Somehow both harder and easier than you expect, flying with kids is always an experience, but thoughtful planning will help make it go as smoothly as possible. For the best deals as well as seating availability, book your flights 2-3 months in advance. (I use Kayak.com to compare airfares and it automatically alerts me if there’s a new, lower fare.) Avoid red eyes because there’s an expectation of quiet and with kids, you can’t guarantee that. Spend more for non-stop unless it’s such a long flight that you would welcome the layover. Choose an airline with a generous baggage allowance, such as Southwest. Arrive early to the airport and take advantage of family boarding. And finally, pack your carry-on as though you knew your luggage would be lost–all the bare essentials for at least one night.
Pro Tip: If you’ll be checking a car seat, invest in a car seat travel bag to keep yours clean and germ-free.
ADVANCED PLANNING TIPS
Use social media to gather local recommendations from friends and acquaintances. Facebook moms groups can be a great source of intel on family-friendly accommodations and fun.
Make reservations for any activities, tours or restaurants that may book up in advance. But don’t feel like you need to plan every minute of every day. Keep some flexibility in your schedule for downtime and/or serendipitous adventures.
Draft a thorough packing list, with sections for each member of the family. Save this list for the next time you take a similar trip. (I have a a folder on my desktop with “city trip” and “beach trip” all ready to go.)
Got babies? Save yourself a ton of luggage space by shipping diapers, wipes and other disposable essentials directly to your hotel. Thanks, Amazon Prime.
Consider renting bulky baby and toddler gear from a company like Baby Quip, which services many U.S. vacation spots including all over Florida. You can rent cribs, strollers, high chairs, baby gates, monitors and even buckets of age-appropriate toys. Often, the local providers will offer delivery and pickup for a reasonable price. It’s so much better than trying to schlep these items with you or survive without them.
If you’re planning to sight-see in a city, building your own custom Google map with points for your hotel, the museums you want to visit and other places of interest will help you get around with ease. Share a copy with your partner in case your phone runs out of juice!
Build excitement and interest in your upcoming trip by teaching kids about where they’re going. National Geographic Kids is a great place to learn the history, wildlife and fun facts about your destination.
If you’ll be switching time zones, bring a watch and keep it set to your home time. That way you can anticipate when kids will be hungry or sleepy, despite what your phone says.