Time for the whole family to get away for a relaxing, fun-filled family vacation, right? Or does your vacation mean frayed nerves, child tantrums and meltdowns for the whole family? Traveling with kids can sometimes be an adventure all on its own. Not always a good one at that. Yet, family vacations, whether they’re spent at a campground, a hotel, in the mountains or on a beach, are a great way to spend quality time away from home relaxing with your loved ones. If you’ll be spending your much-needed vacation with your immediate family or even with extended family for a larger, intergenerational event, having a creative, organized plan will make your trip a memorable success.
Get the kids involved during the early planning stages and give them a say in what you'll be doing. Have each member of the family make a list of "must sees" and compare; you'll also be able to get a consensus on activities for the whole family. This serves three purposes. First, your ideal vacation may not be what your children have in mind. Give them a voice and help them see that their wants and desires are important to you. Second, it gets them involved at the very start of the planning process so they can take ownership. This will clarify expectations and increases the chances for things to go smoothly. Third, this gets the kids excited about what they will be seeing and doing.
One of the most common vacation woes is overspending or running out of money before the trip is over. Before planning any vacation, look at what you can afford, set your budget, and then stick to it. Know to the penny how much you can spend every day, and if you spend a little too much one day, plan some free activities to make up for the previous day's indulgence. If your children are old enough, give them a vacation budget for souvenirs and activities and let them manage it.
While you don't need to have your itinerary carved in stone, you will want to have enough flexibility to go on spontaneous adventures. Conduct online research beforehand to check out the events and attractions at your vacation destination, creating a rough outline of your vacation activities. If you work with a travel professional, pick his or her brain; a good agent may have a better idea of what you want than you do. Be sure to have a handful of "rainy day" activities planned, just in case. If you want to go to a popular amusement park, zoo or local attraction, see if you can purchase tickets online or reserve a spot ahead of time. Also, if you are investing a lot of money in your vacation and don’t want to lose it all, protect it with travel insurance.
Make a list of the essentials so you don’t forget something important. With all the hustle and bustle that often comes along with preparing for a vacation, without that list it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll forget something. Also, before setting foot outside the house, confirm your hotel, flight and/or car rental reservations. This simple step could save you from hours of stress later as you, and the family, try to hunt down alternative lodging or transportation. If you are driving, purchase maps ahead of time and confirm which route to take.
It's tempting to get into the "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality when packing; but unless you are flying into a remote area, you can get items like shampoo, diapers, or an extra t-shirt when you arrive. Children, especially little ones, often require a mind-boggling amount of baby gear; consider leaving strollers and cribs behind, and instead renting them ahead of time. (Hint: If the hotel doesn't offer kids' gear rentals, type "baby equipment rental" plus the name of your destination city into any search engine.)
There is no use driving yourself (and your family) crazy by trying to do everything. If you try to do too much in too little time, you’re only going to run yourself ragged. Resist the urge to over-schedule your vacation time, and always remember to allow plenty of time for naps, an extra hour at the zoo, or an unscheduled side-trip to a local attraction. Try scheduling planned outings in the mornings when kids have more energy, and leave the afternoons free for more low-stress activities such as lazing around the pool. Don't forget that vacations are about creating family memories and returning home relaxed.
Flexibility is the key when traveling with kids. Everyone will have a better time if each has a chance to do his own thing, whether it’s reading a book or hitting the beach. “Alone time” is greatly underrated in family travel planning, as is “grown-up time,” so take advantage of a kids-only movie night to share a special dinner with your special someone.
While it is tempting to toss routine out the window when on vacation, remember that most kids thrive on it. New places, food and people are exciting for adults, but often little ones can't adapt as easily to new experiences, altered bedtimes or changed eating habits. To reduce stress, try to return to the hotel for scheduled nap times or do familiar routine activities such as a bedtime story. Bring favorite toys along or that special blanket. If possible, try to keep bedtime relatively close to the normal time for youngsters, within reason, of course, after all it is vacation!
Long lines and crowds are no fun, and often make kids—and adults— cranky and stressed-out. Think about scheduling your family vacation during the off-season periods such as late August or September. However, if your vacation is at a busy time, look for ways to avoid the worst of the crowds. Fly during the week to potentially avoid crowded airports and overbooked planes. Schedule activities earlier in the mornings before the masses arrive. Avoid restaurants during peak periods: for example arrive for lunch just before noon or after two o'clock. Go left when you enter a national park, museum or other crowded venue — most people will go right. And go deep — most visitors stop at the first thing they see. This strategy also works very well in the grocery store!
No matter what you've allotted for your vacation fund, stretch it out further by looking for discount coupons, incentives, reward programs and special deals when doing your initial vacation research. Many resorts and family vacation destinations have "kids play free" programs and many tourism offices offer booklets filled with coupons. Consider bringing along DVDs for a family movie night one evening in the hotel. Dining out can be expensive, plan a few picnics and try to book a hotel room with a kitchenette for the occasional meal in.
Whether it is a long, cross-country drive or an unexpected airport delay understand that there will be times when the kids are bored out of their minds. Have an entertainment bag ready and be prepared to dole out coloring books, crayons, disposable cameras, a travel journal, or inexpensive toys and games. Plan as you will, there will be a time you will need to have food at hand, so throw in some easy-grab snacks such as individual bags of crackers or cookies, juice boxes, bottled water, granola bars or raisins. Also, have a few car games up your sleeve such as Name That Tune, 20
Break up those long drives. Keeping kids in car seats for more than 6 hours means misery. Stay with friends one night, stay at a hotel the other night, and stop at local attractions along the way. Take blankets and pillows to help kids nap in the car. Get a portable DVD player. Give kids daily playtime at parks or fast-food playgrounds.
While nearly everyone brings a camera along on their vacation, there are several other ways of capturing your special memories. The prices of camcorders have dropped greatly as of late as technology continues to reinvent itself, but if they’re not an option, consider renting one or borrowing from a friend. It’s also fun to give the kids their own disposable cameras so they can capture favorite parts of their vacation. Voice activated tape recorders make great gadgets to take along on a family vacation to record candid moments that can be saved for generations to come. Another keepsake to treasure from your time together would be artwork done by the kids. Give each child their own set of “art supplies” so that they can convey their thoughts or memories of the vacation. They could draw something they saw at the beach, or a certain ride in an amusement park, or a picture of a new friend they met on the trip. Whatever it may be, imagine what fun it will be years later get them out and reminisce about your times together.
Very few vacations go off without a hitch. The plane is late, someone left the oven on, your room is not ready, someone gets ill, the rental car gets a flat tire, the guy sitting next to you really smells. Remember to be flexible and to remind each family member to honor one another at all times.