A summer vacation takes on new meaning when there are kids involved.
No more lying lazily on the beach, margarita in hand, or meandering aimlessly along the winding streets of Venice. No more hammocks, or getting ahead on house projects by looking for home improvement services in New Jersey.
Family vacations are a different breed entirely.
Things can get intimidating quickly while sorting through flight schedules, accommodations, travel blogs, and activity itineraries. Planning a trip for three, four, six, or even eight people can make it seem like the “vacation” time is spent more like a day in the office. But rest assured— there are many ways to avoid the usual headaches of organizing family travel!
Here are some tried-and-true travel tips for planning a family vacation everyone (even the parents!) can enjoy. Follow this guide and you’ll be able to plan a praise-worthy vacation for the whole family without driving yourself up a wall.
Don’t dig in until the destinations have already been narrowed down.
When kids find out there’s a vacation on the horizon, excitement can run pretty high (understatement of the year!). Cheers may resound around the dinner table. A meatball or two may drop to the floor. As soon as dinner is over (and maybe before), everyone will be crowded around a laptop barking out ideas for vacations to India, China or Hawaii. As fun as this is, the laundry list of bucket-list vacations can feel totally overwhelming.
It’s hard to fall in love with visions of Japan and dreams of Hawaii, only to then have to choose between the two. How does one even begin to choose?
Erika Richter of the American Society of Travel Agents suggests that families narrow things down first by figuring out dates of travel, desired climate, level of amenities, and budget. Do the kids want a beach, or a theme park? Do the parents want hikes, or double-decker bus tours?
A family budget might stretch three days in Spain, but a full week in Hawaii. If there is a strict window of time available for travel, sightseeing in Asia may have to wait.
During the summer, some destinations will be unbearably hot and worth passing at that time of year. See which places work with your calendar—summer is the best time to visit Iceland, for example, where flights are inexpensive and there is a ton to see. It is not the best time to be in Phoenix or Florida.
If you can’t afford the price of most airline tickets, see what you can drive to. (Tip: if you’re taking your own car instead of renting, make sure you have your Chrysler, Dodge, or Jeep powertrain warranty so you don’t have to worry about all the wear and tear.) Camping along the way and visiting national parks such as Mammoth Cave, Indiana Dunes, or the Grand Canyon can help break up the monotony. There are also thousands of roadside attractions scattered around every state. Nothing makes a road trip less boring that some dinosaur footprints, a giant ball of twine, or a UFO welcome center.
With some basic parameters in place, specific trip ideas can easily fall into the yes, no, and maybe bins.
Plan ahead to save money and time.
Things can get a little crowded during summer months when most people (especially families) take vacations. Winter holidays are also very popular travel times, which means bigger crowds, longer lines, busier beaches, and higher ticket prices. Booking well in advance can often save you big bucks and ensure you don’t miss out on highly bespoke experiences like Maui helicopter tours or entry into popular museums and hotels.
Non-peak seasons are best if you can swing them. “If you have young children who are not in school and flexibility with dates, it is best to travel at non-peak times,” says Michael Dolan, a consultant for Liberty Travel. He offers this tip for families of all ages. “The first week of January after the new year offers lower pricing than staying over the holiday week.”
Besides getting wise to seasonal vacation strategizing, it’s also important to plan ahead when it comes to luggage. Airlines have increasingly strict rules (and fees!) when it comes to carry-ons and checked bags. A lot of travelers don’t realize that most hotels accept packages in advance, so you can mail a flat-rate box filled with necessities ahead for less than it will cost to check them.
Never be afraid to ask for everything you need.
A lot of people are averse to being “that” parent. No one wants to be high-maintenance, ask for endless favors, or be an annoyance to the hotel staff, travel agents, or other members of the service industry.
It’s important to remember these people are all there to ensure travelers have great experiences. Don’t feel any shame in asking for help—just be sure they’re being treated with patience and respect. It is perfectly fine to call ahead to restaurants in order to discuss allergies (or have a travel agent take care of this detail). Let the concierge know there will be a toddler taking a nap every afternoon at 3 so it’s best no turn-down service comes through at that time. They’ll be grateful for the heads-up!
When traveling to another country, make sure to learn how to make basic requests in the native language. It will save a lot of hassle for everyone involved.
Remember that children are involved.
Traveling with teenagers brings with it a separate set of issues, but traveling in and of itself isn’t one of them. A family with older children can fly to an island paradise, kick the shoes off, and surf Hawaii. But when kids are still in their toddling phase, things can get stressful.
It’s good to have realistic expectations when traveling with little ones. It doesn’t make sense to pack the schedule! Kids need open slots throughout the day for potential meltdowns, sore feet, naps, and snack breaks. If you have too much on your itinerary, you might end up overwhelmed when dealing with the unexpected. Set your expectations low and be ready for plans to change.
When it comes to children’s tantrums on the flight, Richter suggests utilizing as many distractions as possible to stave off scenes.”Blue painter’s tape works wonders on planes. It’s cheap, easy, and it doesn’t ruin any surfaces!” The tape can be used to hang an iPad on a seatback, or given to a child to play with by sticking it on various surfaces and pulling it off. Easy distractions like this can keep kids quiet (and, importantly, happy).
Family emergencies can be avoided by taking photos of children every morning. That way, when you’re touring places to see on Florida’s Gulf Coast and get separated, you can show their photo to the police or theme park staff. It doesn’t hurt to take a photo of your parking spot, either, so it’s easy to find at the end of a long day spent wandering around.
Time spent researching family vacations is never wasted.
Even though vacations can take a lot of planning, the research is time well spent. The trip will be less stressful (and even relaxing!) if all the small stuff is covered in advance.
No matter how much planning has already been undertaken, if a bunch of red flags starts popping up while planning a trip, switch the destination. There is absolutely zero shame in backtracking on plans. Vacations are supposed to be fun for everyone—and that includes the parent who’s running the show.