Family trips that involve travel with kids may conjure up images of constant bickering between siblings and pained sighs of “I’m bored!” at least ten times an hour, but with some planning and a little patience, your family can make exploring a new city or tourist attraction much more enjoyable.
Time Out New York Kids spoke with five parenting and travel experts to find out the 25 best tips, tricks and hacks for making family vacations with kids of all ages much easier.
Section 1: Planning
Get your kids involved in planning.
When children feel like they are being included in planning a family trip, they are more likely to get excited about it. “One of our daughters would scour back issues of magazines for scenic byways, while another would try to pick Food Network restaurant locations that would coincide with our travels,” Elizabeth Estelle, mom of four and Christian parenting blogger told Time Out New York Kids. “Our son liked to find caves with extra exploring activities. They did the research as they were able. This saved me time, got them excited about the trip and has led us to some interesting destinations.”
Buy tickets for attractions and events ahead of time.
Avoid long lines! “We buy tickets in advance for attractions that have a high likelihood of being sold out to prevent ‘meltdown central,’” Amy Rosenow, mom of two and co-founder of Jugl, told us.
Consider a house or apartment exchange instead of a hotel.
Often, home or apartment exchanges are a lot cheaper than finding a hotel room in the middle of a tourist-centric city. “With small kids, having multiple rooms, rather than everyone gathered into one room, is critical,” Jennifer Nevins, New York City mom of three, parenting blogger and founder of Savor told Time Out New York Kids. “On nights when we go out, it's wonderful to be able to throw on some pasta for the kids. Most importantly, you're more likely to live like a local. Hands-down my kids' favorite time in Barcelona was hanging out in the square outside our apartment playing soccer with the other neighborhood kids.”
Let older kids act as tour guides.
Make your vacation educational. “Allow older kids to help choose attractions or even write reports at home and serve as a tour guide during your trip,” Rosenow said.
Crowdsource itineraries from friends who have kids.
Getting tips from friends who also travel with their families is often a much more reliable source than strangers’ reviews on the internet. “I have found that asking friends is the best way," Rosenow said. “We’ve found like-minded travelers and started taking really good notes and then sharing them. [This has resulted] in absolute gems from friends like a cooking class (in English) for kids in Paris, and a guided scavenger hunt at the Louvre. The key is figuring out well-organized people with kids a few years older than yours who have similar taste in terms of budget, travel style and sense of fun!”
Section two: Packing
Pack Zip Lock “activity bags” for restless kids.
Prevent boredom before it happens. “We pack about 20 Zip Lock bags with a busy activity inside,” Estelle said. “Have plenty of sketch paper, pencils and erasers available and have an assignment like: ‘Who can draw the best Montana sky for me today?’"
Pack plenty of snacks.
As Estelle told us, “There is nothing worse than a ‘hangry’ toddler (or a hangry adult, for that matter)!”
Bring your own booster seat.
Don’t assume restaurants, hotels or modes of transportation will have one. Rosenow recommends BubbleBum for bigger kids and Go-Go Babyz Travelmate for younger tots.
Pack only quiet toys with few small or moving parts.
Small toys make it a lot harder to annoy your fellow plane passengers. “Do not bring items on plane with small pieces that they can throw or drop easily,” Rosenow said. "For younger kids, bring a bunch of fun, new, small, quiet toys that they have never seen before.”
Put name labels on everything.
“The best chance of getting your iPad/hat/favorite stuffed animal back if you leave it or drop it is if you have your name and cell phone number on it,” Rosenow recommended. “This has saved us a comical number of times!”
Give kids their own camera.
The adults in your traveling party shouldn’t be the only ones documenting the trip. “We had an old point-and-shoot camera that we were no longer using, and before our trip to Italy, we gifted it to our seven-year-old,” Jamie Harper, mom of four and travel blogger of Fly by the Seat of Our Pants told Time Out New York Kids. “Because it was a camera we weren't using anyway, we weren't too concerned about him losing or break it. He treated it as a treasure and always had the strap around his wrist. He usually took 200+ photos a day. This kept him entertained when he would otherwise be bored of us taking photos or looking at sights.”
Section 3: Transportation
Use pre-check to speed up airport lines.
“Consider applying for the TSA Pre-check program, which grants access to a super quick security line,” Alanna Smith, travel expert and editor at TravelPirates told Time Out New York. “Kids under 13 can go on the line as long as they’re accompanied by a registered adult.”
Board with kids early.
“Almost all airlines offer early boarding for families with small children, which means you can get your family settled long before other passengers get onto the plane,” Smith said.
Pick flights with the fewest layovers.
When traveling with kids, pick non-stop flights whenever possible to avoid cranky kids (and the potential of them getting sick). “While the actual cost may be higher than one-stop flights, you’ll have a much lower chance of getting stranded at the airport due to bad weather,” Smith said. “You’ll also experience fewer take-offs and landings, which is good for your kids—the change in pressure can be very uncomfortable for infants and toddlers.”
Give kids fully-charged devices with downloaded content for long trips.
Make sure you're equipped with TV shows, movies and games on your tablets and phones before leaving for vacation. “I try to download sequels or new episodes of things they like but haven’t yet seen,” Rosenow said. “I also have them give us requests the weekend before and download them then so that we’re not frantically trying to download entertainment for the whole family the night before a trip when we’re also packing.”
Get frequent flyer miles for your kids.
“Our youngest was able to get a free ticket using her own miles before she was 6 years old,” Rosenow said.
Skip expensive airport food.
“Airport prices make even the most expensive cafe around the corner seem cheap, so we treat ourselves to whatever we want at the local fancy spot that's usually off-limits and then bring it on the plane,” Nevins said.
Rent a car instead of relying on public transportation.
Kids tend to get antsy on busses and trains...which can be an issue. “Plan drives in between sightseeing so kids have a chance to be loud, take a nap, re-connect and have down time,” Harper said. “A traveling home is essential when they are away from home.”
Section four: Things To Do
Ban the famous expression, “I’m bored.”
“I’m bored is not allowed!” Estelle said. “I suppose we all get bored at times, but fortunately while traveling, the scenery is always changing: the clouds, the cars you pass with their weird bumper stickers, the topography, the animals.” She and her family sing songs, make up poetry and listen to audiobooks on long car rides.
Allow time for naps.
“If your kid needs a nap at home, don’t think he or she will be fine wandering all over a different city without one,” Rosenow said. “You need to plan for some downtime.”
Turn trying new, foreign foods into a game.
There’s no reason why even picky eaters should just have to stick to American-style burgers and pizza while dining in a foreign city. “To encourage my kids to be adventurous, we have food contests,” Nevins said. “When we are in a market, we'll split up into groups and everyone gets $5 to buy a local food, and then we will all taste test. And while I'm not someone who usually believes in bribing kinds for results, we do have contests for truly adventurous eating.”
Reserve time for yourself.
“It’s great to travel with kids, but it's exhausting. If you can get a vetted local sitter and you have the budget, grab a night out,” Nevins said. “You've undoubtedly spent a lot for a vacation, make sure you get at least some relaxation out of it! If not, take turns with your partner so that you each get a couple hours of 'me' time.'”
Lower your expectations.
When you were younger—and sans toddlers—you could get a lot of touring done in one day, but kids are usually not as patient. “This isn't the time you're going to hit three museums, the coolest restaurant and do the shopping you want all in one day,” Nevins said. “Success is about maybe one cultural activity and then visiting a local park and grabbing ice cream in a day.”
Plan outdoor activities that get restless kids moving.
Most kids will be restless if they have to visit “no-touch” museums all day. “Look up the best parks, hikes or beaches in the area,” Harper said. “I read a couple of blogs or reviews about the kid-friendly nature of the site and check how close they are to other things we want to see.”
Don't forget to visit the public parks (which are typically free).
“We have found some spectacular free parks and beaches and hikes,” Harper said. “Splash pads, nature trails and kid-friendly visitors’ centers are the best to find. We typically will pick up fast food, pizza from Costco or even bring food from home (or buy something at groceries stores) and have a picnic lunch while enjoying the beach or park.”
Now that you're ready to book a grand adventure, check out our list of the best family vacations, figure out fun places to go with kids or take a gander at these kid-friendly all-inclusive resorts.
Joanna Fantozzi is a freelance food and lifestyle writer and connoisseur of all types of melted cheese. Follow her work on Twitter @JoannaFantozzi.