Successful family vacations are, ironically, a lot of hard work. With apologies to the Peace Corps, parenthood is probably “the toughest job you’ll ever love.’’ Taking the kids along when you travel only increases the degree of difficulty.
With two young children of my own, I’ve had to reevaluate a lifetime’s worth of travel habits to learn how to bring my kids when I hit the road. Here are my hard-won tips for maximizing the fun—and the savings—on your next family vacation.
Make a Daily Budget
The first thing anyone discovers when traveling with kids is that it can get expensive, fast. Theme park tickets, restaurants, treats, souvenirs, activities, tolls, gas—it all adds up quickly.
Before you go, set a reasonable per-day budget for your trip. In my family of four, we usually set aside about $100 in cash per day for everything except airfare and accommodations. (Those we budget separately.) When the cash runs out, the spending’s done for the day. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule—we might need to spend, say, $200 one day, but that means we’ll plan less-expensive activities and meals over the next few days. Paying for everything in cash makes you acutely aware of how quickly your money’s actually being spent.
The point is to avoid an end-of-vacation surprise like getting a credit card bill that’s $1,000 more than you planned to spend on your trip.
Choose the Right Kind of Accommodations
When you bring children on vacation, choosing where to stay involves more than simply finding an affordable place near your destination.
Does the unit have a kitchen (or at least a microwave and minifridge) where you can make breakfasts and lunches and even the occasional dinner to save money? Will you spend the whole time telling your kids to use their “indoor voices’’ so as not to annoy the childless couple in the room next-door? When it’s lights-out time for the kids, is there a separate room, front deck, or back porch where you can go to unwind without disturbing their sleep?
These are the kinds of things you need to consider when choosing a place to stay. Sometimes the perfect solution is a kid-friendly hotel with adjoining rooms. Other times, it’s a vacation rental where the children can run free and be as loud as they want.
Let the Kids Help Decide Where to Go
When my son was four, he became extremely interested in volcanoes and geysers. (He’s a budding geologist.) That year, we took a family vacation to Iceland, where there was no shortage of volcanoes and geysers to keep him entertained. We’ve also built family vacations around theme parks, lake activities, hiking, waterfalls, and visiting caves. We don’t let our kids decide every detail of the family vacation, but we try to get them invested in helping to find a trip we can all enjoy.
Don’t Overbook Your Time
This one’s true for any vacation, but it’s especially important when young kids are involved: Avoid cramming in so many activities that you don’t leave time for rest and relaxation and just plain enjoying each other’s company.
The easiest way to ruin an otherwise good vacation is to spend your time rushing around from place to place. You’re on vacation. Slow down.
Stick to a Bedtime Routine
If your child’s bedtime is 8:00 p.m. at home, try to make it somewhere around 8:00 p.m. on vacation, too. There are exceptions, of course—vacation should be a treat, and sometimes you want to plan an evening activity—but by making these the exceptions rather than the rule on vacation, you actually reinforce that a particular activity is special.
If you read stories before bed at home, try to read stories before bed on your trip, too. This isn’t always easy: I fell asleep reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to my kids after a long day at New Hampshire’s Story Land amusement park just last week. But here’s why it’s a good idea: Kids benefit from a bedtime routine.
You can still make their vacation special without completely disrupting their nighttime schedule—and, by extension, their morning, too. Well-rested children are well-behaved children. And well-behaved children are the most important ingredient to a happy vacation.
Listen to Audiobooks Together on Long Drives
I don’t mind letting my kids have a little bit of screen time in the car on a long drive. An hour watching a cartoon or playing a game on a Kindle or iPad is all right. But what about very long trips, like the eight hours (each way) that we drove this spring to visit Niagara Falls, or the four-hour drives we routinely make several times each summer to visit family in Maine?
When the coloring books and comics and alphabet game have run their course, try listening to an audiobook the whole family can enjoy. We’ve found that it makes for a great collective road-trip experience. The important thing is to find an audiobook with good production value and a story that can keep both the kids and the parents engaged. We’ve had great luck with the Harry Potter and Peter and the Starcatchers books (both are performed with enthusiasm by the Grammy Award-winning Jim Dale).
There’s nothing quite like hearing your kids say, “Oh good, a long drive!’’ to convince you of the value of good storytelling.
Prepare Your Kids for the Airport
It’s no secret that airport security can be torture. That’s true even for adults. Now imagine how it must seem to young kids. And there’s a lot to remember, too: removing shoes and belts, putting your electronics in one bin and your liquids in another, etc.
Aside from the obvious advice—allow extra time at the airport so you’re not also worried about missing your flight—there’s one other tip I find very useful: Practice the security process at home with a few plastic bins and a pretend “X-ray machine.’’ (Make it a game.) When kids know what to expect, the process is likely to go more smoothly.
Be Prepared for Rainy Days
Always have a backup plan in case of bad weather. Whether you’re renting a house on a lake or a cabin in the woods or staying in a hotel near a theme park, know before you go what sorts of things you can do as a family in the event of a total washout.
TripAdvisor’s “Things to Do’’ listings include activities and attractions near wherever you’re staying, and they can be very helpful in planning rainy day activities as well. I also find TripAdvisor’s forums extremely helpful when I have specific questions about a destination.
Don’t Forget to Parent
Traveling with kids is exhausting. There’s a temptation to ease up on the discipline while we’re on vacation because, hey, parents deserve a break, too—right?
Well, not really. We signed up for this. Being on vacation doesn’t change our responsibility to actively monitor our children’s behavior
. If my kids behave in a way that would warrant a time-out at home, then they’ll get the same treatment on vacation. You’ll be doing everyone around you (including yourself and your kids) a favor if you treat them the same way on vacation that you do at home. When you set and enforce behavioral expectations from the start, everyone benefits.
At least, that’s what I’ve learned in my travels. Fellow family travelers, what do you think of these tips? Agree or disagree with my suggestions? Have any other advice to share? Sound off in the comments area below.