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Going Somewhere? 25 Tips for Great Family Travel

Do you remember family vacations from when you were a child? Was packing done in a frenzy, and at the last minute? Or did you just calmly walk out the door with your family because your parents did all of the planning and packing? Growing up, my brothers and I did little to get ready, other than to straggle into the car during the wee hours of the morning.

Here are some tips to prepare for a fun vacation that involves the entire family from planning through returning home. As a mom of four, there are tips I’ve been using and fine-tuning for close to two decades. These tips will help alleviate your stress in planning and preparation.

Invite kid input

What do members of your family enjoy? Start polling your kids on what they might like to do. What do they want to see? What are they curious about?

We keep a ‘dream’ list in our family. Involve your children in the planning of activities and optional sightseeing; this gets them excited about the trip, and they might come up with some wonderful ideas you hadn’t thought of. One of our recent vacations included a biologist-led estuary kayak trip – an idea and request from our passionate-about-science daughter. Everyone enjoyed it and we’re going to do it again this summer.

Encourage research

Take into account your kids’ ages and stages, likes and dislikes. Visit destinations that offer a variety of activities and food options for you and your family.

Take turns being the ‘vacation leader’. Some trips, like skiing, may have to wait until everyone can participate. Consider what each child’s interests and activity levels are. Kathy Besse, a former flight attendant and mother of two, encourages her kids to research destinations on the Internet, “My son is a history buff, so we try to include places of historical significance.” Water sports are a must-do with my kids, so we make sure to include a destination that includes water, even if that water ends up being a hotel pool in the dead of winter.

Get the maps out. Show them where you are considering traveling. Have each family member do research from the perspective of what they enjoy most. Even the youngest can be included in this. Perhaps they travel with their special stuffed animal or doll, or in a beloved princess or warrior outfit. My children, when very young, did both. We also made sure we had some of their favorite music and DVDs with us.

Pack early, pack smart

Give your kids the job of packing themselves. All family members should have a backpack or similar bag for their books, snacks, games, electronics, etc. They should also have a change of clothes and, possibly, pajamas and a swimsuit within. Bags get lost. This is also a great idea if your family is going to make an overnight stop on a long trip. Why unpack the entire car for a few things?

My kids are so accustomed to packing their backpacks that they keep them partially packed at all times with a change of underwear, socks, travel-sized toiletries and a plastic bag for dirty clothes. At least once every summer, when boredom eventually sets in, I rise early and knock on my kids’ bedroom doors, “Let’s go; 30 minutes to pack!” They’re up in no time packed and ready for a quick overnight to a destination we decide on as we drive.

Personalize checklists

Create a general packing list for your trip and have the kids follow it. Leave a few lines for them to fill in with their favorites. Separate which items go into the suitcase versus the backpack for the plane or car, such as books or a handheld game console. Don’t forget to add batteries and chargers to the list. Leaving things behind is no fun, so keep the lists on your home computer to be reused and updated as needed. Pack the lists in the bags and refer to them when repacking for the return trip home.

Use clipart or stickers as lists for children who can’t read yet; for example, a picture of a swimsuit. For multiple items, repeat the clipart or stickers in a line, or if kids know their numbers by sight, put it in front of the clipart; for example, “4” and a picture of shorts.

Kids love to pack themselves. When mine have packed, they put their open suitcases and backpacks, with their lists lying on top, in our hallway. This makes it easy for me to double-check. I do the final zip-up.

Be ready early

Begin packing your bags several days before you leave. Have a staging area in your home where you can do this. We use our hallway. The kids fill their suitcases as I do laundry. If traveling by car, pack it the night before. Despite appearances, vans and SUVs only have so much room to hold luggage and the extras. A cramped long ride in the car is miserable.

Pack smart and save big

How ‘lean’ can you pack? Unless you have a special membership, you will likely be charged for checking baggage. Inquire when you make your reservations. The costs add up on extra checked bags and there are hefty increases on overweight or oversized bags. With my family of six, these charges can be prohibitive. I much prefer to use that money on our vacation.

You can get along with packing far less than you think. A good rule of thumb is to not pack more than each family member can carry and pull at the same time. My kids quickly learned to pack light.

I layer my kids for flights; the planes are cold and many airlines charge for blankets and pillows, if they even offer them. If you have to pack on the heavy side (an extended trip or cold weather requiring heavier and bulkier clothing), under-pack a suitcase or two to allow for last-minute redistribution among the luggage at the airport.

Remember the details that matter

Here are a few small considerations that will make everyone’s trip happier and prevent annoying mini-disasters:

• Visit destinations that offer a variety of activities and food options for you and your family, and take turns being the vacation leader.

• Decide ahead of time which parent is handling documents and tickets. The other parent should have copies of the documents. Leave another set of copies at home, along with copies of your credit cards and phone numbers in case cards or documents get lost or stolen – it happens.

• Carry baby wipes for everyone. These come in handy in many different situations - the wiping of hands and feet, cleaning up spills, sanitizing airplane tray tables, just to name a few. Give everyone their own pack with extras packed away for the return. And don’t forget the tissues.

• For car trips, include some old clean towels and a few large trash bags. Sometimes those disasters can be a bit messier than we imagined. When you stop, put the nasty towels inside the trash bag and dispose.

• Carry a First-Aid kit. Make sure everything is replenished and in-date.

• Have you ever had your luggage tear, a hem come loose or a hole appear in that nice flotation device you packed? Pack a roll of duct tape; it has a multitude of uses.

• Bring large zip lock bags along. My foresight was rewarded three years ago when we drove 12 hours home with two vomiting kids.

Do a trial security check run and  security overview

You will be going through airport security if flying to your destination. Inform your children of what to expect before hand, and go over it several times. I encourage you to role-play as well.

We’ve spent so much time teaching our kids about strangers and “good touch, bad touch,” so it is important that we help our kids understand, in age-appropriate language, why total strangers will be touching them inappropriately. Assure your children that you will be present, right next to them, as security personnel are running their hands over them.

Go over the removal of shoes and screening of themselves and their personal belongings. Lia Stallworth, a school counselor and mother of two, has her children wear slip-on shoes. Explain to the kids that they should be quiet, listen, stay with you, they can have something to drink after they complete the security check (our kids bring empty bottles since there is no charge for the drinking fountain water), and that this is not a good time to have discussions about the state of the Middle East or weaponry and explosives. Ask your older son(s) to forgo the trendy sagging to alleviate any pants or shorts crumbling to the floor when belts are removed in the security area (this happened to my oldest years ago).

Help yourself to some peace of mind

Even though you practice and preach about it daily, you need to have another in-depth talk regarding safety. Older kids like to explore, so establish the rules and boundaries for the trip. Go over the buddy system and family emergency code, if you use them. Stallworth snaps a picture of her kids before every trip, “I take a picture of my kids with my cell phone before we board the plane. It’s the most recent picture of them in case one of them should get lost.” If the family splits into smaller groups to do different activities, each group should have a cell phone.

If traveling abroad, go over drinking water and what food can be eaten and in what form. Also discuss no touching of animals, including cats and dogs. There is no way of knowing if the animals are safe. If you have a critter-lover like I do, explain that touching any critter is not safe.

Make memories

Kids love to have mementos of their trips. Encourage yours to get something unique that will remind them of their trip. “My son collects currency, coins and rocks,” says Kathy Besse. She gives her kids disposable cameras, “The kids have a photo album that they add to. My daughter has a scrapbook. She keeps her pictures and postcards in it and writes about her trips as well.”

Other tips for family travel:

• Put the kids in the car in their pajamas, along with a blanket and pillow. All of my kids sleep on long trips.

• Pack plenty of movies and car games for the long drive.

• Julie Moyer, a working mother of two, and her husband leave late in the afternoon and drive through the night. The kids sleep during most of the trip. You might consider this if you have no trouble staying up all night.

• Discuss the cultural differences that you may encounter when traveling internationally and how to address them.
• Remember the electrical converters.

• Cell phones with international access are a good idea if traveling abroad.

• Consider travel insurance if traveling outside of your home country.

Vacations are special family time. The more prepared you are and the more involved your entire family is, the more you will enjoy your trip. Safe travels!

Judy works with pre- and adoptive parents, equipping them with new techniques and information, and encouraging and empowering adoptive families through difficult times. She is the author of the international selling What To Expect From Your Adopted Tween.

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