Top 5 Family Travel Tips

Recently, the Travel Channel asked me about our top tips for family travel. I pulled together this list and figured I'd share it on the site as well:

1. Attitude is everything: expect problems, go with the flow and everything will work out great. Travel is hard and traveling with kids is even harder. But if you treat your trip like an adventure, annoyances, missteps and mishaps simply become small obstacles for your hearty band of explorers to overcome. I mean, seriously, do you think Dora would let a two-hour delay get to her? Would Indiana Jones get stressed out because the restaurant doesn't have chicken fingers? This applies just as much for parents as for children. If dogs can sense fear, you better believe your seven-year-old can. If you get stressed when you can't find your hotel, your kids will get stressed too. When you think of it as "exploring the neighborhood," everyone will feel better.

2. Things to bring:

  • Don't forget the drugs. It's always a good idea to travel with some children's Tylenol (or whatever you prefer) so that you don't have to worry about tracking down a drug store in a strange neighborhood at 11 P.M. Depending on how much space you have, you might want to bring small containers of cough syrup or Claritin as well. Finally, some parents swear by it and some parents detest it, but Benadryl can go a long way. Especially with long flights, giving you child something to help them sleep can make everyone a lot happier.
  • And definitely don't forget the baby wipes. Even if your kid was out of diapers during the Clinton administration, baby wipes are invaluable when traveling. As one reader wrote, "You can clean hands, faces, toilet seats, almost anything with them. On a hot day you can even wipe your face & neck with them to cool down a bit."
  • Other useful items. Kids get dirty, especially when they're traveling. Bring a small container of special travel detergent (the Tide from your garage won't work) so you can use your hotel sink to remove the damage from your child's meatball mishap. Ziplock bags have thousands of uses and take up hardly any space. Bring a variety of sizes if you can. Finally, a small, sturdy nightlight can help turn a scary hotel room into a cozy den.

3. Leave at the right time. If you kids nap, use their schedules to your advantage. For example, if you've got a long car ride, see if you can't leave an hour or so before their nap time. Most kids can entertain themselves for a little while so that buys you some time right there. Once they fall asleep around their normal nap time, you just bought yourself an hour or two of bliss on the way to your destination. This can work for flights as well. If you want to push your luck with this strategy, consider a red-eye flight. Especially if you're flying coast to coast (at least in the U.S.), you can try to entertain a kid for 6 hours on a daytime flight or you can have them sleep on a flight that leaves at 11 PM. Be warned, however, this is a high-risk, high-return gambit. When executed to perfection, you get on the plane, give your kid his teddy bear and wake up 3,000 miles away. When things go awry, however, you are awake all night enduring glares from the people seated near you and the whole family is transformed into cranky zombies the next day.

4. Getting the most out of your flight.

  • Do a little pre-planning. I always start with SeatGuru.com to check out the layout of my flight and try to pick good seats. Map out aisles, windows and think about where to place your family. Do you want everyone in the same row or would you really rather spread them out a little because Johnnie is always getting under Janie's skin? You can get creative here.
  • Special meals. For the airlines that still serve food, most have Children's meals. They tend to include more kid friendly options and often come with toys or stickers.
  • Board separately. Lots of airlines have dropped special boarding for families with small children. If that's an option for you, consider using it, especially if there is only one grown-up. But for me, I like to split up the parents to minimize the amount of time you spend on the plane. Send Sherpa Daddy onto the plane first with as much stuff as he can carry. Keep Mom or Grandpa or whoever in the boarding area until the gate agents physically force you onto the plane. This way your kids can run around and burn energy in the much roomier boarding area than in the 672 square inches they will attempt to occupy for the next four hours.

5. Choose your toys and books wisely. Toys with lots of small, moving parts are bound to end up as vacuum food. "One-trick" toys also take the express train for boredom town. Things like a good set of portable art supplies with crayons, markers and some paper can transform into hours of amusement (or at least distraction). One school of thought is to bring your kids' favorites. If you daughter can play at home with her Groovy Girl for four hours, it's probably a pretty good bet it will entertain her in the car as well. Another school of thought suggests holding toys in reserve for travel. Save a couple of brand-new toys to be dramatically unveiled just when your child is about to meltdown.

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