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"Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education." ~Francis Bacon

Family Travel Tips

"The family that plays together stays together" is a common phrase that is based on an important truth. Parenting experts emphasize that family members need to spend time with each other to foster communication, build strong relationships, and create lifelong memories.

A trip is a great way to promote family togetherness whether it's an overseas excursion, cross-country trek, two-week vacation or weekend getaway. While traveling with the whole family can be a fun adventure, it can also be a challenge - especially with children of different ages and interests. The following travel survival tips will help make the experience more enjoyable for kids and parents alike.

Plan Ahead

  • Getting started early not only helps you get better deals, but it also gives you more time to research the location, to send away for information, and to plan your vacation.
  • Hold a family meeting to see what everyone would like to see and do. Are they interested in hiking? Camping? Swimming? Going to the beach? Exploring a national park? Taking a cruise? Visiting a famous landmark or historic site? Spending a day at an amusement park, aquarium, zoo, or other attraction?
  • Keep in mind that beach, mountain, and country trips are more suitable for young children than big-city visits.
  • With young children it's also best to stay at a central location from which you can take side trips, rather than going on a lengthy road trip.
  • As soon as you have a rough idea of where you want to go, you can do some preliminary planning by searching on the internet, visiting a travel agency, asking at your local branch of the American Automobile Association (if you're a member), contacting a tourism office or Chamber of Commerce and requesting information by mail.
  • Decide whether you will travel by plane, train, bus, boat, or automobile.
  • Would you prefer to stay in a hotel, resort, condo, cottage, bed and breakfast, or camp out?
  • Once you've chosen the destination and have decided on some specific travel plans, go back and gather more detailed information including brochures, maps, and calendars of events.
  • Get children involved by taking them to the library to look for books which will provide some knowledge about the history and geography of the places where you will be going.
  • Find out if your planned destination offers any special discounts or family rates.
  • Look for lodging that is kid-friendly, child-safe, equipped with a television, refrigerator, crib if you need one, playground and/or pool. Some places even offer babysitting services and special activities for children.

    Before You Go

  • Make an organized list of things to bring and check off each item as it is packed.
  • Be sure to list items such as plane tickets, camera, and purse. These may seem obvious, but are too important to be inadvertently left behind.
  • Don't forget addresses and stamps for sending postcards to friends and relatives.
  • Start packing far enough ahead of your departure date so that you can get a little bit done each day without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Prepare a list of tasks that need to be completed before you leave.
  • Make arrangements for pet care, house sitting, newspaper and mail pick-up, etc.
  • Remove items from your wallet that won't be needed where you're going, such as library cards and department-store charge cards.
  • Take a recent close-up photo of each child with their vital statistics written on back, to keep with you just in case.
  • If you have babies or toddlers, bring a childproofing kit including doorknob covers, plastic outlet covers, and twist ties for drapery and electrical cords in hotel rooms.
  • Stock up on travel-size shampoos, sunscreen, and other items.
  • Don't leave home without a good map. Even if you're flying, you will want to be able to explore your destination once you've arrived.
  • Aim to have all of your stuff ready to go a day ahead of time. This will allow some extra leeway if packing takes longer than anticipated, or if you have to run out to the store to get something. Then you will avoid frantically rushing at the last minute and can begin your trip with a good night's sleep knowing that everything is in order.

    Smart Packing Tips

  • Check ahead of time with your airline or travel agent to determine the airline's baggage policy, such as the number of pieces you can bring, size and weight limitations.
  • Choose wisely, and pack less. Especially if you're flying, this means you'll have less to misplace and less to cart around.
  • Avoid overstuffing suitcases so that your articles won't spill out when your bag is opened.
  • Just like at home, have a place for everything and keep everything in its place so that you will be able to find whatever you're looking for easily without having search through all of the luggage.
  • Let older children help with the packing so they can have a say in deciding what clothing and other items they want to take.
  • Give each child his or her own duffel bag, suitcase, or backpack. This can serve as the child's personal chest of drawers on the trip, making it easier to keep everyone's stuff organized.
  • Wheeled suitcases are functional and fun, and there are child-sized ones for even the youngest children.
  • Place toiletries, first aid supplies, and other small articles in clear plastic Ziploc bags inside your luggage so these items can be identified easily.
  • Stock a baby bag with diapers, wipes, bottle, blanket, toy, and other items that need to be kept handy wherever you go. Extra baby clothes, diapers, etc. can be stored in a separate bag.
  • Bring one of your child's favorite toys or a familiar comfort item like a blankie, stuffed animal, or night light.
  • Don't forget emergency supplies such as a first aid kit, flashlight, extra batteries, stain removal stick, and a sewing kit with safety pins, buttons, scissors, needle and thread.
  • On beach vacations, use an old duffel or mesh bag for storing towels, swimsuits, sandals, beach toys and sunscreen.
  • Bring an extra collapsible bag along, or leave enough space in your suitcases for souvenirs that you will undoubtedly want to bring home.
  • Attach a colorful name tag, key chain, twist tie, stickers, or bright reflective tape to your luggage so you can quickly tell it apart from others.

    Traveling with Children

  • Pack a portable cooler with healthy snacks like raisins, pretzels, graham crackers, bananas, Craisins, string cheese, Cheerios, cookies, popcorn, nuts, Goldfish crackers, and granola bars. For a special treat, you may also want to include chewing gum, candy bars, or long-lasting lollipops.
  • Don't set strict time limits, since flexibility is essential when it comes to children.
  • Ask children to keep their eyes open for certain landmarks or other things along the route.
  • Older children can be given the job of navigator to keep them occupied and make them feel important.
  • Take a short break every few hours to get out of the car, stretch, and burn off excess energy.
  • Bring a small plastic ball, Frisbee, jump rope, foldable nylon pocket kite, or a bottle of bubble solution for rest stops at community parks or playgrounds that you find along the way.
  • On long drives, pack a homemade lunch or order some fast food take-out, and have a picnic at a nearby park or playground. Then the kids won't have to go from being cooped up in the car to having to sit still in a restaurant.
  • Equip babies and toddlers with a developmental toy, plastic mirror, busy box, or any small toy with different textures or movable parts.
  • Supplies to keep handy in a convenient place include diapers and baby wipes, antibacterial wipes or hand sanitizer, plastic bags for trash and soiled diapers, Kleenex, and water bottles.
  • Schedule travel times to coincide with children's sleep times if possible, but be flexible.
  • Each child should have a small pillow in the back seat to rest their heads on.
  • Children who get motion sick usually do better in the front seat, looking at distant scenery, playing verbal games, and not reading or writing while moving. Eating saltine crackers, pretzels, ginger cookies, or peppermint may also help.
  • Have a scavenger hunt by searching for colors, numbers, or letters on signs or license plates. (For example, begin with the letter A and try to find all the letters of the alphabet in order.)
  • Make a list of all the different states you see represented on license plates.
  • Count anything you see along the way - VW's, semi trucks, red cars, blue cars, old cars, new cars.
  • Put together a "Grab Bag" of mini surprises (die-cast cars or inexpensive plastic figures such as soldiers, dinosaurs or animals). Let them pick a prize from the bag once per hour or every 50 miles that you drive, assuming they've been well-behaved. If they're good, by the end of the trip they will have collected a whole set.
  • Bring a roll of quarters for each child. Tell them you'll take a coin away every time one of them whines, complains, or bothers a sibling. At the end of the trip, they can keep or spend whatever is left.
  • To keep bickering between siblings to a minimum, give the children three strikes at the outset of the trip. If any child bickers at another, all of the children are penalized a strike. When you arrive at your destination, if the children have not used all of their strikes, they are allowed to do something special.
  • Pack a goody bag filled with items to keep children busy on long trips.

    Goody Bag Contents

  • a separate map or road atlas for the kids to follow along
  • a mini flashlight for looking at maps in the backseat at night
  • brochures about the places you're going to be visiting
  • field guides for looking up animals and plants that are seen along the route
  • workbooks, activity books, sticker books, dot-to-dots, mazes, Mad Libs
  • coloring books and colored pencils (crayons may melt in a hot car)
  • comic books and joke books
  • board books, picture books, pop-up or lift-the-flap books
  • paper and pencils for tic-tac-toe or Hangman
  • a lap-top writing board or clipboard
  • Magic Slate, Magna-Doodle, or Etch-a-Sketch
  • mini magnetic puzzles and games
  • metal tray with magnetic letters, numbers, and shapes
  • travel Bingo game
  • Silly Putty
  • a string for playing cat's cradle
  • playing cards
  • flash cards
  • hand or finger puppets
  • a favorite stuffed animal, doll, or blanket
  • portable cassette or CD player (with headphones)
  • favorite music, sing-along songs, or books on tape
  • hand-held electronic games or learning toys (with the sound turned off)

    When You Get There

  • If you are traveling a long distance, try to arrive at your destination by late afternoon. The kids will be anxious to get out, run around, go to the beach, play on a playground, or swim in the hotel pool.
  • Check out the area for any special attractions that children might enjoy.
  • Plan the day based on your youngest child's abilities, keeping in mind that he or she has a shorter attention span and gets tired more easily.
  • Consider scaling back your expectations by listing your preferred itinerary, then cutting it in half.
  • Encourage children to help plan each day's activities. You can't expect them to have fun on a trip that only revolves around your interests. On the other hand, don't just cater to the children's desires either!
  • Plan to alternate museum visits and sightseeing tours with amusement parks and playgrounds.
  • Remember that toddlers are mostly interested in simple things like animals, flowers, trees, rocks, and cracks in the sidewalk.
  • Give young children a chance to take a nap and treat them to a snack before they start getting irritable.
  • Try to stick to regular eating and sleeping schedules.
  • Eat at places that have children's menus and foods they will like.
  • Don't be a slave to your itinerary. Leave some unstructured time each day to allow leeway for spur-of-the-moment side trips and unexpected discoveries.
  • Have traveler's checks or cash on hand for buying souvenirs and snacks. Some places don't accept credit cards, particularly on small purchases.
  • If you spend a lot of time in the car or walking from building to building, plan on ending the day with a visit to a beach or park to give the kids something to look forward to.

    Preserving the Memories

  • Let the kids start their own themed travel collections. Inexpensive items to collect on vacations include postcards, booklets, stamps, coins, patches, pins, magnets, pennants, decals, pencils, keychains, spoons, placemats, ornaments, bracelet charms, and miniature figurines.
  • Bring Ziploc bags for collecting rocks, shells, leaves, and other small objects.
  • Make a postcard journal of your trip. Buy a picture postcard showing each place you've been to, and write down comments or special memories on the back.
  • Purchase a disposable camera for each child to take his or her own photos and then make a personal photo album of the trip from their perspective.
  • If you have a video camera that the kids can use, let them do some filming as well.
  • Give each child a small notebook to use as a travel log or trip diary. They can write a sentence or two about what they do each day and jot down things they see along the way, or they may want to include more descriptive details about interesting people and places. Later on, they will be able to incorporate some of this information into stories and reports for school.
  • Take some paper and crayons along for the younger children to draw pictures of what they do each day. Then you can bind the pages together to make a picture book of the trip.
  • An older child or adult may want to bring a laptop computer for e-mailing friends and relatives or updating personal web pages with photos and stories of their travel adventures.
  • Get a folder or scrapbook for each child to put their postcards, photos, admission tickets, drawings, booklets, brochures and other mementos in.

    Take it Easy

    Unanticipated surprises and unusual situations are often encountered while traveling. This is generally a good thing, but it may also include undesirable events such as an illness, flat tire, traffic citation, bad weather, or lost luggage. Since trips can be stressful, there's a good chance that somewhere, sometime, someone will reach their breaking point. Try to stay calm and maintain a sense of humor. Remember, you're on vacation so you're supposed to relax and have fun. Be a good example to your children by showing how to make the best of a difficult circumstance. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "There is only one way to bring up a child in the way he should go and that is to travel that way yourself."

    Did You Know…?

    A "rubbernecker" is a driver who slows down to gawk at accidents and other roadside spectacles. Rubbernecker is also the name of an award-winning travel game from Chronicle Books for ages 8 and up. Players are required to closely watch the road and surrounding areas, scoring points every time they spot an item or do something as directed on a Rubberneckers card. Everyone can race to search for the same item and see who finds it first. It can also be played as a team game with the whole family working together, and it's fun even if you don't keep score.

    Recommended Books

    Taking it on the Road: Fun for Homeschoolers Away From Home (A must-have resource for any family that spends a lot of time in the car. Click here to read my complete review!)

    Are We There Yet? Travel Games for Kids, by Richard Salter. (More than 50 fun-filled games for all age levels, most of which can be played with just a pencil and paper, all in a compact size for glove compartment or backpack.)

    Car Games: 100 Games to Avoid "Are We There Yet?" by Jo Pink. (Designed to fit inside an automobile glove compartment, this book is equally suitable when traveling by bus, rail, boat or plane.)

    Carschooling, by Diane Flynn Keith. (Over 350 entertaining activities that turn travel time into learning time, a creative alternative to the traditional car games and songs.)

    The Everything Kids' Travel Activity Book, by Erik and Jeanne Hanson. (This book contains puzzles, activities, quizzes, games, songs, trivia and other fun stuff that can be done alone or together to keep kids busy on planes, trains, and automobiles.)

    The Family Travel Guide: An Inspiring Collection of Family-Friendly Vacations, by Carole Terwilliger Meyers. (A compilation of articles with tips on how to travel with children from infants through teenagers, and stories from parents on how they conducted their own successful trips.)

    Have Kid, Will Travel, by Claire and Lucille Tristram. (101 survival strategies for vacationing with babies and young children.)

    Kids' U.S. Road Atlas, Coast-To-Coast Games, Are We There Yet? by Rand McNally. (Kids will enjoy the Backseat Books series of colorful, fact-filled activity books on trips or at home. Younger children will like My First Backseat Books by Rand McNally: Alphabet Travels, Travel Time, and See the U.S.A.)

    Miles of Smiles, by Carole Terwilliger Meyers. (A collection of 101 games and activities for children and adults to share while traveling. 97 games require just minds and mouths to play, and the other 4 need only simple props: a penny, a pencil, and some crayons.)

    The Penny Whistle Traveling With Kids Book, by Meredith Brokaw and Annie Gilbar. (Full of creative solutions and helpful hints on how to take the best trip ever with kids of all ages - by boat, train, car, or plane.)

    Travel Wise with Children: 101 Educational Travel Tips for Families, by Mary Rodgers Bundren. (This is no ordinary travel guide, it combines travel with easily applied hands-on projects to create unique learning experiences for children.)

    Travel Wise with Children: 101 Games and Ideas to Make Family Travel Fun for Everyone, by Mary Rodgers Bundren (A creative collection of travel ideas, all guaranteed to make trips more fun for everyone-while inspiring new interests and building new skills for kids aged 3 to 14.)

    Trouble-Free Travel With Children: Over 700 Helpful Hints for Parents on the Go, by Vicki Lansky. (This handy guide offers practical ideas and tried-and-true advice based on the experiences of other parents on how to best plan for stress-free family travel.)

    Web Resources (NineBlue is dedicated to satisfying the needs of traveling families. Their mission is to assist parents in planning family travel by providing frank, relevant, and current content designed to help save time and create great experiences. They provide family specific information for hundreds of destinations, offering the most comprehensive listing of fun things for families to do in the world! You can even download and print a free Kids' Travel Kit!) (Taking the Kids: Family travel expert Eileen Ogintz offers lots of savvy advice for making your family travels fun, safe, and memorable.) (Vacation regions and planning ideas, road food recipes, health and safety tips, travel advice for different age groups.) (Homeschooling on the road, international travel with kids, family camping, state vacations, visiting historic sites, and recommended travel books.) (This site focuses on foreign travel, but their “Travel Essentials” section contains good general travel advice including “Tips for traveling with preschoolers,” “Taking your kids out of school,” “Making your trip a kids treasure hunt,” “Traveling with stuffed animals,” “Packing for your trip,” and more.) (Traveling internationally with your kids; tips from real parents on how to travel long distance with your children.) (Travel tips for all occasions and destinations-cruises, car trips, plane trips, babies, teens, packing lists, travel games, and more.) (A guide to family vacations and tips for traveling with children, including travel game ideas.) (Travel and vacation tips from the Iowa Department of Transportation including topics such as "Preparing the Family Vehicle," "Travel Safety," "Traveling with Pets," "Winter Driving Tips," assembling a travel first-aid kit, and a checklist of basic items to pack.) (This company specializes in products for traveling with kids, whether by car, train, boat, plane, camping or hiking.)


    These pages are a continuous work in progress.
    Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
    All rights reserved.

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