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Traveling with Kids: Tips for a Happy Family Vacation

Amanda Dundas
March 31, 2011

8 ways to ensure you have a great trip.

Remember when spring break used to mean Tequila shots, dancing at clubs and lazy days sleeping at the beach? Yeah, we really don't remember those days much either, now that they've been replaced by strollers, sensible bedtimes and three square meals a day plus snack time. But vacations can still be a lot of fun, even with children in tow, as long as you follow these guidelines from travel experts and real moms:

  1. Plan Something for Everyone
    "Too often, trips revolve around just the kids," says Shelly Rivoli, author of "Travels with Baby." "Maybe you spend your week at an amusement park or Disney World, only to come home needing a vacation from the vacation." Rivoli suggests figuring out what each family member wants to get out of the vacation, and then carving out time for different activities: "Maybe dad wants to play golf or mom wants to go to a spa." You can still fit that in alongside sightseeing, amusement parks, visiting relatives or other activities."

  2. Factor in the Kids
    Just as some parents may not focus on themselves, others forget that kids may have a different perspective. "When our kids were little we went to this beautiful, secluded beach in the Bahamas," says Katherine, a consultant and mother of two from Westchester County, N.Y. "But the kids were so bored, we wound up spending most days at the huge Atlantis Resort because they have water slides, kid activities and other children to play with."

  3. Manage Expectations
    "A busy sightseeing schedule may be too much for a preschooler, while dinner at a fancy restaurant may not work with a rambunctious toddler," says Michelle Duffy, co-author of "Wanderlust and Lipstick: Traveling with Kids." "Just as with everything else related to parenting, you need to be aware of your child's needs as well as yours, and find a balance which works for everyone."

    Josey Miller, a travel expert with TripAdvisor.com, suggests finding a hotel that also has an indoor pool. "That way, whether the weather is bad or your kids just need some down time, you have a place to go," she explains.

  4. Do Your Research
    Maybe you've picked a beautiful beach-side resort, thinking you will send your preschoolers to their kids' camp, only to discover upon arrival that they don't take children under five. Or, you go to an amusement park and find that your youngest doesn't meet the height requirements for most rides. Either way, these vacation-busters can be best avoided by calling ahead, says Rivoli.

    Additionally, Duffy suggests finding out where the local playgrounds or libraries are before you leave home. "Knowing where there's a park for your kids to run about in or a library for a little quiet time can be trip-savers," she says.

    One good resource are online discussion forums, says Miller. "You can go online and post a question, or just search to see what other people are already discussing about a particular destination. You can find a wealth of information about pretty much anything."

  5. Fly Smartly
    Airplane rides can be great fun -- or a total nightmare. "Try booking flights first thing in the morning, because they're less likely to be delayed," says Miller. "Make sure to pack some good distractions, like a few surprise toys, a portable DVD player and some snacks." With younger kids, give them a heads up about what they'll encounter at the airport.

    "I neglected to mention to my three year old that he would have to take off his shoes and put his beloved Diego backpack through the scanner," admits Mary, a stay-at-home mom of two. "He had a complete melt-down at security -- now I'm careful to prepare him about what's going to happen."

  6. Get the Most Bang for Your Hotel Buck
    "Oftentimes, parents stay in traditional hotels because that's what they know," says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor in chief of Wejustgotback.com, a travel web site geared towards parents. "But I encourage parents to stay at vacation rentals or extended stay hotels that have kitchens so you don't have to eat out every meal, or at least you can bring back food that your child didn't touch to heat up later."

    Most of these places have separate sleeping and living areas, a definite plus if you have kids with an early bedtime. "I know one couple that stayed in a hotel room that wound up sharing a six-pack in the bathroom after their kids went to sleep each night," says Kelleher. "At the very least, make sure your room has a balcony for after-hours escape."

  7. Take a Break
    Sometimes both you and your kids need time away from each other during a vacation. And that's okay! Learn about 8 Ways to Find Child Care on Vacation ť

  8. Travel with Friends or Family
    "We love going away with other families because you have built-in playmates," says Katherine. "We take turns going out at night as couples, or just the girls or the guys, so everyone has a chance to get out without the kids."

    Diane, a stay-at-home mom from Nyack, N.Y., always brings her parents with her on vacation. "Having the extra hands makes it a more relaxing trip for us, and my parents love the quality time with the kids," she says. "My husband and I always make sure to sneak away to the spa together or for a couple of quiet dinners."

    Just make sure you're compatible travel companions. "It's important to talk about expectations before you leave, such as whether you're sticking to normal bedtimes or not," says Katherine. "You don't want to lose a friendship over what's supposed to be a fun trip."

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