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How to Travel With Kids -- and Stay Sane

Make your first family road trip a happy one with these expert tips.

The first time Eileen Gunn and her husband traveled with their daughter, they found themselves curled up in their hotel room's bathroom with books and wine so as not to disturb their sleeping baby. That taught Gunn a valuable lesson about travel with kids: "Traditional hotel rooms don't work well when kids are little."

Since then, Gunn and her husband have taken dozens of trips with their now 7-year-old daughter. Gunn, editor of FamiliesGo!, and two other family vacation pros -- About.com family travel expert Suzanne Rowan Kelleher and Shelly Rivoli, author of the "Travels With Baby" guidebooks and blog -- share their tips on how to make your first road trip with your kids a success.

Plan Before You Go

  • Consider a vacation rental. Gunn and Kelleher agree that vacation rentals are the best option when traveling with kids because they have kitchens, washer-dryers and separate living and sleeping areas. Hotel suites also work well. If you must stay in a single room, get one with a terrace or balcony. "We would sit on the balcony and read or chat while our daughter slept," Gunn says.
  • Get close to the action. "Any time you can bypass the loading and unloading of a car and looking for parking, you'll save significant time you can put toward enjoyable moments," says Rivoli. So choose accommodations that are within walking distance to the beach, city center or other main attraction.
  • Lighten your load. If you're visiting friends or relatives, avoid an overstuffed car by shipping supplies like diapers and wipes to your destination. You can also rent baby gear from a rental service. "Don't think about what you could possibly need for your trip," says Gunn. "Think about what you can do without."
  • Pack smart. Stickers, crayons and small toys keep your little one busy in the car. Fun snacks like homemade Chex Mix or tiny boxes of cereal double as entertainment. Bring plenty of plastic bags, baby wipes, changes of clothes and an empty container in case of motion sickness or bathroom accidents. Don't forget essential bedtime items, including comfort objects. (Kelleher would pack her kids' bedtime CD and nightlight.) Check out FamiliesGo!'s packing lists so you'll remember the basics.

Think Smart on the Road

  • Time it right. "Hit the road at the start of nap time," says Kelleher. Or put your kids in their pajamas and head out in the evening. Both strategies give you a nice, uninterrupted stretch of driving.
  • Take a backseat. "If possible, road-tripping parents should take turns riding in the backseat with their rear-facing baby or toddler," says Rivoli. One can attend to the child's needs while the other focuses on the road.
  • Stop frequently. "Being overambitious is the biggest mistake people make," says Kelleher. Plan to stop every few hours so your kids can stretch their legs.
  • Take better potty breaks. Bathrooms at roadside gas stations and rest stops can be gross. That's why Kelleher suggests seeking out roadside hotel chains. "They almost always have a very clean bathroom with a full changing table right off the lobby," she says. Keep a travel potty (just like the one your kids might have used for potty training) in the car as well.

Maximize Your Fun After You Arrive

  • Stick to your routine -- somewhat. Plan naps and meals as close to their regular times as you can, even if they take place in a stroller or car seat. "If you're too rigid, you're not going to have fun," says Gunn. "If you're too flexible, your kid will be a wreck." If your child must nap in a crib, Kelleher suggests having one parent stay with her while the other plays golf or visits the spa, then switching off the next day.
  • Don't overschedule. Make a list of activities you want to do each day -- then cut that list in half. "Don't plan so much that you can't go with the flow based on your child's behavior and needs," Kelleher says.
  • Roll with the punches. Travel with kids is unpredictable, so keep an open mind and be ready to shift gears. "There's a lot of pressure to have fun, but everyone knows an unhappy child makes for an unhappy trip," Kelleher says. "Work around your child's rhythms, and you'll have a much better vacation!"

For more tips on staying sane, check out these 10 Tips for Traveling With Kids.

Jennifer Marino Walters is a Washington, D.C.-based children's and parenting writer and a mom blogger at doubledutytwins.com. Her 3-year-old twins have spent more nights in hotel rooms than she can count.

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