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45 Secrets for Fabulous Family Vacations

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No doubt because my wife, Sally, and I have spent years as professional travelers, one of the first things we asked our new pediatrician was when our 10-day-old daughter, Cleo, would be able to travel with us."When you're ready, she'll be ready," he answered.

A few weeks later, we flew with her to visit her grandparents in Arizona, and our pace hasn't slowed much since. In two years, Cleo's adventures have included every kind of travel from a New England road trip to a Mexican cruise. Along the way, two things in particular have amazed us: The first is how much joy you can get from peeking out a plane window with a toddler who claims to see people, dogs, and cats swimming in a silver ribbon of river 30,000 feet below. The second is how much there is to discover about traveling as a family. Here is the best of what we've learned so far.

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Start rested. As difficult as it may be, try to finish all your packing and arrangements the day before your departure. This lets all of you take a deep breath before the trip begins. From our experience, much of what we're tempted to chalk up to jet lag or an uncooperative airline agent stems from the stress of having been up half the night tending to last-minute details.

Get excited. Talk about the trip and the destination with your child, and involve her in the planning. When she confronts the real thing, the familiarity will be reassuring to her. And you'll be surprised at what she absorbs: Cleo, now 2, asks of every airplane she sees: "Going Arizona?"

Watch Barney-the-Greek. For planning advice, our favorite book is Have Kid, Will Travel, by Claire Tristram (Andrews & McMeel, 1997). But trust your own judgment too. If we had followed Tristram's advice and removed the TV from our hotel room abroad, Cleo would never have had the enthralling cultural experience of being introduced to Barney the dinosaur in Greek.

Do it together. When packing, let your child help choose her outfits, but make sure you can mix, match, and layer her options. And accept that your space in the luggage will be what little is left over once your child's every need has been met.

Lighten your load. If you are a chronic overpacker, read Judith Gilford's The Packing Book (Ten Speed Press, 1998). Then practice what you've learned by not packing the book.

Stroll on. Strollers are truly handy-as restaurant seats, as nap venues, and especially as baggage carriers.

Pack a portable potty. Unfamiliar bathrooms can seem pretty intimidating to a toddler who's learning to use the potty, so carry an inflatable or portable potty seat and expect some setbacks. We use Graco's Folding Potty, which weighs only ounces.

Make time for teddy. Often what little ones want most when they're traveling is what they already know. Schedule a visit to a favorite fast-food restaurant or some quiet one-on-one time with a beloved stuffed animal.

BYO diapers. Disposable diapers are available almost everywhere in the world, but they can be expensive. If you're traveling internationally, pack up to an entire bag's worth. Coming back, use the space for souvenirs.

Rent right. Instead of transporting all of your baby items or having the grandparents buy their own, look for a local rental service. We do this, and Cleo's Arizona grandparents love that they don't have to store a crib, a high chair, and a basket of age-appropriate toys that go unused 51 weeks a year. Have a local friend or relative look in the Yellow Pages under "crib rentals." You can also pick up toys at a Salvation Army when you reach your destination and donate them back when you're through.

traveling with kids

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Don't stop. Check with a travel agent so you can fly off-peak and avoid congested airports. Generally, off-peak times are Tuesday through Thursday, plus late at night, very early in the morning, and mid-morning. The busiest and most congested airports in the U.S. include New York's LaGuardia and Chicago's O'Hare.

Sit smart.Travelers with babies and toddlers are often advised to sit in the plane's bulkhead because it has extra room. We avoid it, though, because there's no room under the seat for a carry-on bag, and we need easy access to our toys, snacks, drinks, and wipes during takeoff and landing.

Say "I'm sorry." Apologize for any disturbances that your children may cause. Generally, it's not a child's actions that most irritate other travelers, but the parent's indifference.

Carry a toothbrush. No matter how short your flight is, be prepared for the unimaginable: Keep enough food, clothing, and diapers with you for a 48-hour delay.

Play with her food. A few days before departing, call your airline to order a kid's meal. So what if she doesn't eat it? She'll be distracted for a few valuable minutes, and you may enjoy it more than your own.

Soothe earaches. To avoid and relieve ear pain when you take off and land, offer your child a pacifier or anything else that gets her to swallow. Yawning helps, too, so you may want to explain yet again how magnificent the Grand Canyon will be.

Do it tomorrow. Driving a rental car from the airport into a strange city is a major source of travel stress because most people arrive tired and disoriented. Instead, arrange to pick up the car at a city location or at your hotel after you've had a good night's sleep. (This can also save you money.) Don't forget to request a carseat if you didn't bring yours. And if you're renting in a foreign country, find out in advance if the car has seat belts in the back. Without them, a carseat is useless.

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Fence me in. The most fun kids have on a trip is often in the hotel pool. But unless it's fenced in, you'll be so worried that you'll never relax or sleep well.

Know where to find a room-and a smile-at the inn. The key to enjoying a hotel visit is to make sure you're welcome as a family. The signs? Family rates, kids' facilities, and minimal use of the words "intimate," "romantic," and "double Jacuzzi" in the promo material.

Childproof first. Because childproofing a hotel room is up to you, bring along outlet covers, a bathtub-faucet cover, and plastic cabinet locks (duct tape makes a very good temporary lock). Parents' safety starter kit, available at Target stores, includes all the essentials.

Nix the minibar. If you've got one in your room, ask that it be emptied. Not only will you have more space for your milk and juice, but you'll save your kids from developing unnecessary expensive habits.

Look locally. Hotel child-care programs aren't always licensed, so if you're staying in one place for more than few days, consider using a local day-care facility. Check Child Care Aware (800-424-2246) for referrals.

Dial a meal. Room service is sometimes well worth the extra cost because you don't have to get dressed or keep everybody awake. But show older kids how it works at your peril.

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Know your way. Use online map services such as www.randmcnally.com to help plan your trip and to avoid questions like "Daddy, do you know where you're going?"

Pick perfect car toys. Leave toys with little pieces at home-unless you want to practice your yoga by bending, turning, and reaching to the backseat floor every 10 minutes.

Be shady. To keep the sun out of your child's eyes, get some car window shades or hang a towel from the top of a rolled-up window. When you park, use the towel to cover your child's seat so it won't get so hot.

Resist reading. If there's any chance that your older child will get carsick, discourage him from reading. Instead, play games that require looking outside the window. "Count the American flags" is especially rewarding these days. Check www.momsminivan.com for game ideas.

Bring bags. In case your child does get sick, keep plastic bags at the ready. Gallon-size ones are best and can serve a dozen useful purposes. Bring a spare set of clothing for your child. And don't make the big mistake-as we did once-of not bringing an extra set for yourself.

Pop in a video. Keep the peace on long road trips by renting a portable VCR. A good source: www.drivinsane.com. Or try books on tape.

Don't "make time." Trying to shave minutes or hours off the average time it takes to get to a destination isn't only dangerous-with kids, it's an exercise in frustration.

Go for the neon. Dress your kids in bright clothing. Pin a card listing their local and home addresses inside their clothes. And if you plan to hike, learn to identify their shoe prints, in case they get lost. This will also prove invaluable at home when you try to figure out who tracked dirt on the living-room rug.

Cruise where the kids are. When choosing a cruise-ship itinerary, remember that most kids want to be with other kids. You'll find them on shorter, three- or four-day trips, especially in the Caribbean and during school holidays. Lines that excel at these itineraries include Carnival (888-227-6482), Disney (888-325-2500), and Royal Caribbean (800-327-6700).

Remember her shots. Well before you leave for a foreign destination, talk to your pediatrician about getting your child any necessary vaccinations, particularly if you're heading to an area with a high risk of disease. If you run into a medical problem abroad, a valuable resource is the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers, which publishes a directory of English-speaking doctors who will treat members. Membership is free (716-754-4883).

Sleep light. It can take several days for children to adapt to a new time zone. So accept that for a day or two you may be reading Green Eggs and Ham at 4 a.m.

Plan for passports. If you need a passport to visit a country, so will your child-even if he's an infant. Apply for one several months ahead of time; the wheels of bureaucracy turn no faster for kids (www.travel.state.gov/passport_services).

Tuck away the memories. Don't be too quick to rule out experiences that you think your child is too young to remember. What she might be absorbing as you carry her through New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or pedal her through the back roads of Holland is difficult even for a parent to determine with any certainty. But it is quite possible that she is forming impressions, however buried they may become, that will play a role in making her the unique individual she will always be.

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Here are five favorites that will save you time and money.

 

The Family Travel Forum is a great source of info on family-friendly stays. A membership fee is required for full access, but plenty of deals are available to everyone.

 

With categories such as "Best Free Attraction" and "Best Bargain Hotel," City Search gives money-saving insider information on popular vacation cities.

 

Check out the "Today's Deals" and "Everyday Deals" sections before booking a discount flight or cruise. There's also a flight-status finder, driving directions, and tips for family travel.

 

This site is perfect for long road trips; you can pick a route with hotels and restaurants that fall into your budget. It also gives you the scoop on the average gas prices for any area.

 

Bargain airfares are this site's biggest draw. The Power Fare Search feature lets visitors compare the rates of different air carriers.