Mom-Tested Strategies for Fun Family Vacations
Ideas from real moms and family travel experts for making the most of your trips
There & Back Again: The Guide to Family Travel
Want to make a good trip truly great? These travel tips help you do just that. Whether you're headed for adventure or just to Grandma's, our tried-and-true advice from savvy moms gets you on the road to cutting costs, upping the joy, eliminating the aggravation, and making the best-ever memories. So what are you waiting for?
Get inspired before you go
Bon voyage, travel guidebooks! Crowd sourcing makes the most of the wisdom of the wanderlusting masses. It's the perfect way to pick a new destination or get excited about one you've already chosen.
- Send friends and family a "Where should we go/ what should we do?" e-mail to elicit dynamic and trustworthy advice on destinations, lodging, routes, and sights.
- Use Facebook as another scenic route to knowledge. "Best BBQ in Memphis?" "Fave museums in SF?" Mara Gorman, the blogger behind motherofalltrips.com, says, "I'll share my destination and love to see what friends recommend."
- Pinterest can also be a great source of travel inspiration, says Gorman: "Search using your destination name to pull up photos and posts." Or try YouTube for a live-action preview of possible destinations.
Plan your itinerary like (or with) a pro
Don't let the wide world of trip-planning info overwhelm you; get help navigating the where, when, and how.
- Travel agents are back, and ready to guide you through the glut of options. At tripology.com, punch in details with as much or as little specificity as you like, and within the day, several competing agents will "bid" on your trip, e-mailing you prices and (obligation-free) itineraries.
- The TripIt app is Gorman's new go-to organizer. "It takes all your confirmation e-mails and automatically generates an itinerary with everything you need in one handy place."
- Online meta search engines help blogger Erin Gifford of kidventurous.com scope out her own flight deals: "My two favorites are Kayak.com and Airfarewatchdog.com because they make it easy to track prices and set fare alerts. Kayak will even tell you whether they think you should buy now or wait for lower fares."
Book an alternative accommodation
Less traditional lodgings offer more value and more room, while letting your family stay in its comfort zone.
- Vacation home rentals are a good fit for Gifford's family of six: "The overall cost is far cheaper than a hotel, and it's helpful to have the extra space, as well as bedroom doors, so that everyone can retire and relax in their own areas at the end of a long, fun day." (A fridge, stove, washer, and dryer are nice, too.) Try HomeAway.com or FlipKey.com (Erin's faves) or Airbnb.com or VRBO.com (ours).
- An extended-stay business hotel, such as Homewood Suites, is the best bet for Jamie Pearson, who blogs at travelsavvymom.com. "Most feature laundry facilities, swimming pools, complimentary breakfast and evening receptions, full kitchens, and complimentary grocery shopping," she notes.
Pack with purpose
Sensible suitcase stuffing means having what you need, leaving what you don't, and finding everything lickety-split.
- Customize a master packing list to print and check off. For help generating one, try packwhiz.com or havebabywilltravel.com, where blogger Corinne McDermott has adaptable starter lists. Use Facebook as another scenic route to knowledge.
- Pack bags by the day, rather than the person, recommends Jessica Bowers, who blogs at suitcasesandsippycups.com. "This saves us from dragging four to five suitcases into the hotel each night; instead we can grab just one. I also like to pack the pajamas and swimwear in one bag, since it keeps the kids from emptying the suitcase to find them."
- Ziploc's 10-Gallon Big Bags are Pearson's preferred kids' clothing carriers: "They keep everything neat, visible, and separate. I pack my things loose in the bottom of a huge suitcase, then I pack one bag per child and put them on top. At our destination, I put the bags on the floor next to my kids' beds. They can see what they're looking for, so there's no digging."
Find simple mementos
Skip the predictable and go for thrifty, creative keepsakes -- the kind that will evoke your trip long after you return home.
- Flattened pennies are inexpensive souvenirs available at many attractions (find locations at pennycollector.com).
- Reusable shopping bags from far-flung stores make swell (and cheap) mementos that you'll actually use again.
- Free tourist maps are Gorman's souvenir of choice: "Grab a couple -- one to give your kids for reading material in the car, the other for a scrapbook or bulletin board."
- Special playlists that they listen to during the journey are another way Gorman's family makes memories, especially on road trips. "Every time you play those songs afterward, they will bring back memories of your trip."
Lower your expectations
Sightseeing with kids is great -- in small doses. So pace yourself for the sake of peace and pleasure.
- "Don't try to do too much in one day" is Gorman's golden rule for keeping everyone happy. "I treat every place we visit as if we're planning to return. I'd rather miss something than cram in too much and end up with cranky kids. I also plan some down time each day at a park, a playground, or in the hotel pool."
- "Keep activities age- and stage-appropriate," offers McDermott. "That mountain has been there forever; it will still be there when the kids are old enough to explore it."
Go for DIY diversions
Apps and iPads can help answer the question, "Are we there yet?" (or at least distract your kid from asking). But when the batteries run out, it's nice to have backup.
- Print out a map of your route on MapQuest or Google and mark it with a pen, "you are here" style, when the kids are curious (i.e., whining).
- Vacation books created from brochures, maps, and activity sheets relating to the route and destination keep blogger Linda Kramer's kids busy on road trips. Kramer, who writes at minnemom.com, has the books spiral-bound at a copy center. They include a pocket for papers or pamphlets her children might collect along the way. "Not only do they keep the kids busy in the car and help them learn about our destinations," Linda explains, "but they also serve as souvenirs when we return home. I've been doing this for five years, and now the kids ask before each trip, 'Are you making a vacation book for us?'"
Make getting there half the fun
Hit the road with stops in mind to turn your car trip into a great adventure.
- The Roadtrippers app "allows you to plot your route and find lodging, food, attractions, entertainment, and shopping along the way," says Bowers. Consider her family's delightful lunch break in Pontiac, Illinois: "It was Mayberry in living color, with great home cooking, free museums, and activities that enticed us to spend the entire afternoon. We toured the Route 66 museum and found a park with stretches of swinging bridges across the river. It was a perfectly picturesque stop that we never would have even considered otherwise."
Get more bang for your buck
When it comes to thrift -- that holy grail of family travel -- a little planning can mean a lot of savings.
- Restaurant evasion is Bowers' key strategy: "It's the biggest money saver while traveling. I have reusable bags I pack lunch in each day, and I even add a dollar-store toy, so it seems like a fast-food meal with a prize."
- Online bargains keep sightseeing affordable for Gorman: "Join Groupon or LivingSocial for the city you're visiting, and you may get discount coupons for attractions." Find cheap tickets to shows and museums at sites such as goldstar.com and broadwaybox.com.
- Free admission to dozens of museums around the country may be one of the perks when you sign up for membership to your local science and children's museum. For details on the Passport Program of the Association of Science - Technology Centers, go to astc.org.
Roll with it
Leaking air mattresses, lost luggage, gigantic cockroaches: something is bound to go wrong. But it will usually turn out fine, and you'll treasure the story afterward.
- "Things will not always go as planned, and that's OK," offers McDermott. "It's an overall mindset I've had to adopt. One trip of ours started with both kids throwing up all over me on the plane. Our first stop was the hotel laundromat. Keeping your plans a bit flexible means you're all a lot more likely to go with the flow."
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of FamilyFun.