Our beach vacation was going great until it imploded on Day 4. Both kids woke at dawn, tired and wired from the previous night's funnel cake–fueled trip to the boardwalk. As they barked out breakfast orders, I stumbled around our kitchenette, scrambling an egg for my 6-year-old while holding a crying 2-year-old on one hip. The rest of the day followed suit, with tantrums, a sunscreen boycott, complaints that the beach was too sandy—everything you'd expect after junk food, salty waves, amusement parks, and late bedtimes. I wouldn't take back any of those things. If I screwed up at all, it was in expecting our trip to look like friends' Instagram shots, minus the messy outtakes. Managing expectations may be the best-kept secret behind a successful family getaway, says Corinne McDermott, mom of two and founder of HaveBabyWillTravel.com. "Once I embraced my daughter's need to nap, we enjoyed morning outings around it and going back to the hotel to rest," adds McDermott. She and other family-travel gurus spill their secrets to rocking your brood's next getaway, which starts with careful planning.
Get the lowdown on the following features:
* Room layout Ideally, they'll be a door (or at least a partition) between your bed and where the kids' are sleeping. If it looks you'll have to squeeze into one room, find out if there's an alcove big enough for a portable crib. Even a walk-in closet (door left ajar for ventilation) or wheelchair-accessible bathroom may do the trick.
* Pool Many hotels have one, but call to ask the hours (will it be open for your early riser?), the depth (is there a shallow end?) and whether there are lifeguards.
* Breakfast At the bare minimum, you want a spot that offers fruit, coffee, and other grab-and-go fare. But a free spread is fantastic, especially if there are cooked-to-order items. Some hotels put away their spread at 9 a.m. on weekdays—even in the summer—so ask about the free breakfast hours.
* Fridge A place to stash water, juice, fruit, and other snacks is standard in many hotels. If the hotel you otherwise like doesn't offer a fridge in guest rooms, ask if housekeeping can remove the contents of the mini bar so you can put your food and drinks in there.
* Kids' Activities Find out whether there's a drop-off children's program—and, if so, what are the hours and age restrictions. No go? Still probe further. Even hotels that don't have children's activities often offer coupons or discounted tickets to local family attractions.
* Baby Gear If you're bringing an infant or toddler, find out whether the hotel provides childproofing supplies, loaner high chairs, and baby bathtubs. Also make sure that it has sheets to fit the portable crib rather than relying on the ones used for the regular beds. You might want to pack a sheet from home just in case.
Some 59 percent of travelers planned to rent a vacation home last year, up from 52 percent the year before, according to TripAdvisor research. And a rental cottage or condo tends to cost less per night than a hotel. Just be sure to inquire about a few things that the listing may not mention:
* Safety Hazards Ask about any breakable décor, balconies and open staircases, a pool (including fencing), and the backyard (is it flat and grassy or hilly?).
* Maid Service Many rentals offer a housekeeper add-on that won't break the bank, especially if you're splitting the service with another family.
You're probably going to choose your airline based on price, reward points, and ease of travel (who wants a seven-hour layover?). If there are two similar carriers, use the info below to help make your choice. If not, just know what you're getting into.
* On-Time Landing The Department of Transportation issues Air Travel Consumer Reports every month. Downland the latest one to see how likely your carrier is to get you there without a delay.
* Kid Entertainment Many planes now have Wi-Fi. Find out whether it's free or they'll be a charge. While many planes still have family-friendly programming on seatbacks, it's better to bring your own device (along with the charger) than rely on their picks.
* Snacks Most airlines are serving free snacks once again. Jet Blue, in particular, has a lot of kid-friendly choices, including nut-free cookies.
* Free Perks American, Delta, Jet Blue, and Southwest Airlines offer free wing pins for kids—just ask. United recently debuted a free 28-page passport for kids with snacks and puzzles, plus a page for crew autographs.
Learn more about planning the ultimate vacation: