Your Hassle-Free Vacation Guide
1. "My kids won't be happy unless I pack a lot of toys"
False! What most moms find is that quality beats quantity in the toy department. Two weeks before the trip, let your child pick a few favorites to take along, then put those away so they'll be a bit more interesting. Add to your stash with a handful of toys reserved for travel only. Make one bag for plane or road trips, and tuck a few extra items into your suitcase for the hotel room.
My kids always enjoyed a blow-up ball in the hotel or for the pool and a LeapPad for the car. Books on tape can be enjoyed in the car or plane, and when it's time to turn off all electronic devices, there's great fun to be had with sticker books, magnetic travel games, and Magna-Doodles (there's even a new clip-on Doodle Pro that's drop-proof).
2. "I'm sure there'll be an extra plane seat for my child"
Yes, sometimes parents do get lucky and there is an available airline seat for a child who is under 2. So if you think it's worth it to lug the car seat onto the plane in hopes that luck will be on your side, go for it (we know parents who swear by this!). But during peak vacation times, the odds of finding a free seat may be against you. You might just get stuck in the middle seat with a wriggling 20-month-old on your lap with the car seat tagged and stowed. And even though airlines allow children under 2 to sit on your lap, and you think your baby is going to nurse most of the time, the FAA suggests that you do keep your child in a car seat for takeoffs and landings—and that probably means buying an extra ticket.
To make bringing a car seat easier, consider using one that's safe to use without its base (the product info will indicate whether your seat can be used this way). And if your child weighs between 22 and 44 pounds, using a seat harness instead of a car seat is a safe option, according to Partners for Child Passenger Safety. Approved by the FAA and AAP (for plane travel only, not car travel), such harnesses are made by companies like CARES (Child Aviation Restraint System).
3. "We'll just let the kids sleep with us"
Famous last words! The last thing you want in an already (probably) too-small hotel room is close quarters while sleeping, Motherboard Moms told us. The best solution is having a separate bed for each child. That means a porta-crib for kids under 3 (some of the new models weigh in at less than three pounds, and there's even a tent-style model that folds up to fit in a suitcase) and a separate bed, rollaway bed, or pullout couch for older children. If you're planning to stay at a national chain, most have portable cribs or rollaway beds available for a nominal charge, but call ahead to reserve and check the safety of the models available. Many national chains now offer the Wehsco brand, which has a perfect safety record, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.
If you're bringing your own travel bed, put your child to bed in it for a few nights before the trip so he's familiar and comfortable with the new digs. And make the portable crib seem homey while on the road, like Motherboard Mom Claire Florimonte of California does. "When we use a hotel crib, we bring our own sheets and blankets so they'll smell like home," says the mom of 23-month-old Shane. "We've even draped mommy's and daddy's shirts on top to make it smell familiar."
4. "My child and his 'lovie' are inseparable; no problem"
Yes, problem: If your child's favorite lovie gets lost during your travels, the only "in" he'll be is inconsolable! There are two solutions to this problem that Motherboard Moms swear by. One is labels. In a prominent place, attach an iron-on or sew-on label with your name and cell phone number (written in waterproof Sharpie). Include a brief but poignant message: "Important: Please call if found" should suffice.
The second, have a backup for any attachment object your child can't live without. Ask any parent who's retraced his or her steps across the state looking for a beloved Pooh bear or doggie or blankie left in a rest stop: Having a backup can be a lifesaver.
5. "My kids won't mind trying new foods"
Wishful thinking! During a vacation is probably not the time to expect junior to break out of his all-white-food repertoire. So be prepared with a list of places that can satisfy your tastes and your child's. After all, most parents agree that nothing takes the stress out of traveling like relaxing over a glass of wine and gourmet meal while kids nosh on $3 cheese pizza and draw with crayons.
Restaurants with such family-friendly setups are out there and easy to find, if you travel prepared. Ask friends for recommendations and check searchable sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp before you go. Or use one of the many phone apps out there—try urbanspoon or irestaurant—listing nearby healthy or kid-friendly restaurants.
Do be prepared for potential food meltdowns. Mom Claire Florimonte stocks up on cheese, fruit, veggie sticks, hummus, steamed broccoli—and keeps it all in airtight bento lunch boxes in a cooler. She'll take a box in with her when her family stops at a restaurant—just in case someone has an attack of the pickies.
Another solution is to picnic whenever possible. Mom of three Samantha Edison of Charlotte uses Yelp or Google to pinpoint parks with great playgrounds wherever she goes, and the family eats a relaxed picnic dinner while the kids play.
6. "We're aren't going to have much of a schedule while on vacation"
Just as you planned your itinerary around museum schedules and happy hours when you were young and footloose, it's wise to plan your family travel itinerary around your child's typical nap routine. If you can usually count on a block of un-cranky time between 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., schedule activities like brunch with grandma or a long walk through a hot zoo for this time slot. Getting an early start makes it easier to get your sightseeing in pre-nap, when it's typically cooler outside, too. To avoid wasting half the day dealing with breakfast, choose a hotel with a breakfast buffet or keep cereal, milk, and other basics in your hotel fridge.
Use naptime to catch up on your reading, or take turns heading out for a favorite activity, like a round of golf or visit to the hotel gym. And don't forget that a nap doesn't have to take place in bed. Motherboard Mom Samantha Edison takes full advantage of the fact that her 2-year-old is lulled to sleep by the rolling of the stroller. "She's napped in parks, zoos, and museums," Edison says. "In fact, I've had my best museum experiences when she falls asleep and I can study the paintings as long as I like."
7. "It'll be easy to find bargains on the road"
Most Motherboard Moms are not fans of winging it, and that's true of planning a vacation on a budget too. That's why Dana Vento, Pittsburgh Frugal Mom blogger, swears by AAA. "I could go on and on about AAA and credit card discounts; you can easily knock as much as 10 to 20 percent off the total price of a trip if you use them to their full potential," she says.
Most amusement parks and family attractions offer discount coupons if you go to their websites, and even better deals are sometimes on offer in the Sunday paper or at the grocery store counter. If you belong to AAA, you can get price breaks on rental cars, hotels, tickets to tourist attractions—and free maps and guidebooks too. Also, the back pages of the AAA magazines are loaded with advertisements, many of them offering member discounts, says Vento. Visit your AAA office while planning your trip.
Other places to look for savings: Sometimes you'll find a discount coupon tucked into your credit card or bank statement; major hotel chains, for example, offer special rates in partnership with a credit card if you use the card to pay the bill. And many major cities—even expensive ones like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles (including the Disney parks), San Francisco, and Toronto—now offer City Passes, which are coupon booklets that get you into a host of that city's most popular tourist draws as well as providing unlimited rides on local transport for one set price.
8. "My kids won't fight when they're on vacation"
I have only two children and they often squabbled on vacation—over the remote, the car stereo, which restaurant to go to, who got to shower first, you name it! It's kind of unrealistic to think that children's behavior is going to somehow change just because they're not at home.
There are two solutions to this problem, and they're both travel-savvy variations on the strategies you use at home. The first is to eliminate the number of things to fight about. Let each kid bring his or her own electronic game or mp3 player or portable DVD player (with headphones), so there's no need to fight over the music or movies or games. If the whole family has incredibly different tastes in food, stick to buffets or go to a deli that has a big selection. Solution number two is good old taking turns. Alternate choosing TV shows, daily activities, restaurants, etc. Before the trip, make up a chart showing whose turn it is to pick what. Of course, vacation isn't really a democracy and kids have to learn that, too, but letting them choose one thing each day goes a long way toward keeping the peace.
9. "My kids will be so tired, they'll fall right to sleep"
We hope so. But if your children are afraid of the dark at home, for instance, it's unlikely they'll lose that phobia on vacation—no matter how tired they are. Nightlights, of course, are your first line of defense whether you're in a hotel or at grandpa's house. Travel with several and use at least two in the room where your child is sleeping—one on either side of the room to banish shadows—and one in the bathroom.
Bring a selection of favorite bedtime stories. And if your child typically listens to music while falling asleep, make room in your luggage for a speaker dock and mp3 player stocked with all his favorite lullabies and bedtime songs. If an evening warm drink is what your child is used to, dad Derek Jacobson of Boulder has the answer for that. On family vacations he brings a small plug-in cooking pot, which he uses to heat up daughter April's milk before bed.
10. "Just looking at the sights and scenery will keep my kids occupied"
Who are you kidding? While the sights and scenery are fascinating—and you can make it even more so by playing I Spy and license-plate games with older kids—the time will come when the "Are we there yet?" chorus will begin.
Having lots of back-seat entertainment—from metal baking sheet lap desks with magnetic letters, paper, and art supplies to a back-of-the-seat picture for baby to look at (surprise him by changing it out at each stop!)—can help battle boredom. But breaking up the trip with interesting stops can really make even a daylong car trip seem fun. Plan ahead to pull over at a mini golf course or a roadside stream. (Pack a bag with swimsuits, towels, sandwiches, and a change of dry clothes.) And when crankies are about to set in, spice up the trip with a gift. Mom Sally James of Chicago likes to reward her kids with a gift-wrapped toy about three-quarters of the way through the drive. Make it a new road-friendly toy, and it might keep them quiet the rest of the way.