Whether you’re headed to Maine or Maui, traveling with kids isn’t so different. There’s the ever-present “Are we there yet?”, the bathroom emergencies that always seem to hit at inopportune times and the challenge of making sure you’ve brought everything that your kids simply can’t do without. We can’t stop travel-hassle, but we can offer you ideas from travel experts and parents who’ve been there, done that, to simplify your routine and enjoy the ride more.
Set a Budget and Search for Deals
Overspending on vacation can make life anything but simple once you return home. Set a budget and then look for travel deals that help you meet that budget goal. It can actually be a lot of fun.
• Look beyond amusement parks and other mega-attractions, suggests LiLing Pang, the CEO and editor of the travel website trekaroo (www.trekaroo.com). “A lot of state and national parks are more affordable and the experiences are educationally a lot richer.”
• Search for recommendations from parents who live near your travel destination to discover free ways to have fun. “Decide as a family, ‘What is the one big thing we really want to do?’ then mix it up with free activities,” Pang says.
• Great travel deals abound on the Web, if you can be flexible. Check out sites like expedia (www.expedia.com), hotwire (www.hotwire.com) and bookit.com (www.bookit.com). Mom of four Leslie Helmig recently took advantage of a Luxury 4.5 Star Chicago Loop Mystery deal from bookit.com. The deal guaranteed a downtown Chicago hotel for $95 per night, but withheld the name of the actual hotel until after she made the reservation. Helmig’s result was the kid-friendly yet luxurious Swissôtel Chicago overlooking Navy Pier, which typically costs more than $400 per night!
• Subscribe to Groupon (www.groupon.com) or LivingSocial (www.livingsocial.com) for the city to which you’ll be traveling. Patty Owens did this for multiple cities during a road trip from Seattle to San Diego last year. She got great deals on annual passes to attractions that cost her family much less than individual ticket prices. “More than the deals, we learned more about the communities this way, too,” Owens says. She stayed organized by printing each Groupon and placing them in her passport-carrying pouch.
For Jill Tompkins, the wife of a pilot and frequent traveler with two girls under age 5, “the most stressful part is getting through the airport while keeping track of the kids and all the luggage,” she says. To simplify, she rents baby equipment from Baby’s Away (www.babysaway.com), BabiesTravelLite (www.babiestravellite.com) or Traveling Baby Company (www.travelingbaby.com). These companies have extensive lists of baby items you can rent for reasonable rates during your stay, and they deliver. Many hotel chains provide similar items; just call ahead to check availability. Marriott’s Tots Travel Too program (www.marriott.com/hotel/traveling-with-kids.mi), for example, provides free travel cribs in the room, bath toys to keep, bibs, outlet covers, nightlights and kids’ toiletries.
When it comes to clothes, learning to pack lighter will mean less stuff to keep organized and more room in your suitcase for vacation shopping. If it’s a beach vacation, your kids won’t need nice outfits every day. Pack two nice outfits that can be worn more than once. And minimize by sticking to a color scheme. Choose multiple shirts that can be worn with the same pair of shoes or pants. For toiletries, can everyone use the same shampoo and conditioner (or other necessary item)? Prepare to live more simply, and locate nearby stores just in case.
Whether you drive or fly, there are ways to simplify either choice:
• When on a multi-day road trip, Pang suggests packing a small backpack with what each person needs for the traveling day and night. The rest can go into larger suitcases in the trunk of the vehicle. This way, when you stop for the night, you don’t have to haul in huge suitcases filled with more items than you actually need.
• When stopping for meals or gas, locate an open field to run in or take a walk around a shopping center to expend some energy before getting back in the car.
• If you haven’t already, subscribe to an emergency roadside assistance service like AAA (www.aaa.com) a few months prior to a road trip. AAA’s website includes a Fuel Price Finder, hotel and restaurant discounts and expert travel advice.
• Choose wisely when bringing along activities for the trip. If your budget allows, consider purchasing an iTouch, iPad, Kindle Fire or Sony PlayStation Vita with multiple fu nctions (games, music, reading, picture-taking, etc.) on one system. The idea is to entertain kids in the car with the least amount of clutter. Karen Hoover, a mom of three, opts for a few pens with changeable ink colors and word-game books for her kids, rather than large bags of crayons or markers. Her family also rents Red Box movies for the car’s DVD player – these can be picked up and returned in different Red Box locations. And don’t forget that games of I-Spy or finding different state license plates can provide the simplest entertainment of all.
• When flying with a very young child, Pang recommends keeping him or her in an easily packable sling or soft carrier while in the airport. Both your hands will be free for luggage, and it’s easier to walk through airport security. “I would rather keep track of pushing and pulling luggage than have to fold the stroller at security and again at the gate. Having a carrier always makes a less stressful journey to your seat,” she says.
• Teach older children to be responsible for their own carry-on items. From the time my own daughter was 2.5, I taught her to fill her backpack with small, light items that she could carry through the airport herself. To be safe, always review the Transportation Security Administration’s guidelines for carry-on items beforehand (www.tsa.gov/travelers).
• On the plane, stow your child’s “necessities” – favorite blankets, diapers and wipes or electronics – under the seat in front of you for easiest access. And don’t underestimate the simple joys of ice in plastic airplane cups for babies and toddlers, says Tompkins. You can let them touch the ice, stack the cubes and even noisily crunch on them (yourself) for entertainment long after your drinks are finished.
• However you get to your destination, don’t make definite plans on the arrival day. “You just never know if a flight will be late or what might come up,” says Owens. “We don’t stress about getting to the hotel and rushing off somewhere because we give ourselves lots of flexibility, both coming and going.”
When choosing a place to stay, look for lodging with a kitchen, says Pang. “Often by the end of the day, kids are done. Buying food and eating in is more relaxing and the kids will get to bed at a decent hour.”
You can find many kid-friendly, kitchen-equipped units on VRBO (www.vrbo.com) on which private owners rent vacation homes and condos. The site makes it easy to see what individual units offer.
If it’s low-maintenance family camping you like, try a KOA campground (www.koa.com). Located in 44 states, often near popular attractions and interstates, you can sleep in a tent or cabin and build a fire while still having the convenience of bathrooms, showers, a small store and other amenities on the grounds. Some facilities include swimming pools, bike or boat rentals and other activities.
Though it’s a family vacation, time alone is important, too. Consider reserving a suite with separate bedrooms for you and your kids. If splurging, resort hotels often offer a full calendar of kids’ activities like crafts and nature walks to give parents time alone, and concierges can arrange for babysitters. If you rent a large house, splitting the cost so that multiple family friends can stay together, couples could swap babysitting on different nights or just gather in the living areas once the kids are in bed.
Simplifying your travel routine will do more than just help you relax. When you’re stressed, your kids sense it and feel stressed, too. When everything is running smoothly, you can all enjoy the vacation together.
Lydia Rueger is a freelance writer and mom of two.
Download these apps to your smartphone for even smarter travel:
• AroundMe – Search the area around your current location for nearest ATMs, pharmacies, hospitals, hotels, parking and more.
• HearPlanet – Search popular landmarks and buildings and listen to audio commentary about them as you walk.
• Kayak – Book flights and rent cars for travel; find a currency converter and receive price alerts on discounted flights.
• ParkFinder – Select outdoor activities by icon (tent camping, hiking, horseback riding, water sports, etc.) to find local availability.
• SitOrSquat – Search for the closest public bathrooms and changing tables; view cleanliness ratings from users.
• TripAdvisor – Find local attractions (amusement parks, museums, historic sites) as well as reviews.
• TripIt – This companion app for www.tripit.com extracts and organizes travel information based on confirmation e-mails you have received.
• Yelp – Read trustworthy reviews on restaurants, bars, gas stations, drug stores and other attractions.
Bringing Along a Helper?
If a willing friend or family member wants to simplify your trip by helping with the kids, that’s great, right? Well, maybe. “Make sure the person you are bringing along knows your family well, understands your routines and sees them often,” says Karen Hoover, a personal home manager and mom of three. “Otherwise you might find out on the trip that you don’t work so well together or that the person doesn’t get along with the kids, and it could become more stressful for you.”
If it’s a family member who you don’t often see or aren’t paying beyond travel expenses, keep your expectations low. “Do not expect them to do more than perhaps a 16-year-old older sibling might do,” Hoover says. The trip can still be a fun bonding experience, but probably will not be the childcare help that you anticipated.
If you are paying the person, make sure your expectations are clear (including time on and off the job, meals, etc.).
– Lydia Rueger