Are We There Yet? Travel Tips for Parents

By Lori McLaughlin

Nothing’s more fun than a family vacation, right? Sharing the freedom of the open road with the ones you love is a great experience. Still, worrying about how to pull it off robs many parents of a good night’s sleep.

Last year over a million children went on a cruise…newer ships are floating pleasure domes.

To make your trip memorable for all the right reasons, we’ve compiled lots of practical advice to help you anticipate snags and avoid meltdowns—theirs and yours. So go ahead and book that trip; you’ll be prepared.

Getting Ready

Get everyone involved in vacation planning. Trips go much smoother when kids know where they’re going. Give them something to look forward to by allowing them to choose a destination, route or attractions.

Start packing early. There’s nothing worse than making everyone stand around on departure day because of a lost shoe. Let older kids pack their own bags, with supervision (your teen does not need three outfits per day). Because it is inevitable someone will spill something a mile from home, bring a change of clothes in a bag not buried too deep in the trunk.

Pack light. Once a bag is packed, wait a day, take everything out, and start over. If your trip involves a flight with baggage weight limitations (50 pounds a bag), wear the heaviest shoes and coat to board the plane.

Bring favorite toys and gadgets for each child. “Books are good, but most children are hooked on technology,” says Lisa Harris of Center Valley, whose son plays for hours on a Sony PlayStation Portable. Savvy parents like Bethlehem’s Kathy Kach know the value of surprises. She packed gift bags with new coloring books and Barbies for her young daughters on a flight to Disney. “They were allowed to open them once airborne, and the flight was trouble-free.” Small toys from local dollar stores are best, especially if individually wrapped. (Triple-wrap if necessary—the fun is in the unwrapping!)

Bring medications and baby wipes. To avoid having to find a drugstore open at 11 PM, pack in anticipation of any emergency. If anyone is prone to carsickness, a plastic bag-lined ice chest is a lifesaver. Baby wipes are the duct tape of travel—they’ll wipe a runny nose, clean up messes, and blot sweat from dad’s overheated neck.

Pack snacks. Family trips are a proven appetite stimulant and too much is better than too little.  Pack drinks and juice boxes in a cooler, and crackers and fruit roll-ups in small zip-top bags. A secret arsenal of cookies works when someone is crying.

Paperwork. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare to be separated from a child, so write an emergency phone number on a piece of paper to tuck into their pocket. A cell phone works better for older kids. If you’re travelling abroad, even to Canada or Mexico, says AAA East Penn travel agent Jill Graver, know that everyone, infants included, needs a passport.

On the Road

Pace yourself. Leave late in the evening—take the “red-eye,” if flying—or an hour before naptime so kids sleep during the trip. Napping is critical to everyone’s sanity, especially yours.

Keep the peace. If you’re traveling with multiple children, seat one parent in back as the enforcer. A portable DVD player works miracles. “I swore I’d never let my kids watch TV in the car, “says Susan Smith of Macungie, “but it’s a lifesaver.” The player does double-duty plugged in at the hotel, where her boys watch movies.

Break every two hours. Aim for places with playrooms or playgrounds so little ones can run around while you order their food “to go” to eat later in the car.

Fly the Friendly Skies

It’s all in the timing. Avoid the first flight of the day and late afternoon/ early evening commuter flights—they’re most likely to be full.

Board separately if two parents are traveling. Send one ahead with the gear while the other supervises a last-ditch effort to wear out the kids.

Seat strategy. Travelling to Disney with two boys, Samantha Anglestein of North Whitehall and her husband sat in different rows, each with a child at the window seat.  It was a winning combination. “My older son loved it!” she says. He actually looked forward to the return flight.

Ride the Rails

Trains are perfect if someone in the family doesn’t like to fly. Ginny from Easton took Amtrak twice to Florida with her husband, 1-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. They boarded in Philadelphia and 16 hours later arrived in Jacksonville, unscathed. The secret’s in the timing: Board the train at 5 PM, eat dinner at 6 and then it’s bedtime, breakfast, and off the train at 9:30 AM. Stay aboard 3 more hours and you’re in Orlando.

Hotels

Spring for a suite. “Having a room with a separate bedroom and living area is helpful when kids go to bed early,” says Smith, who learned the hard way. One night, she and her husband “hung out in the bathroom because the kids went to bed and we weren’t ready to call it a day.”

Other amenities parents swear by are pools, laundry facilities, elevators to get everything upstairs in one trip, in-house restaurants, complimentary breakfasts, mini-fridges, and bathtubs. Jennifer Reich of Hellertown always reserves a room with a tub for her 3- and 4-year-old sons after getting one with just a shower stall. “I had no place to give the boys a bath!”

Bring night lights. They keep kids comforted in a strange place, and there’s no need to fumble for switches if anyone needs nighttime attention.

On the High Seas

Last year over a million children went on a cruise, and why not? Newer ships are floating pleasure domes, complete with ice-skating rinks, climbing walls, movies under the stars, science workshops, and “mocktail” lounges–and that’s just for kids!

This evolution of onboard programming makes cruising very family-friendly. The “friendliest” lines are Carnival, Disney, NCL, Princess and Royal Caribbean, but which ship is best depends on your definition of family fun. All offer programs grouped by age so kids hang out with their peers.

Most staterooms have a four-person limit. If you’re travelling in a pack, reserve a larger outside room for the adults and a less-expensive inside room across the hall for kids. Some ships have connecting staterooms or family suites. The key is having two bathrooms.

AAA travel director Sally McCorrison is a fan of homeport cruising. Cruises to the Caribbean and Bermuda originating in New York and Cape Liberty, NJ eliminate the need for a flight to embarkation ports in Florida, she says. It’s a huge savings in cost and hassle for families to drive their own car and park at the pier. Cheaper still are local Trans-Bridge buses that travel to the New York piers and drop you right at the ship.

One Last Piece of Advice

The real key to a successful family vacation is not to push. Take it easy, allow everyone some down time, and know you can’t see or do everything all in one trip. Bon voyage!

Lori McLaughlin fuels her passion for travel working at AAA East Penn, and is always plotting the next escape.

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