It’s that time of year that families look forward to all year: time to take a summer break with a fun-filled family vacation. Regardless of your destination or budget – with all the exciting options through both domestic and international travel – packing up and traveling with the kids is often a recipe for a headache and sometimes hardly matches our picture-perfect image of the ideal family bonding experience. To help you get on the road (or plane or car, for that matter), we spoke to the experts—real moms, who’ve honed their perfect recipe for successful family travel. Here are our top tips from the mamis fabulousas Cristy Clavijo-Kish and Katherine Doble-Cannata of Los Tweens and Yolanda Machado, who blogs at Sassy Mama in LA.
Planning your trip
Lists, lists, lists: Creating different lists for different aspects of your trip – packing, dining, rest stop breaks – can help make your life a lot easier. Traveling with multiple children? Create different packing lists for each child and ask older ones to keep track of their progress and report back to mom, suggests Doble-Cannata, who has a ten-year-old, five-year-old and infant.
Plan your vacations with your child in mind: Machado’s four-year-old daughter loves the pool, so she plans vacations around destinations with great pools and water sports. “Knowing there’s a fun pool to play in after we arrive makes her less cranky on the way and makes the trip more fun for everyone,” explains Machado. Older kids can help plan the family vacation itinerary too, as Doble-Cannata has her ten-year-old plan the destinations she’d like to see. Giving your children the opportunity to plan the vacation allows them to invest in the trip, says Doble-Cannata, and helps ensure that they’ll stay smiling and will learn valuable qualities like time management, how to stay in budget and lean the mechanics of travel.
Dr. Mom: When packing, tuck a small bag of baby Tylenol, band aids, antiseptic and anti-bacterial wipes. Children under four aren’t advised to use anything stronger than Tylenol, and it’s ideal for warding off fevers that often accompanies travel. Use the wipes to clean surfaces on the airplane or before dining, and if you’re traveling by car, the wipes are handy for cleaning off marker stains, says Doble-Cannata. That’s right: pack up markers rather than crayons, because wax crayons will melt in a hot car.
Plane travel: Traveling with an infant of toddler via airplane can often be a taxing experience, but Machado found that keeping her daughter up before a plane ride ensured a nap right after a post-boarding bottle. Drinking a bottle prevents ear aches that babies can so easily get, and afterwards “she would fall asleep very easily,” says Machado. Don’t pack too many toys for babies, as they’ll most likely toss them on the floor she warns, noting that it’s just best to walk the plane with baby to soothe them back to sleep.
Keep them occupied: As the mother of a ten-year-old, five-year-old and infant, Doble-Cannata counts on headphones to keep the kids quiet during long plane rides. She assigns her two eldest children color-coded headphones and that way each child can listen to music, play games or watch movies without any arguments. “The quiet also allows my baby to sleep soundly in the car, and gives my husband and me time to talk or just listen to the music we want,” says Doble-Cannata. “It helps keep the peace!”
Eating on the go: Moms know that one of the best ways to keep baby happy is to keep them well fed. Keep current on TSA regulations regarding traveling with liquids; currently, you may carry no more than 3 ounce bottles of baby formula, breast milk or juice with you through security checkpoints. Pack along plenty of healthy snacks on the go and plan for one snack per two hours of travel, says Machado, whose four-year-old loves multi-grain crackers, grapes and travel-sized juices.
Rest easy: Instead of packing up the bulky crib or pack and play, call your hotel ahead to inquire about options for baby because many family-friendly hotels often have an inventory of items for guest use. Traveling to see a relative or visit the grandparents? Ask family friends or nearby relatives if you can borrow larger items as needed, suggests Machado.
On the go
The ins and outs of getting there: Standing in long airport lines with cranky or hyper children isn’t always the ideal way to kick-start a vacation, so take advantage of priority check-in. Frequent-flier status can often help you circumvent the lines and you may even be able to avoid baggage fees. Another bonus: certain credit cards can also give you access to exclusive airport lounges, which make the perfect area to breastfeed with more privacy than a bathroom might allow, says Clavijo-Kish.
Home away from home: Consider a home rental during your vacation, which Doble-Cannata prefers over a hotel. “You don’t have to worry about your kids being too loud, you can prepare your own meals, and often you can expose your children to unique experiences they might not get at a hotel,” the mom of three says. Case in point? Doble-Cannata has rented homes for family reunions, rented cabin homes with working farms (“great for my city kids,” the Miami resident says) and is planning to rent a beautiful, budget-friendly home in Annapolis, Maryland for an upcoming trip to nearby Washington, D.C.
Make it about family: While educational activity sheets, video games and new books are great to have while traveling, make a family commitment to put down the electronics once you’ve reached your destination (mom and dad included!). Make bonding time the focus of the vacation and encourage siblings to interact by having older children guide younger children while at museums and parks. “My ten-year-old will often read exhibit descriptions to my five-year-old, and it’s great – they’re both learning and interacting in a way they wouldn’t do at home,” says Doble-Cannata.