Family Travel Forum editors answers some of most frequently asked questions on choosing vacations and traveling with the family.
Q: What is the secret to a successful family vacation?
A: Fun! Everyone in the family deserves fun on their vacation. To make it happen, you’ll have to decide what everyone’s idea of fun is, and then do some planning to find the activity or resort that fits your needs. And if you include children in the planning, you may find that they have many new ideas about what’s fun!
Q: How do you decide on a destination that will make everyone happy? Is it important for children to enjoy activiites separately from their parents?
A: Everyone should be in on the planning stages. Never assume you know what your spouse would love to do or that your kids will be thrilled by an activity that consumed them last summer. The family budget-keeper should decide what kind of vacation is affordable (cruises, for example, are much more reasonable than they might appear because everything’s included in one price), and then present some ideas. Brochures with pictures are best for young kids, but material illustrating some particular interest (sports arenas, factory tours, wildlife viewing, golf, etc.) for each family member will go a long way toward helping make a group decision. Remember, if you have an only child or ornery siblings, a vacation may be much more enjoyable if there are planned activities or a kid’s camp where your children can meet others. This will give parents a needed break as well. Of course, adults have the last word and our motto at FTF is “Have Kids, Still Travel!” We firmly believe if you choose one of your favorite destinations and are prepared to share that love with your children, they, too, will have a great time.
Q: What are some pitfalls to avoid when traveling with young children?
A: The greatest mistake parents make is to plan too much each day — either in hours of driving or in hours of sightseeing. Also, the youngest travelers (and often older ones) will be happiest with a familiar routine. This means allowing for snacks, naps, and active playtime. In a big city, choose a centrally – located hotel, near a park or with a pool, so you won’t mind returning midday from sightseeing.
Q: How can parents prepare children for what to expect on vacation?
A: Once you’ve planned a trip together, preparing children for a chosen destination becomes very easy. Approach your trip as a shared adventure, reminding children that the experience will be new for you, too. If you’re going skiing or river-rafting, for example, talk about the new gear (or go see it at a store), and discuss new sensations (cold or wet) and safety rules that will apply. If you’re visiting a new culture, introduce it at home first. Read some stories or study an atlas together, serve some ethnic food, play indigenous music, and introduce simple words in the new language or special customs that your children may notice while traveling.
Q: Are children likely to get homesick during a vacation? How can parents help a child adjust to an unfamiliar environment?
A: Most children relish vacation time with their parents, particularly in dual-career families where kids can never get enough of Mom and Dad. If your child is traveling with a favorite cuddly or plaything, and you’re trying to maintain a familiar routine on the road, unfamiliar environments become new and exciting rather than different and frightening. If you travel to a new culture where everything seems different and your children feel overwhelmed, consider a visit to a zoo, playground, McDonald’s, pizza parlor, or other very homey activity that will help ground them.
Q: What are the most important items to take along?
A: Every trip has its own packing requirements, but the first rule we have is PACK LIGHT. Inevitably, someone will be stuck lugging someone else’s stuff around. Be sure each child has their own load — even the tiniest toddler will be proud of their fanny pack filled with a snack, crayon and post-it pad, and a small figure or vehicle. Child-size uprights, or wheel-along bags, are terrific for preschoolers who will want to bring too many heavy toys and books. Be sure to allow each child their own favorite stuffed animal, toy, or activity as a reminder of home and the personal space they’re leaving behind.
Q: How do you keep children occupied on long trips?
A: Long trips by car, bus, train or plane should ideally be broken up with hourly stretches, strolls to the bathroom, or a little roadside ball playing. A few rules of the road from our house:
1) Always carry some favorite snacks and drinks, and sleep-inducing wear, such as a blanket or slippers.
2) For cars and bus travel, choose large-print and tactile activities to prevent car sickness, and bring along binoculars.
3) For planes, avoid noise-makers and games with magnetic parts.
The enormous variety of keep-’em-busy, take-along activities we’ve tried include washable arts n’ crafts projects and markers; card games and quiz/maze/riddle books; audiotapes with songs or stories with read-along books; vinyl stick-on playsets; magnetic board games; and miniaturized games, such as “Memory.” Stash a few small presents, too, to smooth things over when weather delays, late planes, and bickering threaten the mood.
Q: How should parents handle emergency situations?
A: Pediatrician Dr. Neal M. Kotin, who writes a regular “Doc Holiday” column for the Family Travel Forum newsletter, recommends the following guidelines for dealing with medical problems on the road. Call a locally- recommended doctor first for trauma, fractures, lacerations, sore throat/fever, strep throat or ear pain. You can get referrals from your regular pediatrician before departure, a local ER/Children’s Hospital, or local friends with children. In the U.S., you’ll probably be referred to a local medical clinic. In a foreign country you can speak with your hotel’s concierge or your nation’s Embassy for assistance in finding a private doctor who speaks English. Don’t forget to provide any important information, test results, or X-rays to your own pediatrician upon return. Certain insurance and credit card companies also have telephone “hotlines” to provide local medical referrals to travelers.
Q: What are some highlights to look for at a ski resort? At a hot destination?
A: If you’ve chosen an activity-oriented vacation like skiing, make sure the resort has an age- and skill- appropriate ski program (including small sizes in rental gear) for each child, so that better skiers can have time to themselves on the mountain. If you can book ski in/ski out accommodations at the foot of a mountain, it will save a lot of wear n’ tear on the kids. At a warm weather or tropical destination, be prepared with sun protection and indoor quiet-time activities for the heat of the day. In both cases, plan ahead to bring appropriate clothing so that medical problems related to extreme changes of environment can be avoided.
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