6 Family Travel Headaches–Solved!

When I got into the travel business back in the ’90s, I had no idea where it would take me, but over the years, I’ve come to specialize in a couple of niche markets: family travel and single-parent travel (in that order, thanks to a divorce in 2000). I have done many television and radio interviews on these topic over the years, and the same six questions keep popping up. So if you are getting a headache trying to figure out how to finagle your family travel, start here. I might just have your aspirin.

1. HELP! My husband wants a romantic second honeymoon, but we’re taking along our toddler. Where can we go and what can we do?

The best solution is to find a trusted baby sitter or family member to watch your child while you reignite those embers of matrimony. A private two- or three-night getaway can certainly do wonders to restore romance. But if you must take Junior along, look for a destination that has a children’s program. Not just a baby-sitting service, but a carefully designed, specially staffed children’s program. The Camp Hyatt program (minimum age: 3) is an outstanding example. Their staff is trained in early childhood development and child care. In addition to getting a special kid-friendly menu, you can also learn to hula dance in Hawaii, search for Native American arrowheads in Texas or watch the dolphins in Florida. Another option is to take a cruise. Most cruise lines accept youngsters as young as 2, and their programs are organized into activity groups by age. In either case, you are just a beeper away from your child, and the program usually provides the beeper. In my experience, once the kids are in the program, it’s hard to persuade them to leave.

2. We want a big family vacation, but we’re on a budget. What should we do?

There are plenty of ways to save money on a family vacation. One is to travel in the off-season. For example, ski resorts are a lot of fun for families in the summer months, especially if you can get hold of some mountain bikes. Or look into a serviced campground; by “serviced” I mean cabins and electricity — certainly not the “roughing-it” camping of Cub Scout days. My family has had a lot of fun at some of the Yogi Bear Campgrounds, which offer TV and phone service in the cabin. Another tip, wherever you go, is to cook your own meals (usually, it is the restaurant meals that kill the family travel budget). Finally, be sure to use any reward points you’ve accumulated with your airline or credit card company. They can really add up to savings.

3. I always wind up overpacking — and yet I still forget things. Any advice?

Don’t sweat it. It’s like the weather: There’s not much you can really do about a forgotten item, now is there? But I sympathize. I used to be a victim of my own disorganization, and I was always forgetting something critical (usually sunscreen, which for some reason costs three times as much once you reach your sunny destination). I got tired of all those trips to the gift shop, so I developed a simple and fun packing checklist. Now when we pack (and I make my kids pack themselves), I give the list to my son and put him in charge of keeping his dad and sisters on track. If you want a copy, you can download the list from my agency’s Web site.

4. Our flight is nearly six hours long and we have two kids with us! What can we do to make the long trip less stressful?

With the state of air travel today, you will be lucky if the flight takes off at all, much less on time. My advice is to expect the unexpected and come to the airport prepared. Most important: Buy the kids their own seats. (Yes, it’s tempting to save money by having that little one ride in your lap, but believe me, it’s almost always a bad idea.) Make sure the kids have plenty to drink; good hydration will help them cope with the cabin pressurization. Set the expectations for behavior before you leave for the airport, and for heaven’s sake, have plenty for them to do.

Are they old enough to own or borrow an iPod? Do they know how to use one? We downloaded a full-length movie to my son’s video iPod for our last trip; a $4 headphone splitter from Radio Shack allowed his sister to listen, too, and they were both entertained for more than two hours. Battery-operated Game Boys and P2Ps are also fantastic time passers. Sudoku, word-find games, crossword puzzles, crayons and coloring books are all outstanding investments for a long trip (also plain old books, if the kids are already reading). If it is an especially long flight, ask your travel professional about the onboard entertainment; there might be a built-in gaming console at the kids’ seats. (This was the case on the Cathay Pacific flight I took with my son to China a few years back, and it was a godsend.)

5. Is there a way to make everyone happy on a vacation – two adults, a teenage son, an 8-year-old daughter and our 2-year-old?

Families with a big age range have to work hard in advance of the trip. Make sure everyone is involved in the planning and make no assumptions. (For example, do not assume Gramps is too old for Disney — he may be looking for a good excuse to be a kid again.) Look for a destination that has something for everyone, and be on the lookout for special children’s programming so the grownups can have some time to themselves. Most important, don’t push the idea that everyone has to spend every waking moment together. “Downtime” and “apart time” are underrated, in my opinion, and I build them into all my family vacations. For example, I took a cruise in August with my kids and their “Grammy.” Most of the time, the kids were with me or they hung out with their new friends, but we ate all our dinners with Grammy, and we did a couple of shore excursions together. That way the kids avoided “Grammy overload,” and Grammy was able to have a good time without having to be institutionalized when she got off the ship.

6. What are some resources for family deals, trips, advice, etc.?
My best advice is to work with a travel agent who is really interested in family travel. The Internet has many great resources, too, but take the consumer reviews with a grain of salt; after all, no two families are alike in their needs and expectations. For hotels and resorts, I like to check out Trip Advisor. For anything cruise-related, I use Cruise Critic, a wonderful forum-based Web site. Single Parent Travel is indispensable for that constituency, and Tripso has a lot of tell-it-like-it-is information on the travel industry as a whole. If you are headed to the mall, check out Borders or Barnes & Noble for some of the better guidebooks including Frommer’s, Rick Steves and Zagat.

My most memorable trips have been family trips, though I’m pretty sure not one of them went off without a hitch. The above tips might help you out a bit, but the best advice, I have saved for last–just roll with the punches and enjoy the ride.

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