There’s nothing better than a great family vacation, right? You get to reconnect, have fun and forge an even stronger bond…in theory. But when you’re stressing about every little thing – bored kids who are constantly complaining, a crying baby waking the people in the next room, desperately searching for the place Google Maps said was just around the corner – it can be hard to have a good time.
The solution? Taking a few key factors into account when planning family vacations. These are the strategies I use to create trips we still talk about – from an epic road trip to Zion National Park to visiting an amazing, under-the-radar Orlando theme park. With these tips, you can plan incredible trips for your family, too.
Related: Travel Hacking for Beginners
9 Secrets for Planning an Awesome Family Vacation
#1: Consider the age of your kids
The age of your kids makes a big difference in what you do on a family vacation. If you have a young baby that isn’t walking yet, the world is your oyster. Seriously, grab your baby carrier and go wherever you want – your little one will be content to spend mass amounts of time-strapped to your chest.
Kids four and under won’t remember much of the trip, so go wherever you want. Just make sure it has a few fun places for young kids to burn energy (think: playgrounds, beach, children’s museum, nature center).
Once kids reach elementary age, you’ll definitely want a destination that has entertaining activities for them. Otherwise, prepare yourself to hear “I’m bored” or “when is this over?” which is such a vacation buzz kill.
#2: Find activities everyone can enjoy
I’m a firm believer that family vacations are about everyone in the family having fun, not just the kids. So, I look for activities we can all enjoy. Families with little ones can ride bikes (or trikes), sample fudge, visit a farm or feed ducks.
Have older kids? Think about the interests of your children and see if there’s something related that you can do while on vacation. For example:
- If your child is a foodie: Sign up for a cooking class, try a new cuisine or have a food mission like testing out the best hot dog joints in Chicago.
- If your child loves animals: Volunteer at an animal refuge, swim with dolphins, feed giraffes at the zoo.
- If your child is an adventurer: Try a surf simulator, go ATV-ing, try geocaching at a park or hiking to a hidden waterfall.
- If your child likes sports: Go to a local game, try out a batting cage or play miniature golf.
- If your child likes mermaids: Hunt for shells on a beach, visit an aquarium or go snorkeling.
#3: Build anticipation
Even small children can get excited about vacation. Maximize this – studies find that thinking about going on vacation is half the fun! Ways to build anticipation include:
- Learn about the destination: See if you can find children’s books at the library about the destination’s animals, culture or historical significance.
- Visualize it: Point out the destination on a map or find a quarter with the state’s emblems on it.
- Learn the language: Learn how to speak a few words if you’re going to a country with a different language (please, thank you, hello and goodbye).
- Imagine you’re there: Watch children’s movies or nature shows that are set in that locale.
#4: Set expectations
Set your children’s expectations before going on a trip. Go over how you’ll take turns doing stuff they like with some activities that are just for grown-ups. Bring along cards, games or other entertainment to keep them occupied while you do something your kiddos consider a snooze.
#5: Stay somewhere with built-in entertainment
Let’s be real: Parenting young kids can be tiring and you could probably use some downtime during vacation. Choose a hotel or a home rental that has kid-friendly amenities so you can stay in and relax a bit.
You can never go wrong with a place that has a fantastic pool (bonus points if there are fun floaties, too). Other amenities to look for include:
- Lawn games
- Backyard trampolines
- Splash pads
- Board games
- Sleds, if you’re someplace with snow
#6: Try new foods
Sampling local dishes is a part of exploring a new area. Even picky eaters can be enticed to give new things a try. You just have to make it sound similar to something they already love.
In Canada, my kids tried poutine because I sold it as fancy French fries (topped with gravy and cheese curds) and maple syrup taffy because they already like the stuff on their pancakes. In Kentucky, they had fried chicken (just like nuggets, right?) and they’ve also sampled flan (milk Jello) and bubble tea (like lemonade with Jello balls in it).
See what your child might be open to and if all else fails, have some back-up snacks in your purse.
#7: Give kids a souvenir budget
Browsing adorable shops or walking a local flea or farmers market may sound like fun to you, but kids aren’t usually into shopping. But if you give them a shopping allowance, all of a sudden looking through items and stopping at stalls isn’t so bad anymore. In fact, you may see your little one perk up with the power of having their own cash to spend.
My kids enjoy thinking about everything they could buy and carefully weigh their options. They end up with a souvenir they’re excited about, not just the t-shirt I bought them. The bonus? It’s good for them to learn how to work within a budget and it keeps them busy so I can shop, too. Win-win!
#8: Book tours
When you’re in an unfamiliar place, going on tours makes getting around your destination easier. And, you’ll learn a lot more about the place than you ever would’ve on your own.
Many big cities have hop-on/hop-off tour buses with stops at major tourist attractions. You can buy a ticket and use it as your transportation all day and it probably goes to all the sights you want to see. Most let you take a folded stroller on board, too. I love not having to stress over driving from place to place and finding a parking spot on my own.
I also recommend looking for family-friendly tours at museums and booking special tours to explore a city (by bike or Segway or based on interests like food or sports). You can find tour providers at your destination’s official tourism website or try Viator.com, a well-established vendor in cities worldwide.
#9: Have kids carry their own backpack
Little kids tend to have a lot of gear – stroller, carrier, diaper bag – but here’s a way to lighten your load: Have toddlers and older kids carry their own backpack. Most kids are excited about having their own stuff and a bit of independence.
For little ones, a mini backpack can be stuffed with toys, a small stuffed animal, their pacifier, a special blankie or book – things they can reach for whenever they want. Older kids can carry coloring or drawing supplies, games, books, snacks, headphones and electronics in their backpack to pull out whenever they need those things. This way they have immediate access to their own stuff and you have one less thing to carry. Win-win again!
With a little planning, you can design the perfect trip for you and your family year after year – from beach babymoons to theme parks to road trips and European vacations. And while the trips will come and go, your shared memories will last forever.
This guest post is by Kristi Valentini, who creates awesome (and free!) day-by-day trip itineraries on Readymade Travel Plans for women who love vacation but hate planning it. Her travel articles have also been published by Redbook, Parenting, Good Housekeeping and Oprah Magazine.