Traveling as a family can be an adventure, whether your destination is an hour away or halfway around the world. But when you're making your journeys with kids in tow, it's not always easy! In this regular monthly column, mom and savvy traveler Mary Dixon Weidler will bring you smart ideas about how to make your trips fun for everyone.
Mary Dixon Weidler

"Why don't we go to the shore and look at houses?"
It happens every year, right about this time. There may be piles of leaves on my front lawn, but my children, with that "back to school" excitement now a memory, are already thinking of their next summer vacation. And even if the thermometer reads 20 degrees, my kids are on the beach, at least in their minds. "Let's look at houses," my sons chime in. Their enthusiasm must be catching, because before you know it I've agreed to a trek down the expressway to our favorite shore spot.

So begins our Vacation Planning 101. Forget what the calendar says - any time is a good time to get away, even if it's for an overnight in the next town. Vacationing - whether it's a month cross country, an exotic two weeks in the Bahamas, or a weekend at Camp Lamazula - is one of the great pleasures in life, for the younger set as well as their parents. However, when so many people -- and temperaments, ages, plans and interests -- are involved, perfection may depend on planning.

Actually, my kids got it right. Setting priorities is a good first step in family-vacation planning. "Your own mental preparation is the first step," says author Vicki Lansky in her book, Trouble-Free Travel With Children. "Learn to expect the unexpected, and be prepared to change plans." Family members should take a reporter's approach and determine the where, when and how of the vacation.

Choosing a Destination
When deciding a vacation destination, adults need to set the boundaries of the trip, based upon such things as available time off and budget considerations. But it's also fun to include all family members in on the discussion. "You'll have a much better time if you plan your trip according to the ages and interests of the children," according to family vacation specialist Susan McKane. "Children are always ready with ideas about where they'd like to go, and sometimes the best part of a trip is seeing someplace familiar to you through your child's eyes." Have your child create a wish list of places to visit and sights to see. (An added bonus -- kids get a mini-geography lesson and are introduced to the use of maps.)

Internet help
There are numerous Internet sites that offer helpful traveling tips, as well as ones that can specifically assist in planning (and sometimes even booking) the family getaway. The QuinWell Travel site's Family Travel section includes information on various family trips -- from Disney to the Caribbean to Washington, D.C. -- and also comes with a travel tutorial (Travel 101) and numerous checklists. Expedia does away with the headache of booking a flight, finding accommodations and preparing for the trip by doing it all for you.

In addition, all major attractions, from the Statue of Liberty to Universal Studios, have their own sites. And the grandfather of all family vacations, Walt Disney World, offers a web site, which, in turn, hosts the Web site, where you'll find lots of information about traveling with children.

If you want to save yourself some legwork, you can even find a vacation rental in Maine, Aruba, or Canada -- without ever leaving your living room. Vacation Rentals Online, allows you to search through pictures of available houses in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe and Central America.

Cutting costs
Once you're done with the computer, a math lesson is necessary. By planning ahead, you will save money on your trip. There are some creative ways to trim expenses, including:

  • Take full advantage of flight specials and frequent flyer miles.
  • Travel in the off-season.
  • Take advantage of package deals, two-for-ones and "children stay free" offers.
  • Drive your own car if possible.
  • Stay in hotels outside the major attractions. Sometimes driving an extra few miles can save you big money.
  • Rent a condo or apartment to save on dining expenses.
  • Take advantage of early-bird specials when eating out.
Getting from A to B
After choosing the type of trip you want to take -- be it a weekend in Washington, a week in by the ocean or a month in Montana -- you need to decide how to get there. Again, time and budget restraints will be major factors in this decision. Traveling in a car, especially in a car full of squirmy anxious children, is difficult, but a few easy steps can make the trip more enjoyable for the entire family.

According to the Rand McNally Web site, some helpful items to have along on a long car trip include a frisbee or Nerf ball (to blow off steam at rest stops); a GameBoy, cassette player and virtual pet; toys, including coloring books, puzzles and travel games (mix in a few wrapped suprises, one for the child to open each hour), and snacks, including juice or water, crackers, fruits and assorted junk food (easy on the sugar, so the children don't get wound up). As soon as you know that you will be traveling, fill a bag with things you pick up for the trip in the time leading up to it.

Airplane travel may make the trip shorter and more tolerable for young children, but flights also bring their own concerns. When traveling by plane, children often experience ear pain as the pressure inside their inner ear equalizes during take-off and landing. There are three ways to comfort your child if he experiences this:

1. Offer a bottle or pacifier; for older children, supply gum or a lollipop to encourage swallowing. This helps open the passage inside the ear to equalize the pressure.
2. Use decongestant nose drops a half hour before take-off and landing.
3. Offer a calming voice and a reassuring hug to reduce the fear that comes with ear pain.

Keep a routine
Adults may look forward to the break in routine that vacation offers, however, children respond best to some sort of daily routine. Plan the trip with your child in mind (or, better yet, let her help plan it if she's old enough). Keep your goals modest -- some parents suggest focusing on one major attraction or activity daily. Try to arrive early, when lines aren't as long, and then spend the rest of the day involved in a child-friendly activity, such as swimming or playing in the hotel game room.

The goal of Vacation Planning 101 is to get an F -- for flexibility. It is important to emphasize that plans can change, and that when the unexpected happens, you can adjust. "Your attitude has to be the most important element of the trip," Lansky advises in her book. "If things go wrong, it's okay. When you look back, it's the flat tire, the rain storm or something funny that happened that often becomes the best memory of the trip."

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