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7 Travel Rules That Families Should Break
Minimize hassles and maximize fun with boundary-pushing tips from the pros.
Your family may have a more enjoyable vacation by not following these rules.(Getty Images/Hero Images)
Traveling with kids is supposed to be exciting, eye-opening and a chance to form lifelong memories together. But somewhere along the way – between dealing with sibling tantrums, restless grade-schoolers and lugging around diaper bags, a stroller and other necessities – stressful scenarios can arise. And while travel experts and like-minded globetrotters aim to help with money-saving tips and sanity savers, the truth is, when it comes to traveling with kids, sometimes you're better off breaking the rules. Sure, there are some pro strategies that apply to all ages (think: choosing a hotel or vacation rental that offers extras such as Wi-Fi access and free breakfast to optimize savings), but there are some time-tested tips the whole gang is better off skipping.
For this reason, we caught up with family travel experts to bring you seven instances in which it's best to bend the rules when jet-setting with kids.
Rule 1: Leave room for spontaneity.
According to family travel expert Amy Tara Koch, one of the most common mistakes families make is "being ill-prepared for routine scenarios: hunger, onset of illness, crankiness and boredom." Rather than planning a spur-of-the-moment jaunt with the kids, the key is planning ahead so you're prepared for any circumstance or unforeseen event that could change or spoil your travel plans. Koch recommends that parents arm themselves with plenty of snacks, sweets and toys. She also advises carrying practical pharmacy items (think: Pepto-Bismol, Advil and Benadryl) and entertainment and apps to prevent a mini-meltdown.
Rule 2: Carry creature comforts with you.
"If all you want is the comforts of home, don't leave home," says Bruce Poon Tip, founder of the small-group travel outfitter G Adventures. Rather than holding another country to your standards, you'll have a much more enjoyable and meaningful experience by embracing cultural differences, he says. For example, don't encourage kids to wear open-toed shoes in places where it's a cultural faux pas, he explains. If you're going on a safari in Kenya, instead of trying to lug a car seat with you, accept the cultural and safety differences rather than holding the destination to your safety standards at home, he says. It's best to let go of non-essential items and keep your suitcase compact, he adds, emphasizing that you could drive yourself – and family members – crazy while trying to replicate your experiences at home.
Koch also cautions against hauling items that you can have shipped to your vacation destination. "Instead of lugging pounds of diapers and formula in luggage (and paying for it) have diapers.com ship it," she says, pointing out that the company offers free shipping and minimal hassle.
Rule 3: Dine out to sample the local gastronomy.
"One of the most exciting elements of traveling is enjoying local cuisine. But for a family of four, dining out on vacation adds up quickly," says TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals spokesperson Laurel Greatrix. To eat locally without paying steep prices, Greatrix recommends booking a vacation rental equipped with a kitchen and perusing local markets. "Buy fresh ingredients for a local classic – think lobster rolls in Maine or Key lime pie in the Florida Keys – and prepare it at home. You’ll enjoy the local flavor, learn new recipes and keep your vacation costs reasonable," she says. "Rental hosts can be great resources for local recipes and shopping recommendations," she adds.
It's also best to dodge high-end restaurants with tasting menus, Koch says. To appease everyone's appetites, make sure to choose kid-friendly dining spots. If you're traveling with infants, keep in mind bringing them to fancy establishments can be "a recipe for disaster," Koch says. "Also, don’t make eating too lengthy of an affair. Find casual restaurants that offer a local vibe," she adds.
Rule 4: Squeeze into a single hotel room to cut costs.
“Gone are the days when families need to cram into a single room," Greatrix says, noting that vacation rentals offer multiple bedrooms, living areas and other desirable amenities such as a private gardens and pools. "Having enough space for the group will help keep the vacation relaxed and enjoyable," she says. And if you're planning a multigenerational trip with a large group, renting a home or villa that offers extra legroom is another smart idea to ensure personal comfort isn't sacrificed. "Getting extended family together is special, but it can also present logistical challenges. If the thought of trying to book hotel rooms for aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents is daunting, look for a property with plenty of bedrooms, a backyard and a pool," Greatrix adds, noting that these property types allow families quality bonding time without feeling overly cramped.
Rule 5: Hit the can't-miss sights.
"Don't feel that you need to conquer every spot deemed 'must-visit,'" Koch says. "For example, you can see the Eiffel Tower in Paris by boat or by having a picnic on the Champ de Mars," she adds. That way, you don't have to spend the majority of your day ascending to the top of the tower. The same applies to the Statue of Liberty, she says. It's also important to factor in plenty of downtime to prevent fatigue. "The key is planning your days around one major activity versus an entire day of sightseeing or an adventure," she says, noting that it's best to allow yourself to skip some noteworthy monuments in cities like London and New York.
In fact, it's best to get the kids involved to give them a stake in the trip-planning process and ensure you've selected age-appropriate sights. "Offer up four scenarios for any given day, and let them pick," Koch says. If you're planning a trip to a major city, schedule the main activity of the day for mid-morning, giving you time to relax and refuel in the afternoon, she says. And rather than devoting your vacation days to standing in lengthy lines, Koch suggests skipping those attractions. "There are plenty of things to see in any given location. No need to waste time and energy waiting in lines," she says.
When you're mapping out your itinerary, it's best to devote only an hour to an area and limit your time exploring museums, Koch says. "Any longer and expect meltdowns," she adds, emphasizing that it's important to select age-appropriate activities and destinations. "From personal experience, I know that kids hate any form of wine tastings and vineyard visits," she says. And all-day group excursions can be tricky, she cautions. "You cannot leave when you want, and it is very tiring for kids to focus all day, especially if it is hot out," so make sure to tailor your trip to you and your travel companions' needs and interests.
Poon Tip echoes similar sentiments, pointing out that it's best not to overprogram kids, but "parents have to get their kids off screens," he says. It's best to encourage kids to fully absorb different cultures by limiting their time spent using electronics, he adds.
Rule 6: Ask questions once you arrive.
Rather than counting on your hotel to be equipped with kid-friendly amenities that you can easily access upon arrival, it's best to call ahead, Koch says. It's especially important to check if normal-sized cribs for babies and rollaway beds for older kids are available before booking to prevent disappointment after you've arrived, she cautions. You should also inquire about kids stay free programming and whether breakfast is complimentary, she says. The same applies to car rentals. While most car rental companies offer infant and regular car seats, they need to be reserved ahead of time, so it's best to call well in advance to mitigate headaches.
Don't expect to automatically be seated together on flights, either. To prevent extra stress at check-in, make sure your seats are together when you book your flight, she adds.
Rule 7: Leave Fido at home.
With an increasing number of pet-friendly places, including hotels, train routes and airlines, it's never been easier to bring along a pet. And after all, “Pets are part of the family, so why not bring them along?" Greatrix asks. "You'll not only be happier with the furball in tow, but you’ll save on expensive pet-boarding costs," she adds. For instance, Amtrak recently rolled out a pets program that allows travelers to bring small pets on routes along the Northeast Corridor. And a handful of airlines allow pets to fly in the aircraft cabin, including Alaska Airlines and JetBlue (for a $100 fee). However, carrier policies vary and weight restrictions do apply (JetBlue requires pets to weigh 20 pounds or less for example), so make sure to read the fine print before booking your flight.
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