Build a Better Family Vacation
Share a Rental With Another Family
Sharing a house or a condominium can keep costs down. It gives you more room to spread out than a hotel room does, plus a kitchen to cut down on restaurant meals. And the extra vacation-mates provide kids with built-in entertainment (other kids! Uncle Jimmy!) and supervision. Two good sources of vacation properties are resortquest.com, which manages a network of more than 17,000 rentals in the United States and Canada (specialty: beach and ski areas), and vacationrentals.com, which lists private homes in most states and on most continents at prices to suit various budgets.
Tip: Many newspapers have online classifieds for house swaps―a four-bedroom colonial in the Chicago suburbs, say, for your New York apartment. Or visit homeexchange.com or intervac.com, two swap agencies that do the work for you for a small fee ($99 to $150 a year).
Figure in Child Care
If you're not traveling with another family and you and your spouse hope to spend some time alone, plan ahead to make sure you'll have someone to watch the kids. Hotels may maintain a list of qualified babysitters, and some even include the service with the cost of the room. If the hotel refers you to an agency, call to ask for references from other travelers, and request to speak to the sitter it assigns you before you arrive. If you're staying in a condo, try calling a nearby reputable hotel for recommendations. Some resorts have full children's programs that offer supervised entertainment, like pizza and games, so you and your spouse can have dinner alone. If you feel uncomfortable leaving your kids with a stranger, consider bringing along another family member to help. Your children might prefer their grandmother (especially one who lives far away) or a teenage cousin (who may be happy to trade a few hours of child care a day for the trip) to an unknown babysitter. Another option: Hire a mother's helper to accompany you so she can play with the older kids while you give your undivided attention to your toddler (go to Craigslist.org and look under "Community/Childcare").
Tip: When you arrive at your hotel, take the kids on a quick tour. Show them the front desk, and explain this is where they should go if they get lost or have a question. And point out house phones they can use if they forget how to find their way back to the room.
Research Activities Before You Go
To get your children excited about the trip in advance―and to be ready with surefire boredom chasers when they're needed―check the area's tourist office or chamber-of-commerce website for the week's scheduled activities, such as farmers' markets and parades. Call the local library and bookstore to find out about story hours. To save scrambling for a local paper when rain dictates an afternoon at the movies, go online before you leave home to find a local theater's show-times or at least a number to call. And if you're counting on using the hotel's children's program or heated pool, ask before booking to be sure those services are available during your stay; don't find out when you get there that the pool has been drained for repairs.
Put the Kids to Work
Involving the children in trip planning will relieve some of your burden. It will also send the message that this is everyone's vacation―so everyone needs to help make it fun and easy―and set a good tone for the whole trip. "If your child is mature enough, possibly as young as five or six, tell him where you're going and how you'll get there, then let him help make plans," says David Fassler, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. In addition to engaging them and getting them enthused about going, helping to plan can lessen any anxiety kids may have about the trip, "like where they will be sleeping or new foods they may encounter," says Fassler. Online, older kids can research activities and places they'd like to visit; younger children can find the destination in an atlas and look in a travel book for pictures of what they're about to see. Assign each child a task while on vacation, advises Laurie LeComer, a consultant on child development and behavior and the author of A Parent's Guide to Developmental Delays (Perigee, $15, amazon.com): "They can help by making sure no toys are left behind, picking up the room each night, or carrying small bags." And let kids have the responsibility of packing their own carry-on bags. Give older kids a list; ask younger ones to pick out a few favorite toys, books, and outfits (you can help with the final cut).
Some car-rental companies offer car seats, and some hotels lend cribs and strollers at no charge. To lighten your load even more, especially when traveling with children who need different age-appropriate equipment, consider having babysaway.com drop off at your hotel―and pick up when you leave―a variety of gear, including car seats, all-terrain strollers, frame backpacks, and even a customized bucket of toys (a full-size crib costs about $10 a day; a tub of toys, about $6). The service is available in major cities and resort towns across 25 states, including Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Kiawah Island, South Carolina.
Set a Schedule―But Be Flexible
Establishing a vacation schedule, with predetermined family time and down time, ensures that the children get enough rest, you get a mental break, and dinner times don't lead to meltdowns. Maybe the mornings are spent together, touring or taking a lesson, and the afternoons are free for exploring your surroundings, lying by the pool, napping, window shopping, or exercising. Tell the kids in advance what to expect each day, when and where meals will be eaten, and times when you will be off-duty (at a spa appointment, say). But be ready to make adjustments. "The best advice I can give parents is to recognize when kids have had enough," says Ann Corwin, Ph.D., the founder of TheParentingDoctor.com and a parenting consultant in Laguna Niguel, California. When they flag, "instead of trying to pack in too much, take a break or call it a day," says Corwin. "When kids get overtired, their behavior deteriorates."
Share Your Dirty Laundry
Find out whether the place where you'll be staying has guest laundry facilities or a nearby laundry. If so, pack lightly and do a few loads while you're away. To avoid arriving back home with suitcases full of dirty clothes, drop laundry off the day before you're scheduled to depart, pick it up on the way to the airport, and pop the folded piles into your suitcases.
The games are piled high in your closet, but when do you sit down as a family to play them? Small, travel versions of perennial favorites such as Scrabble, backgammon, and Boggle won't crowd suitcases, and playing them will keep kids from begging to watch TV at night (a tendency you might want to encourage when you get home). Outdoor games, such as flashlight tag, touch football, and Frisbee, can launch stories and friendly ribbing that will be revisited for years to come. Finally, have the kids make a scrapbook while they're still on the trip. Give them disposable point-and-shoot cameras and a blank composition notebook or two. At the end of each day, they can write about their activities and glue in postcards, photographs you've had developed at a local drugstore, and any other mementos they've collected. When you get home, there's no stack of photos waiting for you to organize―it's all done.