Successful Traveling with Kids

Because of a variety of circumstances, we didn't travel as a family last summer. Instead, we took a week in November to visit Southern California and a week in January to visit Arizona and Southern California. I'm not an expert by any means, but here's some tips that really helped us out:

*Plan in advance. We did a fairly good job of this both times, but much better the second trip. On our first trip, we had two scheduled "rest days" but hadn't decided how to fill them up. Instead of heading out and having a great time, we wasted valuable time deciding where to head and getting directions. Our Arizona trip didn't have that problem. I had full itinerary planned for each day, including directions to everywhere we were going, and some alternative activities in case we changed our minds about what to do.

Another advantage to planning in advance is I felt I knew all about the attractions and what not to miss in Phoenix. AND, I was able to schedule us a trip to visit the upper ruins at Tonto National Park. Tours only go on Saturdays and Mondays, with 15 people each day, so you have to call a month or more in advance to get it scheduled.

*Go in the "off-season". In November, we did the Southern California CityPass, including 3 days at Disneyland, 1 day at Universal Studios, 1 day at Sea World, and 1 day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. November was a great time to go, as even on the weekend, nothing was very crowded. We did check the schedules at Disneyland carefully, though, to make sure we took advantage of days with special events. For instance, they opened earlier on Thursday and Friday than earlier in the week, and the Aladdin show was only on certain days.

*Stay at a place with a kitchen and laundry facilities Both times, we scheduled a week at a place with several bedrooms, a kitchen, and laundry right in the room. Surprisingly, the price was much less than what we would have spent for two hotel rooms. Traveling back both times, it was such a relief to have all the laundry done; I knew I wasn't behind right when we got home, and we only packed half as many clothes because we could wash them right in the room. The kitchen saved us money both times, since we prepared all breakfasts and about half our dinners right there.

*Plan meals and snacks in advance. We had a full-out menu, including exactly what we needed to bring with us (for instance, we even brought a few tablespoons of flour for when we made chicken curry). On our California trip, we brought all of the food with us, which was very convenient, but the three full bins of food filled up our van and required us to use a car-topper. So to Arizona, we brought only the food we couldn't easily buy (i.e. those few teaspoons of flour). We made up a shopping list in advance and did the shopping while we were there. Nothing like being prepared!

*Pack smart. The best trick I had was using gallon-size ziplock bags. A full day's set of clothes, including socks and underwear, fits right in one of them. Closed tight, the clothes take up less room and you're less likely to hear complaints about missing socks or underwear. I was even able to fit TWO outfits for the twins in one bag, so it really made things easy. Wake up in the morning, choose a bag, get dressed. Much less mess.

*Develop a travel-friendly hobby.
Ours is rock-hunting. We started this last summer when Joey became a geology nut. Before our trip, we checked out "Gem Trails of Arizona" and "Gem Trails of Southern California," and mapped out how far each rock-hunting site was from our route or destination. It made for fun stops, especially on those long 6 to 10 hour drives.

*Mapquest is your friend.
I love Mapquest! Before I left, I printed up directions to all of our destinations, including travel times. Mapquest helped me figure out how far away the rock-hounding sites were from our destination, and it helped me plan out a perfect itinerary for the trip to Phoenix. Because of mapquest, we knew that if we were going to see both the Grand Canyon and Montezuma's Castle on the way to Phoenix, we needed to leave early, and I mean early. We were on the road by 3:30 a.m., which gave us time to stop for breakfast. We hit the Grand Canyon around 11:00 in the morning, Montezuma's Castle at about 3:30, and then a rockhounding site about 4:30. Then finally, to our final destination around 7:30 that night. Traveling was so nice with lots of planned stops along the way.

*Be willing to leave early. But be realistic about how this will affect your energy level. As I said, we left the first day at 3:30. That day couldn't have been better. The kids took plenty of naps in the car, the stops were timed nicely, and we got to our destination without too much trouble or tiredness. That wasn't the case, however, on Friday when we left Arizona for California. We knew it was a 6 hour trip, and we wanted to get to Disneyland in the morning, so we got up at 3:30 and finally left around 4:30 in the morning. A few of our stops took longer than we expected, and we made it to Disneyland at around noon. The only problem was that by 6 or 7 at night, the parental unit was tired. We had planned to take half the kids back to the hotel and then split up, with DH taking the older kids back to Disneyland, but we were too worn out. We got a good night's rest so we could take full advantage of the next day at Disneyland. In hindsight, we should have gotten a full night's rest, gotten to Disneyland later but with the energy to stay until it closed.

*Split up if necessary. Sometimes little kids need to nap. We did a lot of split-up trips to the pool, with one of us staying with Eliza while she slept and the other going to the pool. Our main splitting-up, though, happened when DH took three of the kids to Tonto National Monument. The hike to the upper ruins is not easy, and so he took the two older kids and my father-in-law (who had come along for the first few days of the trip). I'd scheduled the trek for five participants, though, and since MIL didn't want to go, at the last minute, DH took along Sarah, who is more adventurous than her older brother Michael. The guides at the park were a bit taken aback when they saw three kids ready to go on the hike, but my kids proved tough. Sarah charmed all the tour people with her smile and her determination. With almost no help, she made it to the top, the youngest ever, according to the guide.

Meanwhile, MIL and I took Michael, Allison and Eliza to the Desert Botanical Gardens and to an outlet mall. We had a great time.

*Be flexible with your itinerary. We planned more than we did in Arizona, which was a good thing. We found time to do things we hadn't planned, and we took time to relax and really enjoy the vacation. Almost every afternoon, instead of going to another venue, we went back to the hotel for Eliza to nap and the older kids to swim. One day, we had planned to go to the zoo and then a ghost town, but decided instead to head back towards the hotel after the zoo. We stopped at a fancy Mexican restaurant for lunch, where the kids couldn't have been better behaved. It was a delicious, restful meal, and an unexpected highlight of our trip (never mind all the patrons staring at our ENORMOUS family).

*Bring a small flexible cooler filled with healthy food.
Especially in places like Disneyland and Sea World, we found ourselves so grateful for the many choices of food we brought with us. We almost never had to buy anything at the parks, and when it was time to eat, we had yogurt, pudding, string cheese, and our personal favorite, Go-gurts to eat. We froze the Go-gurt so it was a refreshing treat the kids all loved. We also had a backpack full of other snacks, such as oranges and apples as well as junk like granola bars and chips. Lots of choices made waiting easy -- anytime there was some downtime, we'd pass out snacks.

*Portable DVD players are great, but have a back-up plan.
We bought a new one for Christmas, with the idea that both rows of kids could watch movies along the way. It worked great for the first two hours, but after that, yep, our brand-new-never-been-used DVD player broke. So we needed a back-up plan. Luckily, see the next tip.

*Books on CD are great.
Current favorites -- Junie B. Jones (even the 3 year olds understand & listen) & The Uglified Ducky. The Uglified Ducky is a series of short skits and songs that really helped fill in the short times when kids were crabby or not wanting to listen. The books on CD also help a lot for the driver, who can't exactly watch a movie. We probably did movies half the time and stories the other half.

*Check out membership options.
. Sometimes a family membership can REALLY come in handy. Our local zoo membership gave us free entry into a small fun zoo in Santa Ana in November, plus half-price entry into the Phoenix zoo. The week before we went to Arizona, we bought a membership at the Discovery Center in Salt Lake. For $180, we save about $65 each time we go to our local science center, plus get in free to lots of places across the country. We saved about $60 and got in free at the Arizona Science Center. We've since been back to the Discovery Center once and plan on visiting some reciprocal centers this summer, so we'll really get our money's worth.

*Think ahead about overpriced trinkets.. Bring your own when possible. We bought ponchos for $1 before we went to California. They take up so little space in a backpack, but come in so handy on a cool day when you want to go on a water ride. We also brought a huge supply of glow sticks for a few dollars at Halloween. We had plenty of bracelets and necklaces at Disneyland, and had plenty to share with kids sitting nearby as we waited for the Fantasia show or the parade. We went to the Disney Outlet Store and bought everyone hats for $1 and wore those to the parks.

*Pack some bags for the whole family.
We put everyone's swimming suits, plus two life jackets for the twins and a few blow-up water toys (lots of fun, but take up so little space) in the same bag so when it was time to go swimming, we only had to open one bag, not 6 or 7. Same thing with Church clothes. All of the dresses, shoes, ties, etc. went into one bag.

That's all the tips I have for now. What makes your family vacations more manageable?


Katie said…
Wonderful tips, Christina! We haven't done any long trips yet, but we do a lot of Backyard Tourism, so to speak. I'll definately use some of these tips when we head to Yellowstone this fall.
Walters Dad said…
Those are great tips. Would make a good travel article. . .

One tip I would mention is to prepare the kids beforehand so they know what they are seeing, if you like going to museums. We split up in the Louvre and it made the visit much more enjoyable.

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