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Tips for Surviving Family Vacations

Now that the summer travel rush is over, many people are starting to plan their fall and winter vacations.

Family vacations can be a wonderful experience, creating lasting memories and adventures. However, they can also be quite stressful and chaotic. Deciding what to pack, choosing the best flight times (and accepting that these are subject to change), making sure you have updated passports and shots (if applicable) and booking excursions, tickets, car rentals, etc. for when you arrive at your destination will leave even the most seasoned travellers feeling overwhelmed.

Travel with kids doesn’t have to be overly stressful, though. My husband and I have always loved to travel, and to see new places, taste new foods and experience new cultures. We both decided that having a family wouldn’t change that. We have three boys now and my eldest’s first international trip was at eight months old. I remember looking at my husband a week before our trip and asking, “Are we crazy?” But we survived and will cherish those memories of rocking him to sleep in the Caribbean waves forever.

We have definitely learned a lot since that first trip. The following is a list of our best tricks, tips and advice on traveling with kids so that you and your family can have a successful, memorable time together.

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Air Travel Tips – Before you leave

Find a good travel agent that is willing to work with you: This one took me awhile to embrace. I’m very much a Type A personality and when planning a trip I like to really do my research and find the best flight times and itineraries. I remember wondering, “Why do people use travel agents when they can just book everything themselves for free?” Well, guess what, most travel agents do not charge you a fee for service. They earn their commissions and wages from their company or the travel service providers. So, let me emphasize this a little more, their services are FREE for you to take advantage of!

Now, not all travel agents are created equal. Just like anything in life, some are better than others. So feel free to shop around if you aren’t satisfied. You need to find a travel agent that is willing to look for those flight times you want, the resorts/destinations you want, and within the price you want. You must also accept that sometimes what you want does not exist and it’s important to be realistic. Sure, I can call my travel agent and say I would like a trip for my family to Hawaii for under $10k, staying at a five star resort all inclusive and she will respond “Good luck with that.”

Also, if there are any changes made to your flights before or during your trip, or with hotels, car rentals, tickets, etc. then they are the ones who will sit on the phone and wait to get through to the airlines or other agents for you. They can also make sure you get everything you paid for. My family and I recently travelled to Disney World and we rented a house with a heated pool. When we arrived the pool was freezing cold and the rental agency says we didn’t pay for it to be heated and that it would be extra. One call to our travel agent and she had it all worked out and the pool guy was there within an hour. It’s those smaller things that can make your whole vacation experience better.

Draft your packing list and stick to it: This one is oh so important and also one of the toughest to achieve. Creating a list helps you remember things like important medications that you need to bring, sunscreen and other essential items. It also helps prevent you from overpacking. We never end up wearing everything we packed, so stick with the basics. How many days are you going for? Do you need to wear a new outfit or bathing suit each day? If there is laundry service at your destination then you do not need 10 outfits for a 10-day trip. Bathing suits can be washed out at the end of the day, hung to dry and reworn. Just make sure you pack a small container of laundry detergent and you are good to go!

Document check – If you are leaving the country, check to make sure your passports have not expired. This is very important given the extreme delays in passport renewals right now. You really should start this process before you even book the trip because you need to make sure you leave ample time for processing.

Book any immunizations, appointments, etc: The rules between countries and even provinces have changed so much in the past few years, so make sure you give yourself sufficient time to look into any required immunizations or second doses. Also, if you are going to a country where food options and food handling are very different than what you are used to, make sure you see if there is something you can take to avoid the dreaded travellers’ gastrointestinal issues. If there is one thing that could ruin an otherwise dreamy vacation, it’s spending the entire trip in the bathroom.

Have all your documents handy: I recommend having a purse or backpack with a pocket specifically for passports, boarding passes and other travel documents. This way you are not struggling to find them when you need to show them at security.

Flight Day

Arrive to the airport early: My family is notoriously late for everything! We always joke that we should be permitted at least 10 minutes delay per child. However, when we are travelling we always get there early, especially during peak travel dates like Christmas, New Years, spring break or summer. Yes, it can mean for an even longer day but it is so worth it to have that extra grace period. Airports are still having difficulty getting enough staff for ground support and that means extra long security lines and check-ins.

Breathe and accept the chaos: The only constant in life is change, so embrace it. There will more than likely be delays and lineups. Some people may be rude and grouchy. The airline may lose your luggage or bump you to another seat. There are some things within our control but much of it is not. So just keep the end goal in mind, picture arriving safely at your destination, and remember to breathe.

Snacks, snacks and more snacks!: I have three boys and I can sense when they are starting to get ‘hangry’. Having readily available snacks to toss their way can be a game changer. We usually have one carrying-on dedicated just to snacks. Also, bring your own water bottles to refill at the airport.

Device downloads and chargers: If your kids have iPads and portable gaming devices, make sure you have them fully charged and don’t forget to pack the chargers in the carry-ons in case you are delayed. There are some apps like Netflix that allow you to pre-download movies and tv shows so that you can watch them on the plane without Wi-Fi. I highly recommend doing this the day before travel and you can also do it in the airport once connected to the free Wi-fi.

You’ve reached your destination

Again, embrace the chaos: If you are going to a busy tourist destination, accept the fact that your family is not the only one trying to make memories. Line-ups may be long, traffic may be bad, and rude people are everywhere. Just try your best not to let it get to you. You spent a lot of money to get there and you only have so many vacation days in a year. Breathe in, relax and make those memories!

Make sure you know your departure flight times and follow the same rules of getting to your destination to get back home: Set reminders in your phone of when you need to check-in online. Ensure your passports are kept in a safe place so that you can easily access them when it is time to leave. Most resorts have a safe in the room. This is where we keep all our travel documents, passports and money. Arrive at the airport early. Give yourself lots of time to get through security and customs.

Road Trips – Before You Leave

Draft that packing list: Even if you are travelling by road and you have a large vehicle it is still important to draft that list. The last thing you want is to be dragging all of that stuff in and out of hotels, packing and unpacking. Most hotels or accommodations will also have laundry service, and keep in mind that if you forget something you will likely be able to purchase it along the way.

Road trip snacks are essential! Again, this comes from living in a house full of boys but having readily accessible snacks available to ward off the hunger pains can put everyone in a better mood.

Plan your driving times and stops: When going on a long road trip, I like to plan out how long we will drive each day and book hotels in advance. We all know our own kids and how long they are able to sit still without driving everyone crazy. Every family is different. Set realistic expectations and book hotels that allow you to cancel up to 24 hours in advance just in case the plan changes along the way.

Don’t forget to have fun: Try not to get so focused on reaching the final destination that you forget to enjoy the journey. When we think back on our own childhood road trips, many of the things we recall are moments that happened along the way. From singing a favourite song on blast and repeat, to that time your brother ate too many Cheetos and barfed, to stopping at that cool tourist trap in the middle of nowhere.

My husband was one of those lucky kids that got to go to Disney World as a kid. His grandparents were ‘snowbirds’ who would drive to Florida each winter, and on a couple of occasions he got to tag along with them for the drive. Of course they’d do Disney and all the other big theme parks while he was there. However, when I hear them reminiscing over those trips, it’s not meeting Mickey Mouse that they giggle and laugh about the most. It’s stopping at this giant tourist stop in North Carolina called ‘South of the Border’ or playing mini golf at a little highway rest stop. It’s the journey. Those little moments where they all sat side by side in his grandfather’s truck and it was just them, making memories.

So, make sure you stop. Not at all of them, of course. If you are a planner you can even look up what little tourist traps are along the route and schedule those in, or just be spontaneous. There are a lot of hidden gems. I promise you won’t regret it.

Regardless of where you are going, the main thing is to be safe and have fun. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned in the past two years it’s that we shouldn’t keep putting those trips off. We have no idea what tomorrow will bring and today is too important to be wasted. I promise that the memories you create and the adventures that await will always be worth it!

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Christina MacKay
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