Travel can be an enlightening and eye-opening experience for children of all ages: there’s new foods, experiences and sights, not to mention quality family time. But traveling with children can also be an overwhelming proposition — unpredictable schedules, long packing lists and cranky kids are just a few of the challenges you may encounter along the way. But here we’ll help you make traveling with kids a breeze. After all, you and your children should enjoy every moment seeing the world and create a lifetime of memories along the way. Isn’t that the point of travel in the first place?
The specific strategies you can use to help children have a good time on the road depends on how old they are: A baby has very different needs than a toddler or tween. But however old your child is, be sure to do some pre-trip research on kid-friendly activities in your destination that you and your family can take advantage of. A little preparation will go a long way.
Children in the newborn to age 2 range are the easiest to travel with in many respects, according to Rainer Jenss, the president and founder of the Family Travel Association, a trade group for family travel. “Kids this age are portable,” he said. “You can take them anywhere and keep them happy as long as you create a comfortable environment for them and keep them on their routine.” Amanda Norcross, the features editor of the online travel magazine Family Vacation Critic, agrees that schedules are incredibly important for infants. “If your infant is on an eating or sleep schedule, try to stay as close to that as possible on vacation and plan your days accordingly,” she said. Be sure to bring along your infant’s favorite toys, books and bottles while on your adventures, and don’t keep him or her strapped in a baby carrier or stroller all day — give your baby the opportunity to walk and get some exercise; if your infant isn’t walking yet, he or she can still stretch on a mat or roll around.
Toddlers are a fun age because they’ll start to engage in the different sights around them, Ms. Norcross said. “Destinations get to be enjoyable for them to explore,” she said. But when building your itinerary, be sure to leave plenty of down time to let them release and refuel their energy by hitting a playground or your hotel’s pool. Mr. Jenss is also a fan for spending time in local parks with toddlers. “The more open space your toddler has to run around, the happier he or she will be,” he said. As a bonus, you’re likely to meet local parents who can advise you on other activities for your toddler in town and also tell you names of kid-friendly restaurants to dine at.
The key to keeping kids 5 and older engaged on a family trip is to get them involved in the planning, even in a small way, Mr. Jenss said. “The more you empower kids this age to pick what they’re interested in doing, whether it’s seeing a cool site or trying surfing, the more engaged they will be,” he said.
Tip: Let your children choose between several activities instead of giving them no direction whatsoever. In a beach destination, for example, the options might be a half-day snorkeling trip or a fishing excursion. In an urban setting, share choices of interesting walking tours, and let them pick the one or two which appeal to them the most.
Eric Stoen, the founder of the online family travel site Travel Babbo, said that choosing the right guides goes a long way in keeping your kids excited about where they are. When you’re researching tours and activities, he said, read online reviews to learn about which guides have engaged well with kids in the past. A great guide can have a profound effect on your children: Mr. Stoen’s son, for example, has become an excellent sketcher because of an artist in London who led the family on an art tour around the city. “It’s a tour that literally changed his life,” he said.
Ms. Norcross said that the best way to keep teenagers engaged is to have them take ownership in planning a part of your trip. She suggests having them choose some attractions which they are interested in seeing and even letting them design one of two days of your itinerary. Also, Mr. Jenss, a father of two teenagers, said that parents may want to consider giving older teens the option to spend an hour or two exploring the destination on their own —maybe they want to check out a certain neighborhood or go to specific stores. “As long you and your teen both feel safe, he or she is going to be super excited about having some time alone,” he said.