Don’t turn the car around: Tips and tricks for a more enjoyable family vacation

Poor parental planning spoils more family vacations than lousy food, miserable weather, no-star accommodations, or cranky children. A family vacation will rarely be all fun and games, but savvy planning can keep the inevitable misadventures down to a manageable few.

1. Successful family vacations are primarily kids’ vacations. It means getting away from daily routines and regimentation, declaring a moratorium on non-essential talk of behavioral issues and school problems, and being wholly involved with the children. Let them choose age-appropriate activities. Playing ring-around-the-rosy, tag, or soccer builds family unity far better than watching television together.

2. “Indulgence” does not mean “anything goes.” Establish ground rules before leaving home. Holiday spirit makes it difficult for many parents to say “no.” Explain to kids that they will see situations and activities that may be unhealthy, age-inappropriate, or hazardous for them, even though others participate. Example: eating food from street vendors in areas of poor sanitation, snowmobiling alone, or going on seemingly unsafe amusement park rides. Decide rotations for who sits where in cars and who decides which DVD to play first. Set limits on the amount of money to be spent on souvenirs.

3. Include children in planning. Participation gives kids a sense of inclusion and accomplishment, helps motivate them, and minimizes apprehension of the unknown. Show older children maps and brochures of hotels and national parks, for example. Talk about how you will be getting there. Let them choose among reasonable alternatives. Allow younger children to participate in seat selection on airplanes. Let toddlers mail letters concerning the trip, open replies, or press buttons on the computer.

4. Opt for the most spacious accommodations your budget allows. Skimp on scenic views, fancy restaurants, and other non-essentials; generally, these are unimportant to kids. Vacations usually crowd families into single rooms. This eliminates accepted “escape valves” from too much togetherness at home — multiple television sets and visiting friends, for example.

5. Allow children to stake out their territory. At home, children are most at ease in a specific chair for television watching and a floor area for playing. New surroundings remove these comfort zones. Hence, children run into hotel rooms to lay claim to new territory. Go along with reasonable claims. Anticipate squabbles if children are close in age. Territoriality is a reason children prefer returning to places previously visited.

6. Staying with friends and relatives is chancy. Are your hosts accustomed to having children around 24–7? Will you be crowding them or will you feel confined there? Are there children’s activities available? One scenario: You become friendly with neighbors. Their kids are friends with your kids. They move away. You go to stay with them. You discover living next door to people is totally different than staying under one roof.

7.Consider the optimum length of time to be away. Start off with short vacations. Longer is not necessarily better. Some toddlers sleep poorly in new surroundings. Bringing your own crib may be helpful. Adults can become anxious about missing work. Children may miss friends. Homesickness causes moodiness. Think twice (or three times) before planning long family trips to solve serious marital rifts.

8. Have a “Plan B.” Check weather and other variables to minimize needing plan B. Camping and rain are generally mutually exclusive. Are there activities available at the beach or ski resort in case of inclement weather? Children fare poorly spending the day in a hotel room — and so will parents.

9. Set realistic ratios between swimming and visiting museums. Don’t fret if children find cultural activities “boring.” Such visits usually do have lasting positive impressions, as can be heard when children later tell (or boast to) friends and teachers about where they have been and what they saw.

10.More tips. Allow children to bring a comfort item, even oversized stuffed animals, torn blankets — or a human friend. A compatible friend is like having one child less to take care of. On the way home, discuss the good and the bad of your vacation. Prepare children for reentry into the real world: set bedtimes, homework, and chores. And discuss where your family should take your next vacation.