We just returned from a major road trip, a trip I've been planning for the past twelve months. Some of my friends give me a (loving) hard time about planning every minute, right down to when I'll do laundry and when I'll "relax." It's true that I like to be prepared- to "expect the unexpected"- and that's because I've learned from my mistakes. Over the years, I've learned what works to keep my family healthy and happy while traveling. Here are eight rules I follow while traveling with my family:
1. Packing: I’ve written about how to pack a suitcase and how to pack a car before, but I’ve neglected to remind readers of one of my strictest policies: do not travel with valuables. For my husband and I, that means leaving valuable jewelry (for us, the value is sentimental) locked away in the safety deposit box at the bank. No dry-clean only or must-iron clothes are allowed. We do bring our computer and camera but we always back up everything on a zip drive before leaving. For the kids, it means leaving their favorite stuffed animals and lovies at home. Not having to worry about whether we’ve left behind a blanket when we’re trying to pack up and check out saves time (and mental energy).
2. Souvenirs: We usually save purchasing souvenirs for one day on our trip. Sometimes, we’ll go to the gift store at the beginning of our trip: when we went to Disney World, the kids wanted Mickey and Minnie ears to wear throughout the trip, so we purchased them the first day. On other trips, the kids weren’t sure what they wanted to bring home, so we waited until the last day to visit the gift store, so we could check out what other people had while we were exploring the area. Another option is to avoid the tchotchke items all together (good luck with little kids!) and instead start a family collection: holiday ornament or snow globes make for lasting collections and giving children the chance to choose which items they like might curb the need to buy tons of other items that will get disregarded quickly. And keep the items (unless, like the Disney ears, you want them included as part of the trip) in the hotel room and save playing with them until you get home (or on the drive home).
3. Food: I seesaw whenever we travel to a new city. I want my family to try new foods, especially local flavors and recipes. However, introducing too many new foods and flavors can lead to stomach issues. So I usually make lunch the adventurous meal of the day. We’ll eat our usual foods for breakfast, end the day with familiar options, and leave lunch to try new items. Alternatively, I’m usually the most adventurous one in the family, so I’ll order something popular to the area for dinner, and have my children try a bite or we’ll order an appetizer to try as a family; there is less of a financial risk if everyone doesn’t like the food, and it wastes less food too.
4. I also use lunch as the “splurge” meal. Often, when planning a trip to a new city, I’ll google top restaurants by checking Bon Appetit magazine for reviews and top restaurants lists. Many places listed as “fancy” aren’t always receptive to having children. However, crowds are usually smaller, and children in a more patient mood, for lunch. Menus are often more affordable and have smaller portions, so it less of a risk. In Charleston, South Carolina we enjoyed lunch at #1 rated restaurant HUSK, and in Hollywood Studios in Disney World, an early dinner at The Hollywood Brown Derby.
5. Housing: We stick to a firm budget when we travel, but one area we always we splurge on is a separate bedroom suite. We almost always stay at Marriott properties (read about why here) and my favorite brand is the Residence Inn. Residence Inns are designed with a variety of options, including one and two bedroom suites. The separate bedroom option allows my husband and I to put the children to sleep at their regular time in the bedroom, and then we can relax in the living room without disturbing them.
6. Location is the other area I splurge on when it comes to housing. It's worth the extra cost to find hotels that are centrally located to attractions. I use Google maps to plot out locations. In larger cities, especially if we've been on the road for a while, we enjoys parking the car in a garage and walking everywhere, or taking public transportation. It's another way to really get a feel for the area and we're more likely to truly "see" things when we're on foot. When we visited Toronto, our hotel was right downtown and there was a sightseeing bus stop at the hotel. We hopped on and off for four days- no worrying about directions or driving in a foreign city.
7. Routines: As much as is reasonably possible, try and stick with your routine. Get up at the same time and go to bed at the same time. Sure, special events or programs might warrant staying up past the typical bedtime, or beating traffic might be worth getting up an hour early, but we try not to deviate more than once or twice. Everyone (adults and children) thrive on routines, and you can ward off meltdowns by sticking to what you’re used to throughout the day. That includes meal times, and packing healthy snacks so no one gets “hangry.” At breakfast, we always grab a piece of fruit, like bananas, apples, and oranges to eat later in the morning.
8. Timing: Now, I know I just said stick with what you know and are comfortable with, but I am a firm believer the "early bird gets the worm." I like visiting popular destinations as soon as they open: the crowds are smaller, the staff have more patience (and so do we!), and it's easier to navigate with children (and strollers). And with meals, try eating during "off hours." Try moving those times up (much better than pushing meal times later- again, avoiding the "hangry" syndrome) to avoid popular times, and you're more likely to get a reservation, a better table, and more attentive staff.