Traveling as a family—especially on one of those once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list kind of trips—can make for some pretty amazing memories. (Just ask my kids about our sea kayaking mishap in Antigua or our sushi-making lesson in Tokyo.)
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If there's one thing I've learned from taking my kiddos on the road, it's that a little preparation goes a long way toward enhancing the excitement and anticipation, and ensuring that everyone gets the most out of every moment away. Here's how we make sure every excursion becomes an adventure—and how your crew can, too.
Illustration by Peter Allen
1. Have fun sharing the news
Get inspired by all those viral videos of kids freaking out that they're going to DisneyWorld—it's a ton of fun to add drama to your travel plan announcement.
We did Harry Potter-style Hogwarts acceptance letters, attached to mini toy owls, to announce a trip to Disney and Universal Studios—and my girls screamed and hugged like Oprah guests who won a car. (Totally worth the couple of hours I spent pulling that surprise together.)
You can make a scavenger hunt with clues related to your trip, show them a fun video slideshow with photos of some of the things you'll do—or simply pack their bags for them and don't let them in on the mystery destination until you reach the airport gate.
2. Let them help with the itinerary
Most destinations already come with a specific set of must dos: You probably shouldn't leave London without checking out Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, for instance.
But unless you're planning a supershort weekend away, you should have plenty of time to explore beyond the basics. For younger kids, you may need to do the Googling and give them options to choose from—science museum or bicycle tour? Older kids can research on their own and find something that hits their particular passions—whether it's a vintage fashion boutique or a cricket tournament.
One hint: Look for fun hands-on activities that let you interact with people from that country. The sushi-making class and a free demonstration by an origami master were the highlights of our Tokyo trip. (And my daughters are already thrilled at the possibility of surfing lessons in Hawaii!)
But whatever you do, don't forget to add downtime for playing at parks or hitting the hotel pool into your itinerary. There are only so many monuments and museums kids can see in a day—trust me.
3. Create a countdown
Give kids a visual representation of how long before you head out of town. It can be a simple paper chain, or something more elaborate, like an advent calendar-style countdown. "We love to make paper chain countdowns to our vacations," says Shannon Wilt, an agent with MickeyTravels.com. "Every morning my kids get up and rush downstairs to tear off the next chain. It helps them visualize how much longer we have to go until our trip, and helps eliminate the constant 'are we going today?' questions!"
4. Try a taste of the local cuisine
There aren't too many places in the world where you can't tuck into some good old American fast food, but why travel thousands of miles away just to get fries with that? If your kids are fussy eaters, start encouraging them to try some of the flavors and signature dishes by visiting nearby restaurants that offer that cuisine, or trying to cook them together as a family. That way, you'll all get to sample shrimp and grits down south or brie and baguettes in France.
(The best part? You can track down those favorite food items again when you get back home, to get a little taste of vacation any time you want.)
5. Show them where they're going
Turn your travels into a geography lesson. Break out the globe or the map and show them your hometown, your destination—and maybe all the places you'll fly over (or drive through) en route. You might want to display a special world map in your house, and mark all the places you've been as a visual reminder of your shared history.
6. Take a language lesson
My strongest foreign language is ancient Latin, which unfortunately, isn't much assistance when I'm trying to decipher public transportation options or find a restroom.
I've found that you can actually get by pretty far with just hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. But if you want to say something more, there's totally an app for that. We found iTranslate extremely helpful when we were in China last summer—just type (or say) a phrase, and click to have your phone translate and say it out loud.
For extra credit, try one of the language skills online courses or find a class in your area. Don't worry too much about your accent or your fumbles—most people will be thrilled that you made the effort to try to speak their language.
7. Let kids know what to expect
The more information you give your kids, the better. Let them know how long travel takes (I usually measure flights in movie lengths—i.e. a 10-hour flight is about five movies long), the basics of jet lag, and what the local culture is like. For instance, we made sure our kids understood that "lines" in China are really just tightly packed mobs of people, so they weren't shocked when we had to elbow our way through the crowd to board trains or amusement park rides. And if you're traveling somewhere where the water system isn't safe to drink, let your kids practice doing their daily routine without using the faucet.
Share lots of fascinating facts about the places you're visiting. (Did you know China invented noodles and fireworks?) That can help liven up even the least kid-friendly options—so you can get in a few more Roman ruins before your kids start to revolt.
8. Make traveling more fun
No one likes being stuck for hours on a flight or in a car, but you can find ways to build anticipation and make it more fun for your kiddos. "For long car trips I would set a timer, changing the amount of time to keep it interesting," says Tara Fox, an agent at MickeyTravels.com. "When the bell would ring, they could pull a surprise out of the bag. Things like plastic animals, chapstick, lollipops, funny glasses would keep my little ones busy and happy on long car rides."
9. Stay realistic
Travel like this can expand horizons, encourage curiosity and exploration, and be amazingly enriching for you and your family. But it'll also likely include moments that are frustrating, exhausting, and not exactly what you had in mind. So keep your expectations—and your kids' expectations—realistic. If you're all prepared to roll with a few punches, you'll have an adventure worth remembering.