Family Vacation Planning: The Sky's the Limit
By Shay Bilchik
Family vacations can bring parents and children closer together and leave wonderful, lasting memories, or they can turn into a series of mishaps reminiscent of a certain Chevy Chase movie. Often the only thing standing between those two outcomes is a little bit of planning and some foresight.
When my children were only two and three years old, my wife and I came up with an ambitious plan to drive from Florida to North Carolina for a family vacation. (If you've ever had two children under the age of 4, no doubt you're already laughing). After one brief stop to get the children out for some play and exercise, we started to return to the car but our son Zach sprinted in the other direction-he had no intention of getting back in that car ever again. Of course, we got to North Carolina eventually, and we still have great memories of that trip, but it was the kind of vacation that leaves you wanting another vacation just to recover. So if you want to relax on your trip and create lasting memories that prompt smiles tomorrow rather than bursts of laughter 10 years from now, follow a few tips that I learned the hard way: Consider the children's ages and their own expectations, respect your own needs as an adult, and do a little homework before boarding the plane.
Many of us can recall family vacations during our childhood spent at relative's home or a series of musty museums that left us plotting against our parents to bring an early end to the trip. So when your children are younger, leave some of the simple choices to them, like which set of grandparents to visit first, or picking between a beach vacation or a ski weekend. If you're traveling with older kids, run out to a bookstore and let them pick out a travel guide and sift through its pages for a few attractions they'd like to see. Most kids are better internet navigators than their parents, so you may even leave a bit of online research in their hands. Parents may also want to visit www.thefamilytravelfiles.com or www.vacations-for-kids.com, an agency run by moms, specializing in family travel.
My children were fairly close in age, which makes choosing a destination less complicated than it otherwise might be. When one child is too short for the rides at DisneyWorld and another is old enough to appreciate Renaissance art, you may have your work cut out for you. But with a guidebook and an internet connection, odds are you can successfully find something for everyone.
Remember to think about each child's abilities and interests. What are their favorite books, or their favorite TV shows? What sports do they play? What school subjects do they get excited about? Any one of these may suggest a destination, or activities once you arrive. Brainstorm around the dinner table, and haul out the atlas to pinpoint sites like Aguada in Puerto Rico, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1493, or the bio-luminescent bay in nearby Cajas.
Washington, D.C., is known for its dozens of museums, like the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum and offbeat attractions like the Spy Museum and the Squished Penny Museum. It's also a great base for visiting port cities like Annapolis and Baltimore, and dozens of national parks and historical sites that ring with American history.
With Denver as your base, you might combine backpacking, biking, hang-gliding, or ballooning along with visits to museums and other city sites. On the other end of the spectrum is a visit to sunny Florida, where a little sand and water are enough to keep any child busy for days on end. Miami, where my kids grew up, is now home to Camp Miami Beach, featuring sports, arts and cultural activities, and health and wellness offerings, while Orlando has dozens of amusement parks from DisneyWorld to Universal Studios.
But you don't have to go to a famous tourist attraction to have a great family vacation. Vacations have a way of becoming part of a family's traditions and its history, but you can also turn your family's history into a vacation. The places where you lived as a child are historically significant to your children, and worth visiting even if Grandma and Grandpa don't live there any more. Show your kids your childhood home, the streets where you rode your bike, the location of your high school prom, or the college town where you met your first love.
Just be sure that every family trip includes some time for the adults to do what you like-a night on the town, a day at a spa, an afternoon on a great golf course, or maybe just some quiet time with a great book-while the kids spend time with other caring adults. On one family trip to Amelia Island, Zach and Melissa joined other kids in activities organized by the resort, while my wife and I had some time alone. They were glad that we considered them old enough to be left to their own devices, and we all had plenty of experiences to share with one another that afternoon. Plenty of popular vacation destinations have special programs for kids-ask the hotel's concierge ahead of time.
Great vacations are full of surprises and new discoveries, but so are a lot of awful vacations. To minimize the more unpleasant variety of each, ask plenty of questions before you go. Ask your airline representative about their policies on traveling with children. Kids can be finicky eaters, and many suffer from food allergies, so be sure to specify any dietary preferences when you make your reservations with airlines or plan to eat out.
Ask the hotel concierge what accommodations the hotel makes for smaller children, too. They may have strollers and other gear available, so you don't have to transport them from home. Many museums and historic sites are closed one or two days a week, so call in advance before planning out your entire week, and adjust your plans accordingly. Start planning with your whole family now, and you'll find your children look forward to family vacations through their teens and, yes, even into adulthood. But remember to always keep a close eye on the two-year-old, just in case.
Shay Bilchik is the former President & CEO of the Child Welfare League of America in Arlington, VA, the nation's oldest and largest membership-based child welfare organization. CWLA is committed to engaging people everywhere in promoting the well-being of children, youth and their families, and protecting every child from harm.
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