Family vacations have the potential to be something that your children will hold dear for their whole lives. Still, they can also be disasters that make you never want to get on a plane again. These family travel tips will help make your next vacation a dream come true, not a nightmare.
As a lifelong digital slomad (a slow-travel digital nomad), I’ve traveled the world with my family and made every mistake in the book. So learn from my mistakes, and with these tips on family travel, you’ll have the best family holiday ever.
Don’t Pre-book Everything
It can be super tempting to pre-book all your activities and attractions, thinking it will save you time while on a family vacation. But, unfortunately, it creates considerable unnecessary stress and a schedule you’re now bound to stick to.
You want freedom and flexibility when you have kids and are in a new place. When you pass a play park, you want the choice to stay and play and not to say, “No, we have to be across town in five minutes!”
Wet wipes are the most important thing you can pack when traveling with toddlers. If you’re taking a trip to London or Disney World, Florida, you can buy wet wipes there. But if you’re traveling further afield and are not sure how easy they will be to buy, take them with you.
Packing wet wipes is great for on the plane when the kids get sticky fingers; you don’t want to be getting up to wash them in the bathrooms.
In many countries, you won’t find soap in bathrooms, even in restaurant bathrooms, so having wet wipes means you can always eat with clean hands.
Buy It There
It’s so tempting to pack everything you think you might need before a big trip. However, carrying so much stuff is not only a physical challenge but keeping track of it all is a stress you don’t need while on holiday.
There’s an alternative you can use to lighten those suitcases – buy it there. Do you know how much toothpaste costs where you’re going? Most likely cheaper than at home. So why are you carrying a tube of it halfway around the world?
When my son was a toddler, we were sick of traveling with a stroller, so we left it back home. On our first day in Xiamen, we saw a cheap stroller in a local supermarket, it cost us $8, and we gave it away to a young couple when we left.
Make your trip easier by leaving these things at home and buying them at your destination:
- Bathing suits
Ensure Your Visas and Passports Are Valid
When traveling outside the country, it’s easy to forget that you must have valid passports and visas for many places abroad.
Even if your passport is valid, many countries will only issue a visa if it has at least six months until it expires. So if you’re preparing for a trip with your whole family, it is up to you to ensure that each of them has the required time left on their passports and visas.
It may take a few weeks to renew their passports, so check as soon as possible.
Take It Slow
The last thing you want to do is arrive home without seeing all the sights you want. But trying to fit too much into a family holiday is a recipe for disaster.
While you might be able to visit three tourist sites in a day when you solo travel, your kids will get tired after just one, especially if they’re dealing with jetlag too.
Travel planning is essential, but it’s so easy to go overboard and try to fit more than you can do into your travel plans. Organize your plans in Obsidian or your favorite notes app on your phone.
How should you plan your itinerary?
- Make a list of places you want to visit on your family trip and things you want to do.
- Split the list into must-dos and want-to-dos.
- Put one must-do on each day of your itinerary.
- Add one or two want-to-dos each day. (Try to choose the ones close to your must-do for that day.)
Find Kid-Friendly Restaurants
When you travel with children, choose where to stay by how close to kid-friendly restaurants you are.
After a long day at national parks or museums, you get back to the hotel tired. So, naturally, the last thing you want to do is go out searching for somewhere appropriate for your kids to have dinner.
You might want to try that Michelin star restaurant or local street food. But finding somewhere to accommodate children, with activities for them or a small play area, will make a much more enjoyable evening when you travel.
If there’s one thing that COVID has highlighted, it’s the need to be appropriately vaccinated before traveling. But it’s not just COVID that you need to consider. There are different recommended vaccinations for every country that you should consider before getting on the plane.
Don’t Ask Locals; Ask Ex-pats
It might seem counter-intuitive, but the best people to ask about places to visit and tourist attractions are not the locals but the ex-pats.
Ask a Beijinger what to see in Beijing, and they’ll all say the same three places:
- The Great Wall
- Tiananmen Square
- The Forbidden City
They are good suggestions, but anyone who’s actually flown all the way to Beijing knows to see the Great Wall and the Palace! If you push them for somewhere not so touristy, they might tell me to go to San Li Tun or the Summer Palace, which are also typical tourist attractions.
If you ask ex-pats who have lived in Beijing for a while, however, they will give you completely different answers.
- Tan Zhe Temple – A temple that predates Beijing
- Tianjin’s concession area – Find original Italian villas and British streets that look like London
- Chang Ping Great Wall Section – You’ll see few tourists in this not yet restored section of the Great Wall
Schedule Night Flights
Most people fall into the trap of looking for the cheapest flight online but paying an extra twenty bucks to fly at the right time will be worth it, trust me.
Instead of a long plane flight with moaning kids wanting to be entertained or arguing with each other, put them to bed. By choosing a late-night flight, you could have peace and quiet and arrive at your destination refreshed and raring to go.
Book One-Way Flights
If you’re going to Hawaii for two weeks this summer, this tip won’t apply to you. But if your trip is more flexible or you are going to multiple places, booking one-way flights is a fantastic way to have the vacation you want.
Before COVID hit, my family and I took a trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and China. We bought only our first flight into Thailand because we weren’t sure how long we’d stay. Not having flights booked allowed us to leave Cambodia after only a couple of weeks and spend more time in Laos.
Often you don’t know how long you will want to stay somewhere until you are there. Without ongoing flights, you are free to go when you’re ready instead of following an itinerary.
Don’t Buy Phone Cards or SIMs at the Airport
You arrive in some foreign land, and your phone won’t work and at the airport’s exit is a store selling SIMs and phone cards. It seems so convenient. But, these are designed specifically for tourists and cost much more than if you wait till you get into town. So buy one at the local store instead.
Don’t Book Accommodation
If you’re visiting a popular tourist destination, find your accommodation when you get there.
This tip flies in the face of everything you know, but what you want is flexibility. Unfortunately, booking your hotel before you leave is the opposite of flexibility. So rather than getting a taxi to your hotel from the airport and watching all the exciting places whizz passed the window, pick somewhere to stay when you’re there.
After the first day of walking on the beach and visiting the little shops and restaurants nearby, you’ll know where you want to stay.
You’ll soon realize that the prices are lower too. For example, you can sometimes stay at the same hotel you saw online for half the price.
I’ve visited countries all over Asia without a single hotel booking, and I’ve always found a place to stay that I was happy with.
Ask to Use the Kitchen
Asking to use the kitchen in a hotel may have never occurred to you before, but if you want to save money on a family meal, cooking it yourself is the way to go.
Of course, it depends on the type of hotel you are in. Five-star hotels are unlikely to allow customers into their kitchens, but if you are staying at a family-run or a small hotel, why not ask?
Be Last on the Plane
One of the only good things about taking kids on a plane is that you get priority boarding, especially when your children are young. But you should think twice about taking the airline up on that offer of early boarding.
The longer you and your children are sitting in a confined space without air conditioning and entertainment, the more likely there will be a meltdown.
- “I want to get up.”
- “I’m hot!”
- “Are we there yet?”
Avoid this whole episode by getting on the plane as late as possible.
Now you might say that by getting on last, you won’t find suitcase space on board which is a hassle you don’t need when you’re corralling children onto a plane. If you’re traveling with a partner, have them board first with your carry-on luggage and any older kids. You can then board just before departure. Just walk on and sit down. Easy!
Carry on Luggage
Two tips will save you if this is your first time taking children on a flight. What you bring and what you don’t. Let’s start with the things to avoid:
- Small toys – It might be their favorite, but you don’t want to search for it when it rolls a few rows back—Lego, marbles, action figures with detachable parts, etc.
- Anything sticky – Slime is fun at home, but it’s trouble waiting to happen on a flight.
- Anything that looks like a weapon – Enough said.
- Anything that makes a mess – paint, glitter, playdough, etc.
Lastly, here is a list of carry-on luggage you should consider when traveling with young children.
- Wet wipes
- Ziploc bags
- Car seat
- Coloring book and markers
- Games to play on paper
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Soft toy
- A small first-aid kit
These Family Travel Tips Might Save Your Next Vacation
It’s not always easy traveling with kids, but with a few simple changes you can transform your trip into a dream family vacation.
This article originally appeared on Hello Sensible.
About the author
Originally from the U.K, Greg has lived in Asia for over 15 years. Fluent in a handful of languages, he ran a management consultancy before creating FaceDragons, a site dedicated to facing challenges and getting stronger. He travels around Asia, writing, taking photos, and drinking coffee.