Family travel smarts

Planning a trip with the kids? Here's how to make sure everyone has the time of their lives

We’ve all heard about families who tackle exotic pursuits like trekking across India with toddlers. For Samantha Hicks, an all-inclusive in the Caribbean was as adventurous as she wanted to get on her first vacation with her husband, Monte, and seven-month-old son, George. The Toronto mom says she “wasn’t altogether confident” about travelling with a baby, so she hit the Internet to find a resort that would make things as easy and comfortable as possible. “George had just started eating solids, so I wanted a place where he could be messy, he could be loud, and that would be totally OK.”

While travel advisers say there’s almost no trip they’d consider a complete no-no for families with young children, they also say it’s important to stick with what feels manageable to you.

“Don’t push your limits,” advises Erik Budde, a globe-trotting father of one who runs the website travelwithyourkids.com. “Kids are remarkably adaptable; it’s about what the parents are up for.”

So whether you’re looking for an adventure around every corner or prefer a pleasantly predictable resort getaway, these tips will help maximize the fun and minimize the stress on your next family vacation.

You don’t have to take it with you

It’s one thing to cram the family minivan with kid gear. But when air travel is involved, there’s a strict limit to what you can carry. Depending on your destination, that’s one or two checked bags and one small carry-on per seat (meaning kids under two who travel on mom’s or dad’s lap don’t get their own luggage allowance).

The solution is to source as many supplies as possible at your destination, says Libby Nixon, a Toronto mom who’s travelled to Montreal, San Francisco and Rome with her husband, Peter, and son Charlie, now two. For longer trips, she packs only a few days’ worth of diapers and wipes — enough to last until she can find a local grocery store. She makes sure their accommodations come with a playpen for Charlie to sleep in, and has even arranged to rent toys at their destination (she found a San Francisco service on the Internet while making other plans for that trip). And on-site laundry facilities mean she doesn’t have to pack three outfits per day, just in case someone has an accident with an ice cream cone.

Stick to your child’s routine (as much as possible)

While older kids may have no trouble embracing the unstructured days that can happen on holiday, most little ones fare better when they follow at least some of their usual routine. “If your child naps normally, you’ve got to plan for naps on your vacation, or else you’re going to be killing yourself,” advises Jennifer Chapman, a mother of two young girls who also runs the travel arrangement and guide service funfamilytravel.com.

The same goes for bedtime. While you can probably push the timing back a little, remember that your toddler may not co-operate with plans to take in a late-evening fireworks display. If your accommodations are within walking distance, maybe mom heads back to the hotel with the little one while dad hangs with the older kids. The next night, you can switch roles.

For Nixon, the home-like setting of a rental apartment was ideal for keeping her son, then 18 months, on track during a two-week family trip to Rome. “There was a kitchen,” she says, “you could come and go, and be home for nap time.” She also found an Internet listing of English-language playgroups in Rome that would allow her to drop in with Charlie for a donation of a few euros. “It was fun for Charlie to have some contact with kids and it was fun for me to meet some people who lived there.”

Always have a backup plan

When Ben Nero, then seven, came down with a fever of 40°C the first day of his family’s trip to Disney World, much of his mom Susan Saganski-Nero’s careful itinerary went out the window. Still, she says, her advance research came in handy. Ben was quickly prescribed antibiotics by a resort-referred doctor (see Illness on vacation). And although he wasn’t up to many of their planned activities for a while, Saganski-Nero was familiar enough with the theme park’s offerings to suggest a visit to Downtown Disney for some sightseeing and souvenir shopping. “If I hadn’t known what else was available for us to do,” she says, “that day might have been less enjoyable.”

Whether it’s because of illness, time constraints or the weather, travel experts say it’s essential to have plan B in your back pocket at all times. “If you’re seeing the fountains of the Bellagio in Las Vegas — our girls loved those when they were one and three years old — and it starts raining, you can have some indoor options in mind,” advises Chapman.

Enough togetherness, already!

Sure, it’s great to take a break from the busyness of work and school to come together as a family. But hanging out as a unit 24/7 can grate on even the most close-knit clan. Here are some ideas for individual fun in the midst of your family vacation:

Kids’ clubs and babysitting services

Before you book a resort or hotel, ask whether they offer babysitting services, for one-on-one care right in your room (usually an additional cost), or kids’ clubs, which have the atmosphere of a group daycare or camp (these may be part of the fee at an all-inclusive).

Hicks took advantage of the baby club at her Turks and Caicos resort to spend a couple of hours reconnecting with her hubby, while baby George enjoyed playtime with some peers. She was impressed with the friendly staff, who were trained in early childhood education, and the fact there was “an infant space with padded floors and cribs and exersaucers, and an entirely different space for older kids.” (For more tips on vacation child care, see Can I trust them with my kids?.)

Taking shifts

Today’s Parent editor-in-chief Caroline Connell, husband Peter and son John Lee vacationed in Cuba last winter with another family — an arrangement that provided built-in peer interaction for the kids, plus a chance for the parents to get a little couple time. “We swapped a day each watching the kids,” she says. “It really added to the holiday.”

Arranging your own babysitting

If child care isn’t an option where you’ll be staying, consider bringing along your own sitter, or a willing grandparent.

“When the children were little, we always rented condos with cooking facilities in great places like South Carolina,” echoes Patricia Lovett-Reid, a Toronto personal finance expert and mother of four. “On one occasion we brought along our teenage babysitter and the deal was meals, transportation — we drove — and accommodation, in return for four nights out of seven to babysit. It was a terrific balance.”

Not keen on the company, or the cost, of an extra person? Consider Nixon’s solution. “My husband is very, very into food and wine. So it was really important to him that we had prearranged babysitting so we could go out a number of evenings.”

When organizing their trip to Rome, she remembered that two fellow university alums were living in Italy and got in touch to ask whether they knew of a reliable caregiver. Via email, Nixon corresponded extensively with one great-sounding candidate, who was studying child development close to where they’d be staying. The arrangement, she says, “worked out fantastically.”

Air travel survival tactics

Minimize your time on the plane. No, we aren’t suggesting that you take a walk out onto the wing mid-flight for a change of scenery; this is about reducing that squirm-inducing wait while your plane sits on the tarmac. If you’re a family of two adults travelling with kids, don’t bother jumping at the early boarding call that many airlines offer. Instead, Erik Budde of travelwithyourkids.com suggests that one parent stow the carry-on luggage while the other hangs with the kids in the gate area for as long as possible.

Pre-book seats if you can. Depending on your family dynamic, you can use this service to avoid being separated from your spouse and baby, or ensure the separation of two squabbling sibs. Some carriers charge a small fee for this convenience, so call several weeks in advance to find out what’s possible.

Pack a passel of pocket-sized toys. Today’s Parent managing editor Laura Bickle hit the dollar store in preparation for her girls’ first flight from Toronto to Edmonton. Whenever trouble seemed to be brewing, Bickle offered the calming distraction of a fresh, new plaything.

Can I trust them with my kids?

If you’re counting on child care during your vacation, your best bet is to stick with large, well-known hotel chains and established resorts that are accustomed to dealing with families. With reputations to protect, they make the effort to ensure quality child services.

Before you book a sitter through your hotel or put your child in a resort’s kids’ club, Jennifer Chapman of funfamilytravel.com advises quizzing them the same way you would a potential nanny or daycare centre in your hometown. “You want to ask them questions like: What is the average tenure of the staff members? If it’s a few months, it might set off some warning bells for you,” she says.

At a kids’ club, check out the caregivers’ soft skills in person. “What is their method of trying to get to know the children? How do they put the children at ease?”

Finally, Chapman says, it’s important to be realistic about what any child- minding service can provide. “It’s not a matter of dumping the kids off with a bunch of strangers and going and having a great time at an all-inclusive. It’s a matter of having a vacation as a family. If you really want to have an adult vacation, then you’re better off finding a family member or a friend to stay home with the kids while you go on your own.”

Illness on vacation

“Mommy, I don’t feel good.”

Those words are cause for concern anytime — but a child’s illness while you’re on vacation can cause normal levels of parental worry to shoot through the ceiling of your hotel room.

Planning ahead can keep panic at bay and help your child recover sooner, advises Mia Lang, an Edmonton paediatrician and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society Community Paediatrics Committee. Before you step on a plane, Lang recommends these preventive measures:

• Check for travel advisories if you’re vacationing outside Canada. The government website voyage.gc.ca (click on Travel Reports & Warnings, then choose your destination country) will tell you whether it’s safe to drink the local tap water, what kind of health care you can expect to receive from a local doctor, and if there are specific health problems, such as malaria and dysentery, or other issues of concern.

• Book appointments at a travel medical clinic for every member of your family if you’re planning to visit a rural area or any developing country. These doctors will know if specific vaccinations or medications are in order to protect your family from disease or parasites. As a precautionary measure, Lang recommends that anyone age two years or up who is travelling to higher-risk areas, including Mexico and the Caribbean, receive the hepatitis A vaccine.

• Be prepared for tummy troubles. Pack oral rehydration salts, which you can mix with bottled water, to help prevent complications due to diarrhea, a problem that isn’t limited to exotic locales. Talk to your regular doctor about safe medication options for your child if she gets diarrhea.

• In addition to any essential prescription drugs, pack an over-the-counter antihistamine in case someone is stung by an insect or has an unexpected food reaction (Benadryl is a brand name some doctors recommend). A fever reducer, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, in an age-appropriate format, is also recommended.