What We Wish We’d Known: 31 Essential Family Travel Tips from the CB! Staff

Our Ciao Bambino team may be seasoned family travel experts … but that doesn’t mean we always knew the ropes! When we first started traveling with kids, every one of us made rookie mistakes. Since a do-over isn’t in the cards, we’re taking the next best approach: passing our hard-earned wisdom on to our readers. Here are the top 31 things we wish we’d known in the early days of family globetrotting.

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Our Best Tried and Tested Family Vacation Tips

Destination Planning and Travel Prep 

You don’t need to travel far to find meaningful, interesting experiences. Travel is about discovery, and that can happen in your own city and state. — Amie O’Shaughnessy

Just because a place is far away does not necessarily mean it’s a harder place to travel. Once we ventured out of the United States with our kids, we realized that although the flight may be longer, it doesn’t mean that the traveling is more difficult. Additionally, my husband and I get our cultural fix from exploring interesting places. — Nancy Solomon

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Loren Braunohler and her family in Thailand

Introducing new places to our kids before we visit them greatly enriches their experiences. We talk about where our next vacation will be; we read about that destination; we learn about that culture; we prepare ourselves for long plane rides or significant car time. We talk about what the weather and the terrain will be like and the activities we’ll be doing. Sometimes we even make a countdown calendar (hello, Disney World!). Doing this creates a lot of contagious excitement in the run-up to vacation, especially with young children. And when we arrive, the kids are so psyched to be able to point out things we’ve read about (emus, kangaroos and wombats in western Australia, I’m talking about you; dragon cave in Krakow, Poland, you delivered, just as we thought you would). So prepare them. Educate them. Talk it up. They will become invested in the vacation before it even begins. — Loren Braunohler

Get travel cards and attraction passes before heading to cities that offer such things. The travel cards save a ton of money, time and hassle, since you don’t have to determine the price for each individual trip and then pay for it in a foreign currency. Without a pass, prices for attractions add up quickly, and the passes also allow you to avoid long lines during busy travel seasons. — Martha Stockhausen

It doesn’t matter where you go; you can’t do everything. Come to terms with that before you go. Pace yourself, and if you love the destination, plan on going back. — Dana Rebmann

Flathead Lake Lodge Family Vacation

Nancy Solomon and her family in Montana

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Electronics are a lifesaver for long travel days! The “iBubble” is a much-needed item in our family. Being able to zone out with an iPod or iPad gives us personal space when we may not have literal personal space. — Nancy Solomon

For newborns, book the bulkhead and request a bassinet and baby meals. Get a clip-on pacifier and don’t ever put anything that falls on the floor near your baby — airplane floors are seriously dirty. Bring baby wipes to wipe down table and armrests (they don’t get cleaned often). And keep an extra change of clothes for you and your child in your carry-on; spills happen. — Leslie Rich

Go to your local dollar store and make a surprise goody bag for the plane. Pull out a new item as needed along the way (though I always avoid things with small pieces, stickers and Silly Putty). — Laurel Perry 

On flights with meal service, don’t assume your kids will eat the food, even if you pre-order a children’s meal. Kids who aren’t especially picky at home have been known to balk at airline fare. Bring food onboard for them just in case. A full stomach means a more contented kid and a smoother trip for everyone. — Lisa Frederick 

When traveling to Europe from the United States, book the latest flight, at 10p or so. It may feel counterintuitive, but the children will (ideally) go to sleep quickly and have a good 6 hours to sleep before getting off the plane. The problem with late-afternoon or early-evening flights is that, if kids go to sleep at 8p or 9p, they’re already three or four hours into the trip, with only a few hours to sleep before landing. Also, you end up landing in the middle of the night their time, and it’s much harder to make it through to bedtime the next day than when you land at 5 or 6a their time. — Martha Stockhausen 

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Tamara Gruber and her daughter in Zahara de la Sierra, Spain

Accommodations Advice

Don’t underestimate the value of extra space! As a family of three, it is easy for us to squeeze into a single hotel room, but every single time we spring for a suite or apartment, we all rest easier and our vacations are more enjoyable. I’ve spent too many nights sitting in the dark, on the balcony or in the hotel bathroom waiting for our child to go to sleep. Now we look for suites with a bedroom and living space separated by a door so we all have more space to unwind and can accommodate different sleeping schedules. The extra expense is worth it because we enjoy our time together more. — Tamara Gruber

If possible, try to find a hotel near a green space or park, especially when traveling with littler ones. This works well while a baby is napping and an older sibling needs some time outside. Plus, being outdoors and having free time in a park often yields some of the best memories and exchanges with other local parents. From Scottsdale to Lisbon, we’ve found incredible parks that were worth putting on our itinerary in their own right. — Tanvi Chheda 

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Build in time to spend in your hotel room or vacation apartment. You know how your kids like to hang out at home? They like to do this on holiday too. — Anna Tobin

Prioritize accommodations that have laundry facilities or are near a laundromat. Spills and stains are inevitable, and washing clothes along the way allows you to pack lighter. I always travel with a stain stick, detergent packets and fabric softener sheets, but you can usually buy supplies onsite as well. Have plenty of change in the local currency for coin-operated machines, and know that in some countries, such as Italy, dryers are uncommon — a portable clothesline can be a lifesaver in those cases. Also, bring a mesh lingerie bag for each family member, which helps to sort socks and other small items as you go. — Lisa Frederick

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Sandy Pappas and her family in Cornwall, England

Seeing and Doing

I try to adhere to a family rule that each day is someone’s turn to pick an activity, whether it’s something that we plan in an itinerary prior to the trip or something we decide the morning of. Of course, Mom and Dad usually pick the museums and the girls pick the more fun/non-educational things, like going on a picnic, swimming and ziplining. But at least I have their buy-in from the get-go that it’s everyone’s vacation and everyone will get a turn to pick. We look at attractions online or download movies filmed in the destination so they get an idea of what to expect. — Sandy Pappas

Visit local grocery stores, farmers’ markets and pharmacies with kids. They and you will get a kick out of seeing local brands and flavors of juice, chips, cereals, kids’ toothpaste, etc. It’s cultural immersion of another kind. — Tanvi Chheda 

Before I had kids, I had a long list of places I wanted to visit and I swore I’d stick to it. Since having kids, I’ve actually circled the globe with them and have never given up on wanderlust. I also like returning to places I’ve been before to share my own memories and experiences. But overall, I realize that kids have limitations. They may tire or lose patience, and I mustn’t take it personally or get upset. Instead, I tailor our trips to satisfy all of us, knowing that there will be other opportunities for future visits. My goal is to make our trips special and memorable, not overwhelming or overbooked. — Holly Rosen Fink

Plan to do only one activity per day; anything else is a bonus. Kids do not want to be shlepped from one museum to another — that’s what turns them boring. And do the same things that your children enjoy doing at home: Take them to the park, to the beach, to the ice rink. You will find that they are more likely to make friends with the local kids this way and experience local life. — Anna Tobin

Hanging bridge at the Paillon del Diablo waterfall

Kristi Marcelle and her family in Ecuador

Find other kids and families on vacation! I never realized how much hanging out with other kids impacted the overall vacation experience for my children. — Kristi Marcelle

Invent some kind of game to keep kids engaged. In Austria, we searched for the elusive Edelweiss. In Rome, it was spotting the city’s S.P.Q.R. emblem. In London, it was identifying the royal cypher on red post boxes. It could be anything, but we do it during our whole time in a city or in a country, and it creates a sort of fun theme. — Gina DiPrima

Go off-path. The best restaurants and experiences are found while getting lost. Try not to get stressed, and enjoy the new place you “accidentally” discovered. And don’t be afraid to talk to the locals. When you take the time to get to know them, you will have the most enriching experiences. Don’t know the language? Don’t let that deter you. Show them you are willing to try, and your effort will go a long way. Kids don’t need to know each other’s language; they speak the language of play! — Laurel Perry

Find ways to connect with local children. These connections end up being the most meaningful memories for children of all ages. — Amie O’Shaughnessy

Animals seem to have a magical power, especially when traveling. They don’t even have to be cute and cuddly, though that may make parents smile more … If they move, they’re fair game. Snails in France, cows in Jamaica, sheep (sweaters on legs) in Northern Ireland and cats in Nerja, Spain.  Kids and critters speak a universal language that stretches around the globe and can turn a boring travel day into a highlight of the trip. — Dana Rebmann

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Leslie Rich and her family in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia

Gear and Goodies

Bring plenty of snacks, books and activities to keep young kids busy, and bring a lightweight stroller that easily lies flat for naps. — Leslie Rich

Instead of buying gobs of trinkets that will get lost or broken, give kids a handful of coins and small bills in the local currency. They’re fascinated by the unfamiliar shapes and sizes, and they love having money that’s all their own (even if they can’t spend it at home!). Our other go-to souvenir: postcards. They’re inexpensive, they take up no room in the suitcase, and kids can jot notes on the backs to remember their favorite moments from the trip. — Lisa Frederick

A well-stocked medical bag is worth its weight in gold. You may not need it, but if you do, it will save you a significant amount of time and worry. — Nancy Solomon

One year we let our young kids bring inexpensive digital cameras with them. It really engaged them into looking more closely at what was around them; they had a perspective that surprised us; and when we came home, they had a scrapbook filled with their memories, not just ours. — Gina DiPrima

Our favorite souvenir is always our family travel journal. For each adventure, we purchase a SMASH book or a blank artist’s journal. Every family member takes turns writing down their impressions and favorite moments from the day. When the kids were younger, they would draw pictures. The journal is the perfect place to collect ticket stubs, brochures, and postcards. We pack a small pencil pouch with colored pencils, markers, safety scissors, a glue stick, and washi tape to decorate our journal. We love looking back at our creation and remembering our special time together. — Denise Smith

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Amie O’Shaughnessy and her son in the Dominican Republic

Words of Wisdom

It doesn’t matter if your kids won’t remember a trip. You will! Don’t postpone travel — every age and stage has different pros and cons. Traveling with babies and toddlers can be challenging, but it also has the reward of flexibility. Young kids are surprisingly portable! — Amie O’Shaughnessy

Don’t assume it gets easier to travel as your kids get older. It may be less hassle for you as parents (not having to carry the gear, etc.), but the commitments that the kids have as they get older place major restrictions on the length and dates available for vacationing. I always said that I would just pull my kids out of things because I believe in the value of travel. However, I found it easier said than done; it often means missing tryouts or playoffs that happen in the shoulder season and have a longer-lasting impact. Now, with kids from ages 16-8, we struggle to find a week or two of overlapping time when we are all available. — Nancy Solomon

If I could go back and tell myself anything, it would be to leave the mom guilt at home. Traveling the world with your kids is going to involve the occasional missed nap, perhaps excessive screen time on long flights, and even the odd Happy Meal for dinner. Don’t stress about these things and just embrace them. The many benefits you’re giving your kids through these shared family experiences are worth far more than any parenting faux pas you might have to make along the way. Besides, if you don’t pack the guilt you’ll have more room for shoes in the suitcase! — Nicole Wiltrout

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7 Comments

  1. Oh my goodness, this post is gold. So much good advice here. I second the need for a good medical kit while traveling, and the advice to find local grocery stores, outdoor markets, and and food stalls on both domestic and international trips.

  2. So many great tips! I especially like the advice not to try and do or see everything – that’s a lesson many of us have learned the hard way!!

  3. There are some great tips and reminders, even for seasoned travelers! I second (or third) the recommendation not to overschedule, and to connect with locals on playgrounds, grocery stores, etc.

  4. Excellent post! I agree that sometimes kids won’t remember but you will so that’s enough!

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