The Ultimate Guide To A Blissful Family Vacation

Kids: Going Places

Your kids always have fun on a trip—so why shouldn't you? Just use this planner to sidestep common travel hiccups and unrealistic expectations.

By Cara Birnbaum

Our beach vacation was going great until it imploded on Day 4. Both kids woke at dawn, tired and wired from the previous night's funnel cake–fueled trip to the boardwalk. As they barked out breakfast orders, I stumbled around our kitchenette, scrambling an egg for my 6-year-old while holding a crying 2-year-old on one hip. The rest of the day followed suit, with tantrums, a sunscreen boycott, complaints that the beach was too sandy—everything you'd expect after junk food, salty waves, amusement parks, and late bedtimes.

I wouldn't take back any of those things. If I screwed up at all, it was in expecting our trip to look like friends' Instagram shots, minus the messy outtakes. Managing expectations may be the best-kept secret behind a successful family getaway, says Corinne McDermott, mom of two and founder of . “Once I embraced my daughter's need to nap, we enjoyed morning outings around it and going back to the hotel to rest,” adds McDermott. She and other family-travel gurus spill their secrets to rocking your brood's next getaway, which starts with one part careful planning—and two parts letting go.

1. Book smarter

That toy the hotel gave your kid at check-in means little when you're watching Netflix in a dark bathroom so your kid can doze off undisturbed at 8 p.m. Size up hotels, airlines, and vacation rentals now to find out who slays genuine family-friendliness.

Plane & Simple

What? We're not sitting together anymore?!

Even if you chose your family's seats when you booked your ticket, they may not remain the same. “Increasingly, airlines change the type of plane they use for a flight and rejigger everyone's seat assignment,” says Eileen Ogintz, founder of Check your reservation a few times in the weeks leading up to your flight to make sure the assignments are still valid—if they aren't, you may be able to make changes online before the plane is full. And support the Families Flying Together Act (H.R. 3334), which calls for the Department of Transportation and commercial air carriers to establish a policy ensuring, to the extent practicable, that a family is seated together during flight.

Shorten the Wait!

Apply for TSA precheck ($85 per adult for five years) and you'll be whisked into a shorter security line and won't have to remove your shoes, laptop, approved liquids, or jacket. Kids ages 12 and under go with you for free;

How family-friendly is that hotel?

After you ID a few options within your budget, see how they do on this test developed with the help of Eileen Ogintz, author of the Kids Guide series of travel books.

What's the room layout?
  • A Two queen beds in one room under 350 square feet (0 points)
  • B Two queen beds in one room over 350 square feet (2 points)
  • C A partition between a king bed in the bedroom and a sleeper sofa in the living area (3 points)
  • D A door for your bedroom and a sleeper sofa or bunk beds for the kids in the living area (7 points)

Looking like you'll have to squeeze into one room? Find out if there's an alcove big enough for a portable crib. Even a walk-in closet (door left ajar for ventilation) or wheelchair-accessible bathroom may do the trick.

Does the hotel have a pool?
  • A No (0 points)
  • B Yes—but it's a lap pool. (2 points)
  • C Yes—and it's lifeguarded. (4 points) Add a fifth point if it has a slide too!

Ask about the depth of the pool and lifeguard hours; you might want to pack U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jackets.

What's the deal with breakfast?
  • A There's a sit-down restaurant you can eat at. (1 point)
  • B There's a place in the lobby that sells coffee, fruit, and other grab-and-go items. (2 points)
  • C There's a free buffet every morning. (4 points)
  • D There's a free buffet every morning—and you can get a made-to-order item. (5 points)

Don't miss out on your omelet! Some hotels put away their spread at 9 a.m. on weekdays.

Will there be a fridge in your room?
  • A No (0 points)
  • B Yes—but only if you ask for it. (2 points)
  • C Yes—it comes standard. (4 points)
  • D Yes—and there's a microwave too. (5 points)

No luck? Ask housekeeping to remove the contents of the mini bar so you can use it as a fridge.

Are kids' activities available?
  • A Nope (0 points)
  • B You'll receive a list of the fun things for families to do nearby. (1 point)
  • C It offers some kids' activities on the property. (3 points)
  • D There's a drop-off children's program. (5 points)

Even hotels that don't have children's activities often offer coupons or discounted tickets to local family attractions.

Scoring Add up the points. If you're bringing a baby, give an extra five to hotels that offer high chairs, baby bathtubs, and childproofing supplies. Deduct five points from ones that don't supply fitted sheets for the portable crib. Then go and book the hotel with the most points. Done!

Let us do the research for you!

Don't have time to look into the family-friendliness of a hotel or resort yourself? Check out Parents' picks for the top hotel chains, resorts, and attractions at .

6 Things you need to know about a vacation rental

It's liberating.

When Erin Jurnove booked a house in Puerto Rico with another family, the Berkeley, California, mom of two appreciated having a kitchen almost as much as the nearby beach. In the evening, the adults chatted over cocktails and took turns babysitting so each couple could have a date night. “We didn't feel like vacation ended when the kids went to bed,” she says. “Sometimes it felt like the beginning.”

You can afford it.

A rental cottage or condo tends to cost less per night than a hotel.

Droves of families do it.

Some 59 percent of travelers planned to rent a vacation home last year, up from 52 percent the year before, according to TripAdvisor research.

The description on the rental site may leave out a few things.

Ask about any breakable décor, balconies and open staircases, a pool (including fencing), and the backyard (is it flat and grassy or hilly?).

The closets may contain hidden gems.

Sand toys, a high chair, books, a portable crib, and a stroller could be inside.

Maid service isn't just for hotels.

Many rentals offer a housekeeper add-on that won't break the bank, especially if you're splitting the service with another family.

2. Find a deal

Now that you've explored lodging and flight options to fit your family's needs, snag the lowest price on those plus learn what you can get for gracias.

Geeked-Out Discounts

Use technology to find your next vacation bargain.'s Flight Search
Type in where you'd like to go and your dates—with a plus-or-minus-three-days window—for the best shot at scoring a deal. The site can suggest whether you should pounce on your fare today or hold out for a lower one.
Once you enter your destination, you receive a list of 20 “best value” hotels chosen for price, proximity to local attractions, and ratings.

Destinations on Google
It's a new feature of your Google app or mobile browser. Type in an idea of where you'd like to go, using the word “destinations.” For example, if you searched for spots in Florida, you'll get travel listings on dozens of cities and attractions. Hit one and click on the “Plan a Trip” tab that allows you to find the best price for airfare and hotel combined. You enter the number of travelers and duration of the trip for a bar graph of lowest prices over several months.
It's like Priceline, but for vacation rentals. You name the price you want to pay per night, choose at least two homes from the site's inventory of 500,000-plus homes, and send the offer to the host. The first host to accept your bid wins. The offer expires if not accepted in 24 hours.

Let's hear it for freebies!
  • The National Park Service is waiving entrance fees to all of its attractions from August 25 to 28.
  • Bank of America or Merrill Lynch customers can show their credit or debit card and a photo ID for free entrance to participating museums on each month's first full weekend (
  • On select days, Target picks up all or part of the tab for admission to attractions in nearly every major city; go to to search for community events.
  • Your local children's museum's membership may get you in for free or at a discount to other kids' museums (
  • Find a no-cost attraction in every state at

3. Survive travel days

Your vacation is finally starting, and you want to get off on the right foot. Make your car ride or flight more of an adventure and less of a trek.

Airline Secrets From a Flight Attendant

Anissa Charles, a Southwest flight attendant based in Orlando, has seen her share of meltdowns from both kids and parents. Here's how to nix the turbulence:

Best time to board If you're flying Southwest with a child age 6 or under, take advantage of being able to board after group A. Since you don't get seat assignments (unless you pay extra), you'll be able to find seats together. Other airlines tend to allow families with children ages 2 and under to board after first-class, but think about whether you really want more time on the plane.

Best ear soothers EarPlanes for Kids & Smaller Ears help regulate pressure while reducing engine noise. Anything that encourages sucking and swallowing also helps. For babies and young toddlers, that means pacifiers (bring at least two, in case one falls on the floor) and bottle- or breastfeeding.

Best way to keep butts clean Slip a pack of wipes and one diaper per hour of flight time in your carry-on or diaper bag. Ask your flight attendant to give you a heads-up ten minutes before descent begins so you can make one last stop.

Best way to occupy the kids Reframe that daunting three-hour flight as nine 20-minute segments. Eating after takeoff and before landing knocks out two of those segments; reading a few books will knock out a third. Bring activity or coloring books for the fourth, and let the kids spend the remaining 90 or so minutes watching a movie on their own device or an in-flight system.

Best time for a cockpit visit Flag down a flight attendant after the post-takeoff fasten-seat-belt sign has gone off. “Don't promise your kid anything, but nine times out of ten, it's a yes,” says Charles. “A lot of our pilots have kids and are usually eager to invite children in.”

Best time to get off the plane Last, since it'll take at least 20 minutes for your luggage to arrive on the claim carousel—and a good ten for the ground crew to bring your stroller up to the arrivals gate. If your kid is antsy, point out the window and let him watch all the other planes taking off and landing.

5 Road-trip sanity savers no one told you about

Window cling decals

They're like stickers, but they peel right off. A few bucks buys you a pack of fish, butterflies, flowers, and more—not to mention 15-plus minutes of quiet.

Wikki Stix

Wax-covered strands of yarn bend into almost anything with no mess. Jeff Bogle, who chronicles his family's adventures in his blog Out With the Kids, recalls the quiet hours his girls spent in the backseat twisting them into hammocks, swings, and zip lines for their toy figures.

Colorful duct tape

Kids can plaster their car seat and clothes with the stuff—or, if they're like Bogle's girls, make a pair of flip-flops.


Save the party favor–size bottles for traffic jams, then open the windows halfway so your kids can blow off steam—or should we say suds.

Soccer ball

Or a toy that will get even the smallest tot moving on any grassy area you can find even if it's at a highway rest stop. Keep the ball in the trunk.

What you can (and can't) put in your carry-on

Bring It (but it will require screening)
  • Fresh whole fruits
  • Liquid medication (of any size)
  • Formula, breast milk, milk, and juice plus an ice pack to keep it cold; (you may be asked to move liquids to another container)
  • Baby food
Skip It (or pack in checked luggage)
  • Yogurt or pudding (unless it's less than 3.4 ounces and in a quart-size clear plastic zip-top bag)
  • Bubbles (ditto)
  • Jar of PB or jelly (ditto)
  • Baseball bat or a hockey stick

4. Relax—you've earned it

Ah! You're finally there! Now slow down and savor the good times.

Sleep Secrets

How can you stick to a snooze schedule on a vacation filled with day trips, evening Ferris-wheel rides, and a bedroom your kid's never seen before? The weirdly liberating answer: You don't. Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., Parents advisor and author of Sleeping Through the Night, shares what to do instead.

Slacken the schedule …
“Without being too rigid, try to keep the most important parts of your child's schedule,” says Dr. Mindell. If she short-circuits without her nap, take a walk after lunch so she can snooze in a stroller. Shoot for close to the usual bedtime, knowing you may have a few later nights out.

… But maintain the routine.
“If you normally do a bath and two stories, do a bath and two stories—even if it's late,” says Dr. Mindell.

Pack the bedtime gear.
A familiar lovey, pillow, and worn copy of Goodnight Moon can warm up an unfamiliar sleeping space. Leave the white-noise machine at home and download Sleepy Sounds by OwenTech, an app that turns an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch into a baby mobile and noisemaker that plays lullabies, white noise, or nature sounds to soothe your baby to sleep ($2;

Sidestep time-zone trouble.
Keep kids on their home clock for a quick two- to four-day getaway. Anything longer, switch them to local time—which Dr. Mindell swears is easier for little ones than for us. “Do this as soon as you get on the plane by adjusting their meal schedule—and get them out in the sunlight first thing in the morning as well as throughout the day to reset their circadian rhythm.”

Play here

Your little ones can live it up like a local kid:

Sleuth out a swingset. The rest of the hotel is snoozing and your early risers have already polished off breakfast? will show you to the nearest park, where you can chat up other sleep-deprived parents.

Go Geocaching. Sightseeing's more fun when it doubles as a treasure hunt. gives you the scoop on the crayons, Matchbox cars, and other trinkets fellow Geocachers have hidden near your destination.

Board the bus. Or monorail, subway, ferry, or you name it. To the 4-and-under set, public transit is nearly as thrilling as an amusement-park ride.

Find a farmers' market. Yummy samples, street life, impromptu performances. What better way to give your kid a taste of the local landscape while stocking your hotel room with fresh fruit? Ask your concierge—or smartphone—when and where to find a market near you.

Hit the library. When you're all played out, grab a couple of cushy chairs in the kids' section and thumb through some picture books.