Travel hacks: Family edition

vacations with kids

By Brittany Carlson


My family vacation started out in an unexpected place: sitting at an urgent care, waiting for a doctor to see my 1-year-old, for what I knew was another ear infection.

It was the first of many detours to our plans, and just one example of how flexibility and preparation are necessary for traveling anywhere with kids.

That day in the urgent care, James* (1) had three blowouts and I ran out of diapers. I also ran out of snacks, and my three-year-old, Adam*, got extremely hangry and started climbing all over the medical equipment.

Don’t get me wrong: our vacation was still a fun time! We had loved going to the beach and to a waterpark resort. The kids had a great time swimming, playing in the sand, and spending time with family.

I just didn’t plan on James following his ear infection with croup that first week at the beach, coughing through the night while I walked him around in a stroller outside. I didn’t plan on Adam melting down every day for tiny things, such as some food falling to the floor, or wanting to put his own clothes on.

It was a learning curve for me as a mother of preschoolers on our first big family vacation. And along the way, I learned a few things that I believe can help other parents planning trips with little ones:

-Get a DVD player for long drives (if you don’t already have one). It really helped the make long drives pleasant, since my 3-year-old hates sitting still, but makes exceptions for Paw Patrol.

-Use family restrooms at rest stops, especially if you’re traveling alone. They confine older kids while you’re changing a diaper or using the restroom, so you don’t need to worry about the older ones running off.

-Try to keep the kids on the same routine they had at home. This means keep nap times and bed times as close to the same as possible. This also means staying consistent with discipline. At home, we use a rock jar for Adam, rewarding him with a rock every time he is obedient/kind/whatever skill we are working on, and when he fills the jar, he gets a predetermined prize. On vacation, I substituted a smaller jar and gave him “tickets” I made from paper as stand-in rocks, so we could still have a way of motivating him to behave. He was so proud of himself when he earned enough tickets to get a toy he wanted from the hotel store.

-Try to keep diets and mealtimes as similar as possible to what kids have at home. There is such a thing as too many treats. I’ll never forget the moment Adam puked on the boardwalk or the time I spent all day running him to the bathroom after he had eaten too many fried foods. I plan to bring a cooler on my next vacation with cold breakfast and lunch items to prevent eating out every day.

-Have a daily “quiet time.” I brought a stack of books, crafts, stickers, coloring books, chalk, and other quiet activities the kids could enjoy if they weren’t napping. The hour or two without stimulation made a huge difference in how my kids behaved by the end of the day!

-If possible, try an all-inclusive resort. On the second part of our vacation, my husband and I took the kids to a resort that had a water park and arcade. It was awesome being able to go back to our room whenever our kids (or we) wanted a nap. 

-Book a suite when staying at a hotel. This was so, so worth it to me. After putting the kids to bed in the living room (Adam on a pull-down bed and James in a pack and play), my husband and I could close the door to our adjoining room and watch a movie without worrying about waking the kids. This was also great during James’ nap time, when I put him in our room and let Adam watch TV in the living room.


-Bring your own case of water bottles to resorts/theme parks. At the resort we stayed at, one water bottle cost $3 — about the same as a case of water from outside the park.


-At a hotel, never be afraid to ask for what you need. Most hotels we’ve stayed in have pack and plays we can use for free (instead of lugging our own). Last month, I asked if there were any larger rooms available and we were upgraded from a single room to a suite for free!

-Don’t try to do too much. I recommend taking a few slow days. Some of my three-year-old’s favorite days involved eating in the room and watching a movie together.

-You can never have too many snacks, antibacterial wipes or diapers. I also carried sunscreen and bug spray with me. Anticipate waiting in line and be ready with activities for kids to do while they wait, whether that means giving them something to play with (like play dough) or playing a game like “I Spy.”

-Be flexible. This is probably my number one tip for traveling with young kids. Meltdowns are going to happen. Be willing to drop or scrap activities when kids get overstimulated or tired.

Vacations with kids can be so much fun, but they do require parents to put in extra effort to be prepared, and have plans B, C and D ready for when things don’t go as planned. With this in mind, I’m hopeful our next big vacation has less all of the fun, with less of the surprises.

 For more travel suggestions check out these great tips.

*names changed for privacy


About Brittany

Brittany Carlson is a lifelong lover of words and all things chocolate. She is an Army wife and now has two sons, Adam (3) and James (7 months). She has written for several Army community newspapers, including the Stuttgart Citizen (Germany), Fort Leonard Wood Guidon (Missouri) and Fort Belvoir Eagle (Virginia). Brittany holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She and her family live in upstate NY. 

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