PLANNING & PACKING
Give them a bag of their own
Most kids find the idea of packing fascinating—so let them in on the action: By the age of 3 or 4, they're ready to carry their own backpack. The bag isn't really going to lessen the load; the idea is to teach kids about responsibility and to get them excited for the trip. The bag can hold a few toys, crayons, and snacks. Forget the Harry Potter book: You don't want to make the pack too heavy (for your kid, but also for yourself, as you'll most likely be called to duty). And to keep track of things, you may want to hang on to it and hand it over only after passing through airport security.
Trip research can be a family activity
Google destinations with your children. Encourage interests—such as Native American history, Lewis and Clark, cowboys, the American Revolution, trains, or dinosaurs—that correspond to your trip. Kids enjoy thumbing through guidebooks with lots of pictures, like the DK Eyewitness series. Have them flag the pages that feature places they want to see.
Each person gets to plan an afternoon
Make it mandatory that everyone participate in the chosen activity, no matter if it's arcade games, afternoon tea, miniature golf, pottery painting, or a cannonball contest at the pool.
Why check when you can ship?
Box up clothes and shoes you won't need en route and mail them to your destination beforehand. Notify your hotel in advance to ensure the staff will look out for your package and be able to store it until your arrival. What you spend in shipping charges you'll make up in ease of travel.
Think like a local, not a tourist
Everyone knows to search out fun activities and good restaurants while on vacation, but you should also think of more-practical locations: Find the nearest park, supermarket, movie theater, emergency room (hospitals with pediatric ERs are ideal), pediatrician who will accept your insurance, and 24-hour pharmacy.
Pack for four days—No more, no less
Do laundry rather than toting along clothes for the entire trip. Even if you're going away for a shorter period, packing for four days gives you backup options when the inevitable accident occurs. When you fly, bring two days' worth of diapers and an extra set of clothes for everyone in carry-on bags in case your checked luggage is delayed (or someone spits up).
Load up on antibacterial wipes
Buy them in travel packs, in bulk, or individually wrapped, and then stick them in your glove box, carry-on, purse, and day pack, and amid the stash of toys. You'll also want to spread around packets of tissues, in case of a runny nose.
Don't haul all those bulky items
Instead, buy or rent booster seats, beach toys, etc., once you've arrived. Rental service babysaway.com has over 70 locations around the country. If you'd rather not rent, consider buying (or borrowing) used merchandise. Many kids' consignment stores will rent out items so long as you bring them back in good condition.
Ziplocs all around
Use varying sizes of resealable plastic bags for snacks, toys, first-aid supplies, wipes, kids' clothes—one for each day's outfit—wet swimsuits, travel documents, trash, and just about everything else.
Bring just one small stroller
Unless you're traveling with an infant who is too young to sit up, try to make do with only an umbrella stroller that can fold up quickly and compactly. And bring a cloth awning to drape over the stroller on sunny days. Even if you're going to the beach for a week and don't think you'll need a stroller, you might appreciate having one—if only when maneuvering through airports.