Our print-out-and-save guide to family vacations is packed with tips on planning and packing; coping with cars, airplanes, and hotels; eating well; and enjoying yourselves while away from home.
AIRPORTS & AIRPLANES
Select seats ASAP
Get seat assignments for everyone in your family the moment you purchase tickets. (Some airline websites allow you a peek at seat availability before you book, which is helpful.) If you don't reserve seats, everyone in your party might be stuck with middle seats in separate rows. Likewise, remember to make sure that your seats are together if you're booking through a travel agent or buying a package that includes airfare. If the seating arrangement isn't what you'd like, reserve the best available situation, then call the airline and inquire about any alternative options. Ask again when checking in and at the gate.
Re-create the bedtime routine
Sleeping in a strange new place—on a red-eye flight, for example—can be unsettling. To assure your kids that all is normal, stick to your regular routine as much as possible and include familiar objects from home. Leave room in your carry-on for a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, pillowcase, or nighttime storybook: Every bit of comfort will help.
You're never too young to sign up as a frequent flyer
Register your kids with the airline's loyalty program when you pay for their first airfare. Many mileage programs will erase your miles if the account isn't active for 18 months; before that happens, donate the miles to a charity at miledonor.com.
Skip the car seat for the plane ride
The FAA recommends that children be secured in car seats, but using them is problematic: They aren't made to fit in airplanes, and fastening them in those narrow rows is awkward. Also, most kids flying in car seats have their legs crammed against the seat in front of them, all but ensuring they'll kick it. There's an FAA-approved alternative: a safety harness (available for $75 at kidsflysafe.com).
Use the strap
Camping stores sell nylon compression straps (with a quick-release buckle) that'll help you bundle your stuff together. You can use them to attach your car seat to the back of a rolling bag and to strap your umbrella stroller closed so it won't pop open when handlers load it onto the plane.
The best car seat is your own; here's how to check it
Some families swear by the car seats they get with a rental, but not all car rental locations have car seats available (you should always call ahead to verify that); what's more, a seat costs $10 or so per day. It's worth the hassle to check your own seat because you'll be sure of its quality and know how it works. Few duffels will hold a car seat, so buy a special bag made to hold one; some of these bags even have wheels. Car-seat manufacturers sometimes sell travel bags, but you can find more options by looking online at Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Babies"R"Us.
Change diapers before boarding
And make kids use the airport restroom. Plane lavatories are tiny, and there's often a wait (and we all know how kids feel about waiting). Before booking, try to find out if the plane has diaper-changing tables, which help enormously. (Most large aircraft now have them, but JetBlue is one of the few carriers to offer them on all of its planes.) If there's no changing table, place an infant changing pad on the toilet cover. For bigger kids, try sitting down and using your knees as a table.
Divide and conquer
Split responsibilities at the airport: One parent should be in charge of checking in, including holding IDs and dealing with luggage. The other should care for the kids. Likewise, after arrival, there's no need for the whole clan to wait around at baggage claim. One parent can grab a cart and watch for the luggage. The other can take the kids to the bathroom and let them stretch their legs.
Organize items by parent
Assign one parent the essentials (diapers, wipes, snacks), and let the other carry the fun stuff (crayons, toys, books). You'll know which bag to scrounge through for the Uno cards or the Goldfish crackers.
Yes, you read that right. Here's why: Your goal is to minimize the time your child spends on the plane, right? Then you're much better off using that extra half hour to run kids around the airport and tire them out so there's a chance they'll sleep or at least be mellow on board. One parent may want to board early, to get carry-on bags stashed in the overhead bin and toys and books in the seat-back pocket.
Be tactical about any carry-on items
Toys should be reasonably small and likely to hold a child's attention for more than 10 minutes. Ideally, any books will be ones that your kids enjoy reading over and over. If you have an infant, you might want to bring a few pairs of earplugs to hand out to passengers seated nearby in case the baby starts wailing. Also, don't bother bringing a book for yourself. Chances are you won't have much of an opportunity to read it, and it'll just take up valuable space.
Easy ways that kids can pop their ears
The change in air pressure during takeoffs and landings can cause pain and even injuries to kids' ears. During ascent and descent, give babies a bottle or pacifier, and hand older kids gum, a lollipop, or some raisins. The key is to make them chew and swallow to alleviate any pressure.
One word: velcro
Even children are required to remove their shoes at airport security these days, so everyone should wear shoes that are easy to get on and off—especially kids who are unable tie their own. (Slip-on shoes or sandals are best for the beach, too.) Warn your youngsters in advance that they'll have to briefly part with their shoes, so no one freaks out in line.
Tour the cockpit
You can still get a peek inside the cockpit these days, provided the plane is on the ground and attached to the jetway (access is at the pilot's discretion, of course). Kids find airplanes fascinating, and they might be more willing to put up with the tight quarters once they have a better idea what's going on behind those closed doors.
Assume there will be no food
If the airline does serve food, consider it a bonus, but chances are your kids won't like it anyway.
Carry a few empty eight-ounce water bottles
Once you're through security, refill them for the flight. The small bottles are easier for kids to handle and to tuck into the seat pocket than a large one. And if they're lost, no big deal.