Sarah Ricks is a travel junkie who writes in Philadelphia. More of her travel writing is at TravelingMom.com
Your kids can be your favorite traveling companions. Really. Even when one of your party needs a nap, won't eat the weird food, or won't visit museums, you can still travel smoothly. Here are six ways to make your next trip with kids more fun for everyone:
Bring friends. Sharing a vacation rental with another family means built-in buddies. Every night is a sleepover. Every day is a playdate. When kids have built-in playmates, a shared beach house sets the stage for an exciting game of hide & seek. A picnic in a park is transformed into a rollicking chasing game. Another benefit: Parents can swap babysitting nights and let the other couple go out for a grown-up dinner or a live performance that does not involve puppets or talking animals.
Let them sleep. A sleepy kid is a cranky kid and crankiness and travel are an unhappy mix. For little kids, bring a stroller so naps can be "on the go" while others enjoy the street scenery or explore a museum. Or schedule a midday car, train, or bus ride for needed downtime. For teenagers, consider letting them sleep late or text with friends while you go out for early morning exploring. Meet up for a late breakfast after you've had coffee and a lovely stroll. One beauty of traveling in Spain is the expectation that everyone benefits from mid-afternoon downtime. A rejuvenating siesta creates the possibility of a late night, almost a second day in one.
Adjust expectations of what they'll eat. If you're visiting a foreign country, consider bringing peanut butter or a favorite cereal to alleviate worries that there will be nothing kids will eat. But likely your kids will surprise you—and themselves—at how much they enjoy trying new foods, or just exotic types of pizza or toppings for pasta. We traveled to rural Italy with a trusty box of Life cereal as a back-up for our picky eater—but our daughter thankfully enjoyed eating at Italian cafes.
Build anticipation before you go. My kids and I both get more out of trips by reading about the place before we leave. Picture books, youth fiction, detective novels set in the area, biographies—all give insight into culture and history and help build anticipation for the trip. Before visiting the Grand Canyon, my kids learned geology from picture books and enthusiastically devoured horrific stories about unprepared hikers and their tragic fates. The irreverent Horrible Histories—such as The Vicious Vikings or The Terrible Tudors—are accurate but play to kids by emphasizing gory facts and scatological humor. Horrible Histories began as a book series and expanded into DVDs, games, and costumes. Watching movies set in the place can help build anticipation. Visiting Anne Boleyn's palace felt more dramatic because we had just watched our scheming heroine in Anne of 1000 Days. While the audio tour of the Colosseum in Rome was a bore, my kids already had a sense of the gruesome (and exciting) former uses of the ancient building from the movie Gladiator. Your kids may enjoy helping to plan visits to a place they learned about before leaving.
Create memories during the trip. Give each kid a blank book to draw or write in during downtime, or to glue in postcards, tickets, and other scraps. Try interviewing your kids and jotting down their answers in the blank books. I've asked questions like: what's the biggest surprise about the place we're visiting, worst new food you tried, favorite joke of the vacation, favorite song right now, who you look forward to seeing when we get home. Doing a short interview with your kid can make waiting in line or in a restaurant speed by. (Years later, those interviews are vivid and cherished reminders of my children's personalities as little tykes.)
Create memories after the trip. After you return home, you can create a photo book or use iPhoto or other programs to publish a book and include captions by your kids. Canvas on Demand can turn photos into pictures you hang on the wall as daily reminders of places you've explored together—and build excitement for your family's next adventure.