Tips for preparing for a family vacation with young children

Thursday, November 1, 2012

We've recently returned from our family vacation in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic with our two young kids (ages at the time:  7 months and 2.5 years).  The thing about vacation after you have kids (that people somehow forget to tell you) is that vacationing with children is like regular life, only harder because you don't have all your regular, daily goto's conveniently located.  It's still changing diapers, only now you're digging sand out of baby thigh creases.  And it's wiping faces, only now you're attempting to keep sunscreen out of squirmy kids' eyes.

If you're getting ready for your first vacation as a parent:  think of vacationing without kids and understand that it is nothing like that.  It is like your current daily life with a different backdrop and limited supplies.  Of course it is also sprinkled with some of your best family pictures and moments that are precious enough to distort your memory so you'll keep attempting family vacations in the future.

hahha, I'm only half kidding.

So, I'm sharing my 10 tips for preparing your young family for vacation, in hopes to help other mommas (and daddies) keep a little piece of sanity in the pursuit of happy family vacation memories:

1.  Make lists
My main list for vacation is the packing list.  I separate my packing list into categories - I have found it is even more important to catalog the 'no-duh' type things (toothbrush, baby wipes, etc) because when it comes time for packing, those are the things that I am most likely to forget.

I also keep a special section for things that are an absolute necessity - as in "if we forget anything else, fine.  but we cannot go without these things" (like passports and baby tylenol)

family packing list categories
Besides a packing list, I also make a list for the last-minute-house-sweep.  That list is important because as we're trying to wrestle two kids and a bunch of luggage into the car (inevitably at the last possible moment that we have to leave), we want to make sure we don't have to turn around and come back because we forgot to do an important house chore.  This list usually looks like this:

  • turn down the heat
  • lock the doors
  • empty the kitchen garbage
  • unplug big electronics (tv, computers)
  • leave a note for the neighbors (pet sitters)

2. Practice
It is always important to practice, but especially when the kids are going to experience something new.
Some possible important new things to practice with you kids before your trip:

  • Using toys appropriately for certain places (like wearing headphones when using the iPad on the airplane)
  • Airport security.  (set up a pretend security line at your house and practice removing shoes and coats, and placing electronics in plain sight of kids who can't use them right at that second - even though they want to)

Practicing airport security in our living room 

our fake airport security line - complete with shoe bins!

  • New vacation-related equipment (let them use unfamiliar equipment in a familiar place)

Testing out the sun tent in our living room 

goggle practice in the shower
3.  Get the kids involved
Help the kids get themselves prepared for a new place by:

  • Looking at pictures together of your destination and hotel
  • Talking to them about the weather and activities you have planned.  
  • Showing them where you are going on a map and talk about how you'll get there and get back.  
  • If you're going somewhere that speaks a different language - teach them (at least) the two most important phrases - Hello and Thank you.  
  • Letting them bring and pack (with light weight objects) their own carry-on (with the knowledge that you'll probably have to carry it yourself at some point).  

4. Plan your distractions
This is a parent's bag of tricks.  When the kids are bored - what can you pull out of the diaper bag next?  Make sure your magic hat includes distractions enough to get you through delayed flights, overdue mealtimes, and homesick babies.  We suggest:

  • electronics ('tis the age of technology; ain't no shame in it:  iPad, smartphones, dvd players, etc)
  • snack foods (we love GoGo Squeez and Gerber crunchies)
  • light-weight, easy to transport toys (toy cars, baby keys, mini paper books, etc)
  • things that feel/smell like home (favorite stuffed animal, blankie, pacifier, etc)
  • My friend Nora has a great list & review of some travel distractions & flight tips - read her list here.
easy-to-transport toy car driving map (construction paper)

5. Prepare for your return
We all know its a total drag to come home after vacation with suitcases to unpack of wet clothes and kids that are travel-cranky.  So I try to make our return home a little less hateful by doing the following things before we leave:

  • eating/getting rid of bread and left overs
  • holding the mail (or having a neighbor collect it)
  • washing dirty laundry
  • making sure there are no dirty dishes in the dishwasher
  • emptying the garbage cans (and diaper genie)
  • putting clean sheets on the bed
  • making sure we won't have to run right to the store when we get home.  aka - confirming necessities (diapers, wipes, formula)

6. Pack with purpose
You are going to be responsible for squirmy children AND you are going to be responsible for carrying all of the supplies your family will need for the duration of your vacation - makes sure to pack with purpose!  Use these four main guidelines when thinking about what needs to go in the luggage:

  • SAFE:  what do you need to keep your kids and family safe?  (sunscreen, butt cream, medicines, passports/ID, cash/credit cards)
  • PRACTICAL:  what is going to be highly useful to have away from home?  (small amount of dish washing detergent, bottle brush, band-aids, q-tips)
  • SMART:  what can you do today that your future self will thank you for?  (put plastic wrap under the twist caps of your liquid bottles, pack empty garbage bags (for dirty clothes repacking), bring your camera charger)
  • CONVENIENT:  Vacations are for relaxing, not breaking your back over luggage! (pack mix&match clothing, limit accessories and shoes)

7. Get real
Vacations are supposed to be a chance to vacate from your everyday life.  The caveat there, of course, is with kids it is impossible to vacate from certain parts of your everyday life - like changing diapers and mixing bottles.  So get real about it and make sure you're going to have what your kids are going to need.

  • Slightly over pack on diapers and wipes (you know there's bound to be a blowout or two).  
  • If you are taking bottles - it will be helpful to have the tools to clean them (see above).  
  • Find a way to accept the fact that it will probably be more advantageous to maintain napping schedules than trying to wrestle cranky sleep-deprived children.  
  • If your kids refuse sunscreen - find another method of sunblock (hats, uv long-sleeved clothing) because the only thing worse than being sun burnt yourself is being the parent to a sun burnt toddler.

Keep in mind, just about everywhere you vacation will have the necessities if you end up running out of something (diapers, wipes, formula) - also know that THEY know that you need them.  So be ready to pay double than normal.

8.  Pick a leader
One of our sure-fire marriage/parenting success tools is our 'pick a leader' method when it comes to non-daily activities.  It is our way of handing over trust and responsibility to the other person for specific scenarios.  We have found that it takes almost all of the opportunities for arguing when faced with unfamiliar situations.  We both agree that if we know we'll be in a situation that is not normal to our family - one of us becomes the leader and the other follows direction.  No trying to talk over each other or assuming the other knows what we're thinking.  It also allows us to take full ownership if something goes awry when we're the leader - so no blame game either.  For example:

  • Packing the bags:  I'm the leader. I'm the one that packs the bags, makes the lists, gathers the kids' stuff.  B leaves full trust in me that I'll pack the stuff he's picked and laid out - along with the 14 other things he forgot to say he wanted to pack
  • Loading the car:  B's the leader - he's way better at tetris than me
  • Navigating the Airport:  I'm the leader, only because I have slightly more experience in air travel
  • Collecting/accounting for luggage:  B's the leader (I take the kids and we wait out of the way)

9. Prepare for the worst
I don't mean to be all doom and gloom - but with young kids in tow, chaos will always find it's weaselly way into your day.  So try your best to prepare for annoying things that might pop up.

We got a prescription for a 'blanket antibiotic' for the kids in case either of them came down with something while we were in a different country.  We put baby's tylenol, swimmer's ear drops, and butt cream in our 'REQUIRED!' packing list category.  Some other possible 'worse case scenario' precautions:

  • make up a secret 'code word' to use when knocking on the hotel door.  make sure the kids know that if the person knocking doesn't know the code word - they don't open the door
  • make copies of your passports and credit cards and get them notarized to leave with a family member/friend 
  • if you're traveling somewhere that speaks a different language - make sure you know (or have a copy of how to say/write) important pieces of information - like food allergies or medical conditions

And in case you haven't seen this list of The Super Ten Play-it-Safe Rules for Kids and Adults from Safely Ever After- read it now and talk about it with your kids - this list is for all the time, but a quick refresh before vacation is a good idea.

10. Prepare for the best
There will also be some awesome moments and memories that come out of your family vacation - that's why we keep doing it! - so make sure you're also ready for the best of times too

  • pack your camera charger!!
  • bring along a bag (or baggie) to hold special mementos - like shells, tickets, or bracelets
  • make a vacation playlist
  • pack a real live grown up book (or gossip mag or absolutely nothing) - the moment might come when the kids are playing happily or napping peacefully and you have got not a thing to do but bask in the quiet

Hopefully with a little extra preparation in the beginning - you'll have to endure only a little bit of vacation that looks like this (come on, you know its inevitable):

But most of your vacation will be smiles and happy like this:


  1. This was great! So true. I agree that a little planning ahead can go a LONG way when traveling with a bunch of littles!

  2. THANK YOU, we are doing a trip with our twins (they will be 10 months when we go) and I had no idea how to prepare. These were great suggestions.

  3. Great suggestions. I will be modifying our travel plans! I will say this: we did learn right away that when you travel with littles it's not a's a trip!! ;) for the parents anyway....