Ever come back from a family vacation and feel like you need a vacation? You’re not alone. Traveling with an infant or toddler can feel like an endurance test rather than a relaxing interlude. The good news: traveling with toddlers doesn’t have to be grueling when you incorporate these ten vacation sanity-savers.
Check out kid services at other hotels
Just because you’re staying in one hotel doesn’t mean that you can’t visit another – especially if the other hotel has kids’ offerings. Do some Googling or talk to your travel agent to check out competing hotels’ programs; for example, in Grand Cayman, we stayed at one resort, but headed to the Ritz-Carlton for their spectacular marine adventure program “Ambassadors of the Environment,” designed by Jean-Michel Cousteau. Offerings were divided into little kids’ and big kids’ categories, and included night snorkeling, expeditions to a breeding ground for endangered blue iguanas, and underwater photography with digital photo editing session. All of the programs were offered in an eco-friendly cottage, the Ambassadors Heritage House, on the hotel property. (The Ambassadors of the Environment at the Ritz-Carlton is unique to the Grand Cayman, but there are other Ambassadors programs for kids around the world through Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society; more info here.)
Fill up the iPhone or iPod with family photos and videos
If you have an iPhone, it’s probably already loaded up with kid-friendly apps like MyFirstABC, Poppin’, Doodle Kids, Scribble, and KidArt. When your little one tires of doodling or popping bubble wrap bubbles, pull out the big guns: family photos. I’ve yet to meet a toddler who doesn’t love going through the family digital photo archive. It’s a chance to tell stories, reflect on the past, and remember the good times your family has had. In other words: a perfect way to begin a family vacation! When you tire of explaining who’s who in every photo, it’s time to move on to home movies of your child. Unrepentant narcissists that they are, toddlers looooove seeing movies of themselves and people they know. The other day, I put on a video of my son’s preschool class singing “Happy Birthday” and set it to repeat. My son would have been happy to watch it all day; I cut him off when I couldn’t stand to listen to it anymore. Now, we save the Happy Birthday video for traveling. I plan to take that video with us on every plane ride until he’s in college. Headphones, too. Speaking of which…
Bring DVDs and headphones for the grown-ups, too
There’s a special kind of vacation hell I discovered the first time my husband and I traveled with our baby. He went to bed at 7:00 PM, and we were: stuck in the room. We couldn’t turn on the TV, lest we wake him up. But you probably already travel with a portable DVD player and kid DVDs, right? Make sure your player has two headphone jacks (or get a splitter) so that you can watch movies together in the hotel room after the baby goes down for the night. It’s not plasma TV with surround sound, but it’s better than trying to read in the dark. And it’s certainly better than my most desperate bored-in-the-hotel moment, when I put a pillow in the bathtub so I could stretch out and read a magazine while my baby was sleeping in the darkened hotel room. An empty bathtub is surprisingly cold. Another option…
Get a suite
Suites aren’t just for VIPs; they’re also for parents who want to have a conversation with each other while their children are sleeping in the other room. Ask to reserve a suite, or consider vacationing at a suite hotel. My family is partial to the warm chocolate chip cookies offered daily at the Doubletree Guest Suites chain (fun fact: the Doubletree gives out 29,000 of these a day). Another bonus: suites generally have two TVs, so nobody needs to fight over the remote.
Find a local sitter
Good help can be easy to find on vacation. The Vacation Kids travel agency offers a listing of major-label resorts that can accommodate families with kids or babies. If you don’t go to a family resort, ask the concierge at your hotel – or the concierge at a nearby major hotel – about babysitting options. Most will refer you to a local nanny or caregiver service. It’s not the kid down the street, but when you hire a nanny from an agency, you know you’re getting someone insured, experienced, and capable of dealing with emergencies. And you can actually get out of the hotel and go to dinner. A few hours’ break from the kids will go a long way toward enjoying the vacation!
Get a room with a view
When you travel with a small child, you always want a room with a decent view because looking out the window is an extremely entertaining pastime for children. In our hotel in Boston, we had a view of the Prudential Center mall and the Barnes & Noble inside it, as well as the cars on Mass Ave. I thought at first that I’d prefer the view from a higher floor, but my toddler thought it was great to be on a lower floor. We watched the people cross the street below; we looked at the people in the Barnes & Noble caf’. It was plenty entertaining when we had a few moments to kill in the hotel room.
Always get new toys for the trip
A grandmother once told me that new, quiet activities are essential for a plane ride. Big spender that I am, I headed to the dollar aisle at Target to fill up my son’s toddler-sized backpack with stuff that he could take on our recent Spring Break plane ride. I went for light objects so he’d be more likely to carry the backpack himself. The big hits: a Curious George notebook with stickers, and a bag of fuzzy pipecleaners that we turned into pipecleaner animals and pipecleaner glasses (and pipecleaner trees, and pipecleaner birds in the pipecleaner trees, etc). I brushed up on my pipecleaner skillz with a few of the tutorials available online.
Bring plenty of Band-Aids
Know what a toddler loves about having his very own box of Band-Aids? Everything. You can take them out of the box, put them back in the box, count them, line them up, pull them apart, cry when they don’t go back together. You can stick them on the seat, stick them on your body, stick them on your clothes, stick them on your parents, stick them on the airsickness bags, stick them on your stuffed animals, and then show your handiwork to the doting flight attendants. You can act out medical dramas with your parents if they aren’t too grouchy, you can color on the Band-Aid box, put pretzels in the box, take pretzels out of the box. the possibilities are endless. I’m usually stingy about Band-Aids (only one per boo-boo), so my kid was thrilled to have an entire box to himself. For my toddler, the biggest hit of all time was a $2.50 box of Spiderman Band-Aids that I bought to occupy him on a five-hour flight. The Spiderman Band-Aids were such a big success on the way down, I bought a box of Scooby-Doo Band-Aids for the flight back.
Print some coloring pages
Coloring books are great for traveling; custom-designed coloring books are even better. ( If you’re traveling by car, think about investing in a clipboard or another surface that your child can lean on while coloring.) Grab your stapler and a few sheets of paper, then go to any of these sites for free coloring pages you can print out and bring on your trip:
- Crayola’s pages include color-in projects like a dump truck that can be attached to a juice box. Bring tape!
- Dover Publications coloring books are delightfully old-fashioned and intricate. Check out their free page samples here; my favorites include the Firefighters Coloring Book (“Mike runs outside to stop traffic so that the big engine can pull into the street safely”) and the picture of the Harlequin Tuskfish in the Great Barrier Reef Coloring Book.
- National Geographic Kids offers old-school illustrations of mustangs, Emperor penguins, prairie dogs, giant tree frogs, Western lowland gorillas, and three different kinds of sea turtles-all the wild animals you could possibly want. I particularly like the three-toed sloth.
- About.com’s Family Crafts page has dozens of simple pictures sorted by topic.
- A long trip is the perfect time to introduce your kid to vintage cartoon characters. Print out coloring pages with pictures of old-school cartoon characters and tell your kid the story of what happened when Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble met the Schmoo, or the story of the day that Smurfette first appeared in the Smurf village.
- Want characters your kids already love? Check out the print-out pages at PBS Kids.
Going to a warm place? Don’t forget that afternoon nap conflicts with prime time on the beach
There are two strategies for dealing with the afternoon nap issue.
Option 1: reserve a room with a balcony, or a first-floor room with outdoor access. It sounds simple, but I can tell you that it made a huge difference in my happiness on our beach vacation. While my little one napped in our first-floor beachfront room, I sat outside in the sun and read my trashy mystery novel or chatted with friends. It was perfection.
Option 2: Avoid hotels and go to a family-friendly B&B or small inn. “Parents often worry about taking little kids to a B&B, imagining that all the other guests will be honeymooning couples,” says Droolicious blogger Lisa Mulcahy, who also runs the Waterstone Inn in Greenwood Lake, NY. “It’s not true.” Since most B&B owners have their own kids (or grandkids), they often have unexpected extras like kid-sized ice skates or a spare Pack-N-Play. And since an inn is more like a house, it’s easier to put the little one down for a nap, then hang out on the porch or in the living room – just like at home.
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