I’ve logged many a rocky road in flip-flops.
To date, I’ve survived ten years traveling with two exasperating eaters to research and write 100-plus family travel articles, and ultimately savor – yes, savor! – one back surgery (my one solo vacay, and it was in the hospital, friends!).
Given my stats, I should have dozens of wacky travel hacks, right? Not so much. Instead, my hacks are more dumb-bunny mistakes I made that you might want to avoid.
Take last weekend: I paid in advance for a non-refundable hotel that sits thirty minutes from LEGOLAND Florida. I thought I had booked a 2-star property that we had previously stayed in and loved (Comfort Inn, 4095 Hotel Drive, Davenport, Florida). Instead, my quick clicking resulted in three crabby nights in what another reviewer called “a dump.”
To put it mildly, traveling frequently with kids in tow is not for the fragile.
Family travel requires parents to budget in advance, calculate the algebra each day as expenses mount, and douse the kids in sunscreen when you can pin them down – all while smiling joyfully for the camera like you’re having the best family vacation moments ever. (Because hello? You want your kids remembering wondrous times, so one day, you won’t sound all that bad to the grandkids.) Also, December holiday cards are just around the bend, and our photos need to look like we had at least half as good a time as we said we did on Facebook.
Feel free to learn from my travel adventures!
1. Don’t be Caught Unaware
Did you know that mountain lions roam the San Francisco Bay area? Or that huge clouds of jellyfish descend on both coasts in the summer? How about the coyote-wolf hybrids that live in DC’s Rock Creek Park?
While Texas locals know all about frightening floods and Hawaii residents are born knowing the safe – and unsafe – areas on their islands, travelers tend to be kept in the dark. Why? Because the local visitors bureau doesn’t get paid to broadcast scary events. Therefore, it’s up to you and me to use our fancy laptops to nose around the area before you visit.
Doing an in-depth dive into a region – with maps programs, blogs, reviews, and so on – is not only smart for safety’s sake, but will also add to your kids’ geography education. Investigate your trip locale’s wildlife, weather, crime stats, and geologic activity (like earthquakes).
2. Fly Under the Radar
An older relative of mine loved sending out snooty emails trumpeting, “I won’t be available in May. I’ll return your email when I’ve unpacked from our month in Kauai.”
Even though she was over seventy – and decades past high school – this woman wanted to alert her pals that she travels to cool places, too. So there! When Kim Kardashian was robbed after flashing her diamonds on social media, I pointed out to my loved ones that thieves might be reading her social media, too. Did she want to return home to a cleaned out house? Neither do you.
Delay your family travel posts on Facebook (that may or may not make all your friends and fans wildly jealous) until after the vacation so you don’t end up on someone’s prime target spreadsheet.
3. Embrace Your Vehicle
I’m a whiner by nature, but what I don’t complain about? Doing what it takes to keep my family off the side of the road.
Next time your vehicle is ready for a new battery or better headlamps, say to yourself: I’ll happily pay the bucks because soon my car will rocket down the interstate at seventy-five miles per hour with the most precious cargo I have stowed in the backseat.
4. Dig into the Destination
Remember JAWS? Author Peter Benchley never meant to provoke worldwide shark hatred with his bestseller (he spent the following decades trying to right the wrong). In 2005, Benchley’s Shark Life hit the shelves to make amends. In it, Benchley asserts that we humans would never “stroll casually into the Amazon jungle with only a bathing suit, sunscreen, and bug spray for protection. We realize we’re intruders in the jungle where many creatures regard us as a threat or as prey.”
Sharks aside, we tend to be wholly unprepared for statistically real ocean dangers like riptides, strong currents, and undertows. We also don’t give much thought to the perils of poisonous jellyfish, swimming alone, or building beach tunnels (they collapse). Benchley also contends that years of lessons in the pool won’t produce a child equipped for skilled ocean swimming. He emphasizes that the two bodies of water require different skills and muscles.
If you’re a week-at-the-beach kind of family, read Shark Life to your kids before vacation every year when they’re little, and in their teens, to highlight the importance of ocean safety.
Whether you’re cruising, skiing, or zip-lining, there are specialized safety guidelines for your family’s trip.
5. Feeling Safe at the Hotel
Zillions of ideas, re: hotel safety, are a Google search away, so please take the time to surf. These are some top-of-mind tips:
• After choosing a hotel room in a low-crime area, I never accept a room on the ground floor (too easy for bad guys to access) or above the sixth floor (fire ladders can’t reach higher floors).
• I request a room closest to the elevators (they tend to be the safest).
• At the front desk, I take two hotel business cards printed with the hotel’s address and phone number. One card goes in my wallet and the second is taped next to the room’s phone.
• I cover my room’s peephole with a Band-Aid or eyeliner pencil to block visibility.
• I never open my guest room door to a stranger – even if the stranger confidently claims to be hotel staff who has to fix the toilet. I would call the front desk immediately and report that someone is attempting to enter my room.
• When I leave for the day, I turn on the television to give the impression that people are inside.
• To sleep well, consider purchasing the well-reviewed Sabre wedge door stop security alarm. If someone attempts to enter your room, an alarm blares.
In short, my travel safety policy is to never assume that bad guys aren’t lurking to lighten my load (by robbing me) or worse – no
matter how posh the hotel or upscale the neighborhood.
6. Minding Every Little Thing
A dear friend – a Northern California girl – and her husband took their daughter to San Diego. Not prepared for the harsh Southern California rays, the family chilled on the beach all day without sunglasses or a hat. Their little one returned home with burned eyeballs – technically called photokeratitis.
The fix? Talk to your eye doctor about the best sunglasses for kids. Likely discussed will be sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB protection, and HEV, near-UV or blue-light filtering.
Next, from an early age, help your kids (translation: make it mandatory) get used to wearing sunglasses to protect their vision. The sunglasses we used are Roshambo Baby Shades, Real Kids Shades, and Kushies with polycarbonate lenses.
Whether you’re spending time at the beach or on the slopes, there are a host of things that could go wrong. They might feel little, until you’re headed to the ER.
7. It’s Never Fireworks
Boston, Vegas, Florida. These locales once conjured up thoughts of amazing travel experiences. Today, they can bring up visions of bombings and mass shootings. Of course, traveling with kids means watching them 24/7, but in today’s world, there is something more that we have to listen for, spot, and sense.
Kelly McCann – a former U.S. Marine officer, security specialist, and co-owner of Kembativz Brand, a security firm in Fredericksburg – urges parents to remember that loud, frightening noises are “never fireworks.” The instant you hear these kinds of loud cracks or booms, grab your kids and make your escape. Experts believe that those initial seconds might save lives.
8. Swimming Pool Duty
I’m a pool nut. Pools sparkle, invite, and scream vacation to me. That said, pools are death traps. When you’re watching your kids at the pool and need a break, look your partner right in the eye and say, “You’re on pool duty now.” Your partner knows to look you dead in the eye and respond, “Yes, you’re on break, I’m now on pool duty.”
My husband and I engaged in this type of communication for years everywhere we went – because tracking twin toddlers is its own special excitement. And while scanning the pool for our boys, we’d watch other kids, too. One summer, my husband glimpsed an autistic teen – wreathed by a large group of happy swimmers – disappear below and not bob back up.
Alex dove into the pool, dragged the sputtering teen out, and delivered him to his mom.
9. Trust Your Instincts
One of my 4-year-olds called “top bunk!” when we entered our cabin on a family-favorite cruise line. Tucking him in that first night, I noticed that the railing didn’t extend the length of the bunk. But no matter, this company built a ship with kids in mind. Right?
Matt fell out of the bunk early one morning and clunked his head so hard on the floor that the next-cabin neighbors reported hearing the noise. Matt and I took the Mexican hospital excursion to get an MRI for his possible concussion.
My learning moment: Never blindly trust a brand simply because it’s touted as kid-friendly. Nature gave parents warning signals called “gut feelings” for a reason. The truth is, your gut loves your family and never takes a break – even when you’re on vacation. Remember, no company or brand or product will ever be more safety and kid-obsessed than Mom or Dad.
10. Saving Your Sanity
Saving your sanity equals saving your parenting reputation. Here’s why: It doesn’t matter how incredible you are as a parent, your kids will remember that one time you were hangry and launched a donut. (Long story.)
Sanity-saving must-haves for long drives: noise-cancelling earphones, a thoroughly packed bag of food kept next to each child, and lessons in how to win the “loser talks first” car game. Truly desperate? Hand your kids the camera and ask them to take photos of all the funny moments they see on the road. Explain that quiet focus produces the best photos. (Mention that a prize will be forthcoming for the best photo.)
But my biggest tip for maintaining travel sanity and traveling safely? Agree on expectations ahead of time. Talk with your kids about what is expected of them in the car, at the hotel, in the theme park, at Great Aunt Martha’s house, and so forth. Don’t want to be begged for a third butterbeer at Harry Potter World? Emphasize that each family member gets one fun snack at the park. One. Not three. Expect your kids to always travel in packs or pairs? Make sure they know there are no exceptions to this rule. Be kind, emphasize your point, and make them sign on the dotted line.
Today’s travel culture is all about, “Your wings exist – all you have to do is fly!” Um, sweet sentiment, but travel is still real life. Investigate, stay alert, trust your gut. Because returning home safely is every parent’s highlight of a great trip.