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Top Ten Travel Tips for Traveling with Kids

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Traveling with kids certainly requires a lot of planning - and even more patience. Seeing as how you've got your hands full already (and are still out for a good time), you're well advised to take advantage of any shortcuts, tricks and travel wisdom that comes your way. With that in mind, we offer our top ten travel tips from the trenches. These pointers were collected from parents all over the country, experienced travelers as well as those just getting out on the road with their kids. Take heed, take off and have a great time!

Our list begins with tips for traveling with infants and toddlers and proceeds to advice geared toward traveling with toddlers, mid-kids (ages 5-12) and teens.

1. A portable high chair. A compact, easy-to-pack high chair is invaluable on the road. You can't count on a restaurant having a high chair available (grandma doesn't always have a high chair, either), and the last thing you need is junior falling off a stack of phone books. The chair made by Me Too Products (metooproducts.com) clamps onto most tables, weighs less than two pounds and folds to about an inch thick. Its nylon fabric wipes clean and the chair's frame is a lightweight, sturdy aluminum. We've used this chair extensively for well over a year now and it's still like new. At under $50, it's well priced and an essential part of our travel gear.

2. A new bag of toys for the car or plane. You can't underestimate the value of new loot for the car or plane ride. One mom from San Diego brings a small bag filled with new toys for each trip and pulls them out one by one. Handled deftly, this exercise takes her the entire plane (or car) ride. At our house, we hoard the giveaways my husband collects at computer conferences. These squeeze-y balls, rubber snakes and twisty shapes are usually soft, colorful and, best of all, free. They're only pulled out for road trips or plane rides, and our two-year-old, Steven, is forever dazzled at the opportunity to play with this stash.

3. A combination stroller/car seat. When traveling with small kids, every inch and pound of gear counts. The "Sit 'n' Stroll" made by Safeline Kids (available at babycenter.com) is a combination stroller, car seat and booster seat. A full-sized car seat, it holds a youngster weighing up to 40 pounds and can also be used on a plane. Once at your destination, simply slide out the wheels tucked underneath, pull out the handle and you're ready to roll. "It's been great not to have to take a separate car seat and stroller every time we go anywhere," says a San Francisco mother who swears by this inventive piece of gear.

4. Don't go to Disney World until your child is (almost) three. Have you ever noticed the parents who've brought their really young children to Disney World? I mean, have you really looked at them? They're EXHAUSTED. Disney World, even with its emphasis on service and ease, is not the best place to muddle through endless crying jags and dirty diapers - and is a one-year-old really going to remember this visit with Mickey and friends in the years to come? Save your money (and retain your sanity) and make the pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom right before your kid turns three. Why is this the magical moment? Because kids are FREE at Walt Disney World until they turn three. Not only will you give your toddler time to develop some endurance for the marathon that is Disney, you'll also save over $150 by not having to buy junior a Park Hopper 4-Day ticket of his own. Plan your visit to Disney for the week before your child's third birthday and let his favorite "character" croon him a birthday tune.

5. Books of all kinds. A mom from Atlanta, determined to read her own book on plane rides, invested in a $5 tape recorder from Target and checks out children's books on tape from her local library before a trip. Her four-year-old gets to "read" (quietly at that) and so does she. Again, newness counts for a lot, so bring along books your child has yet to read. The same principle can be applied to older kids. Find out what's on their reading list and pick up a copy before the trip. Bring out your surprise just before takeoff.

6. Bring the meds. No matter how hale and hearty everyone looks before the trip, things can change very quickly - and do you really want to figure out where to get cough medicine at 3 AM in Yosemite? Bring a small supply of the medicines you might well need on every trip. We have a pre-packed baggie with just these things, and pop it into the suitcase as a matter of course. Ours includes cough medicine, fever reducer, Benadryl, Tylenol and syrup of Ipecac. Sunscreen and calamine lotion are also musts for summer/hot weather trips.

7. Pack less…and less. Your ten-year-old daughter won't need eighteen blouses for a two-week trip, despite her protestations to the contrary. For that matter, neither will you. Someone is going to be carrying the bags, and overstuffed, overweight bags are an argument waiting to happen. Pack once, as lightly as possible and with an eye to items (especially clothing and shoes) that can do double or triple duty (and toiletries in travel sizes only). Once you've closed your bags, open them up again and take out even more stuff. Do this a third time and you're bound to have a good time.

8. Split up. Did someone once say that the family that plays together stays together? True, perhaps, but we could all use a little time of our own every now and then. Parents should consider splitting up a few times while on vacation. Mom can do a museum or a spa while dad takes the kids to the swimming pool. Conversely, dad can go golfing (or to a museum or spa, it's equal opportunity here) while mom takes the kids hiking, biking or picnicking. Or consider staying at a full service resort where baby sitting services are available. At most Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton and Loews properties offer this perk. Parents should get as much out of a vacation as their kids, so be sure to include some time for yourself and your mate (separately or together) as part of your itinerary.

9. Down time. Admit it, how many times have you had the temptation to fit it all in while on vacation? This strategy may seem like a lot of fun at the time (it almost always is), but then everyone gets home exhausted and that's no fun at all. Plan for some down time every day of your trip. This could mean a leisurely bike ride, an afternoon matinee or a swim in the hotel pool. Need something more relaxing? Read a book in a park or play a game of cards. Tops on the down time list has to be an afternoon nap. My husband and I (and our son, too) seem to nap (and sleep) best when we're on the road. Hmm, maybe that's due to all the activity…

10. Involve the kids. Planning a trip carefully is the first step in insuring its success. A friend in Santa Fe ascribes to the following model: "group decision making that considers everyone's time as equal but respects those who are paying." This particular friend has been traveling with his twin teenagers since they were two months old and his kids are some of the happiest travelers I've ever met. Do yourself a favor and talk to your kids before you hit the road. Better yet, listen to them. Get a sense of the things they enjoy and those they'd rather not do. Do they like action and adventure or museums and historical attractions more their thing? Close to home or far away? Big hotel or not? Eat in or eat out? Armed with a better sense of what everyone's likes and dislikes are, you can craft a travel agenda suited to all, with the parents getting the last word. Bear in mind, though, it's not just the big picture you're trying to create here - if you keep your kids in the loop along the way, the journey will most likely be a smooth one.

Elaine Sosa is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and three-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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