Tips for island-hopping with your family

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By Christopher Elliott

The fog over Anacapa Island hung low and thick. “Is that where we’re going?” my daughter asked, waving at the white cliffs that floated in a flat calm Pacific. It was just another day island-hopping with my family — and the answer was “yes.”

Fascinated by islands? Me too. No one keeps track of how many families visit islands. About the closest you can get to a number is a survey on beach vacations, which, alas, suggests single millennial women are likeliest to visit the beach.

I’m something of an island travel expert. I haven’t just traveled to a lot of islands with my family, I’ve lived on them — from Manhattan to Key Largo, Fla. And when it comes to the Channel Islands, just off the coast of Southern California, this isn’t our first island, either. We’ve zipped across the Santa Barbara Channel several times, to Santa Cruz Island and Catalina.

To visit any island successfully, you have to know a few things about island-hopping with your family. That includes adequate preparation, a few important food tips, and some contingency plans — just in case the island trip doesn’t go as expected.

More island-hopping with your family tips
Aren Elliott at the Anacapa Island lighthouse. Mind that fog horn!

How to prepare for island-hopping with your family

Island hopping requires a little more preparation than your average day trip. For example, when we visited the Channel Islands in October, we had to remember that weather conditions can change quickly. A cold morning with a dense marine layer in Ventura Harbor Village, where we cast off, can turn into a blistering hot afternoon in the Channel Islands.

“Bring your warmest clothes, even if you think it’s too much,” I advised the kids. They scoffed at my advice but did so anyway. The mercury could have pushed past the 80-degree mark, but on the day we visited Anacapa, it stayed cold. The kids were happy that they had the extra layers.

Food is also an overlooked item. On a boat trip, food — especially healthy food — isn’t always an option. A trip to Vons or Trader Joe’s before you board the vessel can fix that. But Elliott’s food rule applies here: Buy twice as much as you need. Your kids will eat it. There’s something about a boat trip that makes everyone hungry. I followed my own rule and we finished everything by noon. We didn’t get back to shore until 4:30 p.m.

Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial on Lake Erie.
Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial on Lake Erie.

Food tips for your next family island trip

Let’s stay on the topic of food for a minute. It isn’t just the supplies for the trip over, whether it’s a long boat ride (like the Channel Islands) or a short ferry ride (like South Bass Island, near the Canadian border). Once you’re there, you’ll need to feed everyone, too. If people live on the island, you’ll need to assess food availability before you arrive at your destination.

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On Monhegan, a tiny island ten miles off the coast of Maine, we found only one or two choices for meals. That would have been fine for a day trip, but with picky eaters, it quickly turned into a game of “I’d-rather-starve-than-eat-that.” There are no winners in that game because everyone loses. If the kids don’t eat and then annoy the adults, the adults regret visiting the island.

So here’s my food advice for your island stay: Make sure you research all of your meal options thoroughly before you cast off. If you have any doubts about the availability of grocery stores or restaurants, bring that extra backpack and fill it with healthy snacks and food.

And I really mean healthy. My daughter managed to get her hands on several pounds of Skittles before our recent trip to the Channel Islands. Sugar is the absolute worst thing you can offer a kid on a trip. After we survived our day trip to Anacapa, I made the candy disappear — permanently. (Related: Hey, where’d everyone go?)

Erysse Elliott on Georgia's Jekyll Island in 2013.
Erysse Elliott on Georgia’s Jekyll Island in 2013.

Have a contingency plan

And finally, make sure you have a backup plan for your island trip. When something goes wrong, you can feel alone and helpless. Make sure you know the location of the closest first aid kit (our boat operator, Island Packers, had one when we visited Anacapa). Charge your cell phones so that you know the time. Wouldn’t want to miss that 3:30 p.m. departure back to the mainland now, would we?

Most importantly, tell your family about the contingency plan. If you have independent-minded children, they’ll want to explore an island on their own. Tell them where to meet up after they’re done, and then ask them to share a general plan of where they’d like to explore.

On the Channel Islands, with its slippery cliffs that plunge into an icy Pacific, I had to keep an extra-close eye on my youngest child. She and her brother love to horse around, and I was afraid they might try to “pretend” to push each other off a cliff. So any place that they explored would have to be far, far away from a precipice. Thankfully, we all survived.

Island hopping with your family can be the highlight of your next vacation. As long as you do a little homework, bring extra food, and come up with a contingency plan, you’ll do great. And if you don’t? Well, you’ll have something to tell your kids about when they grow up.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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