If you’re traveling for the first time with your kids this summer, I have a little advice for you: Don’t panic! Parents make mistakes when they travel, and I know because I’ve been one of them. But I can help.
I would love to share an anecdote about the worst moment I ever experienced while traveling with my family. It would involve sugared-up toddlers, full diapers, angry hotel guests, crying infants, and some kind of sweet liquid spilled on a computer keyboard. But that scene has repeated itself so many times that I wouldn’t know which example to choose.
So let me just say this: You will survive, fellow parent. You’ll live to travel another day. If you can limit your kids’ sugar intake, plan age-appropriate activities, and remember not to push them too hard, you might even enjoy it.
Sugar is the enemy of a successful trip
Let’s start with the enemy of a successful trip: sugar. I’m not exaggerating. Whenever there’s a skirmish or a shouting match, you can usually find a candy bar or a half-consumed can of soda nearby.
I have no idea why parents pack high-sugar snacks for their kiddos. Heck, I have no idea why they pack that stuff for themselves. But this I can tell you with certainty — the more sugar, the worse the behavior. (If you’re an adult, you can add alcohol to that list.)
I’m not going to try to answer the hotly debated question of whether sugar causes hyperactivity in kids. I’m just going to tell you about my experiences. Where there’s sugar, there’s usually conflict. Why? Who knows. Maybe the kids are just excited about getting sweets. Maybe they’re not ready to travel, and it just happens to coincide with heavy use of sugary treats. But if you bring too many Gummy Bears, Oreos, or Sour Patch Kids on the road, you will pay a price.
I had the opportunity to learn that truth all over again a week ago, before we drove from Santa Fe, N.M., back to Prescott, Ariz. My 12-year-old daughter discovered a stash of Swedish fish, a gummy confection, and ate them for dinner. I mean that’s all she had for dinner. She was bouncing off the walls until 10 p.m.
Select an age-appropriate adventure
I love ballooning, but I don’t love doing it with young kids. Children generally don’t stand still for more than an hour, which is the average length of a balloon ride. I also enjoy cruising, but if your kids aren’t toilet-trained, there’s almost nothing for them to do onboard. Even the nursery won’t take them.
There’s also the problem of going over the side. Young kids like to climb — over rails, on top of the basket — and it’s every parents’ worst nightmare to have junior go over the side. Yes, even if you find your kid annoying, which, let’s admit, most parents do at times.
I have taken my kids on hot air balloon rides and cruises when they were too young. And kids, I’m sorry I did that. Rookie mistake.
So, at the risk of stating the obvious, if this is baby’s first trip, you might want to avoid a cruise or a hot air balloon trip. If your child is under six months old, you’ll also want to consider skipping a theme park, because I guarantee you, the baby won’t remember your Disney trip. But your bank account will.
Don’t forget — they’re kids
Years ago, while we were visiting Washington, D.C., I toured the U.S. Supreme Court with the kids. It was fascinating — for the adults. The kids had no idea what they were seeing or why it mattered. My daughter was just four years old; my sons, ages six and eight, only vaguely understood the significance of the place they were seeing.
Maybe I was being one of those helicopter parents who wanted their kids to finish calculus at age 10. I should have known better, but somehow, I thought my kids would be different and that they would find the Supreme Court as impressive as I did. Note to hopeful parents: Your kids are not different. Take them to the zoo. (Related: What is the best camera for a family vacation?)
Plan your trip carefully unless you want to carry your kids
If you love to hike as much as I do, one final piece of advice: Check your path carefully. Know how long your kids can walk. Don’t push them too hard, otherwise, you get to carry them to your destination.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved giving my kids piggyback rides when they were younger. But I didn’t love giving them piggyback rides for miles. When you have young kids, they don’t have the ability to tell you they don’t want to go hiking, or swimming, or wingsuit flying. (I’m kidding, I wouldn’t take them wingsuit flying at that age. But now … you never know.)
So it’s really up to you to make reasonable plans and to either stick to the schedule or turn around when it’s time to call it a day. Plan your trip carefully. (Here’s what you need to know before planning your next summer vacation.)
That advice extends to a lot of other activities. When we lived in Orlando and visited the theme parks regularly, we saw parents who were trying to milk the most out of their SeaWorld vacations. Instead of pacing themselves, they tried to pack everything into a few days. By early afternoon, their kids were tired, hot, and miserable. You don’t want to be that parent. The best theme park visits are split-shift affairs — hit the attractions in the early a.m., take a break in the afternoon and then return in the evening when everyone leaves. And that’s especially true when you have young kids.
I know this advice would have helped me on my first family vacation. Maybe it will help with yours. And kids, if you’re reading this — I’m ready with those wingsuits!