How to Make Family Travel a Happy Experience

Whether by plane, train or automobile, these tips can help keep the trip merry with young passengers
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Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go. A recent AAA survey shows that more than one-third of Americans plan to take a family trip this year. As the holidays approach, travel takes on added significance, with families crossing state lines and national borders to visit far-flung relatives and friends.

According to AAA, nearly 70 percent of family trips are road trips, since lower fuel costs in recent months have enticed more families to hit the road. But whether they reach their destinations by plane, train or automobile, traveling with children in tow presents a host of unique challenges. Here’s how to keep family travelers happy and the holidays merry when you have young passengers along for the ride.

Early Years

Looking Ahead

Toddlers and preschoolers may seem too young to involve in trip preparations, but travel agent R. D. Gavel, an affiliate of the Travel Experts agency in Raleigh, says children as young as age 2 can share in the joy of planning a family trip. “Anticipation is a wonderful way to extend the pleasure of your vacation,” she says. “Watch a DVD or video clip about your destination and talk about what you might do and see there.” For children age 3 and older, make a calendar and mark off the days until you leave.

Ask your young child for ideas about activities to help occupy travel time; preschoolers can pick out picture books, coloring supplies, small activities and snacks, and help pack a small travel bag for the plane or car. Anticipating a family trip helps build excitement while teaching the importance of waiting for something desirable — a skill that pays off down the (literal and figurative) road.

Elementary Years

Schedule Savvy

School-age children make fantastic travel companions. No longer in need of car seats, strollers or special accommodations in restaurants, tweens are old enough to travel more easily than their younger counterparts, yet still young enough to appreciate the wonder and discovery of a trip. But don’t give in to the temptation of over-scheduling a family trip with school-age kids, Gavel says.

“It's no fun traveling with cranky, bored children, or irritable, exhausted parents,” she notes. When planning your trip, she says, “leave plenty of time for both rest and running around, and make any ‘educational’ segments of the trip stimulating and brief.”

Once you arrive at your destination, having one to two activities planned for each day helps head off the “What are we going to do today?” question, says Travel Experts affiliate Jane Borman.

For multigenerational family trips, a flexible, multifaceted agenda can work for the whole brood: Scheduling a group activity every other day and allowing some daily downtime for rest or exploration helps ensure a happy trip for all.   

Teen Years

Digital Guide

There’s no way around it: Your wired teen will likely be attached to a device for much of the trip, checking in with social media and staying connected to friends back home. Instead of fighting a teen’s tendency to plug in, take advantage of your teen’s tech savviness by appointing him or her to be the family’s digital historian. Put your teen in charge of documenting the trip by snapping photos and taking videos. A teen with a flair for digital media can easily prepare a digital movie, slideshow or video collage to share with extended family online.

But you want your teen to make memories, not just capture them, Gavel says. Reflection, or looking back at the trip, can be one of the most valuable aspects of travel. Don’t be afraid to designate “unplugged” time each day to ensure that your teen engages with family members, instead of a screen.

“The actual trip is the briefest part of the whole experience,” Gavel says. Striking a balance between personal and family time helps foster travel memories that will last a lifetime, both on-screen and off.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is  “Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.”