Planning for a Smooth(er) Family Vacation

Real-life advice from some Charlotte locals on traveling with kids.

I remember being so excited about our first family vacation, and then my best friend, who has children a few years older than mine, gave me a more realistic view of what to expect. Her comment was essentially, “It’s the same old, just in a different place.” And she was right — the diapers still need to be changed, kids are not suddenly well-behaved angels and illness doesn’t go on vacation too.

With my friend’s advice, I changed how I approached my idealistic vacation plan. Other moms and dads who have traversed the family vacation have helped the most. Their wisdom and survival rate give hope that it can be done. Following is some sage advice from local parents and go-getters in the Queen City on how to make a family vacation a success.

Photo courtesy of Lueders family

Left to right: Emma, Nate, Adam, Susan and Spencer Lueders.

The Lueders Family

“We shoot for a balance of relaxation and unstructured fun, but always plan one family activity each day. That could be a hike, game, or other activity that we all participate in and have solid family time. The kids sometimes roll their eyes, but these activities are the lasting memories of our trips.”

— Spencer Lueders, founder of 24 Foundation and its signature fundraiser 24 Hours of Booty. Dad to Nate Lueders, 16, Emma Lueders, 14, and Adam Lueders, 11.

Favorite vacation spot: Indian Lake, Michigan


Photo courtesy of Mac Lackey

Mac Lackey with his wife, Anna Collins Lackey, and their two daughters, Anna Collins and Banks Lackey, in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Lackey Family

“About four years ago we pulled our kids out of school to travel. We’ve visited 17 countries and learned two great strategies: We find an area of interest for the kids, such as art or photography, so the focus for them is on taking amazing pictures. The other is to allow everyone a voice in the planning of a day. If I planned a location I was excited about, maybe Banks got to choose the type of food we would eat, and Anna would choose the leisure activity for the day.”

— Mac Lackey, chairman of ISL Futbol. Dad to Anna Collins Lackey, 17, and Banks Lackey, 14. 

Favorite vacation spot: Santorini, Greece


Photo courtesy of Tony Arreaza

Tony Arreaza with his wife, Ailen Arreaza, and sons, Paulo and Lucas Arreaza, in Barcelona, Spain.

The Arreaza Family

“Last summer my family traveled to Spain, and our 5-year-old whined and complained every time he had to walk anywhere. We came up with a trick that made all the difference. Before leaving our Airbnb, we downloaded a Google map to our destination, and then we gave the phone to him. My kid loved watching the little blue dot move, telling us when and where to turn and updating our estimated time of arrival. And the rest of us loved not having to hear him complain about how tired his legs were.”

— Tony Arreaza, founder and CEO at Carlotan Talents. Dad to Lucas Arreaza, 8, Paulo Arreaza, 5. 

Favorite vacation spot: Río de Janeiro, Brazil


Photo by Amy Ellis Photography

Chris Coleman with his son, Luke Coleman, 6, on his lap, beside his wife, Ashley Coleman, with their daughter, Ellie Coleman, 2, on her lap. 

The Coleman Family

“The beach is a perfect trip to take kids because they can run around and play. You can act like a kid with them and run around and play and build sand castles. We usually take a plastic jug and fill it up with sangria that we sip on all day while the kids play. It’s a good time.”
— Chris Coleman, chef at Stoke. Dad to Luke Coleman, 6, and Ellie Coleman, 2.

Favorite vacation spot: Charleston, South Carolina


Photo courtesy of John Beatty

John Beatty and his family in November before a flight to Kansas City. Left to right: Mason Beaty, 9, Miles Beaty, 6, Anne Beaty and John Beaty. 

The Beatty Family

“When we fly, our boys pack a backpack with an [empty] water bottle to fill after getting through security, favorite snacks, two books or magazines, notebook, pencil, crayons and a card game. Once we arrive, we visit a local hotel concierge to ask for ideas. Remember to give them a tip for their help.”

— John Beatty, general manager for The Dunhill Hotel and The Asbury. Dad to Mason Beatty, 9, and Miles Beatty, 6.

Favorite vacation spot: Ocracoke to Sunset Beach, North Carolina


 Photo courtesy of Molly Grantham

Molly Grantham’s children, Hutch, 3, and Parker, 6, ready to hit the road for vacation.

The Grantham Family

"No matter how good your young children are, if you force them to be in a car seat for eight-hour trips with minimal breaks, they are no longer themselves. I’m no longer myself. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned: Goldfish crackers are as important as gas. Calories consumed on car trips don’t count. Sitting between two car seats in the backseat holding a bottle to the mouth of a baby in one and trying to play sticker book with the other, with a big dog in your lap, does not make the trip go faster. It makes you wish for wine."
— Molly Grantham, WBTV news anchor and reporter. Mom to Parker, 6, and Hutch, 3.

Favorite vacation spot: Kure Beach, North Carolina


Photo courtesy Christopher Lees

Christopher James Lees and Lindsay Kessleman with their son, Rowan Lees.

The Lees-Kessleman Family

“Our son’s first transcontinental flight was at 6 months old. For really little ones, having a bottle or pacifier during take-off and landing helps with the altitude pressure. Use layovers to sprint out physical energy between flights. A steady stream of snacks, and a library of songs or books can be a helpful alternative to screen time. Thoughtful planning is key, and remember that the calmer the parents can stay, the less stressful travel can be for everyone.”

Christopher James Lees, assistant conductor for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Dad to Rowan Lees, age 3

Favorite vacation spot: Amsterdam


Photo courtesy of Brian Schleicher

Brian and Jessica Schleicher with their daughters, Hailey and Mackenzie. 

The Schleicher Family

“Our family has ventured out to explore our beautiful country via car. We work to place limits on movies and electronics. We traveled across Route 66, stood in the geographic center of the country, visited Mount Rushmore, dairy farms in Wisconsin and the northern lights driving across North Dakota. We make time to see and learn as much as we can about each state, but most importantly just have this special time together building memories, laughing, eating well and having fun.  We highly recommend the following website —"
— Brian Schleicher, director of sales and marketing at The Ballantyne, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Charlotte. Dad to Hailey Schleicher, 11, and Mackenzie Schleicher, 9.

Favorite vacation spot: Skiing out West


Photo courtesy of Derek James

Derek and Kristen James with their sons, Tyler and Chase. 

“Long car trips go much better with a portable DVD player that comes with dual screens. I also recommend clothing with zippered pockets because we lost a phone and keys for over 20 minutes on a trip to Walt Disney World. Always have wipes and trash bags in your car — a small container of wipes is $7 at a gas station.”
— Derek James, WCCB News Rising Host. Dad to Tyler, 9, and Chase, 6.

Favorite vacation spot: Pawley's Island, South Carolina and Walt Disney World


Photo courtesy of Sharon Smith

Sharon Smith with her children: Hazel, Margaret and Sam. 

The Smith Family

“On long car trips, I keep a stash of books to pass back for pacing. We play all the car games — I Spy, car bingo, quiz games. There are never devices or videos allowed in our car. Sometimes my husband and I roll our eyes as the “entertainment” gets challenging, but we get a lot more laughs and surprises out of the conversations. At the beach, plan for that rainy day with indoors games and crafts. We’ve used cement stepping-stone kits and decorated picture frames with shells. Bring a shell book to learn about your collection.”
— Sharon Smith, former reporter and anchor at WBTV.Mom to Hazel, Margaret and Sam.

Favorite vacation spot: North Carolina Crystal Coast


Photo courtesy of Emily Breeze Watson

Emily Breeze Watson with her husband, William Watson, and their son, Bly. 

The Waston Family

"Even when we're on vacation, our family makes a point to work out together. Traveling with a toddler can be crazy, so working out keeps us mentally and physically in a happy place. We get creative with our surroundings and use coolers and beach toys as equipment. Our improvised beach workouts help us bond too; our son Bly has started copying our movements and doing cute little toddler burpees alongside us!"

— Emily Breeze Watson, personal trainer and social media influencer. Mom to Bly Watson, 2.

Favorite vacation spot: Pawley's Island, South Carolina

Vanessa Infanzon is a freelance writer in Charlotte. Follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram @morethanVMI.