You don't have to spend 300 days a year on the road with your kids to know the ins and outs of family travel. But it helps.
That's no exaggeration, by the way. Last year, we clocked about 40,000 miles on our Honda Pilot, including three coast-to-coast adventures and one memorable trek across Canada. Sometimes, I feel like a guest in my own home.
And where is home? I live in Orlando with my better half, Kari (editor of the family travel site AwayisHome.com), and our kids, ages 9, 11 and 13. That gives me a front-row seat to the world's No. 1 family travel destination. I watch the ebb and flow of visitors to the world's best theme parks and beaches. I learn from their mistakes and make a few of my own.
And there are plenty to be made. Here are the worst.
Don't treat kids like future members of the Travelers' Century Club
Kids don't yearn to travel the same way adults do. They want to be with their parents and next to a secure source of food and entertainment. A few weeks ago at Disney World, I lost count of the number of couples wheeling their infants in strollers before them. I wondered: On what rides do they plan to take these babies? Parents, do you think an infant who can't sit up yet is going to remember a theme park vacation?
Don't obsess about the car seat
Parents lose sleep over the car seat. Among the questions: Do I need a car seat if I'm flying? Should I take a car seat with me on my trip? What's the right one? Here are my quick answers: You don't need a car seat if you're flying, but if you can afford an extra seat for your child, bring it. It's safer. If you're renting a car, consider gate-checking a car seat on the plane. As for the kind of seat, that's a personal choice. Just make sure the seat is labeled "This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft."
Get a passport and don't let it expire
You never know when you might want to leave the country. Don't wait until you have to go before applying for a passport. For kids younger than 16, passports are valid only five years, so check the expiration date well in advance of any international trip. Oh, and one more thing: Don't let your kids carry their own passports, no matter how responsible they seem.
Don't forget TO BRING DOCUMENTATION . . .
Passports aren't the only thing to worry about. If your surname isn't the same as your child's, you may need to prove you have permission to travel with your own offspring. The fact that he calls you Mommy or Daddy may not be enough. Airlines and cruise lines don't want to get involved in a custody battle, so they may ask for a letter from your spouse, partner or significant other granting permission to travel. What kind of documentation works? Sometimes a recent letter (less than three months old) is sufficient, but a travel company may also ask for a copy of a court order granting sole legal custody to you, a judicial declaration of incompetence of the other parent or a death certificate for the other parent.
Don't OVERPACK, AND don't skimp on food
If you run out of clean clothes, you can always find a coin laundry But for some reason, kids consume several times their body weight every day when they're on the road. The last thing you want is to be halfway across the Pacific or through the Sonoran Desert, with no food for hundreds of miles around, and to run out. Stay away from anything sticky, crumbly or overly carby and go for natural, unprocessed foods. Apples hold up well. So do carrots. Most dried fruit can survive several trips. You'll thank me after the first summer downpour, when you can see the floor of the back seat instead of a gooey layer of Oreo crumbs and gummy bears.
It's a marathon, not a sprint. Trying to squeeze a lifetime's worth of events into a few days will drive your family off the deep end. This is a theme park no-no: starting the day when the doors open and powering through until the last firework pops. Your kids will hate you. Plan lots of breaks, including a leisurely lunch.
Pack dead-time entertainment TOOLS
Long flights and road trips can be tedious, even for adults. Our motto is: Equip but restrict. We offer our kids everything they need to bide the time, with an emphasis on educational material. But the entertainment isn't unlimited. For every Netflix account, there's an e-book or instructive game. Fun time is earned. Here's a tip: Don't download all of the apps on the same device. That way, you'll have an "entertainment" tablet and an "education" tablet.
Don't forget to pack your sense of humor
If being chased out of a Vegas resort while pulling an 8-year-old behind you or wading through a layer of soggy cookies on the floor of your SUV isn't comedy material, maybe you didn't bring a playful attitude. You should. Believe me, your kids have. For them, everything is funny. I remember getting pulled over because we happened to be driving a "car of interest" like one used to commit a recent felony. Giggles from the back seat. I remember accidentally leaving a sleeping child at dinner on a cruise ship. The other two kids found that hilarious. If you can see the levity in the inevitable screwups, you won't stress out on the road.
Don't go there
Las Vegas. Baden-Baden, Germany. Macau. These are not family travel destinations. Don't take your family there unless your kids are older than 21. My middle child was fascinated with Las Vegas when he was 8, so we visited. Although he enjoyed a few things, Sin City revealed itself as a strictly adult playground.
Don't forget to spend time with the kids
Perhaps the biggest mistake parents make when they take their kids on vacation is treating them as if they're luggage. You've probably seen them with their sad eyes, left in day care while their parents go out to dinner. Or stuck in a resort's "kids program" while their parents vacation as if they're childless. You only have 18 summers with your offspring, if you're lucky. When you check into the hotel, and your kids ask you to go to the pool with them, go. When they beg you to take them on that theme park ride one more time, do it. When they ask you to take another day off so you can extend your vacation, ask for the time off.
Challenges aside, traveling with kids is a privilege. Watching our own youngsters grow up on the road is one of the most rewarding experiences I've had. Maybe some of the lessons I've learned will make you feel the same way.
Christopher Elliott writes the weekly Navigator column for the Washington Post. Contact him at [email protected]