Great Family Vacations
By Barbara Wexler

Taking the children on vacation can be a daunting task for parents. Countless questions course through your brain. How long will it take before they become bored? What happens if they become ill? How can we keep them happy in the car? On the plane? Will there be kid-friendly places to eat? Will hotel personnel sniff at the prospect of children in tow or will they be greeted with open arms?

What Earlychildhood NEWS is offering is an attempt to lessen some of these fears. In addition to research into many of these locations, we also conducted an informal poll of parents across the country for some of their tips and favorite destination locations. You'll find simple guidelines for making family vacations fun, tips for traveling with small children in the car and on the plane, and things to do when you finally reach your destination.

Simple Tips to Keep a Vacation from Turning into a Trip
How many times have you said,"If only I had thought of that?" Well, we've tried to think of everything you need to know or bring on your family vacation so that you'll be prepared for every possible situation. Other parents will be envious of your forethought and preparation. Remember, the more prepared you are, the happier your children will be.

  • Have a family meeting to determine where everyone wants to go. You might be pleasantly surprised at the choices children make. Once the destination is determined, go to the library and take out books. Look them over with the children and watch their excitement grow.

  • Extend a business trip to create a family vacation. Kids enjoy learning more about their parent's work and what all it entails.

  • Plan ahead. Ask the children to join in the planning process. But also be prepared for disappointment. Unscheduled illness and other calamities may force the vacation to be placed on hold.

  • Pack more than you'll need. You may believe you're packing for a small army but it will be worth it in the long run to bring those "in case" items. Keep some clothing close at hand, especially sweat pants and shirts for kids to change into if you're driving at night or have a long flight. They're also good to have after a day at the beach.

  • Fill a "grab it" bag with crayons, coloring books, and crackers to bring into a restaurant or other place where you might have to wait. Kids won't have as much of an excuse to get bored.

  • Give children their own backpack to hold the essentials they believe they will need in the car, on the plane, or in the hotel room. You'll be surprised at the cool -and quiet- activity items children will pack to keep them occupied.

  • Know how much your children can endure. If they can only process one activity a day, don't force them to do more than that. Make compromises. If you really have to go to that historical marker in the middle nowhere, offer your child an extra dollar for an arcade game or some other treat that has kid appeal.

  • Try to stay calm and keep the level of hysteria low during a disaster. If, for instance, your child is asthmatic, make sure all the medications are current and bring along the nebulizer – no matter how cumbersome that can be. When your child starts wheezing in the middle of the night, you'll be relieved that you can make your child more comfortable immediately.

  • Ask your pediatrician for a referral. It is extremely comforting to have the name of a doctor when you're in a strange town and you can offer your doctor's name as a referral.

  • Try to get a nonstop flight even if it costs a few more dollars. And book a seat for baby. Babies sitting comfortably in their car seats on the plane seat will be a lot happier (they're already used to the seat from driving around in the car) and safer. This simple step will also make you feel more relaxed when you reach your final destination. For that alone, the cost of the seat will be well worth the money spent. Or call the airline and find out which flights have the fewest number of passengers and book your family on one of those.

  • Find a hotel with a pool. After a day of activities, children always have a reserve of energy to spend at the pool or the beach. The better the pool - according to their perception- the better the vacation.

  • Look for hotels that offer Kids Clubs and activities (usually children have to be toilet trained to attend) as these offer parents a chance to relax, albeit only for a few hours. The break will be beneficial to all.

  • Even if you are against electronic games as a rule, they are fabulous when you are delayed in an airport for five hours or when the car trip across the desert seems unbearably long. Systems such as Game Boy have a way of keeping kids happy for hours. An added plus is the small size of the system and the games as well as the cute carrying cases to keep everything organized.

  • Pack some disposable cameras or buy an inexpensive camera for each of your little ones. Sure the image may be a little crooked but it's fun to see what children view as important memories of the vacation. If you have an old video camera, why not let school-age children use it to tape their own vacation video? You may need Dramamine to watch it but the kids will be proud of their achievement and their contribution to family home video night.

  • And the most important tip? Pack extra batteries!

Car Tips
Are we there yet? I'm hungry! I have to go potty! I'm bored! Sound familiar? If you have ever traveled with young children you know how difficult it can be to keep children entertained during a long car trip. The following tips and games will make travel by car fun and enjoyable for everyone.


  • Break your trip up into small segments during the day. Stopping at parks is always a good idea and you can explore little towns along the way. This will give the kids the opportunity to get out of the car and run around. If you're driving vast distances, do a lot of the driving at night, after dinner, as the children will be sleepy and more tolerant of being 'stuck' in the car.

  • Keep an atlas and maps in the car, and have the children follow along so that they can see where they are going. Have them pick places they would like to visit along the way. (You can do this when you are looking at brochures before starting out on your trip.) Keep a notebook handy for jotting down their ideas.

  • Give each child a roll of quarters at the start of the trip. (Place them in a ZipLoc® bag so they're not all over the backseat). Every time they ask, "When will we get there?" they have to give a quarter back to you.

  • Play 'I Spy' or the license plate game or an alphabet game such as 'I'm going to Tahoe and I'm bringing with me an aardvark, a banana, a computer, a doorknob' and so forth.

  • Consider giving each child an inexpensive tape recorder and headset. Older children may enjoy their own portable CD players for listening to their own music.

  • Storytelling audiocassettes are a great boredom buster. One good title is Tell It Again and Again from storyteller Naomi Leithold.

Plane Tips
Limited space, overcrowding, and less than desirable food make air travel challenging for adults. For a small child used to having room to move about and lots of things to do, air travel is particularly stressful, especially after a long delay in an airport. The following tips are meant to make plane travel less arduous and more enjoyable for both parents and children.


  • Always try to get the bulkhead seats so the kids have more room to spread out and can play on the floor. Bring small blankets with you from home and put them on the floor so they have a clean place to sit or lie down.

  • Order the children headphones for the plane ride. They may not be able to watch the movie (some are just too adult for youngsters) but most airlines do offer a kid-friendly audio channel.

  • Call ahead and order your child a special kid's meal. They usually come with the types of food that children enjoy.

  • Pack extra food for the kids. Crackers, cubed cheese, juice, a bottle of water, pretzels, raisins, and cheese crackers will help them when hunger sets in and the food cart is at the other end of the plane.

  • Don't forget chewing gum and hard candy. Even if you don't normally allow such treats for your children, sucking or chewing candy will help relieve pressure in the ears. For babies, a bottle or a pacifier also does the trick.

  • Don't forget an extra set of clothes for each child - even for those who seem old enough not to spill something on themselves. And, don't forget an extra shirt for you in case you get something spilled on what you're wearing! You'll feel less grumpy if you're dry.

  • If your children are still in diapers, pack extras. You can never have too many. And put wipes in several different places. Remember some plastic grocery bags for disposing the diapers. Your fellow passengers and the flight crew will thank you for your consideration.

  • Take your time getting off the plane. This will help ensure that nothing is left behind and you'll feel less frazzled as you disembark. Conversely, be prepared to get on the plane when the crew makes the announcement for people traveling with small children. You and your family can get settled into your seats, grab pillows and blankets, and stow away your stuff before the other passengers have even stepped foot onto the plane.

  • And, as soon as your children fall asleep, take a nap. Read a book and take a few minutes to relax. You deserve to pamper yourself for those few stolen minutes.

From A to Z: 10 Things to Do with Your Family
There are so many things to do with children when you get to your vacation spot. There are zoos, national parks, and children's museums. Take your children to a beach at the ocean or a lake. (Just don't forget that even with a lifeguard present, children of all ages need to be supervised at all times!) And don't forget to visit the Internet before you go to your favorite destination. Many places offer Internet-only discounts and special coupons. Before you set out, go to your local AAA office—they have tons of information for planning your vacation.

Along the West Coast, there are five terrific aquariums located in Vancouver, Canada (, Newport, OR (, Monterey, CA (, Long Beach, CA (, and La Jolla, CA ( Both preschoolers and school-age children can spend hours watching the different fish and sea life.

Arcade Fun, Bowling and Movies
When all the other possibilities have been exhausted, take your kids to the local arcade (many hotels in Las Vegas are famous for their children's arcades especially the Treasure Island "" and New York, New York "" hotels). Most school-age children love to play laser tag and there are many bowling alleys that offer bumper bowling and cosmic bowling (disco-light balls, glow-in-the-dark pins and balls, and black lights). And, if it's raining or too hot to move, go to a movie matinee.

County and State Fairs
If you're traveling during the summer, check out a county or state fair. Most fairs feature a fairway as well as agricultural exhibits, animals bred by members of 4-H Clubs, and the ubiquitous Alaskan Racing Pigs. Plus there is every conceivable type of food available. Log on to and do a search for State Fairs to find a listing of fairs by state.

Young children often study harbors in school. What better experience for them than to see a real working harbor with ships being laded with materials. If you are lucky enough to live in, or are visiting, Seattle, Los Angeles, or the St. Lawrence Seaway, check out whether or not there are tours. Canals such as the Erie Canal and the locks at Sault St. Marie are another good source for children to see how materials are transported across the continent.

Live Performances
If you get to New York City and find that the 'Lion King' is sold out, don't despair. There are free concerts in Central Park throughout the year ( Most major cities offer children's concerts throughout the year, too. Check the listings in the local newspaper.

There are children's museums all over the country. They can be small such as the Gull Wing museum in Oxnard, CA, to large and extensive such as those in San Diego and Los Angeles. But, they all have one thing in common. Children's museums are meant for kids, and they offer many hands-on exhibits. For more information about child-friendly museums, visit the Association of Youth Museums at

National Parks
The National Parks website is one of the best available ( Among those sites under the domain of the National Parks Service are the Lincoln Memorial, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, MI. With each park location, information on some or all of the following is available: travel basics, camping, lodging, activities, facilities, and fees/permits.

Rollercoasters and Amusement Parks
For the daring-do and their thrill-seeking children, World of Coasters ( lists its readers Top 10 amusement parks and rollercoasters and other nearby attractions as well as all the coaster rides at each park.

Whale Watching, Fishing and Boating
All along the West Coast, visitors can take whale-watching tours to see the California Grey Whale as it migrates from Alaska to Mexico. In Hawaii, Humpback Whales frolic in the warm waters as they breed and give birth to their calves. There are also fishing facilities that range from the local trout farm to renting a small boat on a local lake. Bigger excursions can be planned as day trips to go deep-sea fishing off either coast in addition to Hawaii.

Many cities have smaller zoos such as the one in Santa Barbara ( and the Living Desert in Palm Desert, CA ( Often when you purchase an annual membership pass to one of these zoos, you gain access (or at least reduced admission) to over 100 zoos across the country as well as a few in Canada. To get a list, go to

A few of the better-known zoos do not take part in this policy but they are well worth the separate admission. The San Diego Zoo (www. offers animals in their native habitats. This is the home to Hua Mei, the first panda born in captivity in the U.S. You can see her up close and personal on the Panda Cam she shares with her mom Bai Yun and dad Shi Shi

(  A combo-ticket can be purchased with the San Diego Wildlife Park ( which is located about 30 miles northeast of San Diego and is set up like a safari. The Bronx Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the country (established more than a century ago)

( The Smithsonian National Zoo ( Washington, D.C., is also well worth a visit. This zoo also just received a pair of pandas from China that can be previewed on an Internet camera (

Working for nearly two decades as an award-winning journalist, Barbara Wexler lives in the Los Angeles area. Her proudest accomplishment, though, is being the mother to her nine-year-old twin boys, Sam and Dillon.