You may no longer have nap times to contend with but that doesn’t mean traveling with school-age kids is always easy. With an attention span that’s shorter than the average TV commercial and an age-related need to be constantly stimulated, getting and keeping their interest can be a challenge.
But never fear! Planning is everything. Pay heed to these 10 tips that’ll help ensure that everyone gets a vacation experience they’ll love to remember — one that keeps the dreaded “I’m boooored,” out of your kids’ vocabulary.
- Keep it familiar: Whether it’s a change in time zones or just a change in routine, even big kids can become unnerved in new surroundings. Ease the transition by doing some simple, and fun, prep work before leaving home. Introduce kids to their target destination with age-appropriate books or websites and try to adjust schedules slightly a few days before you leave to ease the challenge of changing time zones. When you land, resist the urge to hit the ground running. Plan in a day or two (if you can spare it) to help kids acclimatize to their new surroundings before you attack your must-see list.
- Bring the things they can’t live without: The days of pacifiers and favorite blankets may be past, but that doesn’t mean your kids haven’t latched on to something else. If he’s been reading a certain book every night up lately, pack it. If she’s been working on a crossword puzzle for weeks, pack it. That doesn’t mean everything goes! (See rule #3.) Set limits (for example, one toy car, not the whole set) you can live with ahead of time and communicate them early. Kids should carry their most important possessions in a backpack or wheel-tote they can carry themselves.
- Leave everything else behind: If it’s loud, annoying or poses a threat to the vacation experience, leave it behind. That means the toy that plays the annoying song over and over (and has no volume control) and the video game console (that will mean they won’t look anywhere but down for the entire trip) are out.
- Tune them in: Talk to them. And remember to listen too. Turn off the radio in the car and engage the kids in games that require them to use their attention and imagination while keeping them focused on their surroundings. On the plane, watch the movie your son picked together or read the book your daughter is reading with her and you’ll have something to talk about later.
- Pack snacks; keep them a secret: Chances are you won’t find your kids’ favorite treat in the markets of Peru, so having a secret stash isn’t a bad idea and can be the best reward. But don’t overdo it: Food is a big part of experiencing a new culture. Introduce them to the types of foods they may encounter before you leave home (cook it up or order in) so they can get used to the flavors. The snacks from home are emergency use only.
- Keep it fun: School-age kids aren’t that complicated: If they’re really into something at this age, you’ll know. When you see their eyes glaze over it’s time to change the plan. Leave the schedule flexible enough to adapt to their needs. And try to leave the stiff rules behind. Sure, you’ll need to be mindful of others in terms of decibel levels and seat-kicking, and safety is never optional (see below), but screaming in the park or running with the wind should be easily forgiven.
- Don’t pack the guilt: A real vacation gives everyone time together and, when needed, some time apart. Don’t beat yourself up for making use of amenities like Kids Clubs or babysitting services if it means you’re going to get a chance to rest up and be ready for flag football, frog pond searches or lunchtime refereeing tomorrow.
- Choose hotels wisely: Sure price is a factor, but it’s not the only one. The upscale boutique that is going to have you constantly worrying about how the kids behave isn’t going to be much of a vacation for anyone. Choose properties that have testimonials from people who sound like your family. Go online and read reviews, or ask friends for recommendations. A week together in the wrong room does not a happy family make.
- Keep safe: We’ve all done things on vacation we would never have done at home, but try to keep safety top of mind. Put a copy of key information (hotel name, cell phone number, etc.) in your kids’ backpacks and let them know it’s there. If you do get separated, they’ll know where they need to go.
- Let them help: Too often parents spend late nights staying up after the kids have gone to bed planning the perfect vacation and then are shocked when the kids aren’t as into it as they are. Rope them in to the decision-making early. Let them pick an activity or two for the whole family. Participation gets them excited! Kids of not just this age but any age, really, love to be part of the process.