Family Travel

Here’s What You’re Doing Wrong on Your Family Vacation

Advice from families who have learned the hard way can save a vacation.

Don’t let toddlers drink out of thin glasses. Plan time apart. Don’t ever assume there’s such thing as an isolated case of the flu. When you get advice from parents who have learned family travel lessons the hard way, every suggestion promises a funny-only-in-retrospect story.

And, as I discover each time I travel with kids, tips like these can save a vacation. So I decided to crowd source stories and tips from parents who had gotten it wrong in memorable ways and share them with you as lessons for getting it right. If you’ve got a story or a tip to share, please add them to the comments below.

A Change of Clothes for Everyone

Most parents of young kids carry a change of clothes for their little ones, but few extend that same courtesy to themselves. But when you’re in transit with kids, this can be risky business.

“Babies and adults make messes and you don’t want to be stuck in dirty, wet, sticky clothes on a plane, bus, or train,” notes parent-of-two Mara Solomon. Many of the parents I spoke with insisted that when you’re separated from your checked baggage on a flight, you still want to make sure to pack a carry-on with a change of clothes for every member of the family.

Yes, it’s another thing to carry through the airport. But, when you suddenly look down mid-way through a six-hour flight and find yourself inexplicably covered in jam, glitter, and/or dried milk, it will be worth the extra weight.

RELATED: 20 In-Flight Products You Need for a Happy Flight

Germ Truths

Should you cancel a trip because you suspect your whole family might get sick? It’s a tricky question, but one worth serious consideration.

Weighing in on the side of caution is parent Kevin Jones, who warns, “If someone in your family has a bad virus, don’t try to go on a big trip with your whole family just because you haven’t gotten it yet.” Did he learn the hard way? You bet. “What will happen,” he says, “is that it will hit the rest of your family after you arrive and the rest of your planned vacation is shot.”

So if illness hits your family in the days before vacation, take a moment to imagine being sick on the road with your crew, far from the comforts of home. Go ahead, really picture it. That might make the decision to postpone or cancel easier.

Connecting Flights Are Never Worth the Savings

In a perfect world, it’s a simple equation: It’s always a better deal to choose cheaper connecting flights over more expensive direct or nonstop flights. But in the real world, up-front savings can cost you more money—and some sanity—in the long run.

Jenny Mulholland-Beahrs swears that she will “never again try to save $100 by getting a connecting flight (instead of a nonstop) because we lost hundreds of dollars after missing our connecting and finding ourselves delayed in Chicago for 21 hours.” Airport hotel overnights, cab and meal costs, and the mental toll of unhappy kids add up quickly. So next time you’re presented with the option to fly direct or save a bit and connect, consider the true cost of the decision before you click the buy button.

RELATED: 10 New Rules for Finding Cheap Flights

Secret Weapon: Gold Lame Pants

Is your kid prone to dramatic bouts of motion sickness while traveling? Mother of two (and my sister) Kathryn Sarkis has this intriguing advice: Outfit that kid in gold lame pants and rain boots. For reasons we won’t go into here, this is what her 19-month old daughter happened to be wearing on a flight when the toddler began throwing up (while the seatbelt sign was on and the whole family was trapped in their seats). Getting a young child to embrace the finer motor skills involved with aiming for the airsick bag is tricky business, so both parents were relieved to discover that American Apparel’s Kids’ Shiny Leggings wipe clean remarkably well. Similarly, the rain boots her daughter insisted on wearing on their rain-free trip proved to be the perfect wipe-clean footwear.

The Magic of Tape

Parent Mi-Suk Kang Dufour has logged serious air time with her twins, and has plenty of time to perfect in-flight activities for her young children. Her favorite household item to bring along? Colored tape. “Let the kids stick it all over—make shapes, ‘tracks’ and ‘roads’ for cars and trains. It pulls off and balls up easily at the end of the trip without any mess or damage.”

More from SmarterTravel:

Christine Sarkis has gone on family vacations as a daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin, aunt, and parent. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

(Photo: Thinkstock/Fuse)

By Christine Sarkis

There's a 95 percent chance Senior Editor Christine Sarkis is thinking about travel right now. Follow her on Instagram @postcartography and Twitter @ChristineSarkis.

Christine Sarkis is an SATW-award-winning journalist and executive editor at SmarterTravel. Her stories have also appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her advice has been featured in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her work has been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008. She is currently working on a travel memoir.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: The Trtl Pillow. It's easy to pack and comfortable, and makes it so I can actually sleep on flights.

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: Seeing the Aurora Borealis from the comfort of somewhere warm, like a glass igloo or hot spring.

Travel Motto: Curiosity is an amazing compass.

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: Aisle all the way.

Email Christine Sarkis at

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