How to Have the Calmest Family Vacation Ever

By Radha Marcum
Senior Editor

There’s nothing like visiting new places to create meaningful experiences and memories, kindle appreciation for other people and cultures, challenge stale mindsets, and get a healthy break from our usual routines. I inherited a love of travel from my maternal grandparents, who visited every continent except Antarctica, and my paternal grandfather, who was a Pan Am pilot. Like my family and me, they were modest in day-to-day choices but loved to travel. They traversed many US miles and the globe with their kids. When I came along, followed by two siblings, my parents naturally took us on the road.

Now that I have my own kids and have endured countless back-seat tantrums, seconds-too-late barf bags, sibling squabbles, and incessant demands for sweetened beverages or snacks, I can see just how much bravery and patience that actually required of my parents and grandparents.

Luckily, I met an outdoorsy guy who also belongs to a travel-loving family. We fell in love while traveling and discovered that we made a pretty good team. Now we road-trip and fly with our two kids regularly. We car-camp, backpack, bike, hike, and discover foreign cities and landscapes together.

Our parent friends often remark, “We don’t know how you do it!” The truth is that traveling with kids does take some finessing, but we aren’t going to let the challenges prevent us from going new places. We have gone as far as Canada, Mexico, and Iceland with them, and each time we get a little bit better at anticipating meltdowns and having a fabulous time.

Here is our guide to traveling well with your kids—and never regretting it.

1.  Seek destinations for nature, not just kid-friendly activities. My husband and I always remark on how well behaved our kids are when we’re camping. Few petty fights, no quibbles over electronics. Nature is entertaining and beautiful as it is, and your kids won’t need much in order to appreciate the moment and have fun. Nature brings out curiosity and creativity: Our kids love to poke around old logs, climb boulders, collect rocks, or look for signs of animals for hours. Sure, fun parks can be fun; museums can be educational. We loved our recent trip to Disney World—particularly because it was such fun to share the experience with my husband’s parents; but it was equally meaningful to see turtles, armadillos, and alligators on a walk near the Canaveral National Seashore.

2.  Get kids psyched with fun facts and stories. We’ve learned that positive experiences are primed before we even leave home. Before the trip, we’ll spend time at the library hunting for books about the destination, the geology and natural features, its culture, history, and local foods and cuisine—any aspect of the experience that our kids might connect to.

3.  Try the food before you go. Kids are notoriously picky eaters, demanding buttered noodles—or nothing! Even young kids can become more adventurous if you encourage them to try a recipe or food beforehand. On road trips around our home state, Colorado, we encourage the kids to try something outside their comfort zone. Does the town grow a certain kind of berry in the summer? We’ll try it! What I’ve noticed? Braving one new taste often leads to trying another.

4.  Stabilize blood sugar. Almost everyone is naturally more energetic in the morning, but that can quickly turn to grumpiness and irritation a few hours later when blood sugar plummets right in the middle of a morning activity. We make sure that our kids eat a big breakfast, packed with protein. We’ve learned that it’s futile to try to keep them from the waffle maker, but they must eat a hard-boiled egg or other protein. If you can draw the line on sweetened “juice” drinks, so much the better. Also key: Plan ahead for late-morning snacks that are protein-packed and include fresh fruit or veggies. And hydrate.

5.  When immersed in a foreign language, teach your kids hello, goodbye, please, and thank you in the local language. Even if the locals speak English, your kids will be instantly adored. You’ll be adored. You will make friends, learn about the place through their eyes, and come to know a culture a little bit better—which makes travel so meaningful.

6.  Let them have some screen or electronics time—in moderation. Traveling can be exhausting and totally overstimulating for kids as well as their parents. Find a quiet(er) place, such as a café on a side street or back in your hotel or tent, and let the kids chill with a low-key game or audiobook. You may be thinking, “They’re not taking advantage of being in this amazing place!” But we sometimes all just need a break, to let our minds settle on something relatively predictable for a little while.

7.  The most important strategy to enjoy traveling with kids? Strike a balance between unstructured time wandering and exploring, and planned sightseeing or entertainment. I’ve learned this lesson time and again after fretting over what to do beforehand and then witnessing how beautifully things unfold when I let them. Going with the flow has led to many encounters with rare wildlife, suddenly seeing a world treasure like the Pantheon after taking a different direction on foot, or eating at fabulous local restaurants not in the guidebook. Embracing unstructured time leads to moments that you couldn’t have planned otherwise. Kids delight in letting the journey unfold—as do adults!—so scrap the hour-by-hour itinerary. Pick one or two general directions or activities for the day, and let the magic happen. It will.

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