How to get the most from traveling with kids

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Sure, the Louvre has the Mona Lisa--but how many bathrooms does it have?

Maybe your spring break is approaching, or you’re anticipating summer vacation. Either way, when you’re traveling with kids, you must plan your agenda.

Last week, I took my four little kids to the Chicago Art Institute, solo. That night, I was so exhausted, I slept 12 hours and took an hour-long nap the next day. I analyzed what went right and what went wrong and devised this checklist for you to clip and use.

*The week before. Determine the real total cost of the trip, including transportation, admission, parking, food, and souvenirs. You may need more than a week to save.

Originally, we visited the Art Institute because kids under 14 get in free, meaning we only paid $18 for me. What a deal, right? Uh, no. I had to pay $1 to check our picnic basket, so we couldn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria. It was too long a walk to eat in the park, and it was too cold anyway.

We five paid $55 for cafeteria dining, which included four cheese pizzas we could’ve gotten for $3 each elsewhere. Then I made the mistake of giving each kid $5 for a souvenir. Yes, the gift shops do offer a few tables of kid-friendly bagatelles—but most were horridly expensive. I couldn’t endure the idea of paying $6 for a glitter ball I saw at Michael’s for $2. I was so tired, I gave up and bought the kids T-shirts, rationalizing they needed new clothes for spring anyway.

That blew my budget, so we couldn’t go anywhere else for spring break—but I was too tired anyhow.

*Visit the bank or store to get sufficient cash and snacks, and pack them.

*The night before. Lay out the clothes each family member will wear so you’re not rushing around the next morning. Check weather reports to ensure everybody will be dressed appropriately.

*Will everyone be wearing nice clothes (read: no shorts) and wearing sensible shoes and socks? If you’re an adult, I’m assuming you’ll wear fashionable shoes unless you’re actually running a marathon. That’s the only time it’s permissible to wear athletic shoes downtown. Of course, you don’t need to wear Beyonce-esque stilettos, and carry emergency flats in your purse. You never know when transportation or scheduling difficulties will necessitate your visiting a restaurant or shop where you’ll want to feel confident.

*Copy the address and phone number of your destination, and put it in your purse or wallet.

*Make sure your cell phone is fully charged.

*Pack a change of clothes, if necessary, and ample diapers and wipes. Then add two per baby. Once, my husband and I were stranded in Westfield Southlake mall for six hours because every stoplight went to blinking red on Highway 30, from Valparaiso to Dyer. If you’re fresh out of diapers and your baby is anything but fresh, ask a parent with a baby the same age as yours for a diaper. They’ll be happy to help.  

*If you’ll be riding the South Shore, go to www.nictd.com, and print a schedule. Plan to arrive at the station 30 minutes before your train leaves. You’ll need time to walk to the terminal and time to buy tickets in the station—if you buy them on the train, you’ll pay $1 per ticket, which adds up fast with a big family.

*Where will you park? Get directions from the parking garage to the destination.

*Print a map of the attraction you’re visiting, and plan your route—especially true if you’re traveling with wheelchairs or strollers. My family didn’t visit Shedd Aquarium for six years until the twins outgrew strollers. See boring stuff first, when kids are fresh, so you can psyche them up with gee-whiz items when they’re pooped and cranky.

If you’re traveling with little kids, include one lunch and two snack breaks—that is, at least three times to sit—or more, depending on the kids’ ages. What food can you bring, and what must you buy? I understand you’re seeing cultural attractions for everybody’s education, but this isn’t the time to strive for lifestyle perfection. Leave the homemade flaxseed granola bars at home, because when the kids smell elephant ears, they won’t want granola.

Here’s what you do: When the kids beg you for elephant ears, say, “You can’t have elephant ears, but I did bring—” dramatic pause “—Snickers, Skittles, and Sour Patch kids.” Open your bag, and let your kids choose. Repeat after lunch, and you’ll evade pricey desserts. I recommend buying drinks—lugging around juice boxes for hours will exhaust you.

*Circle the map’s bathrooms so you can find them fast–and you will need to.

*Where can you nurse or change an infant?

*What do you personally want to get out of the trip, if anything? If possible, bring adult backup, so you can have fun while the other adult babysits.

*On the way there, read everyone your plans. That’ll spare you their enormously stressful begging and nagging when you arrive and everyone wants to do something different.

*Bring stuff to do on the way there, like Mad Libs. Bring pillows so the kids can sleep on the way home.

*Where’s the attraction’s entrance? Do you need to check your coats or get a locker? What’s the cost?

I know so much planning sounds excessive except to seasoned parents, but it’ll soon become second nature. It could also mean the difference between fun and torture.

Have a great time!

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About Rebecca Bailey

* Columnist, The Times of Northwest Indiana, for three years. * Professor for twelve years. * Mom of four teeny kids. * Voted "Most Dramatic," Castle Junior High School eighth grade, 1984. * Failed to diaper her first child before he projectile-pooped on the curtains. * Accidentally splattered her white Jack Russell Terrier with her red hair dye, which did not come out.

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