5 Simple Tips for a (Nearly) Perfect Family Vacation

Here's how to make planning and traveling together a lot more fun.
Father and child watching fireworks (Photo: @crystalmariesing via Twenty20)
Photo: @crystalmariesing via Twenty20
  • As a travel pro and a parent, I’ve spent more than a decade testing out what works and what doesn’t on family vacations.
  • There’s a lot you can do both before and during your trip to set your family up for vacation success.
  • These are my top tips that you can adapt for your own family vacations.

Here’s the good news: There’s no one right way to go about having the best family vacations. Now here’s the bad news: There are many wrong ways, and decisions both small and large can mess with the harmony of any family trip. 

I’ve been involved in family vacations from every angle: as a kid on long car trips in the family station wagon, as a sullen teen and eventually less-insufferable adult, as a sister, partner, daughter-in-law, and parent. And as a chronic optimizer, I’ve researched and tested a lot of different strategies to make the most of family vacation togetherness.

Family Vacation Tips for a Trip Everyone Will Enjoy

Here are my favorite family vacation tips to help you steer clear of the pitfalls of trip planning and create a kid friendly trip that adults will love too.

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1. Plan Your Family Vacation Together

kids and adult on the Russian River playing with a canoe near the beach
When kids get to help choose vacation activity ideas, everyone wins (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Studies have shown that anticipation is part of what makes family travel adventures great. Share the joy with your traveling partners, even if the little ones aren’t quite old enough to do with the actual planning.

If your kids are little, it’s usually easiest to do the research yourself and then have a family discussion once you’ve narrowed the options. So for instance, on a visit to a national park, Should we go see a waterfall or go on a bike ride? Giving all family members—including kids—the feeling of choice helps a ton with buy-in and gets everyone dreaming about the vacation together.

With older kids who can help with the research by reading guide books (or looking online or on social media), make the search for destination and activity inspiration something you do together. Turn it into an activity the whole family shares and you’ll foster a sense of collective joy that you can then carry into the trip itself. This is an especially great way to involve older children and teenagers as you plan the next family vacation.

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Doing this advance prep together also means that when you embark on your trip, your kids will be more likely to roll with the challenges of transit. After all, if they can picture the family beach vacation waiting for them on the other side of that flight delay, they’re more likely to listen to you when you tell them to take a deep breath and settle into a book to wait out a plane that’s late to board

2. Talk about Money

Child wearing backpack sitting at a table stacking coins
Travel is a fantastic way to introduce kids to concepts of currency, spending, and budgeting (Photo: Envato/kookkaibuu)

I love this one, because travel is such a great way to start to teach your kids financial literacy. (I even wrote a whole article about it, if you want to know more.) And while you’ll need to adjust your discussion of money to kids’ ages, it’s the perfect place to start talking to kids about why it’s important to budget.

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You can discuss where vacation money comes from (often that leads to a great discussion about saving) and the kinds of things that will—and will not—fit into your family vacation budget. And both young children and older kids might benefit from a little bit of spending money that they get to control (it doesn’t have to be a lot of money to give them financial practice).

3. Travel as a Team

child carrying suitcase and backpack while traveling
Kids can’t do everything, but they can be a part of the traveling team by doing things like helping carry their own stuff (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

My family, like many others, has weathered some challenges, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned along the way it’s that everything is easier when you’re a team. That strategy definitely holds for a family vacation: If you go in feeling like a united group, you’ll be better able to roll with the natural ups and downs of family travel. Before you leave home, it’s a good idea to have a family meeting to talk about what traveling as a team means.

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This is the time to set expectations, whether you’re vacationing with toddlers or older kids. Talk high level about how it means looking out for and taking care of each other. Also brainstorm some specifics, like how on a team, everyone carries their own stuff—and make sure you have good kids luggage, backpacks, and sneakers to make it easier for them to keep up their end of the bargain. Travel with kids can be a time when everyone grows a bit and family bonds get stronger.

4. Know Your Family’s Speed

AARP discounts can help families save on multigenerational vacations (Photo: @poshnonnie via Twenty20)
Take everyone’s energy level and fitness into account on vacation (Photo: @poshnonnie via Twenty20)

If you’re a family that prefers the scenic route, you don’t want to be packing your days with non-stop vacation action. And if your family is happiest going a mile a minute, you don’t want to force everyone into an unnaturally slow pace that’s sure to trigger vacation FOMO. Be honest about your traveling partners’ energy level and pace, and then build your vacation around that reality rather than a sense of what you should be trying to squeeze in (or how much you should be chilling out). 

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If a few members of the family would be happiest spending a low-key evening reading a book or playing a family board game together in the hotel room or vacation rental, why not let them? After all, quality family time is the whole point of family travel. 

5. Make Room for Imperfection and Practice Bouncing Back

Kids playing together on a New England fall getaway (Photo: @hannitary via Twenty20)
Creating the perfect family vacation means embracing imperfection along the way (Photo: @hannitary via Twenty20)

It’s counterintuitive, but creating the perfect family vacation means embracing imperfection along the way. Not everything is going to go right the whole vacation. Accepting that before you leave will help everyone—younger kids, older kids, and adults—be less devastated when things go (temporarily) wrong.

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Does it cancel out all the fun if half the family is in a bad mood one day? Not if you accept that it’s a totally normal blip rather than a defining vacation moment. As a parent, something I find challenging is bouncing back once everyone’s moods recover (and not letting kids pass their temporary bad moods onto me), but vacation is the right time to practice that extremely useful superpower.

Whether you’re headed to a theme park, a family resort, an all-inclusive family resort, a family cruise, or any of the most popular family vacation spots in the U.S., Europe, or Mexico, these tips will make planning and traveling together a lot more fun.

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Christine Sarkis
A traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor, Christine Sarkis is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of FamilyVacationist. She is the former Executive Editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine SmarterTravel.com, she has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted 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, Here & Now, Life Kit, and California Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir. Christine and her husband first met in Paris, and travel remains a big part of their shared experience. With their two kids in tow, they have piloted a barge down canals in France, befriended llamas in Peru, tended olive trees in Italy, and gone snorkeling with sea turtles in Hawaii. The family lives in California and loves traveling around the state. Their California favorites include Yosemite National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and the West Shore of Lake Tahoe.