Editor’s Note: As the pandemic evolves, travel rules can shift at a moment's notice. Be sure to read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before you book, and again before you travel.
Every parent knows how important it is to pack your patience and sense of humor when traveling with children—but sometimes, that’s not enough. On your next trip, make room in your bags and on your itineraries for diversions that will keep the kids entertained—and Mom and Dad sane.
1. Pack surprise gifts
Young children with short attention spans are more likely to develop a case of “Are we there yet?”-itis. To keep them occupied and distract them from the clock, pick up several inexpensive items at the dollar store—such as coloring books and card games—to dole out as surprise gifts at intervals along the route. If traveling by car, you can gift wrap them to add to the excitement. You can also grab some “blind bags” that are prepackaged surprise gifts. These bags, which you can buy at places like Walmart, Target and Amazon, usually contain small toys your kids can collect and play with.
2. Minimize the mess with self-contained games
Space is at a premium, especially when traveling by air. Self-contained games that don’t rely on scads of small pieces can help contain the mess. For younger travelers, think Etch-a-Sketch and Melissa & Doug’s Memory and Hangman. For older kids, opt for trivia games, such as the Brain Quest series or National Geographic’s Quiz Whiz books. Don’t forget classic travel games, too, such as Travel Bingo, I Spy and Twenty Questions.
3. Choose destination-focused books
Generate excitement for your journey by bringing along books—paper or digital—about your destination. Yes, guidebooks are great resources for the facts, but remember fun fiction titles, too. Ask your local librarian for suggestions or search Amazon.
Remember audiobooks, too. In addition to your library’s titles, Tales2Go offers a free 30-day trial to sample thousands of audiobooks for children from preschool through high school. For example, if you’re heading to Florida with middle schoolers in tow, the whole car might enjoy listening together to the Kingdom Keepers series set at Disney World.
4. Up your app game
For many families, electronic devices rank as high on the packing list as toothbrushes. In addition to your children’s usual favorite apps, download engaging travel apps onto your devices.
Stack the States and Stack the Countries (both available on iOS and Android) combine trivia questions with a Tetris-like challenge. An alternative is Geography Drive USA, which is an engaging trivia game. Roadside America points out strange museums, quirky statues and other unusual or odd places to visit along your journey. And don’t underestimate the power of Google Maps to answer the evergreen travel questions: “Where are we?” and “When will we get there?”
There are also plenty of educational games to keep young children entertained while learning something new during your trip. PBS Kids Games (free) covers subjects such as math and reading. Another good option is the ABCmouse.com app that outlines a learning path consisting of videos, activities and quizzes; it’s free for the first 30 days and then $10 per month after that. Khan Academy Kids (free) provides children with simple exercises, learning videos and digital books that develop their math, reading, and social and emotional skills. These apps are available on iOS, Android and Amazon devices.
5. Maximize your meal stops
While fast-food outlets along the highway can be convenient, you can turn a meal stop into a cultural lesson for your kids and a favorite trip memory by seeking out stand-out local spots along your route. Try the website and app TV Food Maps, which lists 5,000 restaurants that have been featured on more than 40 television shows.
6. End the day with some physical activity
When asked about their favorite part of a vacation, young children are just as likely to say “swimming in the hotel pool” as any other activity. Many campgrounds and hotels at a range of price points offer pools as an amenity. Travel-booking websites, such as TripAdvisor, let you filter your hotel search so the results include only properties with pools. Outdoor pools may refreshing in warm weather but if you're headed to a chilly destination in the fall or winter, you'll need to book a hotel with a heated indoor pool.
Depending on when and where you're traveling, you can enjoy other outdoor activities, such as hiking and biking. There are plenty of hiking trail apps you can use as a guide, such as AllTrails and MapMyHike, or ask for directions or trail maps at your hotel.
Biking with kids helps encourage them to establish healthy exercise habits. And, with numerous bike rental companies around, such as Austin's MetroBike, a gentle nudge may be all it takes toward some outdoor family bonding before you hit the sheets.
7. Get kids used to coronavirus precautions pre-trip
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many parents did their best to keep their children safe from the virus. With an upcoming trip on the horizon, let your kids know what to expect.
Here are some tips:
- Model and encourage good hand hygiene, especially regular hand washing for 20 seconds, which is about two rounds of “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Also, remind them not to touch their face and cover their mouth and nose when sneezing.
- Explain social distancing and why they should do this, especially when out in public spaces. Remind kids that handshakes and hugs between family members and relatives should be avoided, for now.
- Boost their immune system. Encourage children to eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep and spend more time playing outside.
- Speaking of going outside, explain why wearing masks are important. Encourage them by wearing one and allow them pick their mask or help them make their own.
- Children are curious by nature and they’re sure to have questions. It’s important to help them verbalize their thoughts, listen to their concerns and provide accurate and science-based answers. Explain information in an age-appropriate manner and don’t overwhelm them with unnecessary details. And, let their questions guide your discussion on COVID-19.
- Practice a daily cleaning routine to instill in your kids the importance of minimizing the spread of the virus. Tell them how and when to use disinfecting wipes, especially when outside, as well as encourage them to leave their shoes and bags by the door and change their clothes upon coming home.