You don't have to spend 300 days a year on the road with your kids to know the ins and outs of family travel. But it helps.
That's no exaggeration, by the way. Last year, we clocked about 40,000 miles on our Honda Pilot, including three coast-to-coast adventures and one memorable trek across Canada. Sometimes, I feel like a guest in my own home.
And where is home? So glad you asked. I live in Orlando with my better half, Kari (editor of the family travel site AwayisHome.com), and our three kids, ages 9, 11 and 13. That gives me a front-row seat to the world's No. 1 family travel destination. I watch the ebb and flow of visitors to the world's best theme parks and beaches. I learn from their mistakes and I make a few of my own.
And there are plenty to be made. Here are the worst:
Don't treat your offspring like future members of the Travellers' Century Club
Kids, and especially young children, don't yearn to travel the same way adults do. They want to be with their parents and next to a secure source of food and entertainment, usually in that order. A few weeks ago at Disney World, I lost count of the number of young couples wheeling their infants in strollers before them. I wondered: On what rides do they plan to take these babies? How much will Junior remember about his first Disney vacation? What are they really doing here? Parents, do you actually think an infant who can't sit up yet is going to remember anything about a theme park vacation? Neither do I.
Don't obsess about the car seat
Parents - especially new ones - lose sleep over the car seat. Among the questions: Do I need a car seat if I'm flying? Should I take a car seat with me on my trip? What's the right one? Here are my quick answers: You don't need a car seat if you're flying, but if you can afford an extra seat for your child, bring it. It's safer. If you're renting a car, you might consider gate-checking a car seat on the plane. Your airline won't charge you for it. As for the kind of seat, that's a personal choice. Just make sure the seat is labeled with the wording "This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft." One more piece of advice: Whether you're flying or driving, your child will not spend the entire trip strapped in. Your baby will wiggle and scream and fight, and at some point you'll have to let Junior out of prison. It's okay. Remember when we were kids? Some cars didn't even have seat belts.
Get a passport and don't let it expire
You never know when you might want to leave the country. Don't wait until you have to go before applying for a passport. It adds unnecessary stress to an already stressful situation. Remember, for kids younger than 16, passports are valid only five years, so it's a good idea to check the expiration date well in advance of any international trip, especially if you have more than one child and each passport was issued at a different time. Oh, and one more thing: Don't let your kids carry their own passports, no matter how responsible they seem. Our oldest son, 12 at the time, once left his passport on an Air France flight after we landed in Paris. It was almost history's shortest trip to Europe. Thank goodness staff found the passport, reunited us with it and let us into the country.
Don't forget the other passport . . .
Passports aren't the only thing to worry about. If your surname isn't the same as your child's, you may need to prove you have permission to travel with your own offspring. It sounds strange, but the fact that he calls you Mummy or Daddy may not be enough. Airlines and cruise lines don't want to get involved in a messy custody battle, so they may ask for a letter from your spouse, partner or significant other granting permission to travel. What kind of documentation works? Sometimes a recent letter (less than three months old) is sufficient, but a travel company may also ask for a copy of a court order granting sole legal custody to you, a judicial declaration of incompetence of the other parent or a death certificate for the other parent. I know from experience. We've been asked.
Don't pack too many clothes, but don't skimp on food
The misallocation is a classic newbie mistake. If you run out of clean clothes, you can always find a laundromat. But for some reason, kids consume several times their body weight every day when they're on the road. They're bored, so they eat. The last thing you want is to be halfway across the Pacific or through the Sonoran desert, with no food for hundreds of miles around, and to run out. I have been there. It's no fun. As a bonus, your luggage will be significantly lighter when you arrive. Worst mistake? Packing the wrong snacks. Stay away from anything sticky, crumbly or overly carby and go for natural, unprocessed foods. Apples hold up really well on the road. So do carrots. Most dried fruit can survive several road trips. You'll thank me after the first summer downpour, when you can actually see the floor of the back seat of instead of a gooey layer of Oreo crumbs, moist breakfast cereal and gummy bears. Oh yeah, been there.
Pack tools for dead-time entertainment
Long flights and road trips can be tedious, even for adults. Our motto is: Equip but restrict. We offer our kids everything they need to bide the time, with a heavy emphasis on educational material. But the entertainment isn't unlimited. For every Netflix and Rhapsody account, there's an e-book or an instructive game. Fun time is earned, not an entitlement. Here's a tip: Don't download all of the apps on the same device. That way, you'll have an "entertainment" tablet and an "education" tablet. The education tablet is always charged and ready to be used. Extra-well-behaved kids can take turns with the entertainment tablet, but in measured doses. And the not-so-well-behaved are invited to look out the window and ponder their misdeeds. Hey, it's character-building.
Don't overschedule your trip
It's a marathon, not a sprint. By trying to squeeze a lifetime's worth of events into a few short days, you will drive your entire family off the deep end. This is a theme park no-no - starting the day at 8am when the park doors swing open and powering through until the last firework pops at 9am Your kids will hate you, regardless of their ages. Plan lots of breaks, including a long and leisurely lunch. Choose a handful of the best attractions instead of trying to see them all. Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld will still be here next year, and you want your family to like you when you come home, right?
Don't go there
Las Vegas. Baden-Baden, Germany. Macau. These are not family travel destinations, and although it would seem obvious, it merits repeating: Don't take your family there unless your kids are older than 21. My middle child was fascinated with Las Vegas when he was 8, so we visited. Although he enjoyed a few things (Cirque du Soleil has some G-rated shows, and he spent way too much time at that huge Whole Foods near the airport, contemplating dessert), Sin City revealed itself as a strictly adult playground. If you don't believe me, try taking a kid into a casino hotel, then stand in front of the slot machines. In less than a minute, a manager will materialise and order you to keep walking. Something about Nevada gaming laws. Face it, if you're on the road with your family, there are places you won't want to go and where they won't want you. Find something age-appropriate.
Don't forget to pack your sense of humour
If being chased out of a Vegas resort while pulling an 8-year-old behind you or wading through a one-inch layer of soggy cookies on the floor of your SUV isn't comedy material, maybe you didn't bring a playful attitude. You should. Believe me, your kids have. For them, everything is funny. I remember when Mum tried to pay the toll with her Navy Federal Visa in Italy, with a long line of cars behind us, and she accidentally dropped the plastic on the road. The kids laughed. I remember getting pulled over on a Florida highway because we happened to be driving a "car of interest" like one used to commit a recent felony. Giggles from the back seat. I remember accidentally leaving a sleeping child at dinner on a cruise ship (we found him eventually). The other two kids found that hilarious. Point is, if you can see the levity in these inevitable screw-ups that happen when you travel with children, you won't stress out on the road. I wish I laughed a little more and fretted a little less. Don't we all?
Don't forget to spend time with the kids
Perhaps the biggest mistake parents make when they take their kids on vacation is treating them as if they're luggage. You've probably seen them with their sad eyes, left in day care while their parents go out to dinner. Or stuck in a resort's "kids program" while their parents vacation as if they're childless. Stop that. You only have 18 summers with your offspring, if you're lucky. When you check into the hotel, and your kids ask you to go to the pool with them, just go. When they beg you to take them on that theme park ride one more time, do it. When they ask you to take another day or two off from work so you can extend your vacation, do them and yourself a favour, and ask for the time off. You'll never regret the extra time you spend with your children.
All the challenges aside, travelling with kids is a privilege. Watching our own youngsters grow up on the road is one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. Maybe some of the lessons I've learned will make you feel the same way about traveling with your kids.
• Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.