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The Preschool Parents' Travel Guide

They're never too young for a family vacation.

A family vacation is a great way to focus on togetherness away from the hassles of everyday life while exposing the kids to new cultures and experiences early on. And when it comes to travel, parents of preschoolers have a huge advantage — namely, the ability to travel off-peak.

The benefits of off-peak preschool travel

Unlike families with older kids, those with preschoolers aren’t tied to a rigid school-year schedule; they can travel year-round, not just over summer, Christmas or spring breaks, traditionally the busiest times at family vacation magnets. When you can hop on a plane in, say, early September, right when older kids go back to school, you’ve got the edge on both cost and crowds. Airfare, hotel rates, cruise fares, attraction tickets and, often, gas are all cheaper in the off-peak season, when demand is lowest but seats and rooms still need to be filled. Here are the key off-peak seasons for five popular family destinations.

  • The Caribbean: mid-April to mid-December
  • Europe: November to March
  • Hawaii: mid-April to mid-June; September to mid-December
  • Mexico: early January; May; October to November
  • Orlando, FL: September to November (pre-Thanksgiving); January to early February; April (post-Spring Break) to mid-May

No matter when you go, traveling with a preschooler poses certain challenges. Follow these tips to make more memories than meltdowns on your next trip.

Preschool-friendly vacation destinations

Family-centric resorts and attractions that specialize in putting kids at ease away from home — the Disney parks being the prime example — are obvious choices, but trips to the mountains, beach or big city can be just as successful if you plan accordingly.

Make sure the resort or cruise you choose has age-appropriate activities and kids’ menus at the restaurants. Then pack your itinerary with things that will interest your child — lots of pool time for your little fish, say, or a trip to a local natural history museum for your dinosaur-lover. (Many kids’ and science museums offer reciprocity to members of similar venues across the country, so if you have a family membership to the Garden State Discovery Museum or the Franklin Institute, bring your card for free or discounted admission to many fantastic sites across the country.)

Prepare your preschooler to travel

Talk to your child about what to expect on the trip — how you’ll get there, what the sleeping arrangements will be and how long you’ll stay. Expand his palate prior to the trip by introducing some of the food you’ll experience at your destination,
and let his preschool teacher know when you’ll be away, so she can be excited for him beforehand.

If your child will be flying for the first time, Sally Black, mother of three and founder of the Pennsylvania-based VacationKids.com, suggests taking a practice run to an airport ahead of time, when you have more time to explain things. “Show your little one where you’ll be checking in and putting your luggage, and talk about security,” she suggests.

If you’ll be traveling to a different time zone, compensate for jet lag by adjusting your child’s sleep schedule the week before you leave. For international trips, check with your pediatrician about recommended immunizations. You may also want to consider purchasing travel insurance, since an ill-timed ear infection can mean flying is out of the question.

Packing for a preschooler

Because you never know when you’ll be stranded in traffic, stuck on the tarmac or need to consult a map or a concierge, pack lots of snacks, drinks (if you’re not flying) and things to do — crayons, books, games, preschool apps like Doodle Buddy, Mickey's Wildlife Count Along or Play 123.

Though your child may not ride in a stroller regularly anymore, it’s best to have one when heading to Disney World or another vast location where you’ll be on your feet all day. If yours is too bulky to stash in the trunk or an overhead compartment, check into stroller rentals. (Disney, for example, rents single strollers for $15 a day and doubles for $31, prices that reduce to $13 and $27 for multi-day stretches.) And don’t forget a nightlight for bedtime.

Avoid preschool vacation meltdowns

Maintain your child’s sleeping and eating schedules as much as possible when traveling. Head to meals before your child is ravenous in case there’s a wait.

When touring, “As hard as it is to avoid the urge to see and do everything you can pack in, plan for some quality down time,” says Anna Skamarakas, Bellmawr, NJ mother of three and an alum of the Disney Parks Moms Panel, Mouse-selected mom-and-dad travel experts who answer Disney vacation–planning questions online. Go back to the hotel after a morning on the go to take a nap or sip lemonade by the pool.

When traveling to places where you need to queue up, Skamarakas offers essential advice: “Always hit the restroom before you get into line! I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve had to get out of line with a potty emergency on my hands.”

Finally, remember to take plenty of pictures that will keep the memories of a great trip fresh even as your preschooler grows.

Susan Stopper is a frequent contributor to MetroKids.

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