family vacation on the beach creating lasting memories and arms up celebrating by the ocean

While prepping for family vacation, I reflected on our kid-friendly trips over the years and the family vacation hacks or parenting tips we might pass along. It’s safe to say we’ve had our fair share of trial-and-error experiences as we were traveling with kids. As a family of nine, we learned ways to save money on family vacations, create lasting memories with kids, enjoy fun car games, experience stress-free restaurant eating, organize a family itinerary, and find travel activities that increased family bonding and not sensory overwhelm. I believe some of the vacation tips we’ve learned along the way might inspire you as you embark on your own family vacation, especially if you are vacationing with an intense, challenging, or highly sensitive child.

“In the end, it’s not the destination but the journey with your family that truly matters.” – Unknown

Family Vacations for Bonding

family vacation on the beach walking with inflatables

Making Memories is the Goal

Vacations don’t have to be extravagant or costly. As a matter of fact, you can choose to explore attractions near your hometown or opt for smaller-scale activities. What matters most is dedicating the time and being intentional to bond as a family, away from the hectic schedules and demands of daily life. Many of our most cherished moments have been spent just a few hours away from home, engaging in cost-effective yet enjoyable activities and simply making memories together.

Early in our marriage, my husband and I decided that family vacations should be a priority for us. It felt important for us to provide our children with diverse experiences and create lasting memories as a family. Considering we live on a family ranch (yes, it can often be like living in the hallway of your husband’s job!), we needed to make time to get away from the daily stresses and work environment. Keenly aware of our tight budget, we’ve become experts in finding good deals and making our money stretch. I’d love to share some of our most useful vacation hacks that work for vacations on a limited budget and useful for even large families!

Talk About Family Vacation Ideas

Before a family vacation, communicate with the adults and children alike, about hopes, desires, and expectations. Some people may seek quiet relaxation, while others crave new experiences, outdoor activities, or exploration. Understanding everyone’s preferences upfront allows you to create a well-balanced itinerary and figure out the best pace for your vacation with kids.

Each family member may have different ideas of fun, relaxation, and excitement. This makes it crucial to address individual needs and desires, especially for children who can tend to be more overwhelmed, emotional, intense, or highly sensitive. Never underestimate the amount of stress that you can avoid with just taking time to talk and more importantly…listen!

“Family vacations are a time to connect, explore, and create cherished moments together.” – Unknown

family with two kids looking at a map to plan a family vacation

Plan Realistically for Your Family Vacation

When we had fewer children, we would often fly to our destination. However, as our family grew, we realized the increasing costs and adjusted our approach. We started alternating between smaller, closer-to-home trips and bigger adventures. Another useful strategy we discovered is flying in one direction and driving back. This allowed us to cover more distance without breaking the bank. Here’s a funny memory of how we determined a “realistic distance” for our destination one year.

During a trip to Arizona a few years ago, we flew there and then did a road trip back, exploring various destinations along the way. It was the perfect balance – far enough to offer new and different experiences, yet a manageable distance for enjoyable travel with littles. To plan later trips, we used the same distance as a benchmark. We took out a map, measured the distance using string and a pen (yes, old-school style). Then we drew a circle on the map. Any destination within that circle became a possible vacation idea, since we knew we had successfully managed that distance before. Destinations outside the circle would have to wait until we were ready for longer journeys. As our children grew older, we could expand the circle and explore more distant places comfortably.

Make A Master Vacation Plan

I understand that some people dislike schedules (yes, I’m one of them…they feel similar to dreaded to-do lists! LOL!). On the other hand, other people prefer spontaneity. As a parent of seven, I can assure you that investing a little time to plan and organize a schedule at the beginning of the trip is incredibly helpful. Over the years, we’ve developed a system that involves researching top activities, restaurants, and points of interest in the area we’re visiting. We search for the best dining options, local attractions, tours, factories, or special activity passes that provide unique and noteworthy experiences.

Utilizing apps like TripAdvisor, we find family activities, family-friendly restaurants, and hotels that are conveniently located near one another. Then, we create a day-by-day itinerary, including meal plans and alternate options, if needed. As a result, we have addresses and key details readily available on our master schedule. This can be helpful if the kids are starting to show signs of being hangry and you just need a quick option without having to search and navigate at the same time!

This approach has proven invaluable during our travels, allowing us to make on-the-go adjustments and share our itinerary with others if necessary. Although it requires some preparation, I’ve involved our older children in the process, which has increased their engagement, enthusiasm, and buy-in for the planned activities. As you might imagine, this can be helpful for those children who tend to struggle with being away from home, out of their usual element, and need to be part of the planning for increased cooperation.

Minimize Packing Stress for Family Vacations

smiling mom attempting to close a full suitcase for family vacation while an excited girl looks on

Packing is one part of vacations that can become a stress-inducing task, especially when you have multiple children to prepare for family vacation. The best tip is to–

keep it simple and easy!

Oh, yes, and to leave room for souvenirs so your bag doesn’t go over. (The bags the airlines sell are really not very cute!) To limit the stress, I have a few strategies that have worked well for us. While color-coding may seem strange, it really did help us out… A LOT!

Color-Coding and Individual Packing

Sometimes we packed clothes by the day, organizing them into color-coded piles. Each day had its own color scheme, which simplified planning for necessary accessories like hair items and socks. This system also helps us stay organized during the trip. If we found an orange item and orange day was two days ago, we know it’s dirty and should be put in the laundry bag. If we come across turquoise and gray clothes and haven’t reached that day yet, we knew to leave them in the sack for the appropriate day. This method allowed for quick retrieval and ensured that each child had a ready-to-go outfit.

Color-Coded and Packing By the Day

Other times, we’ve packed each day’s color-coded pile of clothes into separate grocery sacks, and all the sacks go into one large duffel bag. This approach enabled us to pack clothes for several people in a single bag. When we changed destinations each night, we only needed to bring in the toiletry bag and the small grocery bag holding the clothes for the next day.

Packing the Extra Items

Additionally, we’d pack a separate grocery bag (or two) for pajamas and emergency change of clothing. This packing system has proven to be the most efficient and organized for our large family over the years. Now of course as the kids are older, these systems are less necessary and can be much less structured. Similarly, if you have fewer children or just want less to worry about, pack light and share bags! And of course, don’t forget to bring a laundry bag (or two) to collect the dirty clothes for the return journey. This makes unpacking so much easier!

Activities and Strategies for Traveling with Children

looking out a window with suitcases beside them, a family prepares to go on vacation

Activity and Snack Bags

To keep children engaged and entertained during travel, we have a few activities and snacks prepared. Each child had their own small bag with personalized snacks, and we encouraged them to pace the rate in which they consumed them. Yes, some personalities are better at this than others! (And you could usually predict who would run out and who would share! LOL!)

We’d also take a master bag that we gradually distributed snacks from as needed. Additionally, we bring along books, activities from the Dollar store, and travel binder books with dry-erase pages. The latter was inspired by Pinterest, where I found printable games that I laminated for reuse with dry-erase markers. This keeps the little ones entertained, even during shorter drives.

Good Character Awards

We have also implemented fun ways to encourage good behavior during travel. Every day, we’d give travel awards to recognize positive contributions. It’s a simple process where we’d mention what each person did well and present them with an award. For example, “Grayson receives the Muscle Man award for helping load the car.” Or “Bennet gets the Caring Heart award because he helped that lady who dropped her bag.” We pay attention to what goes well during the vacation and offer honest feedback on the positive character traits seen in each child. Each child has index card with the award written on it and choose a sticker to add as well.

Turn-Around Award for Motivation

The good character award tradition has become a fun part of our vacations. We even have a “Turn-Around” award for someone who started the day with difficulties but managed to turn things around. This can be especially useful when working with a child who can be challenging and needs extra help staying on track or learning to regroup after a meltdown. This strategy requires just a bit of creativity but has a significant impact!

Good Rider Awards

We have also experimented with wrapping a few travel treats such as books, movies, crayons, window markers, stickers, word search puzzles, glow sticks, travel games, and more. As we progress on our journey, we randomly select someone to open a “Good Rider” award, which usually has something enjoyable for them to enjoy or use during the car ride. This has become another exciting tradition for us.

Car Bucks for Kids Travel Money

One summer, we introduced “car bucks” as a reward system. Good behavior, acts of kindness, and simple deeds earned the kids car bucks, which could be exchanged for travel treats, dessert at the next meal, staying up a little later, extra swim time, ordering a soda, choosing an activity or stop, picking their own seat, seat swapping, and so on. It added a unique twist to our usual travel routine, and the kids loved it so much that they even suggested making car bucks a permanent part of our vacations. It takes a little more planning but will probably be something the kids remember!

family happy, smiling and holding hands on the beach

Maximize Family Bonding

Family vacation ends up being a great time to focus on family teamwork, parent and child connection, and unplugging from daily stresses to focus on fun, laughter, and time together.

Encourage Family Interaction

Utilize your time in the car to learn about each other. Ask questions and have everyone take turns answering. This is an excellent opportunity for positive and meaningful connections. Take advantage of this time to play fun travel games like “Name That Tune,” taking turns picking songs to sing, I Spy, Going on a Vacation and Taking (ABC), License Plate States, and more. These moments create memories that will be cherished for years to come, fostering laughter and strengthening family bonds.

Prioritize Interaction Over Electronics

Limit the use of electronic devices. We often followed a “20 and done” rule, allowing the kids to play on their devices for 20 minutes (a reasonable time limit to complete a level or task) before putting them away and engaging with the family. Depending on the duration of your travel, you can decide how often the 20-minute electronic time is allowed.

Reasonable Expectations and Frequent Breaks

Appreciate your highly sensitive child or sensory overloaded child’s need for space and reset. Long travels touching a sibling, smelling a sibling, hearing a sibling, or yes, even looking at a sibling can create extra stress for some kids. Build in plenty of breaks and lots of understanding, so that travel time in a car or plane doesn’t have to overwhelm your child and ruin this key time to bond as a family!

sensory sensitive or highly-sensitive child covering ears at a restaurant

Special Mealtime on Family Vacation

Mealtimes at restaurants have the potential to become stressful during a trip. Choosing food, waiting to eat, and managing everyone’s needs can be difficult. For intense, challenging, or highly sensitive children, mealtime often triggers them in numerous ways. Whether it is the “quiet” waiting, anxiety over the food, sensory overload from the setting, or just trying to all agree on where to go, mealtime can prove to be one of the most difficult things you will do. Nonetheless, and you’ll do it 2-3 times a day!

Smooth Mealtime on Vacation With Kids

To make the most of this time, we have used a few of these tools and strategies:

  • Word search or dot-to-dot books
  • Deck of Uno cards
  • Crackers or nuts (quick protein for hangry kids)
  • Paper and crayons for drawing
  • Bring Legos, stickers, or paper
  • Putty for an easy sensory tool
  • Colored foam shapes for pattern play
  • Magnetic tic-tac-toe
  • Travel books with dry-erase pages
  • Small etch-a-sketch toys
  • Mazes to do together
  • Fun question-and-answer time (favorite things works well!)

As you can see, mealtimes can be a fun and special time on vacation without causing extra stress. It might just take a little bit of effort and planning!

Electronic Use

We avoid electronic device use at the table when possible and encourage anyone who struggles with resisting their devices to place them in the center of the table. This gentle reminder helps them think twice before reaching for their electronics, as they are aware that everyone will notice. It’s even become a silly game with our older kids who have tried it out with their peers on school trips! LOL! If you have a child who struggles with sensory overwhelm, you may have to opt for some media use during difficult times. Consequently, this may include a bit at mealtime.

sibling bonding a they drink fruity fun drinks at a restaurant

Rank, Rate, and Retell – Relive the Family Vacation Fun!

“The joy of family vacations lies in the shared experiences and the laughter that echoes in our hearts.” – Unknown

Traditions for Family Bonding

This may be a unique suggestion, but it holds terrific value for both family vacations and family bonding. As a silly, fun tradition, we rank the restaurants we visit and the activities we engage in. Each family member has the opportunity to rank and rate their experiences as they wish. This generates interesting discussions and a deeper appreciation for the things we’ve done. It’s amusing to discover that the family member who ate hamburgers at every stop actually has a favorite among them! (Can hamburgers really be that different?) And who would have guessed that Mom would order something unusual six out of ten times!

These special little traditions become treasured memories and often lead to shared laughter and fun. Remember, the things we talk about are the things we commit to our memory and the memory of our children. It warms my heart to see the positive impact of our retelling and reliving experiences when our teenager spontaneously asked while traveling, “So everyone, if you could choose one day of our vacation to relive exactly as it was, which day would it be and why?” Oh, the joy!

Some Favorite Family Vacation Traditions

Speaking of traditions, they really are a wonderful way to build family connections and create meaningful memories. Truthfully, holidays aren’t the only times to establish traditions. Vacations might be just the time to begin some unique and fun traditions that your family and children can treasure and remember. Our family, as mentioned above, does the ranking and rating tradition, but we have a few more fun family vacation traditions too, including:

  • visiting state capitals
  • visiting college or university campuses
  • eating at restaurants featured on Food Network
  • searching out top rated burgers, Mexican food, BBQ, and pizza
  • enjoying area favorite ice cream shop
  • seeing any college or pro stadiums, gyms, fields, etc. in our path
  • doing novel candy or food factory tours
  • visiting Great Wolf Lodges wherever we can
  • older kids and Mom do an escape room
  • baseball game with Dad
  • looking for fun free activities
  • swimming with diving toys at the hotels
  • staying at Embassy Suites whenever we can for their fabulous breakfast omelets and evening snacks
  • enjoying the special treat bags on the airplane
  • playing the license plate game and other fun car games
  • reliving memories from past favorite vacations

These traditions are part of what makes our getaways so fun to plan, experience, and remember! And as you can tell, not many of them take extra money! It’s just a matter of making more ordinary things feel special. How fun it is to anticipate them and remember them together even years later!

But what do you do when amid all the fun and traditions, your child or children start to fall apart and struggle? I’ve got a great tip for that!

family showing teamwork as they row together on family vacation

Harmony on Family Vacation

Check-in for High Need Children

One of the most valuable tips I can pass along is just to develop a system for checking in, especially with your emotional, intense, challenging, or highly sensitive child. Being out of their usual routine, setting, activities, rules, and preferences (their own bed, blankets, pillow, etc.) can increase irritability, anxiety, anger, emotion, fear, and rigidity, while also decreasing their tolerance, flexibility, communication, coping skills, and appreciation. But your high need child isn’t the only one to consider.

Don’t Forget the “Middleman”

Is your usually compliant, giving, helpful, thoughtful, peacekeeping child falling apart on you? These children are often taxed on vacation by doing the lion’s share of adjusting, compromising, and giving in when the more challenging child is simply unable. This works until suddenly this “middleman” feels lost in the shuffle and overlooked. Be mindful to watch for their first signals that you might need to connect and adjust for their needs and renewed sense of teamwork and cooperation.

Tools for Increasing Teamwork and Chemistry

Watching your children for signals early in the process will be important, so teaching them to check in when things feel like small and manageable issues will be much more effective than waiting for a blow up or meltdown to respond and adjust!

Here are some key tools for improving that “team chemistry” that you’ll need on vacation:

  • Keep in mind each child’s unique personality, special needs, wiring, or sensory struggles.
  • Lead with empathy and understanding for the moments, situations, and activities that feel difficult.
  • Offer simple appreciation or acknowledgement when your child is on task (not a lot of words and going overboard…it doesn’t serve well either!).
  • Make special time to connect 1:1 to see what they might be feeling, thinking, or needing.

Simple, Easy Tool for Family Vacation

One of the best tools, you must “pack” to take with you on vacation, and especially helpful with an emotional, intense, challenging, or highly sensitive child is this…just a simple question. “What can I do to help you today?” Chances are, your child will work hard to tolerate the transitions and changes of family vacation the first couple days. Unfortunately, it can get tough, the longer the trip may be. Taking time first thing in the morning to connect 1:1 and emphasize your willingness to help or listen may save your whole family from the fall out if you skip the step or overlook their needs.

“What can I do to help you today?”

Learning to Regroup after Meltdowns or Messes

Similarly, you will want to “pack” a healthy dose of patience and understanding. Don’t expect things to go without a hitch or hiccup. You will experience waves of disorder or even chaos, tense moments or possibly terrible meltdowns. These difficult moments will only have the power you give them. Remember to show your child and entire family that you CAN stay CALM and CARRY ON! Regrouping, resetting, and refreshing are skills we all need in life. Learning how to pick up and keep going is important. They just might learn these skills on family vacation!

“Family vacations are not just trips; they are chapters in the book of our lives.” – Unknown

Indeed, family vacations can be stressful, but I hope these parenting tips or vacation hacks will help alleviate some of that stress and supply fresh inspiration. Any time you dedicate to improving your family or strengthening your bond with your child is an investment that yields lifelong memories. Take a break from your busy schedule and work stress to create beautiful moments and memories together. You won’t regret it!


  • Communicate and understand family members’ vacation preferences to create a balanced itinerary that works for adults and children alike.
  • Plan realistic vacations that are manageable for your family considering everyone’s ideas, needs, and resources.
  • Create a vacation plan by researching activities, restaurants, and accommodations so that you aren’t needing to research things under duress in the moment.
  • Foster family bonding by engaging in conversation, playing fun travel games, and limiting electronic use.
  • Make mealtimes at restaurants less stressful by bringing along activities, understanding issues that occur for your child, and planning ahead for sensory issues that can arise around mealtime.
  • Discuss your vacation experiences together to create meaningful shared memories and generate interesting discussions.
  • Check in with each child and watch for early signals that they need your help to address individual needs and keep the spirit of teamwork.

Remember, family vacations are about strengthening bonds and making lasting memories. Prioritize this time spent away and be truly present as you experience fun things together. Perhaps by implementing these vacation hacks, you can enjoy a budget-friendly and stress-free trip, even with intense, challenging, or highly sensitive children. And what a joy it can be when you build that meaningful and lasting connection with your child!

Desiring a better connection with your child? Are your child’s struggles with challenging behaviors, meltdowns, or emotions negatively affecting the connection you thought you’d feel? I get it! You don’t have to figure this all out alone. Fortunately, you can find guidance, support, and encouragement right here.

Join our Parenting With Personality Facebook Support Group to connect with like-minded Christian parents and gain valuable insights. For personalized guidance and parent coaching, check out our Calm Connection Parent Program.




P.S. Needing some resources to help you out? I’ve got two great tools ready and waiting!

Needing some fresh strategies for managing a child who experiences frequent meltdowns? If you are overwhelmed with the struggles of an intense, challenging, or highly sensitive child, you will want to get your copy of the Quick Start Guide for Managing Meltdowns– Calming Emotional Chaos Without Crushing Connection. This will get you started in your journey to understanding your child’s needs and how you can navigate the high emotions and challenging behaviors effectively.

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With expertise, and wisdom gained from raising seven wonderful children, and a background in counseling, Jami, a dedicated parent coach, speaker, and author, offers valuable insights and practical guidance to empower parents on their unique journeys of raising children. Founder of Parenting With Personality and creator of Calm Connection Parent Coaching Program, she equips parents with the tools and strategies they need to foster a better understanding and meaningful connection with their little ones. As a regularly featured guest on Channel Mom Radio, her relatable stories and humorous anecdotes bring laughter and inspiration to listeners, making parenting an enjoyable and fulfilling adventure. Join Jami on this incredible journey and discover a world where connection, laughter, and growth abound, even in a bustling and busy household. Her writing has been featured with MOPS International,, and Today Parenting.

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