By the time our eldest daughter was five we had traveled with her several times and had become much better at trip planning and picking good destinations. But on one trip we were so focused on our quality family time that we failed to consider that our daughter was going to miss her friends back home.
My wife and I made this discovery during our daughter’s first-ever February school break. Despite having a fun day at the beach, our daughter was so forlorn at dinner we assumed she was getting sick or tired, when in fact she was getting sick and tired of us. As soon as another couple with a child her age sat down a few tables away, the girls were out of their seats, chatting and happily irritating the lobsters in the tank at the front of the restaurant.
Two more kids later, we experimented with family resorts as well as traveling with other families to make sure our kids could play with kids their own ages. But most of the time it's just the five of us. And if you’re like us and prefer cities and towns to family resorts, there are a few things you can do to make sure your child gets the interaction he or she needs:
1. Hit the hotel pool. A day at a theme park is not all that conducive to kids bonding, as other families turn into competition for everything from access to rides and characters to who exits the park first. When you finally do leave the parks for the day, spend a late-afternoon hour at the hotel pool, when a lot of your fellow theme-park families will be unwinding.
2. Choose restaurants wisely. Ask your hotel staff not where the kid-friendly restaurants are, but where families tend to eat. You want it to be a place where non-parents tolerate other people’s kids parading around.
3. Find the local playground. Skip a local attraction one morning and go instead to a neighborhood playground, where your child will find local kids just as much fun to play with as vacationing ones.
4. Loiter in the hotel lobby. If it’s a medium to large chain, your kids will soon be joined by other kids eager to see how many brochures, coffee stirrers, and hard candies they can collect.
Not for nothing, my kids’ fondest trip memories to date have involved these incidental moments where they made fast friends at restaurants, pool sides, and playgrounds or, on a recent trip, chatted every night with a girl on the motel balcony next to ours. After all the time and money you expend on these family vacations, it pays to remember that it’s these little things that can matter the most.