1. Keep journey times as short as possible
Plan a long drive with small children and an excess of junk food, and you’re just asking for trouble. Keep journeys as short as possible, let the kids track your progress on a map and if possible, get off the motorway and stop as frequently as you can.
2. Travel slowly
We’re often so focused on our destination we forget to enjoy the journey. Rather than spending hours in the car to see one big attraction, plan a shorter trip with multiple stops, one to please each member of the family. Be fair, agree on time limits and let everyone enjoy the day.
3. Pack snacks
Save money on basics and bring a picnic. No matter how much money you earn it’s frustrating watching your kids leave a plate of expensive restaurant food untouched then complain about being hungry as soon as you walk out the door.
4. It’s all in the timing
Although most museums and galleries offer children’s activities, they can range from badly photocopied sheets to a full interactive workshop program. Find out as much as you can in advance and time your arrival to coincide with hands-on events. A swashbuckling pirate party or a seaside fossil-finding mission can make the difference between a good day out and a great one.
5. Keep things simple
Every parent has experienced that moment when they realise that their child is having far more fun playing in the puddles and climbing trees than enjoying the expensive attraction they’ve driven miles to see. Sometimes all the planning, effort and expense just backfires and you wish you’d just gone to the local park instead. Don’t confuse your idea of a good day out with theirs; keep things simple, know your limitations, and realise that if they’re happy you will be too.
6. Learn from experience
Wherever you choose to go you can guarantee there’s a glut of advice available online from parents who have already been there. Read reviews, find out about what’s good value and what isn’t, where you can find the cheapest tickets and when’s best to arrive to avoid the queues.
7. Prime your audience
Read about your destination with your kids, watch a movie together or even arrive dressed up in costume – whatever it takes to bring their imaginations alive. A castle ruin springs to life when you arrive in full knights’ regalia and have a sword fight on the lawn, a medieval Oxford college is far more interesting once its connections to Harry Potter are revealed, and teens will lose their bad attitude once they realise that that boring walking tour takes in all of Pharrell Williams’ favourite haunts.
8. Let the kids in on the planning
If there’s a significant difference in your children’s ages it can be hard to find a destination to suit everyone but get them involved in the planning and they’ll realise that all by themselves. Let older children loose on a tablet, pray for a diplomatic discussion and hopefully everyone will agree on a destination.
9. Get an annual or city pass
Although it’s a significant initial outlay, it’s well worth buying an annual pass to local attractions your children enjoy. You’ll visit more often and lose that feeling that you’ve got to stay all day to get your money’s worth. Equally, if you’re visiting just one city, look out for sightseeing passes allowing you to enter numerous attractions for one reduced fee.
10. Become a member
Look out for umbrella groups such as the National Trust in Britain (nationaltrust.org.uk) and Australia (nationaltrust.org.au), Heritage Canada (heritagecanada.org) and the National Park Service (nps.gov) in the US where membership buys you access to all their properties. You’ll usually pay off the cost within a few visits and find yourself spontaneously stopping off on many journeys simply because you can and don’t have to pay an additional entrance fee.
11. Bring a friend
A teen’s world is small and intense and taken away from their friends there’s a good chance they’ll offer little to a family trip other than snide remarks. Bring a friend however, and everything changes – with someone to gossip, shop and moan with, everything suddenly looks rosier.
12. Don’t pay at the door
Taking a family with two children to top visitor sites can knock a whopping big hole in your wallet, and that’s before you cave in to the demands for snacks, drinks and souvenirs. Look out for online discounts, two-for-one tickets, voucher codes and special offers in advance and you’ll save yourself a hefty chunk of money.
13. Use vouchers
Got a loyalty or rewards card? Then use your weekly grocery shop or business travel to earn points and stockpile them for your holidays. Offers vary but you’ll often get reduced entry to attractions, money off hotels or flights and freebies at a number of places. It’s also worth signing up for alerts from deal-of-the-day websites such as Groupon (groupon.com) for discounts on everything from famous attractions to meals out.
14. Join a tour
Not just any old tour mind you, but a guided Segway excursion, a late-night ghost walk, a sea kayaking trip or a treetop adventure. Distracted by the thrill of the ride, the kids won’t even realise they’ve toured a whole city and learned a lot about its history.
15. Choose your accommodation wisely
Generally neither family- nor budget-friendly, hotel stays blow a hole in your pocket you could well avoid. Consider taking day trips instead and using the money saved to pay for attractions or treats you might otherwise have had to miss out on. If you are going to stay away overnight consider a campground in a dramatic location with its own adventure playground, a farm stay where the kids get to help feed the animals, house swaps which come with the novelty of someone else’s toys, or a private room in a youth hostel where you’ll often get a historic property or scenic location on top of the self-catering kitchens and ready-made friends.
16. Relax the rules
It’s priceless seeing the incredulous face of your child when you allow what is a normally forbidden fruit. If you’re a stickler for early bedtimes plan a late-night ramble through the city. If you’re a sugar-free household indulge in some extra treats. If you hate fancy dress go all out and join them in a head-to-toe costume at the street parade. You may only have to do it once but they’ll remember it forever.