From the moment you get on an airplane—where you’ve had to pay extra just for the ability to sit next to your kid—to the time you plunk down $5 for a tour guide app you download when you arrive, it seems the travel industry gets better every day at nickel-and-diming you.
Everyone from hotels to airlines to consumer product and food companies have "the most clever way!" to keep your kid safe, well-rested, well-fed, entertained and germ-free while you’re on vacation—for a small price.
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While keeping kids entertained, safe and, ahem, tame, while traveling sounds great to us, spending money on every gizmo and gadget to do so doesn't.
For our part, we are a family that loves to travel, and as the founder and editor of FamiliesGo!, a travel planning website for busy parents, I've found that some gizmos, gadgets and services are actually worth the price, either because we use them over and over again, or because they offer a level of convenience that really makes a difference in our stress levels.
Below are six items I think are worth shelling out for, as well as the specific situations when each comes in handy.
1. VIP Airport Services
What It Is: In a nutshell, VIP airport service is a way for families to get some first-class conveniences without having to shell out for a hefty first-class fare. This special, one-on-one airport service might look a tad different depending on who provides it, but some of the most valuable services include curbside luggage haul, short check-in and security lines and access to a lounge area. All invaluable when traveling with tired or irritable kids.
Cost: Will vary depending on who provides the service (airlines, airports and private companies all have their own rendition of it). American Airlines' five-star service starts at $250 for two adults and a child, on top of your economy ticket. To find a provider, check with the airline you're flying, or the individual airport, to see if they offer the service. You can also ask around for any private companies your friends and colleagues may have used, or do a Google search for private options.
When It's Worth It: The extra help and short lines are invaluable when you know you’ll be pressed for time (i.e. you have a tight connection), when you’re flying solo with wiggly kids who have the tendency to run around or when you have grandparents along who could use some extra assistance.
2. City Tourism Passes
What It Is: These ticket booklets let you buy admission to several of a city’s key museums, activities and attractions at once, at a discounted price. CityPASS’s New York City pass, for example, included admission to six or eight major attractions including the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Museum for $89 per adult (kids passes, which are offered separately, are usually less to reflect lower admission prices). Purchased à la carte, these tickets would cost $166 total. Coupons for local shops, restaurants or public transportation might be thrown in, too.
Cost: It varies by city and package. CityPASS offers its packages in 11 locations (like Boston, Chicago and San Francisco) for prices ranging from $49 to $89. Their $279 Southern California pass also includes several theme parks. Check with the tourism bureau of the city you're visiting, or their official web page, for other city pass options. (We talked more about ways to save on family travel here, including how some simple internet searches can save you big on kids' entertainment options.)
When It's Worth It: If you know you want to see or do at least half the items in the pack (which are available for preview on the site), you can save a bundle and have an action-packed vacation.
3. Amusement Park Express Passes
What It Is: It can take days to fully take in a large amusement park and--let’s face it--you’ll spend a good amount of that time standing in lines. A single-day ticket with the "express pass" option could allow you to do everything you want to in one day at most parks (by skipping the long lines), and it generally costs less than a 2-day ticket. Use that extra time to hit another park or, even better, relax for free at the hotel pool. The bonus: Not having to endure hour-long lines with kids who are bored, impatient and overexcited.
Cost: It varies, but examples include $15-$30 at Sesame Place (on top of a $58 ticket) and $36-$70 at Universal Studios (on top of $88 admission). Six Flags also offers discounts--for example, at Six Flags, the basic Flash Pass, which lets you make a reservation at a ride, then walk around the park until it's your turn, is $45 for one person, and up to five people can be added to the pass for sliding additional fees (that's on top of the regular daily admission of $42 for online adult ticket purchases and $40 for kids). Keep in mind the whole "Fast Pass" service is actually free at some parks (like Disney), so always do research before you go.
When It's Worth It: Anytime it will significantly increase your ability to enjoy the park, such as on peak days, when you only have one day, and when you’re with very young, easily exhausted kids.
4. Travel Insurance
What It Is: Travel insurance does much more than just cover the costs of a canceled trip. In fact, a policy could easily pay for itself if it covers costs related to a missed flight or cruise connection, a canceled flight, lost or damaged luggage, roadside assistance and even rental car damage. Better still: Even the most basic policies often come with a "concierge desk" that will help you arrange a car rental, hotel and restaurant reservations and event tickets, and help with things like finding a local doctor when your little one comes down with strep throat. Every hassle is a bigger hassle when kids are involved, so if insurance makes it easy for you to, say, find a last-minute hotel room instead of toughing out an overnight delay at the airport, I'm all for it.
Cost: One provider, ProtectYourBubble, offers coverage for a $3,000 trip for three to Orlando ranged from $107 to $172. To find the travel insurance provider that best fits your needs, try using SquareMouth, a website that helps you compare quotes from several different companies.
When It's Worth It: Almost always ... unless you're a real risk taker!
5. Gear Rental
What It Is: This can obviously vary, but when we rented a condo in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, the room didn’t come with any type of baby bed for our then-15-month old. Luckily, a local concierge service rented a pack’n’play to us for about $15 for five days. It was set up when we arrived, we didn’t have to schlep a portable crib through the airport and we avoided $25 to $75 in potential checked luggage fees.
Cost: Equipment rental fees vary widely by the item you need and where you’re staying, but it's worth checking ahead of time. Try a web search for your destination and the words "rent baby gear," or call and ask your hotel's concierge service if their hotel partners with a local company for rental.
When It's Worth It: If the rental is at least equal to what you’d pay to check the portable high chair, large stroller or travel crib you’d like to bring, the convenience of not having to carry those items with you makes them worthwhile, in my opinion. I've found that often the rental price is less than the airline fees, meaning you’re actually paying less money for more convenience—double score!
6. CARES Airplane Harness
What It Is: Most airlines require parents to buy a ticket for kids starting at age 2, but many buy a seat even when their kids are under 2 because they don’t feel safe carrying them on their lap. The CARES strap, on the other hand, allows our family to bypass the whole "Should I bring a car seat?" question when traveling with our toddler and preschooler. It weighs barely a pound, fits easily into a shoulder bag and integrates with an airplane seat belt to create the same 5-point strap you would have in a car seat. It’s for kids from 1 year of age up to 44 pounds, and it’s FAA approved. Better yet, your kids can take it on and off for short stretches to play, eat over their trays, even stretch across their seats to nap.
Cost: $65, which seems like a lot of money for a strap. But consider this: If you use the strap for at least 3 round-trip flights, the cost amounts to under $11 for each plane ride--a fair price, I think, to avoid a backache and up your odds of landing with a happy kid (not to mention happy co-passengers).
When It's Worth It: You'll be traveling multiple times with a young child who would otherwise need to sit in your lap or in a car seat.
Tell us--what do you use to make traveling with kids easier?