If you're the family photographer like I am, make a point to be in at least a few of the vacation photos. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch / Suburban TravelingMom

If you’re the family photographer like I am, make a point to be in at least a few of the vacation photos. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch / Suburban TravelingMom

Having spent 10 years traveling with children, I’ve learned quite a few lessons. No matter where you go, I recommend that you do these 5 things on every family vacation.

1. Make sure everyone’s in the photos.

I am the family’s photographer, so most photos feature my husband and kids only. It dawned on me recently that my kids will grow up, look at all their childhood photos, and think, “Boy, we sure did a lot of fun things with Dad.” It’d be my own fault, because I never get in the photos. GET IN THE PHOTOS. I’ve started asking strangers to take more group photos of us on vacation. And I make sure my husband takes at least one picture of ME with the kids.

2. Spend at least one night in a fancy hotel.

Not all budgets allow for this, but there are travel deals out there if you research and ask. Even one night in a luxury hotel really does add a special excitement to a family vacation. Plus, it can be a nice respite if you’ve been staying in budget (or unexciting) hotels.

I came up with this rule after splurging for a night at the Ritz Carlton Toronto. After early morning flights and airport hotels (long story), it was like a choir of angels sang when we walked into the Ritz Carlton’s lobby. It was such a fantastic hotel, we blew off our morning plans so we could swim in their saltwater pool (no gross chlorine smell) and hang out in our room (the kids watched TV on the bathroom’s magical mirror-in-the-TV, while wearing Ritz bathrobes).

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Brushing teeth and watching TV in the Ritz Carlton bathroom. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch / Suburban TravelingMom

If you ask my kids today what they remember/liked best about Toronto, they won’t say the CN Tower or the Hockey Hall of Fame. They’ll say, “The Ritz Carlton!”

In other words: totally worth the money.

3. Take a “mental photograph”

We parents spend a lot of time trying to capture precious moments on photos and videos. I’m encouraging you to put the phone/camera down. Take an extra few minutes to stare out at the scenery — or look at your kids playing/laughing/learning — and take a “mental photograph,” an image that will stay in your memory forever.

As you look on, appreciate how lucky you are to have your family, to be on this trip, and even to be experiencing the moment. Not to get all sappy and preachy here, but this is really important in our hectic, go-go-go lives. Take it all in. Because if you don’t stop for a moment, you’ll miss it. It’s the best part.

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Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch / Suburban TravelingMom

 

4. Force the kids to try the area’s specialty foods.

They don’t have to eat a whole plate of it. But make sure you and your kids — picky eaters included — at least have a teeny, tiny taste of the specialty foods in the area you’re visiting. It’s an important part of the travel experience.

That means crab cakes in Baltimore, BBQ in Memphis, mofongo in Puerto Rico, a peameal bacon sandwich in Toronto, and a horseshoe in Springfield, Ill. (it’s meat piled on top of french fries and smothered in cheese sauce – a heart attack on a plate), etc. If they don’t like it, THEN they can order chicken nuggets and fries.

 

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Mofongo in Puerto Rico. Photo credit: Jamie Bartosch / Suburban TravelingMom

5. Talk to people.

A lot of travelers are shy and don’t want to bother anyone. That’s understandable. But when an opportunity arises, talk to locals. Have your kids ask questions, too. You’d be surprised how much you’ll learn about the area and the culture.

There are interesting people all around us. As they taught me in journalism school, “Everyone has a story.” Maybe not everyone’s interested in telling their story, and that’s fine. Just try an innocuous conversation-starter and see where it goes. You’ll likely learn something, and so will the kids.