Travel with kids: 7 mistakes that could ruin your USA family holiday

New York trips: the Empire State Building Observation Deck gives incredible views


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There’s a lot to think about when planning a long-haul trip with kids. How you’ll occupy them on the journey, how they’ll cope with the time difference, the change in climate, and the food are bound to be high on your list of concerns. But we’ve found that it’s the simplest of mistakes that has caused us the most hassle on family holidays. Like the time we were standing at the check-in desk in Heathrow airport, and realised we’d forgotten to apply for an ESTA visa. That was a hair-raising couple of hours I wouldn’t like to repeat, as we wrote emails, sent faxes (yes, it was in those days!) and made frantic phone calls to try and speed up the process of obtaining our ESTA in order to make our New York flight. Make it we did, but with only moments to spare, and I swear I heard a collective hmphhh as we sank into our seats and turned the air nozzles onto maximum cold blast. Since then we’ve made a foolproof tick list of things that need to be done in the run up to a holiday

The USA is a regular destination in our holiday plans, so I’ve geared this list to avoiding the most common mistakes that could ruin your USA holiday before it even starts. However, there’s a lot that holds true here for any long-haul destination, and indeed, some of it is useful for any kind of foreign holiday with children. Just add these to your preparations, and you’ll have more chance of the perfect family holiday dream you’ve spent months planning actually coming true.


7 Mistakes to avoid on a USA holiday


The beach area at Aquatica Orlando


1: Don’t leave it too late to check your passport dates

I’ve been guilty of getting so carried away with the planning of a holiday that I’ve forgotten to think about the paperwork until the last minute. Our passports live in folder that I can easily lay my hands on, coming out time and time again to get us over the border and off to our sunshine break, so I tend to take them for granted. Many a time I’ve woken in the night in a panic over whether or not the passports are still in date, especially since having children, whose passports must be renewed more frequently than my own. The passport office says it takes about 4-6 weeks to renew a passport, though you can pay more to have it expedited, and in my own experience the Post Office check and send service takes about 2-3 weeks (yes, I’ve used it a lot, because that’s how fine I usually cut it!) I have friends who’ve only realised the week before that their passport is out of date, and have had to go and queue up at Petty France to sort it. Trust me, that’s not the kind of stress you need when you’re packing the whole family for a trip!

It’s not just an in-date passport that you’ll need, however. Lots of countries, the USA included require your passport to still be in date 6 months after your return home. I’ve nearly fallen foul of that a couple of times, and it’s another 3am panic stations moment. Make sure, as soon as you book your trip, that your passport is in date, and that it has the requisite validity for the country you’re travelling to.

2: Don’t forget your ESTA!

An ESTA USA is a mandatory authorisation, without which you will not be allowed to travel to the USA. Hence our last minute race around the airport – without a lot of harassed squealing down the phone, and a not inconsiderable amount of luck, our dream Disney holiday would not have happened, and we’d have had some explaining to do to two very small and disappointed faces. It’s easy to apply for – the ESTA cost can be paid online, and submitted along with the application form – and is often authorised within the day (or an hour, in extreme cases like ours – though I wouldn’t recommend leaving it that late!)

3: Does your travel history prevent you visiting the USA?

Whilst everyone we’ve ever met in America has fallen over themselves to be lovely to us, and especially to the children, as a country they don’t let you in without you getting past a basic level of suspicion. Since 2011, if you’ve travelled to Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya or Somalia, you’ll be refused an ESTA, and that’s the end of discussion. So if you travel on business, you’ll need to take into account any trips you’ve made to those countries before making the decision to plan a trip to the USA.

4: Don’t forget to factor in long entry queues

In a similar vein, American border control can take ages to get through, and when you’re travelling with kids, that can become stressful, especially after a long flight. My advice is not to be hopeful of a quick passage through customs (it does happen, but it’s rare), and to plan for it. Some airports supply strollers and buggies to parents with young children, so that tired babies and toddlers can have somewhere to rest in the queue. Check with your airline, and direct with the airport at your destination to see what they can provide. It’s a good idea to have snacks and water ready to keep hungry children from getting too fractious, and it might be a good idea to ask airline staff to heat up baby bottles just before landing. If you can, take it in turns to wait in the queue, while one of you sits somewhere quieter with the children until it’s your turn. Basically, whatever it takes to keep your child happy while they wait will prevent your USA holiday from being ruined before it’s even started.

5: Don’t lock your suitcase

All baggage into the USA is screened, and officers are allowed to open baggage they deem worthy of inspection, including breaking a lock if they need to. If you like to lock your suitcase before it goes into the hold, it’s a good idea to use a lock that the Transport Security Administration (TSA) can open with a master key. Personally, there’s never anything in my case of real value (and I pity the officer who has to sort through my holiday laundry on my way home!) so I rarely bother, but a TSA-approved lock saves expense and hassle.

6: Switch off your mobile data the minute you get on the plane

Data roaming charges can be huge in the USA unless you have a plan that allows for it. Take it from one who’s been confronted with the bill for her teenage son’s Fortnite habit on our return from Orlando last year! Switch yours off, and put a restriction on everyone else’s phone to prevent it being turned back on again until you’re safely on home turf.

7: Don’t forget to tip

Chances are, as soon as you’re through passport control and into the land of holiday dreams, you’ll spot a Starbucks. Your teenage daughter knows full well that the Americans do a much more aesthetically-pleasing frappuccino than we do, so your first purchase is likely to be a coloured, creamy concoction that will look amazing on her Instagram account. Make sure you have small notes and change to tip the barista, and expect to pay more for tips in the USA than you would in England. I don’t make the rules, it’s just the way things are done there!

Green starbucks frappuccino in USA


It’s not all about the flight price, and the thickness of the towels on the beach when you plan a family trip to the USA. Once you’ve made your plans (or ideally even beforehand) come back to this list and make sure you’ve covered all the angles to guarantee a happy holiday, and avoid stress like our ESTA debacle! And once you’ve made it safely to your holiday destination, you can relax and enjoy. We’ve had some wonderful trips to America with the kids, and are planning many, many more. And if you need inspiration, Lonely Planet has lots of ideas for USA travel with kids.


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