By Martha Nichols, Independent Travel Consultant with Aladdin Travel

While some of us are still in the thick of spring break travels, it won’t be too long before we climb back in the car or plane for another family trip this summer. Since we know it’s smart to plan early, we asked Martha to share expert advice and practical tips on planning a smooth family vacation. Below is our Question & Answer session. If you have a question, post it in the comment section below and Martha will answer it for you! Happy travels! ~ Katie

Q: What is your number one word of advice for traveling with children?
A: JUST DO IT! If your life is anything like mine, it is full of school, homework, projects, and after school activities. Add in busy working parents trying to juggle over-scheduled calendars with family life. What you get are parents and kids rushing in different directions with weekday family dinners consisting of drive through in the minivan. Sometimes vacations are the only time for families to slow down and enjoy time together. Family vacations are memories that will last a lifetime! Whether you are traveling the world or close to home, take those family vacations! Start making those memories with your children that will last a lifetime.

Q: How far in advance should you plan a trip?
A: I always advise to plan as far in advance as possible and make sure you understand the cancellation policies. Yes, plans change just as life throws you a curve ball. Know what the cancellation policies and penalties are, then consider trip/travel insurance to cover those fees. By booking in advance you will get the vacation that you want. Nothing like waiting to the last minute to start planning only to find out there is no availability!

If you are cruising, the farther in advance you can plan, the better! A lot of cruise companies offer the lowest prices to those who plan way in advance. Carnival Cruise Line offers Early Savers Rates. These are the lowest rates you will see published, but must be booked at least 6 months in advance. The prices go up as the travel dates get closer. On Disney Cruise Line, the least expensive stateroom options, the Inside Staterooms, are the first to book up (and yes, they will book up over a year in advance during school holidays)! Most cruise lines have their 2013 Itineraries published. If you are wanting to cruise, the farther in advance you can plan the better.

At Walt Disney World, Advanced Dining Reservations can be made as far as 180 days in advance (yes, that is 6 months in advance). If you are wanting to dine at some of the most popular venues, then you need to be prepared to start booking your ADRs at the 180 days in advance date! With Disney, the first special offers that are released will save you the most money. If you wait to see if something better will come out later, you will pay more for your vacation.

Q: If a destination is within driving distance, what is your opinion on driving vs flying?
A: Driving vs Flying: This is always the question asked and the answer is always … “It depends on your family and the trip.” The biggest issues are budget restrictions and personal preferences.

How well do you and your little ones travel? Do you view travel days as a means to an end, a necessary evil in order to reach your destination? Or do you view the travel as part of the vacation, enjoying the journey as much as the destination?

For me, the idea of long car rides are what nightmares are made of. The repeated question, “Are we there yet?” is enough to send me over the edge. Add in the bickering from the back seat, and I am ready for the looney bin! My husband, on the other hand, thinks long car rides are a right of passage and what makes family vacation memories. He can’t wait until the kids are old enough to drive across country. My response is always, “Have a wonderful time. I will fly and meet you there.”

I prefer air travel because it breaks your trip up into manageable chunks. A drive from the Triad to Charlotte or Raleigh, then your are up and moving around through the airport. The length of your flight, then you are up and moving through the airport. Finally, a last car ride to your final destination.

With the Security requirements that are now in place, you need to arrive at the airport at least 1 hour before your flight (depending how busy the airport is, you may need more time to navigate through security). Add into the time it will take you to drive to the airport and park. Add the length of your flight. Finally add an hour to disembark the plane, walk to baggage claim and collect your luggage. Is your final number more or less than the amount of time it would take you to drive?

How long is your trip? Are your going for a week or a weekend? If you have a day on each end of your vacation to devote to driving then you might decide it is worth driving. If it is a short trip and you want to maximize your time at your destination, then consider flying.

When your arrive at your destination, how are you going to get around? Does your resort destination offer transportation to/from the airport & resort? Will you need a car while you are there?

Also consider the cost of flying vs cost of driving. With gas prices going up, run the numbers to see how much it would cost to fly vs drive. Make sure you factor in the cost of checked luggage! The majority of airlines charge at least $25 for the first checked bag per person and even more for the second checked bag. How much luggage do you take? I for one can fill a minivan for a weekend trip since I take everything we would possibly need. Other people are able to pack for a week or more in a carry-on bag.

Q: Why use a Travel Agent when I can book it myself?
A: Expert Advice: We choose this field because we love to travel! We have the personal experience in traveling to the places you are wanting to go, dealing with the vendors, and continuing education training on the destinations. We can help you figure out what you want and how to make it happen.

Price Monitoring: We spend hours a day looking at prices. The agencies receive notifications of special offers from vendors all over the world which allows us to match offers with clients. Some offers are not available to the general public. The Travel Agencies may have access to pricing that you cannot get on your own.

Time Saving: Everyone is very busy with daily life and demands. How much time do you have to research your destination? Travel Agents can do Itinerary Planning, offer Insider Tips, and are experts available to you to answer all of your questions.

Finally, they are the person you can call if there is a problem when you are traveling. Is the dot com company going to be there for you when you have a problem?

Q: We hear we might have a really hot summer ahead of us. What can parents do to keep travels smooth even if it’s scorching hot outside?
A: Sun screen. When we were kids, sun bathing was an art form. Now every time you turn around you hear the dangers of sun burns in children increasing the chance of skin cancer as adults. Sun burns are no fun for anyone, so stock up on the sunscreen. Look for SPF of 15 or higher. Apply it every 2 hours, even on cloudy days. Apply generously and often! When traveling, I pack both a full sized bottle and travel size bottles of sunscreen. In the morning we use the full sized bottle to grease everyone up. The travel sized bottle goes in our day bag for when we need to reapply.

Hats & Sunglasses. My philosophy on hats is the bigger and floppier the better. I aim for hats that will shade the scalp, face and ears! I know that sunglasses on children do not stay on for long, but try to get them to wear them.

Light weight, loose fitting, light color clothing. 100 degree days are not the days to sport your favorite black shirt and denim shorts.

Hydration. Drink Water!!! Children between the ages of 1 to 3 yrs will need 4 cups of fluid each day. Children 4 to 8 yrs will need 5 cups of fluid each day. Children (and adults) 9 yrs and older will need 8 cups of fluid each day. Everyone will need more than that if exercising in the heat. Whether you drink bottled water or tap water, plan accordingly and make sure everyone stays hydrated.

Keep to your family’s schedule. Keep meal times and nap times the same as if you were at home. I know that I get grouchy when I am hungry or tired. The same goes for kids! Refuel with healthy options every few hours. In the summer heat, many small meals rather than one large meal works better.

Midday Breaks/Keep out of the sun during the heat of the day. Get up and goi in the morning to take advantage of the cool time of the day. Take afternoon breaks from the sun & heat. Plan inside activities during the heat of the day when possible. Get wet! Hit the pool or do activities that will involve water. Head back outside in the evening.

Know the signs of overheating. Heavy sweating (or even worse, red, dry, no sweating skin), paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness or weakness, dizziness or headache, a “sick stomach” feeling or vomiting, and faintness. If anyone you are traveling with starts to show signs of too much heat & sun, seek shade, air conditioning, and medical attention if needed.

Thank you for these valuable tips, Martha! If you have a question for Martha, post it below and she’ll answer it for you!