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Summer Trip Pep Talk 101

A vacation with kids is often of battle of expectations vs. reality. Here, a mom of four offers seven savvy tips to make the most of your family trip.

Ah, vacation. I'm a mom with four kids aged 7 to 13 – and I approach summer trips with trepidation. We save money all year. We carve out precious "days off" from work. We align everyone's schedules. The stakes are as high as the expectations.

Then, reality sets in. And – the Disney Pep Talk. Several years ago, we were visiting my brother's family in California. They also have four kids roughly the same age as ours, so there's always lots excitement. The night before we embarked for Disneyland, we got the equivalent of a pep talk from my bro.

Dan said, "Watch the families tomorrow. They have saved endlessly and looked forward to this trip to Disney forever. Inevitably, many parents get stressed and yell at their kids. And this is at Disney, which is probably the most fun place in the world." It's a key parenting question. Why do kids, at times during every vacation, refuse to have fun or be fun? Or is it us?

So my husband and I decided to create some strategies to enjoy vacation moments. We now have "Disney Pep Talk." Try our seven tips for your own family travels!

1. Don't expect kids to be grateful for all the sacrifices it takes to go.

They're not going to thank you profusely or act wonderfully. Instead, watch for the moment of wonder or the "pure joy" smile – it is these "moments" that make the trip happy and memorable. Photograph those moments, and it's all you'll remember later.

2. Leave a little give in the schedule.

Most kids are not naturally continuous "do-ers" on a vacation. If you have an agenda packed end to end with activities, the kids will start complaining and wish to stay somewhere and just hang out. Think of your kids sweating in Washington, D.C., hiking from monument to monument in the heat and waiting in the sun at the spy museum. All good ideas, but some down time is needed for them to retain their trip enthusiasm.

3. Let each person choose one event/activity and one eating experience.

After we select our destination (even if it's a repeat), we put out a menu of options. Each child can choose one – or propose something else. They also get to pick one type of food we'll be sure to eat. This is a huge hit with our kids and helps us minimize complaints during the trip.

4. Set the expectation: Traveling is a nightmare!

Whether by plane or car, summer vacations are filled with other people on vacation, and there are inevitable delays, traffic and waiting. Have a plan for the long waits. Don't expect the perfect trip. If everything goes swimmingly, it's a bonus. Electronics may be your best friend during these moments.

5. Everyone has to bring a book.

This is a big rule, and my kids now look forward to going to the bookstore to select a special book for the trip. We load up our Kindle, too. I also give extra credit for journaling: They can write, draw or both. I give them $1 a page for quality journal writing. It's almost certain the kids'll be asked to write something about their summer when school resumes, so they're getting a head start!

6. Try to pack light and smart.

This is a basic, but we all tend to "overpack" and drag around things we just don't need. Now we sit down and make a list together, then make it an event. "OK: Everyone bring down three pairs of pajamas." Next, "Everyone go get five shirts – and one has to have a collar." And they have to carry what they pack.

7. Electronics are awesome, but set some ground rules about usage.

The iPod, smartphone, DS and other devices are amazing and really help kids stay distracted during the hectic travel challenges – but they should not check out and not participate in the trip.

So have the Disney Pep Talk – and always take time to savor your moments of joy on the trip. Oh, and be sure to make them go to the bathroom before you go anywhere. Happy travels!

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