Like a Vegas buffet, a city has seemingly endless choices: some good, some flamboyant nonsense, many of no interest to your kids. If you're planning a city trip, avoid turning it into a stressful, unsatisfying mess by sidestepping these seven common mistakes.
Mistake #1: Picking the wrong city. It's all too easy to plan a wonderful trip based on what makes a city famous and not on what makes your family happy. As you plan, talk with your kids about what they hope to get out of a city trip. You may be shocked to learn that they're not as excited as you are about seeing the San Diego Zoo, but it's cheaper to discover this before you go; next year they'll be older and their answers almost certainly will change. Conversely, don't assume your kids think all museums are boring before explaining that New York and Washington's museums are like amazing cities themselves. If you pitch it right, you might get them excited about a plan that includes some of the famous sights while excluding others best-saved for a return visit.
Mistake #2: Doing too much of one attraction. If your family agrees to tackle behemoths like the American Museum of Natural History or the National Zoo, congratulations. But have a plan of attack. Some families can formulate one on the spot by glancing at a floor plan or park map, but most of us need to talk about it before we get there. You don't have to see every exhibit or every animal, but you also don't want to spend too much time in the reptile house and miss everything else. Avoid misallocating your time by applying the One Thing Rule: everyone picks the one thing about that sight they want to see most, and you do all those things first. If there's time, you can move on to everyone's second and third choices. This rule is particularly important if you're the sole parent traveling with the kids, as you won't be able to use the splitting up strategy (see below).
Mistake #3: Not splitting up. Consider splitting up your family, either at the sight or at different sights. It's odd that parents do this all the time when managing playdates at home but somehow feel they must be attached at the hip while on vacation. Presumably, everybody's "one thing" will be aligned to their own interests and ages, so why drag everyone everywhere if it's not necessary? While mom's with her daughters in the Hall of Gems, dad can take junior to the dinosaur floor or to the park. Or, dad can take the kids while mom window shops, then mom can swap and dad can go see his one thing that no one else cares about. Likewise, if your entire family doesn't do well en masse in fancy restaurants, mom can take Eldest Daughter out for a nice meal, and the following day dad can be cut loose in a similar fashion.
Mistake #4: Eating all your meals in restaurants.
Many city trips dictate that you'll be eating all your meals in restaurants. And there are certainly ways to have a better experience if you're determined to make every restaurant meal count. But if keeping your brood under control in a fancy restaurant is torture (which is why splitting up may be the only way you'll get to one), then you certainly have your pick of casual places. However, if you go that route, be wary that increasingly popular big city "family style" restaurants do not necessarily translate to "family friendly." Family style places yield big portions and lots of noise to drown out your kids, but these restaurants are more conducive to groups of adults and, frankly, tourists. Since you're in a great city, try to get one meal a day from a grab-and-go sandwich spot and picnic in one of your city's fantastic parks.
Mistake #5: Pushing through Plan A regardless. Despite your best intentions to do what makes your family happy, you might insist on doing the Empire State Building on a cloudy day or braving the Boston Public Garden swan boats in a hailstorm because you want to say you did it. But is that really something to brag about? Likewise, if you're determined to see Alcatraz before 2 p.m. on a weekday, do you really want to compete with scores of kids on class trips? Most cities will have a Plan B that's worthy of your time, whether it's huddling in a quirky children's bookstore during a thunderstorm or sneaking off to an indoor skating rink when it's hot out. And what's more, the locals and their kids will be keeping busy in those places, too, giving your kids opportunities to make some instant vacation friends.
Mistake #6: Shopping just to help the local economy. Newsflash: Disney, Coach, and H&M stores are pretty much the same from city to city. And while it's appealing to walk that indoor city block between 6th and 7th avenues to prove to yourself that the Macy's in New York City is the largest store in the world, or that it's fun to browse all the chain retailers on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, that doesn't mean you have to spend a lot of time shopping there. Remember that your destination has its own distinctive boutiques, local chains, worthy museum stores and unusual street vendors that can provide you and your family with a much more authentic city experience than a national chain and, not incidentally, far more authentic souvenirs for you and your kids' friends back home. At Fodors.com, check out the shopping section of your city's destination guide or post a question about favorite souvenirs in the appropriate forum to get the scoop on your city's better local shops and vendors. As a time saver, also browse the online stores of any sights you're planing to visit to see if their on-site counterparts will be worth your time.
Mistake #7: Not wandering around. Every major city has practical public transportation that is fun to learn, especially if you come to town often but avoid using it all the time. Don't deny your family the pleasure of exploring the alleys of San Francisco, walking the tree-lined loops of Central Park, or getting lost on the way back from a Washington museum. Serendipitous experiences linger behind ever corner, and whether it's a fun local playground, obscure street fair, or hole-in-the-wall taco place, it's these finds that your family will likely treasure the most.
---Paul Eisenberg, a Fodor's editorial director and father of three, is series editor of Fodor's Around the City with Kids, which includes guides to New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Paris.
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