Top 10 COVID-Era Family Travel Tips (+ Bonus Disneyland Tips!)

Back in PC (Pre-COVID) days, our family did quite a bit of traveling. By the time our middle son was 6 months old he had already traveled to 5 different states and 3 international countries. We were always on the move, and I loved it.

But then 2020 hit and, like everything else in our lives, our travels paused. We were actually scheduled to take a grand European tour in April 2020 which, for obvious reasons, has now been relegated to the category of “Some day in the future…”. For the last two years I’ve traveled through the exciting mediums of books and movies and living vicariously through the adventures my friends and family have posted on social media. I never stopped dreaming of the day we could travel again in real life and, I’m happy to report, it finally happened!

This week we returned from a 2-week road trip through California, starting in Anaheim and ending in San Francisco. It was…amazing. To be in the (Sunny. Warm. Beautiful.) places and see the people that are dear to our hearts was a soul-enhancing super-elixir. But it almost didn’t happen.

Right before we were scheduled to leave for our grand California adventure, Omicron disrupted life (again) and we nearly cancelled the whole thing. I was anxious about getting sick during travel. What would we do if one of us had to quarantine…in a hotel room? What would we do if we tested positive and couldn’t fly home? Would I need to check an extra bag full of N95’s and rapid tests? There were so many unknowns and questions and worries.

To address all of these questions and concerns I came up with a few plans ahead of time–and picked up some tips along the way–that helped make our travel smooth, healthy, and happy. Here are my top 10 tips for family travel success in the COVID-Era:

*Note* Everything COVID-related seems to change constantly, so by the time this post is published it may already be out of date–I’ll do the best I can to keep it relevant!

1. Make Reservations
Most of the attractions we visited required advance reservations. This included everything from Disneyland to the zoo to a monument run by the National Park Service. Do your research ahead of time to see what the reservation rules are for the places you plan on visiting. If advance reservations are required, make the reservations as early as possible–you can always cancel your reservation for free if your plans change, but if you wait too long you may not get a spot at all (This is especially true with attractions that have capacity limits or that are very popular during different seasons.).

Some airports will even allow you to reserve a time to go through the TSA security line–think of it as a FastPass to the least exciting/most stressful ride of your life! If you’ll be traveling through SeaTac airport in Seattle, you can reserve your spot with the Spot Saver app or website from 5AM-1PM (and you can actually enter the line up to 1 hour before or after your designated arrival window).

2. Confirm Reservations
I didn’t really think this one was necessary, but I sure am glad that I did it! The week before we left for our trip (Travel with kids = trip. Travel without kids = vacation.) I called/emailed/app-confirmed each of our reservations. Which was a LOT of calling/emailing/and app-confirming. When I got to our very last hotel reservation, I called the hotel and was greeted with a voice recording that said something along the lines of, “Thank you for calling the Hyatt San Francisco Downtown. Due to COVID difficulties we are closed until next spring, or maybe next year, or just whenever COVID stops being such a nincompoop that ruins everything. We couldn’t be bothered to call or email you to let you know we’re closed, even though you made your reservation here several months ago. Have a nice day. *click*”

So we rescheduled the hotel with an AirBnB (That was actually a much better choice for our family in the scheme of things) and life went on. But can you imagine driving for 5 hours, showing up at a downtown hotel with tired, hungry kids and then realizing the hotel was closed? No thank you, ma’am.

3. Use Apps
2022 is the apps’ year to shine! Apps have been waiting for this moment–the moment where everyone uses and relies on them–and I can safely say that The Apps have arrived. There is literally an app for everything travel-related these days, and many attractions utilize apps as the primary means for containing and displaying tickets, maps, audio tours, even games to pass the time while you wait in line. If you plan on visiting an attraction, download their app before you travel and you’ll already be one step ahead.

In addition to apps, I also saved screenshots of all of our online tickets into a dedicated album on my phone’s camera roll. This made it really easy to pull up tickets without needing to search for them in my inbox or rely on an internet connection to find them.

4. Pack A COVID Safety Kit
Our family is what you might call extremely “COVID-Cautious”. We’re the ones who still make our kids eat their school lunches outdoors. In February. In Washington. We’re the ones wearing N95’s inside grocery stores. I know it’s not everyone’s take at this point in the COVID game, but COVID safety was a top priority for our family while traveling.

I packed a full COVID safety kit for our family because I didn’t want to risk not having access to the safety tools we’ve already tested and like using. Our COVID safety kit included: 3 N95/KF94 masks for each family member to wear in airports and airplanes (1 for the trip down, 1 for the trip home + 1 extra if it should be needed…like if your kid gets a major bloody nose right after take-off…*True story. This happened.*); Enough comfortable KF94 masks for each family member to have 1 mask per day, plus a few extras; a few 3-ply masks per person; travel size hand sanitizers; travel size Lysol wipe packs; travel size hand wipes; a refillable water bottle for each person; and a partridge in a pear tree.

It may have been overkill, but none of us got sick. We felt assured knowing that we were doing all that we could to participate safely in our outings.

5. Look For Off-Peak Travel Opportunities
We chose to take time off school and work so we could travel during the off-peak when crowds would be less and travel would be more affordable. I loved the added flexibility we had because of our off-peak travel (For example, our plans changed one day and we decided last minute to visit a zoo. I didn’t even think to make a reservation ahead of time, but after driving an hour and a half we arrived at the zoo and were greeted at the ticket counter with “RESERVATIONS REQUIRED”. Since we were there on an epically un-busy Monday, they allowed us to purchase our tickets at the zoo…with a gentle reminder to please remember to make our reservations next time.)

6. Bring Vaccination/Testing Paperwork
There are several places we visited that required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in order to enter. Before we left for our trip I saved all of our vaccination records in 3 places: the state health records app on my phone, screenshots in a dedicated “Vacation Necessities” photo album on my phone, and screenshots on Jon’s phone. I also made a photocopy of all of our vaccine cards that I kept folded up in my wallet.

7. Look For Destinations With COVID-Safe Activities
We chose California for our grand adventure because of three factors:
1. We missed our friends and family there and reeeeeeeally wanted to see them!
2. We were very familiar with the area and knew it would be easy to pivot or change plans should the need arise.
3. We knew we could be outside and in uncrowded areas for the majority of the trip.

When choosing a travel destination, consider your COVID-safety comfort level and how you might feel in certain environments. For our family, large crowds made us feel anxious, and we were only comfortable with indoor activities that we knew were following strict safety guidelines. We made one exception to our COVID-safety comfort level by spending a day at Disneyland–our kids all said it was the best day of their lives and I’m glad we made one “go big or go home” exception, but it certainly wasn’t the same relaxed, carefree experience I would have had pre-COVID (Are “relaxed” or “carefree” even words you can use in the same sentence as “Disneyland”…regardless of worldwide pandemics?).

8. Remain Flexible
Even with all of the planning and fretting I did leading up to our trip, I knew that our plans would need to remain flexible. The First Law of COVID is “Things are constantly changing”, so I held our plans in an open hand rather than a closed fist. For the most part we were able to do and see everything we set out to do, but there were a couple of last-minute pivots we had to make (Like when our dear friends got COVID and we had to reschedule the days we would have spent with them. *Insert heavy sobs of self pity*).

9. Prepare Kids Ahead of Time
We spent a lot of time in the weeks leading up to our trip talking through our travel plans, safety expectations, and reiterating the need to remain flexible. This trip was very different from the travel we used to do pre-COVID, and we wanted to make sure our kids knew going into it what to expect. A lot of our conversations began with “Our plan is…but if we need to change, then…”. Overall, our kids did a great job following our expectations and rolling with the punches when they happened!

10. Think Through Contingency Plans
Going into this trip–in the middle of the largest COVID case surge to date–I knew that there was the very real possibility we’d need to change course completely. Before we left on our trip I took some time to think through some of the likely scenarios and how we might handle them.

For instance, if one of us got COVID early in the trip, we could have stayed in southern California to recuperate where we had family close by to possibly help. If Disneyland was overly crowded and mask usage wasn’t being enforced on rides, there were certain rides and areas of the park we had already mapped out to avoid (and we told the kids as much before we went). If we got COVID near the end of the trip and couldn’t fly home, we had the option of extending our rental car dates so we could drive home and return it in Seattle. If one of us needed to isolate, we had rental houses with multiple bedrooms that could be closed off. All of our reservations for attractions and lodging were fully refundable should we need to cancel.

Not exactly the kinds of things you want to think about going into a vacation, but I felt a lot better knowing we could handle whatever happened.

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In the end, everything went incredibly well and I am so very grateful we had this opportunity to travel as a family again. Once we were in California everything felt so…normal!…and we made precious memories that will last a lifetime. If you’re on the fence about traveling, I’d encourage you to (plan ahead) and jump off that fence–the world is waiting!

And now, a few bonus Disneyland tips!

-Download the free Disneyland app. You can use the app for everything from storing your tickets to ordering food to playing games while waiting in line. I even uploaded a Disney gift card onto the app and used it throughout the day to buy souvenirs and treats, right from my phone.

-Like COVID restrictions, Disneyland is constantly changing how things work. Fast Passes are now a thing of the past, and instead there are new services like Genie + and Lightening Passes to help you navigate the park and get through the park more quickly…for a price. We didn’t take advantage of these new services (Starting at $20 per person per ride!), but I actually kind of wish that we had. Since we only spent one day at the park, every minute counted. There were a couple of rides that our kids wanted to ride over and over again, but with lines ranging from 20-90 minutes each, there’s only so much we could do. If I had it to do over, I would have just bit the bullet and bought lightening passes for a couple of those “repeat rides” so we could have done them multiple times in a day. After all, $20 per person is still less than adding on another whole day at Disneyland!

-Plan your visit for a “less crowded” time (Every day at Disneyland is crowded. Just some days are unbearably crowded, and other days are simply uncomfortably crowded.). There are several Disneyland crowd calendars you can view online, but I like the one from IsItPacked.com the best.

Make reservations and buy your tickets in advance (You must do BOTH, or they won’t let you in.)

-Disneyland opens their gates about 30 minutes before “rope drop” when the park officially opens. Arrive early and you can take your time wandering up Main Street before your first mad dash to the lines when the rides open.

-Rides break. A lot. When we were there several rides were out of commission for all or part of the day (It took us 5 tries to get to the end of the new Star Wars Rise of the Resistance ride without it breaking. On one of those attempts, it actually broke with us on it.). If you are dead-set on riding a specific ride, try to get to it early in the day…and keep checking in (in person or on the app) if you want to catch it while it’s open. Persistence and perseverance, folks!

-The Disneyland app has estimated line wait times, but they’re not very accurate. I watched several times how they calculated the line times, and I figure the information in the app is about an hour off of what is actually happening in that moment. So, if the app says Pirates of the Caribbean has a 10 minute wait but you see the line going up the hill to the Haunted Mansion, chances are you’re going to be there (a lot) longer than the 10 minutes displayed on the app.

-When we went to Disneyland in late January 2022, masks were required indoors (including rides and lines that were inside), and they were recommended outdoors. I’d say about 90% of the guests I saw complied with the “masks required indoors” rule, and there were Disney employees at most indoor locations reminding guests to keep their masks on. That being said, even “outdoor” lines can have you standing within the CDC guidelines for close exposure (While we were in line for the Jungle Cruise ride, I think we were closer than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes…to about 432 people). Use your own judgment based on your comfort level…and maybe pack a few spare masks if you think you’ll need them.

-You are allowed to bring in your own snacks and bottled water. Do yourself a favor (And save yourself a few hundred $$) and bring in a few things to help get you through the day. There are also plenty of water bottle filling stations and drinking fountains available throughout the park.

-If you bring a stroller, do something to make your stroller stand out (Like tying a balloon onto the handle). Disneyland “helpers” will conveniently move strollers while you’re away in line, so having a distinguishing marker that you can easily see from a distance will help you locate everything post-ride.

-For more Disneyland-specific tips, check out my post from a few years ago about navigating the park with young children.

-And last but not least, enjoy the magic! In the end, this is what your kids will remember.


How To Not Suck At Disneyland With Young Children

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We just returned from one of our most epic family vacations ever: our first visit to Disneyland with children. And, although Jon and I have been to Disneyland several times before, this was our first time taking our kids (ages 3 and 5) with us.

I purposefully did not plan too much for this vacation because I knew that we were going at one of the worst times of the year (crowd-wise, anyway) and I just wanted to go with the flow since this would be the boys’ first visit. That being said, I picked up a few useful ideas during our time at The Happiest Place on Earth. Read on to see how to NOT suck at Disneyland when you’re bringing young children along for the ride.

Timing, timing, timing

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There are certain times of the year where the park is virtually empty (these dates usually align with when most students are in school). There are also certain times of the year where the park is so busy that they literally lock the gates once the park reaches full capacity (we chose to go during the latter).

Unless you enjoy waiting in obscenely long lines and losing sight of your children in a sea of people, choosing a not-so-busy time will probably be in your favor. Several websites keep track of crowd volume at Disneyland so you can plan your trip for a less-busy time of the year (I liked the crowd forecast predictor at isitpacked.com).

That being said, I did not take my own advice on this one. Jon had the whole week of Thanksgiving off work and we wanted to squeeze in a vacation before Christmas and baby arrive, so we decided to bite the bullet and go during one of the busiest weeks of the year. Knowing ahead of time that the park would be crowded, however, saved us a lot of headaches and gave us a proper perspective for what to expect!

Keep track of your stroller

strollersFirst of all, BRING A STROLLER. Even if your kids are bigger and don’t usually ride in a stroller any more, bring one if they can still possibly fit. Little legs still get tired of walking (and standing in lines), and sometimes it’s just nice to throw them in there and get to where you’re going without complaining/wailing/gnashing of teeth. Strollers are also a handy spot to spare jackets, snacks, sunscreen, extra water bottles…all those things you don’t necessarily want to lug around in a backpack.

There are literally thousands of strollers at Disneyland on any given day, which can make parking and locating YOUR stroller a bit of a puzzle. Especially when you go to the park at a particularly crowded time like we did and the Cast Members (Disney employees) will oh-so-“helpfully” “relocate” your stroller without your knowledge so they can make room for more strollers.

To help reduce the panic-inducing surprise of returning to retrieve a stroller that is no longer where you left it, make sure you always park in a designated stroller parking zone. You can also try using a “marker” to easily locate your stroller amongst the masses: tie a helium balloon to the stroller’s handlebars so you can spot it from a distance, and hang a family identification card on the back of the stroller so you’ll know which burnt orange Bob Duallie is yours (find some cute free printable Disney stroller tags here).
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Ask for helpCast_Member_2The Disney cast members want you to enjoy your magical experience. So, if you have a problem, seek one of them out. In my experience, they’ll do whatever they can to help you–whether it’s locating your “relocated” stroller or finding the nearest potty.

We had one experience where a cast member totally saved the day (or, at least, our sanity). We were about halfway through the line for Pirates of The Caribbean when both boys simultaneously announced that they had to go potty. NOW. I ducked out of line with the boys and ran to the nearest restroom while Jon kept our spot in line. Right before we returned, however, the line went inside a building and Jon had to step out of line to wait for us–and now the line had grown to over an hour-long wait. When I told a cast member at the entrance what had happened she ushered us to a separate entrance and allowed us to get right onto the ride. Hey, if you never ask, you may never get!

Get Fastpasses and Rider Switch Passes

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Most of the major rides at Disneyland have Fastpasses available. A Fastpass allows you to skip the regular line and go through a shorter Fastpass line, which can save you a lot of waiting. As soon as you arrive, get a Fastpass for the ride you want to go on most and, as soon as you are able to, get a second Fastpass for another ride you want to make sure you get on (the times for when you can use your Fastpass and when you can pick up another one will be printed on your Fastpass ticket).

Since only 2 out of the 4 of us could go on the Fastpass rides (Jacob was too short and I was too pregnant), I just got 4 Fastpasses to each ride so Jon and David could go twice in a row if they wanted to.

Related to the Fastpass is the Rider Switch Pass. If you have one or more children who are unable to ride on a Fastpass ride and one parent has to stay behind with the littles, you can request a Rider Switch Pass at the ride so that the other parent can return and go on the ride without waiting in line. We never actually did this since the other parent, me, couldn’t go on the Fastpass rides either–definitely worth remembering for next time, though!

Download the Disney app

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There is a free Disney app that we found really useful. The app showed real-time ride wait times, times and locations of character appearances, special events, and park maps.

There are also apps (and the Disney website) where you can purchase park tickets ahead of time to avoid additional lines at the ticket counter.

Bring snacks and water

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Let’s be honest: kids are just tiny snack monsters. They want to eat all day long–especially if there are tempting treats they can view in every snack kiosk and restaurant you pass. With a cup of grapes costing $6 inside the park, however, you may go broke before you fill those little tummies.

You are allowed to bring in any foods and beverages you want into the park, so pack up a cooler (or two) and save a buck (or 100). We brought granola bars, fresh fruit, Uncrustables sandwiches, crackers, fruit snacks, bottled water, juice boxes–even McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches and leftover Halloween candy. With their appetites (mostly) satiated, we were able to pass (most) food temptations without much of a fuss, allowing us to splurge for a few giant corn dogs and bags of sticky cotton candy.

Dress for the weather

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Southern California is not known for it’s terrible weather, but it is known for one thing: sunshine. Make sure to bring all of your sun gear (hats, sunglasses, sunscreen). No matter how hot it is during the day, however, nights can cool off dramatically. I was really glad that I brought warm jackets and long pants for us to change into in the evening so we could stick around for the nighttime parades and firework shows in comfort. Also, double-check the weather forecast before you leave home to see if you’ll need rain gear (precipitation  happen)–the last thing you want is to be walking around in a rain storm with your flip flops and sun visor!

Don’t go on the teacups

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Because they’ll make you puke. Oh, just me? Alrighty, then. Moving on.

Find lodging close to the park

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I’m usually the queen of finding obscure, affordable housing when we go on vacation. For this trip, however, I just wanted to be CLOSE. I knew that we would have long days at the park and we’d be toting around a lot of gear, so I wanted a hotel that was close enough for us to just walk to the park and not have to deal with traffic or parking.

We stayed right across the street from Disneyland at the Howard Johnson on Harbor Boulevard and it was perfect. Our room had a Queen-size bed for Mom and Dad, and bunk beds for the boys. As a bonus, there was a water playground at the hotel with a pirate ship feature that doubled as a Disneyland fireworks vantage point.

Kids will be kids

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Kids are KIDS…even at Disneyland. No matter how much you plan, no matter how much fun you’re having, no matter how magical the place is…kids are still kids. They will melt down. They will throw fits. They will get tired and cranky and hot and cold and hungry. Just go with it. This, too, shall pass. And, unless you’re like me and you get some sort of sadistic enjoyment from documenting these moments on film, nobody will probably even remember the meltdowns.

Leave space
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I have a tendency to plan, plan, plan–especially when we’re going somewhere that will cost as much as a mortgage payment. Since this was our first time bringing the boys to Disneyland, however, I purposefully chose NOT to plan. I wanted to allow the kids to explore at their own pace and to do what they wanted to do without having to stick to some sort of prescribed schedule or optimal timeline.

As a result, some of my favorite moments on this trip came from allowing the kids their own space. They wanted to ride the Buzz Lightyear ride 3 times in a row, so we did. They wanted to leave early the first night and have some time to swim at the hotel, so we did. They wanted to skip the (truly mesmerizing) firework show and look at a Toy Story-inspired shop window for 20 straight minutes, so we did. This trip was about them, not us, so we let them take the lead.

Now go forth and embrace the magic–happy travels!