Traveling — especially by air — is one of the holiday season’s least-pleasant activities. Add young children to the trip — in addition to the crowded roads to the airport, hellish security lines, cranky passengers, lost luggage and airline delays, errors and cancellations due to weather — and it can become a real nightmare. But holiday travel is not always avoidable — and surely can pay off once you get there.
Here’s how those super-cool families do it:
1. Think it through
How do some families seem to get through the ordeal more easily than others? The answer, often, at least, is that some parents cleverly have figured out how to stay two steps ahead of their little monsters and have pro tricks and sly maneuvers ready to pull out of their sleeves.
You can be one of those parents. Start by thinking what could set your kids off during air travel. The answers are universal and they can apply to adults, too: When we are tired, hungry or bored, we are most likely to have a meltdown. Add sibling rivalries and ear problems, and the list is complete. Think about your kids and what works best to calm them down in those situations, and arm yourself accordingly.
2. Try a dry run
New situations can be stressful. Everyone does better when they know what to expect.
Well ahead of the trip, prepare children by talking with them about what they’ll encounter. Even if they’ve flown before, help them envision the lines, the crowding, the waiting and the occasional bout with boredom. Ask their ideas for how people can stay patient when they are bored and antsy. Ask their ideas about how to stay cool under pressure or when exhausted.
3. Do concourse reconnaissance
If you are stuck in the airport, knowing the options in your concourse can be a huge help. Taking the kids to a window where you can watch planes depart and land makes a good diversion. You may learn of an art exhibit or even an indoor playground or other child-friendly attractions. For instance, at Seattle’s SeaTac Airport, Travel + Leisure says:
There are five “talking” water fountains scattered throughout the airport; press a button and you’ll hear sounds such as a babbling brook or a rainstorm. Start at the one in Concourse B and hunt for the remaining four (hint: look for the amplifier underneath).
Also, check whether free airline lounge access is among the benefits with your airline credit card.
3. Leave early
When you are stressed, your kids are stressed, pushing everyone closer to tantrums and bad behavior. Give yourselves generous buffers of time everywhere you go. Don’t let a traffic jam on the way to the airport, a diaper accident or a too-long line at security push your family over the edge.
4. Choose seating strategically
Two adults flying together with children have a great advantage. Besides splitting up the work of dealing with kids, the parents can separate them for periods of time, giving them a break from their siblings. Ask for seating that allows parents to sit in separate but adjacent rows with the kids sitting next to them. Halfway through the flight, some parents have their kids exchange seats in order to mix things up and head off trouble due to tedium.
5. Bring snacks (loads of them)
Airport snacks are expensive, sugary and — at least the ones most kids like — full of empty calories.
Keep begging to a minimum by making it clear that purchased snacks simply are not an option. Or give each child a snack allowance — enough to purchase one goodie.
After that, dole out the snacks you have packed: hard cheese, gum, cookies, chips, sliced fruit, vegetables and sandwiches in transparent plastic baggies, whole apples, bananas and oranges, granola bars, individually packaged servings of nut butters, trail mix, crackers and popcorn are a few ideas.
Avoid bringing liquids or sauces — to avoid spills and because some of these foods will not be allowed through security. (There are some exceptions for breast milk and juice for children. You can check out the details on this TSA page.)
Bottled water is handy and everywhere. You can buy it after you get past security checkpoints and take it onto the plane. But it’s wasteful, expensive and environmentally awful. An empty bottle can be filled up after passing through security, but takes up room in your carry-on. A better solution: Buy a refillable, collapsible water bottle for each member of your family. Clip it on to each person’s backpack or suitcase with a carabiner. Take it through security empty and fill it at a drinking fountain on the way to your gate.
See Walmart’s selection of collapsible, refillable water bottles.
7. Travel light
Take baggage hassles out of the mix by packing superlight. Send gifts ahead as well as anything else you can pack into a mail service or USPS box. Have each child carry her or his own backpack with snacks, jacket, warm socks, books and entertainment. For younger children, ask them to pick out just one special stuffed animal to bring as a snuggle toy for the trip.
Important note: Many airport stores, for some reason, do not sell baby formula or diapers and related paraphernalia. If you’re traveling with a baby, be sure you have enough of these supplies in your carry-on bag to manage a delay or an unexpected blowout.
If you can’t pack light, spend the money to check as many bags as possible, letting you focus on managing yourself, the kids and all their stuff. Or dodge baggage-check fees by using an airline credit card that offers a free checked bag when you use the card to buy your ticket.
8. Bring or buy entertainment
Travel light, yes. But here’s the exception: Bring plenty of small games, books, coloring books and all varieties of electronic music and entertainment. Bring portable batteries and charging cords. Remember to charge up all your devices before getting on the plane. If you don’t have mobile devices, spring for the cost of in-seat onboard entertainment. If free Wi-Fi is not available onboard, consider paying for it as a small price for quiet kids. Use a credit card that offers free access to inflight Wi-Fi.
9. Carry treats for other passengers
Carry a few packages of goodies that you can share with passengers around you just in case your kids do act up. With luck, you won’t need to use them, but if your kids do have a rare moment of bad behavior, a little thoughtfulness on your part can go a long way. See this Daily Mail article for inspiration: Parents of a 1-year-old baby launched a charm offensive by bringing homemade goodie bags — foam earplugs included — for other passengers on the baby’s first flight.
10. Swab it down
Not to encourage undue anxiety about germs, but a little pre-emptive care can help you dodge the colds and flu that ruin trips. It’s easy to take along a pack of travel wipes. Immediately after boarding the plane, wipe down the hard surfaces of your seat, including the pull-down tray on the seat in front of you. Try doing it discreetly so as not to freak out other passengers. Also, take along travel bottles of hand sanitizer so everyone in the family can have a squirt to rub on their hands now and then. Restaurants, public restrooms, theaters and other public venues also are good places for quietly employing sanitizer and wipes.
11. Stave off ear pain
Some children are especially prone to ear problems due to the change in air pressure while flying. If yours are among them — or if they have not flown before — ask your doctor for advice. Adults and children being treated for allergies may want to take an allergy medication before take-off. Sucking on a pacifier can be helpful for babies and toddlers to equalize pressure in their ears that can be truly painful. Older children can chew gum or suck on sweets. The idea is to encourage them to swallow — yawning helps, too — so it’s helpful to keep children awake during take-offs and landings.
If you’re worried that your child will have trouble with “airplane ear,” you can also talk to your child’s doctor about prescribing your child eardrops that contain a pain reliever and numbing agent for the flight, according to the Mayo Clinic. It advises against using decongestants for young children. Another possibility: Earplanes, a disposable earplug designed to help equalize ear pressure, produces a child’s version, shown here at Walgreens.
Do you have experience traveling with children for others? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.