Surviving holiday travel...with children

The holidays are upon us, bringing with them the promise of large get-togethers with friends and family.  And unless all of your friends and family live within throwing distance, chances are that gathering also means traveling.

If you are the lucky one that gets to hit the highway or the skyway this season to visit your loved ones, this seasoned traveler feels your pain.  But traveling, even with small children, doesn't have to suck the life out of you.  I've learned a few tricks over the years that have helped my kids and I enjoy rather than endure the travel experience by car or by plane.


I know the idea of not having a seat assignment can be scary, but even if your carrier gives you a seat assignment it's not always guaranteed.  I love Southwest because your checked bags are free.  And if you're traveling with children 4 and under, you can take advantage of "family boarding" and get on before many other passengers.  I also love the airline's laid back personality.  Snarky announcements made by Southwest's flight attendants always bring a smile to my face, like "if you're traveling with a small child, secure your mask first before helping them.  If you have more than one child, pick the one with the most potential".

 Get the lay of the land

Search for information on the airport where you'll be connecting or departing from at the end of your trip.  It can take a burden off your mind if you know there's a place where your kids can be kids for awhile.  Many airports have indoor play areas - Salt Lake City has 2 nice ones that I know of (but I have not found any in O'Hare or Midway).

Let them eat cake

You can bring your own food on a plane - it's the liquids that are subject to scrutiny and disposal.  Save your money by not buying food at the airport.  I pack MY bag full of trail mix, granola bars, Pringles and candy.  When the kids want something to eat they just ask, and by having it in my bag to portion out there's little mess.  At home I enforce healthy eating, but I give my kids as much candy as they want when we travel because it seems to keep them in good spirits.  The policy has not backfired yet! 


Wire them up

Bring any electronic device that can entertain your kids for even 30 minutes.  It's worth it.  Make sure everything is fully charged the day before you leave.  If you don't have a portable DVD player, get one.  Mine was around $100 and is a lifesaver.  It's best to get one with two audio jacks so that two people can listen at once.  Or if you have the means, get a DVD player for each kid. 

Make friends

I have realized that in my life, I am guided by a constant fear of annoying people.  But intead of getting an ulcer, I bring my fear out into the open.  If the people sitting near me on the plane acknowledge me when I look at them, I usually say something like "my four year old son is sitting behind you, so please forgive us if he accidentally bumps your seat".  I feel like this preventive measure is helpful when, 2 hours into the flight, the boy kicks the seat five times just to see what consequences he will face. 

Traveling alone with three kids, I am always grateful for a helping hand.  On our last flight, I felt like a celebrity with 2 nannies.  Our plane sat 6 across, and we were flanked by mothers in the window seats who were on their way to a "girls' weekend".  They left their kids at home with their husbands just hours before, and they seemed delighted to entertain my kids.  The lovely ladies read to them, colored with them, helped them with their seatbelts - they even let the monkeys play with their iPhones.  It was great!


We moved a few months ago, spending three days in the car to travel 1400 miles.  Sounds awful, right?  With two 4 year olds and a 7 year old, it could have been a nightmare.   And playing "I Spy" or Travel Bingo through the vacant space known as Nebraska is next to impossible.  What made the trip tolerable (on top of the snacks, electronics and frequent potty breaks) was the surprises.  My brilliant mother and her friend gave my kids "moving gifts" - each kid got a small plastic bin full of gift-wrapped cheap toys and trinkets.  Getting to open a present every few hours was an incentive for the kids to behave, and the gift wrap created anticipation.  You can do the same thing by dropping $10 at the dollar store.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

The dreaded TSA.... They want your shampoo bottle because it's over 3 ounces.  They think you might have razor blades stashed between your toes.  Your 80 year old grandmother is subject to a pat down because she could be a drug mule.  TSA agents all hate youOr, maybe they're just doing their jobs, as ridiculous as their responsibilities may seem.  Here's how I make it through:

1 - Use the family & special needs line.  By traveling with small children you can basically cut ahead of a lot of people to get to the ID checkpoint. 

2 - Wear a second pair of old socks.  When you have to take your shoes off, you won't worry about all of the foot funk you might be walking over.  Throw the outer pair in the garbage as you put your shoes back on.

3 - Don't bring any liquids over 3 ounces.  It's not worth the hassle, even if it's just children's Tylenol - trust me on this one.  Bring sample size toiletries, or buy them when you get to your destination.

4 - Smile!  Would you be happy in your job if everyone scowled at you as if you were personally responsible for your employer's flawed system?  You'd turn smug too.  So smile at the TSA.  Chat them up.  They aren't as miserable and mean as you think they are, and they won't try to touch your junk if you just follow the rules.

One side note... I haven't had to pass through the full body scan yet, but if you have to, please consider doing the Macarena.  I've seen plenty of YouTube dramas surrounding the new security procedures, but I haven't seen any dancing yet.

There is no such thing as perfection

The general rule about vacations is that people will not get along any better just by changing the scenery.  So when you get to Aunt Millie's, don't expect that your kids will be on their best behavior.  They will squabble just like they do at home.  If you don't want to break up their fight for the umpteenth time, get your teenage niece to watch the kids while you pull up a chair next to Millie's special-recipe punch.  You've earned it.



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  • My inlaws live in Canada, so I know these tips will come in handy as we travel north! Andrea, have you ever traveled internationally with kids? What can I expect?

  • In reply to erago:

    I haven't traveled internationally with my kids, but I do know that getting over the border into Canada isn't as easy as it used to be. Just be sure you have all of your documents!

  • In reply to erago:

    I am a lot like you. All my rules of good parenting go out the window when we are on a plane. I give my kids candy, movies, and anything else that will keep them quiet! The last flight was a success. I also find if I am stressed they will pick up on it, so I try to remain calm!

  • In reply to bethprystowsky:

    well said, beth! thanks for reading and commenting!

  • I love these tips. If you can make it across the country with 3 kids, I think I can make it in the car to Florida with one!

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