Ten tips for easier holiday family travel

If you're traveling with your family over the holidays, these guidelines will ensure a fun - and sane - family vacation.|

Traveling over the holidays is hard enough as it is - at last count, AAA expected about 50 million Americans to travel for Thanksgiving alone. Toss into the mix a child or two, and the rigmarole has all the trappings of a drama that’s sure to spike your blood pressure. But the experience doesn’t have to be stressful. With a few simple tweaks to your approach, it can even be pleasant, year after year.

My wife and I travel with our three daughters pretty much every holiday season, so we’ve learned some family travel hacks from experience. Here, then, in no particular order, are 10 things to keep in mind.

Leverage the lap child

Most airlines allow parents to fly with babies at no additional cost until the kids turn 2. The airlines require that kids travel on their parents’ laps, and refer to these passengers as “lap children.” As hideous as this word is, the concept behind it is a great perk, especially when you consider the alternative is paying an additional $500 or $600 for a separate seat.

We’ll keep it real: Riding with lap children gets less comfortable as the kids get older and larger and squirmier. But if money is even remotely an issue, this is a good perk to leverage for as long as you can.

MacGuyver the gear

Moms and Dads are suckers for kid and baby gear. If a manufacturer markets a product as something that can make traveling easier, we’re even more inclined to throw money at the dream. In most cases, however, specific gear for family travelers is nothing more than a waste of money.

Want to latch two booster seats together? Jerry-rig some hair ties. Want to protect your car seat before you check it? An oversized lawn bag works just fine, no matter what some random manufacturer says you need.

Embrace the apps

Sleeping away from home can be difficult for even the most intrepid kid. Unfamiliar sounds! Darker-than-usual rooms! Any one of these things could keep a child up all night (and, by extension, you). Instead of schlepping sound machines and night lights from home, pick up your Smartphone and shell out a few bucks for useful apps.

Two popular pieces of software with our crew include White Noise from TMSoft, which has more than 50 different sounds, and Night Light from DeviMob, which includes a lullaby feature. The former costs $2.99; the latter is free.

Stick to schedules

Children are creatures of habit, which means that traveling really can throw them into tizzies. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to avoid meltdowns by adhering to schedules as best as possible. Stick to snack times between meals. Maintain bed times that are within 30 minutes of the norm. If your child naps, try to incorporate that into the away-from-home routine, too.

If you’re traveling within the same time zone, none of this should be too difficult. If you’re heading to another time zone, prepare your kids by flexing their schedules accordingly for a week or two before you leave.

Get healthy snacks

Kids love to snack when they travel, which means the goodies you carry are a huge part of the family experience. Just remember that some noshes are better than others. Sugary treats likely will make the kids crazy, which will put you in the uncomfortable position of having to rein them in.

Instead, opt for veggies or nuts, and always bring backup snacks, and backups to the backups, just in case your travel plans are delayed. The last thing you want is to sit on the tarmac for three hours with hungry kids and no nibbles.

Get crafty

Art projects can be lifesavers on family trips, especially during long plane rides. The projects don’t have to be sophisticated; often, the simpler the activity, the better. In our family, Christmas travel always is time to make paper chains. We bring construction paper and Scotch tape from home. I tear the paper into link-sized pieces, and the daughters take turns taping them together.

On some flights to Hawaii we’ve managed to make chains with more than 100 links. The activity keeps the kids occupied for hours, and the flight attendants get to take home pretty stuff.

Bring touchstones

Holidays in faraway (read: foreign) places can be daunting for kids, especially younger ones who are old enough to feel passionate about some of the traditions you’ve established as a family. To eliminate any fear of loss, work with your kids before the trip to identify some of their favorite holiday touchstones, then make arrangements to bring those mementos on the next trip.

In some families, this might mean traveling with a hand turkey or a tiny box of favorite ornaments. In other families it might mean setting aside a few hours one night to watch “Elf.” Whatever the ritual, a little effort here can go a long way.

Facilitate ownership

Kids seem to respond best to new situations when they feel they can control certain aspects of the experience. This is true in the classroom and the neighborhood schoolyard. It’s also true when you travel.

One way to put them in this position of power is to assign them a task that is part of (but maybe not critical to) the overall experience on the road. Let them research and pick a restaurant for lunch. Assign them to select a predinner activity for outside. During longer visits, provide the kids with a number of day-trip options and let them choose the adventure. Just make sure the littles don’t fight.

Allow plenty of time

In case you either, a) don’t have kids, or b) forgot what kids are like, some of them can make the sloths in “Zootopia” look like Formula One drivers. As luck would have it, many kids find new degrees of slow motion when they know everyone in the family is counting on them to move along.

Instead of letting yourself get frustrated at this inevitability, embrace it and allow plenty of extra time. The general rule here is to double the amount of wiggle room you like to leave when you’re traveling alone. Like getting to the airport 90 minutes before scheduled departure? With the kids allow yourself three hours, at least.

Remember the happy place

Finally, with so many people traveling every holiday, it’s important to prepare for stressful situations - whether you’re traveling with kids or not. This means being patient. It means breathing deeply. It might even mean meditating for a few minutes before you hit the road.

Another reliable technique: Identify a “happy place” in your mind and go there when and if you must. Whatever you do, STAY CALM. Your kids will follow your lead when it comes to behavior during holiday family travel. The quieter you manage to keep yourself, the better off everyone will be.

Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg. He also is a founding member of the Board of Advisors for the Family Travel Association. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.

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