Holiday travel season is here, which means a lot of excitement and possibly a lot of stress. The airport crowds will be massive, luggage will be lost, and there will probably be delays somewhere along the way. Usually these headaches are unavoidable, so be sure to pack a lot of patience and a positive attitude. Here are some helpful tips to survive holiday travel with kids and prevent a travel meltdown as you try to make your way to your destination.
The holidays are hectic for us all, so when we have to pack bags and travel, the stress amplifies. Here are some family travel tips for maintaining calm while traveling by air, and if you need tips for the road, you’ll want to check out our other post how to survive a holiday road trip with kids. However, you travel, may it be safe, and may you enjoy your destination once you reach it.
How to Survive Holiday Travel with Kids
1. Take a direct flight when possible
Whether you’re traveling by yourself, or with kids in tow, this is the easiest way to prevent the possibility of delays or missed connections. Traveling with a toddler on a plane or an infant can be difficult to begin with, so do yourself a favor and eliminate any stops if possible.e During the winter there is the added concern of weather delays, so if you can limit yourself to one plane ride, it’s the best way to go.
2. Book a flight that leaves early in the day
Is it a hassle to wake up at 4:00 a.m. for an early morning flight? Absolutely. However, you are more likely to encounter less traffic on the way to the airport and enjoy fewer delays by taking the earlier flight in the morning. Hopefully, you (and the kids) can catch up on lost sleep on the plane ride or just go to bed early the first night you arrive.
3. NEVER, EVER, fly on the day before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving
Just in case you missed the memo, these are THE worst travel days in the history of mankind. Try to fly on a Tuesday or fly on the actual holiday (this holds true for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve and Day), but never fly on the day before Thanksgiving or the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
4. Have a plan for your day of departure and transportation to the airport
First of all, be sure your travel documents are in order. Do you need passports or any other legal documents? Make sure you have all important documents you will need: passports, driver’s license, credit cards, event tickets, or anything else. Be sure to have these close at hand and don’t pack these in checked luggage.
Will you take a taxi, drive and park, have a friend drive you, or take a train? Whatever the case may be, make sure you have it mapped out or reserved ahead of time.
If you are driving your own car, know where you will park, and build in time for how long it will take to get to the terminal if necessary.
If you are taking a taxi, call and confirm the day before and make sure you are giving yourself plenty of time to arrive at the airport (remember if you are traveling close to a holiday, there will be more traffic).
We always try to leave two hours before our flight (domestic) and it is usually a half hour ride. During the holidays, we leave our house about three hours before departure.
Also, remember to check in for your flight 24 hours before departure to be sure you have the seats you want and to check for any schedule changes.
5. Dress comfortably, pack snacks for kids, and bring games
Dressing comfortably applies for everyone in the family. We always make sure the kids dress in layers, bringing sweatshirts for the planes in case they need them. Pack some spare clothes for babies or a toddler on a plane, because odds are they will need a change somewhere along the line. At the very least, pack an extra t-shirt, onesie, or pants in your carry on. Trust me on this one.
One of my big tips for airport travel is to be sure to bring snacks. If you don’t know what travels well, we have a bunch of ideas in this post, 25 Easy to Pack Travel Snacks. If you need nut-free or organic snacks, we have those too.
I’m sure you have some games to play on airplanes (if not, see below), but don’t forget to bring some for the airport as well. Magnets and cards work well.
6. Know your airport and baggage requirements
Odds are you will know your home airport and how to navigate the ticket counter, restroom locations, security, etc. On the return trip, this may not be the case. This is where your phone will come in handy.
An app called GateGuru allows you to enter and track your travel itinerary, find “real time” airport updates and flight status, and it shows you airport maps and fellow travelers’ reviews. It also lists the amenities available in each airport, from food to shopping to services. It comes in handy for navigating an unfamiliar airport. If you’re looking for other handy apps to get you through your trip, here are the ones we recommend.
Be sure to check the luggage requirements for your airline before you head to the airport. These are usually found on the airline’s website. Weigh your bag before you leave home.
Need packing advice? Here are my packing tips for travel with kids before you go. The worst thing is to have to re-organize your luggage at the check-in counter. Been there, done that.
7. Upon arrival at the airport
I know this is old school, but I still bring a hard copy of our itinerary and boarding passes. For me, it’s just easier to grab the papers, rather than fumble around with a phone while I have three children running around banging into other passengers.
Locate the ticket desk if you haven’t checked in online or find the self-serve kiosk. If you have a chance, ask an airline employee if they allow pre-boarding for families or if security has a special line for families. This will save you some time down the road.
During the holidays, airport security will be long, and if you have kids in tow, they will complain. There are a few ways to shorten your wait time. 1) Join an airlines credit card that allows you priority access through security. 2) Look into TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry program and see if either one works for you. (Here’s a post about TSA if you want to know more). 3) If you or your spouse travels a lot for business, know that you and your children can usually go through priority security with them (if the children are under 18). If these options don’t work, be sure to hit the restroom before getting in a long line, you may be there for awhile.
9. Waiting for the plane
Once you have passed through security, I recommend heading straight for your gate. Make sure everyone in your party knows where it is located in case you are separated. If you need to eat before boarding, now would be the time to do so. Check with the boarding agent if you need a tag for your stroller, don’t wait until boarding. Also, ask them when they expect the plane to begin boarding if you are unclear.
10. What to do if there is a delay
We all hope this doesn’t happen, but if it does, hopefully you have a bag full of tricks to entertain the kids. Sticker books, paper and pencil, a deck of cards are easy ones to throw in your carry on.
If you have absolutely nothing, play hangman or tic-tac-toe, play “I-Spy”, or let them take pictures with your phone. (Need game ideas, check out our favorites here).
Walk some laps around the terminal (or let them run as long as no one is around). Ask if there is a play area (there are in several airports). Find a kid friendly store and let them look around (and maybe buy something to keep them busy). As a last resort, look into a day pass for the airport lounge. Depending on the length of the delay, it might be worth it.
11. Board early if given the chance
This actually depends on your family, but if you are traveling with little ones, it is usually helpful to get on the plane first, before the crowds, and get settled. However, before boarding early, make one last restroom stop. Nothing is worse than sitting on the tarmac with a dirty diaper or a child with a bathroom “emergency”.
I am a big believer in making everyone “try to go” before we head onto the plane. Once you find your seats, make sure everyone has what they need and that your chewing gum (or alternate treat) is nearby in preparation for departure. Hopefully once you are settled in, you will be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. Your vacation destination awaits.
The important thing to remember is the reason for the season; to spend time with loved ones, our friends and our families. If we have to experience some headaches along the way, in my book, it’s all worth it just to be together.
*This post originally appeared in November 2014, but was update in November 2018.