FluxFactory / Getty Images
Both of my kids—who I had less than two years apart—had their first airplane ride within months of their births. Thirteen years later, they hustle through holiday air travel with the efficiency of seasoned pros. We all had some learning curves to get to this point, and most of that happened during the bumpiest of experiences when I had my son in a stroller, my daughter strapped to my chest, and my husband running behind us with far more luggage than one human should ever try to carry alone.
Flying during the holidays can be particularly tricky for many reasons, like long lines of new travelers who don’t know the ropes, weather delays, plus kids hopped up on school breaks and the anticipation of seeing their favorite extended family members. After a little trial and error, I perfected my preparations to the point that even the trips when I didn’t have my husband to help or we were all stuck almost overnight in the airport actually weren’t all that bad.
From packing lists to picking out bags to passing the time, here are a handful of holiday travel tips that are bound to help your family, wherever the skies may take you.
HAVE A TRAVEL TO-DO LIST AT THE READY
Keep a folder on your computer with a lists that ensure you never forget—or forget to do—a thing. Duplicate one of each to customize for this trip, and get moving.
- Packing lists for places you usually go, since different locations (say, Grandma’s big house vs a hotel room) require different gear. This should be broken down by:
- Bag type (carry-on, suitcase, handbag)
- Category (toiletries, clothing, medical, bedtime, pool, play, etc.)
- Prep list for what needs to be managed at home or taken care of before you go, such as:
- Arranging a petsitter/house-sitter
- Updating devices’ software and loading new movies/games
- Putting your airline’s app on your phones and devices in order to stay on top of changes to your flights, as well as access in-flight entertainment once on board
- Setting out anything you’ll need once you get back home, like pajamas and pulled-back bedding for a late-night arrival
- Emptying the garbage last-minute
- Buying snacks for the plane
- Asking you host/hostess to pick up a few important groceries to have on hand upon arrival, so you don’t have to rush to the store
- Printing out your names, phone numbers, and flight info to put into each suitcase and carry-on in case anything gets misplaces
CHECK OUT THE AIRPORTS’ LOGISTICS
See what your options are and plan accordingly.
- Can you check in at the curb, dropping all luggage right away, or do you need to lug it and your family from some remote parking spot, bus/tram to the terminal, then roll to the right counter?
- Is it better to drive your own car there, or get a taxi?
- Once you drop off your luggage, how far do you have to go to get to your gate? Is it a quick walk, or should you bring your stroller and wait to check it at the gate?
- Upon arrival, can you get a rental car on site? Can it come with carseats properly installed?
GET THE RIGHT GEAR FOR THE JOB
This seems like a boring purchase, but it’s an investment in making travel easier so you can enjoy your time away. Little things add up, like quality construction, smart use of space, and ease of use.
CARSEATS AND STROLLERS
Unless you have family picking you up with age-appropriate seats and strollers on the other side, there are some logistics you need to consider.
- Buy a sturdy travel bag with backpack straps or a long shoulder strap for your carseats. Handy perk: toss your coats and winter gear in with the carseats before checking them in to save yourself some space on the plane.
- For kids big enough for booster seats, there are now a few options for travel-sized, lightweight seats that are safe to use. Do some research and you just might be able to avoid yet another bulky item.
- Lightweight, easily-folded strollers make it easier to get kids through a busy airport—especially when there’s a lot of foot traffic and slow-moving lines during peak holidays. Once at the gate, fold it into a travel bag to check it.
Contents will vary as they get older, but as soon as they have their own seat and can pull a roll backpack (around age two) kids can get their own backpack full of stuff. Get large, lightweight ones with at least two compartments, and padded, adjustable straps, then pack them strategically.
- Foodstuffs: Small amounts of their favorite snacks to eat while on-the-go, plus an empty water bottle you can fill on the plane.
- Busy work: Keep their minds and hands busy while waiting in long lines at the airport and sitting on the plane for hours. Winners include crayons, coloring/activity books, stickers, drawing pads, mini LEGO sets, travel-sized games, and playing cards.
- Distraction: This is for when their energy starts to lag and they need sit-still things to do to pass the time. Get kid-friendly headphones that cover their whole ears (earbuds allow too much surrounding noise sneak in), then hook them up to a device that plays movies or TV shows (dim the screen on evening flights); load simple games onto that device, bring books to read.
- Comfort: Pack something to snuggle with while dozing off or calming themselves down during turbulent rides, such as a toy, blanket, or favorite sweatshirt.
- For those old enough for digital devices, don’t forget to charge everything the night before (including a back-up battery), and pack power cords!
The best I’ve found are large totes with two big main compartments (one for the kids’ stuff, one for mine), a zippered pocket for my wallet, and at least one exterior pocket for things we grab a lot (tissues, phone, book, etc.). This way, all other items can be grouped in zippered bags to tuck inside (clear is best), so you’re not dumping the whole thing out each time a kid has a new need.
If you share a seat with your baby/toddler, pack your usual supplies along with:
- A thick neck pillow that can be used for nursing/bottle-feeding a baby, keeping a sleeping babe from rolling off your lap, secure their bag of snacks on the tray table without it sliding off, and so much more!
- A large swaddling blanket to drape over the head of a nursing/bottle-feeding baby to prevent them from getting distracted, keep a tot warm when a seat-mate blasts the air vent, and create a play mat on the floor in front of your seat.
If your kids have their own seats, pack:
- Foodstuffs: Be ready to clean and serve with wipes for hands, napkins for spills, and an empty shopping bag for garbage.
- Busy work: Have a journalistic back-up ready, like a tiny blank composition notebook (often sold in multi-packs at dollar stores) for them to write about the trip in, from planning to remembering.
- Distraction: Have a surprise treat handy during a rough flight, delay, or boredom, like a sudoku book or tic-tac-toe notepad.
- Comfort: Make take-off and landing go smoothly with lollipops or gum to prevent ears from popping.
- Power is everything, so don’t forget your own back-up batteries and power cords to your own digital devices!
How to pick them:
- Choose a quality, matching set and test each piece out in the store before committing. Wheels should glide in every direction, the bag shouldn’t tip over when dashing around corners, zippers shouldn’t stick, straps should be strong and comfortable, handles should open and retract so easily a kindergartener can do it.
- Keep the interior open and simple, with some pockets, and two adjustable straps to keep contents from sliding around.
- Make sure the exterior has one or two flat but roomy pockets that won’t snap when stacked with other bags.
- If there is a grab handle on the top and bottom of the bag, it will be gentler on your back when lifting. A third grab handle on the side would make it pretty much perfect.
- Lighter is better, not only so your kids will be more likely to help rolling them for you, but also because the weight limits for packed bags has been decreasing—unless you’re ready to pay a fee for each one.
- Bonus points if you find one with a waterproof pocket/pouch that liquids or damp swimsuits can be stored in without ruining the rest of your stuff.
How to pack them:
- Tie on coordinated luggage tags that make it easier to find them on the carousel.
- Print out that packing list and check each item off before it goes inside.
- Don’t assign one suitcase per person: luggage sometimes gets on a wrong flight. Split up the contents between at least two bags, just in case.
- Pick clothes than can mix and match while away, rolling outfits up together to make grabbing them easier.
- Never put valuables, like lovies or laptops, in suitcases. If you can’t risk losing it, carry it on.
- Once it is all strapped in, slide a copy of the flight itinerary and your contact info in, so misplaced bags are more likely to find their way back to you.
- If you want to be even more tech-savvy, use a tracking device, such as the sticker or tile types, that you can scan into your phone via an app, place inside your luggage, then track its whereabouts along the way.
- Traveling to a place with different weather? Tuck a quick-change outfit and shoes for each person in an exterior pocket, so you can swap to the new duds in the restroom of the other airport before heading outside.
- Heading to a gift-exchange event? Don’t pack a single present: ship them ahead of you, instead. Unless everything you’ve wrapped is tiny and light, it’s cheaper to box up and mail holiday gifts than it is to pay for that extra (quite likely heavy) suitcase.
LONG LINES AND UNEXPECTED DELAYS
Be ready for a whole lotta nothing.
- Come up with age-appropriate games you can play while shuffling through lines, like “I Spy,” the one when you have to find each letter of the alphabet on something around you, and the one when you come up with a word for each letter of the alphabet and each person has to say all the previous words before they make up a new one.
- Make sure you have a few things the whole family can play while sitting and waiting, like Uno, Go Fish, or another travel-sized game.
- If possible, take walks to break up the wait. Do laps around the terminal, people-watch, find the weirdest thing sold in a store or the prettiest holiday decoration.
- If you’ve all been stuck still for a while and are ready to get on the plane, get the sillies out, first. Step aside where everyone has room, and lead the kids in a few moves to stretch, then shake, hop, do jumping-jacks, burn off that excess energy before hopping on board the aircraft. It not only helps take the edge off antsiness, it also increases the likelihood of giggles—which everyone around you can appreciate.
- Every flight tends to have at least one Scrooge who will try to make you feel bad about your kids acting like kids. Rather than worry about them, I focus on my kids. If they’re tired, cranky, upset, uncomfortable, I use my calmest Mom Voice to talk them through, let them know I understand, assure them it is only temporary. This has helped them on many occasions, and even silenced a few ornery fellow passengers in the process.
ONE LAST THING
The best thing you can remember to bring with you wherever you go is a positive attitude. Try to remember that the crowd around you is made of people there trying to get to their loved ones, too.
Young or old, not everyone will know quite how to navigate the airport or their feelings about being stuck in it for so long, so take a breath and give everyone—including yourself—a little extra patience. The memories you’ll make once you’re all where you long to be will absolutely be worth it.