Tips for Holiday Travel with the Family

The ultimate survival guide to traveling with the kids during the holidays, with expert advice from parents who have been through enough holiday fiascoes to know how to avoid them
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New York City, Christmas, FAO Schwarz
The legendary toy world of FAO Schwarz attracts families from across the globe who vacation in the Big Apple for the holidays.  (© Julienne Schaer 2009/NYC & Company)

Whether it's a quick trip over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house, or a night flight around the world on a reindeer-drawn sleigh, Christmas songs make holiday travel sound so simple. But the reality hit me last Thanksgiving as I frantically sang songs, waved toys, and handed snacks to an 11-month-old who would have rather been anywhere but on a 300-plus-mile road trip to his own grandmother's house. Traveling during the holidays is stressful enough, but when you have kids in tow, you can lose your festive spirit quickly. Here are a few tips from family travel pros (read: experienced parents) to help get you through.

Book Early
No matter where you're going, buying your plane tickets as early as possible lets you take advantage of better fares. If you're contemplating a holiday trip, particularly with a large group, start early. Most major carriers release tickets 330 days in advance, says Moo Bishop of Thomson Family Adventures.

Picking unpopular times to fly, such as the first flight in the morning or the last flight at night, may also offer better rates. And for family travelers, Christmas Day may be your best bet. Not only do peak-travel-day charges not apply on the 25th, but families can open gifts at home that morning and then fly without being weighed down by presents.

But don't be afraid to splurge when it comes to convenience. For us, tickets out of the Santa Barbara airport can be more expensive than flying out of the Los Angeles area, but it's a mere 15-minute drive, while L.A. requires a two-hour trip and dealing with shuttle schedules or airport parking. Now that I've got a toddler in tow, it's well worth the extra money.

Packing to Fly
Packing expert Susan Foster says good packing starts with planning. "Make the decisions about what's going to be worn on the trip before you leave," she says. If you'll have access to laundry at your destination, you'll need even fewer clothes. Pack items that are versatile (kids' pj's that can be worn as playwear, for example) and can mix and match together, for both kids and adults.

Foster swears by Ziploc bags for a variety of packing needs. For kids, she suggests putting one complete outfit in each bag, so you don't have to dig through your bag to find a stray sock (and you can stick the dirty clothes back in a bag, too). Pack a bag with a complete change in your carry-on and you'll be prepared for mishaps en route.

Those really looking to save space can pack the kids' stuff in with their own, with color-coded packing cubes to distinguish mom's outfits from the kids'. To preempt lost luggage, Foster suggests packing an outfit of yours in another family member's suitcase—if a bag gets lost, you'll still have something to change into when you arrive.

When it comes to babies and toddlers, the clothes may be small, but the gear is daunting. The good news is that, often, you don't need to bring it with you since many places rent it. Colleen Lanin, creator of the Travel Mamas website, has compiled a list of where to start your search for baby gear at your destination. There are even companies that will set up a crib before you arrive and break it down after you leave, she says.

After you've got the suitcases packed, it's time to consider your carry-ons. A backpack for each child works much better than a rolling suitcase, Foster says. Tiny suitcases can be easily left behind or become a tripping hazard when they're rolled by small hands through a crowded airport.

Savvy parents load up everyone's in-flight bags with plenty of supplies, from special snacks to new books to portable DVD players. And the toys you bring don't have to be "toys" at all. For smaller kids, Lanin packs things like measuring cups and even some things she might not let her kids play with at home, like Band-Aids, which she hands out one at a time to make the fun last. The idea of getting to play with something usually off limits will add additional entertainment value, which means more quiet time on the airplane for you!

Hauling Presents
One added complication of holiday packing is the gifts—both for the family you're visiting and the ones traveling with you. Foster offers two suggestions for easy packing: "Either shop at your destination or travel with gift cards."

If you do need to travel with a special present, don't wrap it. Pack wrapping paper and ribbons at the bottom of your checked bag, and you can spruce up your gift when you arrive. Expensive electronic gifts should travel in your carry-on, not in your checked luggage. But make sure gifts fit carry-on rules. Leatherman-style multi-tools, for example, won't make it past security.

Holiday food, while special, also needs to comply with security guidelines. More than three ounces of liquid or gel must go in checked baggage. For traveling wine lovers, Foster recommends Magellan's Bottle Armor, which protects wine bottles in checked baggage. (Some airports, like Portland International, have wine shops beyond the security checkpoints. So if you're taking a nonstop flight, you can carry on a bottle of wine bought here).

Published: 21 Jul 2011 | Last Updated: 22 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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