Today’s featured article comes from Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning family travel site WeJustGotBack.com.
The thought of traveling with kids over the holiday season is enough to fill even the most resourceful parent with dread. Between the crowds, the flu, and the latest round of airline fees, it’s a wonder so many millions of us choose to fly at this time of year.
But we do. Because we have places to go and loved ones to see.
Suzanne’s tips for taking the stress out of holiday air travel:
- Be flexible about when you fly. The day before Thanksgiving and two days before Christmas will be two of the busiest travel days of the year, when you can expect mile-long check-in lines at airports, jam-packed flights, and impossible-to-find parking. If your schedule has wiggle room, shifting your itinerary backward or forward by a day or two can help you avoid the worst nightmare scenario. Consult FareCompare’s calendar of most expensive dates to fly. The days with the highest fares are also the busiest.
- Fly direct. It costs more, but flying non-stop is worth it over the holidays, when the chance of delays and missed connections is greater.
- Choose an alternative airport. This is a no-brainer. The bigger the airport, the more congested it will be over the peak holiday season. If you’re headed to a major city, consider flying in and out of a smaller airport within a short drive. Think Providence instead of Boston. Milwaukee instead of Chicago. Newark instead of LaGuardia.
- Grab the first flight out. Hate the idea of a 6am flight? So does everyone else, and crowd-free airports are happy airports. You can greatly reduce your chances of getting stuck in a congested nightmare if you book a morning take-off. As the day goes on, there’s often a domino effect as one delayed flight bumps back into the next, which is why afternoon and evening flights are more likely to be delayed. The exception to the rule: If you’re looking down the barrel of a long transcontinental or intercontinental flight, a red-eye might allow you and your kids to sleep onboard.
- Skip the line at the airport. The night before, hop online and check into your flight, print out your boarding passes, and pay for any checked luggage you will bring. Just thinking about bypassing the humongous check-in line should make your heart positively sing.
- Get smart about gifts. Ship ahead if at all possible, but if you must bring presents on the plane, leave them unwrapped until you reach your destination. Otherwise, security agents may have to rip off your wrapping paper in order to do their job. Gift cards can be an ideal solution.
- Find the right line. Many airports now offer designated family lanes.
- Streamline security. Look for ways to shave minutes off your time at the security checkpoint. Everyone in your family should wear slip-on shoes. Nobody should wear a belt. Take your baby out of her stroller before you get to the scanner. Tell your four-year-old in advance that his favorite stuffed rabbit will need to get his picture taken, but it’ll only take a minute and he’ll get it back. It takes a lot of time to empty a family’s pockets of miscellaneous gear, and you have to collect it all again on the other side. So, before you arrive at the airport, put keys, wallets, loose change, jewelry, handheld gadgets, and cell phones in your carry-on bags.
- Crash the VIP room. You don’t need to fly business class or be a frequent flyer to gain admission to airport VIP lounges. If your family has a long layover, consider buying your way into a cushy lounge where chairs are comfy, space is ample, TV and Wi-Fi are available, and food and drinks are free. For as little as $25 a person, Priority Pass and Lounge Pass will let you and your kids gain entry to hundreds of airport clubs around the world. An increasing number of these lounges are now offering designated family rooms; in the United States, these include three of Continental Airlines’ President’s Clubs and nine of American Airlines’ Admirals Clubs. Most lounges allow children under 12 when accompanied by an adult, and there’s sometimes no charge for tots 2 and under, but policies vary so double check before booking.
- Bring on the gadgetry. You may limit the amount of time your children play on their handheld games at home, but loosen up the rules when traveling. Gadgets can be a godsend when you have to kill five hours on a plane. Don’t normally bring your laptop on trips? Think twice this holiday season, especially if you have any significant layovers, since Google is supplying free Wi-Fi to 47 airports through January 15, 2010. Plus, you can always land free Wi-Fi in dozens of other airports, such as Oakland, San Diego, and Orlando.
- Be a cool cucumber. Even if you’ve prepared like a Boy Scout, travel has so many moving parts that things can and often do go awry anyway. You might have trouble finding a parking place at the airport. Perhaps you’ll get pulled aside for a few extra minutes at security. Maybe your plane won’t take off when it’s supposed to. How you deal with these hiccups will teach your child a lot about not only travel, but life. So resolve to remain relaxed and upbeat, and make the best of whatever comes your way.