The holiday season is filled with excitement, euphoria and … exhaustion. And nothing is more draining than traveling with kids during this time of year. Still having nightmares about that time you sat in holiday traffic for six hours or when you were stuck in an airport because of a blizzard?
Whether you’re heading to Grandma’s house by car or by air, here is traveling advice that will get you and your kids to your holiday destination on time — reindeer optional.
1) Pick the Best Time to Travel
As you would expect, the two days before and after the actual holiday are usually the busiest travel-wise. See if you can schedule your trips to avoid the extra chaos.
As for what time of day to travel, there is no easy answer here.The best time to travel is really age- and family-specific. Smaller kids might need to sleep in the car or on the plane, making early morning or late-evening travel the best.
Kathy Burns*, an R.N. from Cleveland, Ohio, swears by leaving the earliest you can, even if it’s 4 or 5 a.m. “Being on the road so early means less cars to hassle with [if you’re driving], and it’s dark so the kids are most likely going to go back to sleep and the parents can quickly cover some distance without having to make too many pit stops.”
The weather is uncontrollable during this season. Pack the car for an emergency, just in case, and remember flight delays and cancellations are common. Even if it’s sunny where you are, there may be a nor’easter elsewhere. Be flexible when possible and don’t let the little ones see you sweat. Have extra diapers, wipes and clothes on hand for you and the kids.
2) Invest in the Best Travel Gear
Some of the best traveling items maximize comfort. Parents will be thankful for a car seat upholstery protector when messy spills happen. A neck pillow in the shape of a fuzzy dog or friendly frog will shut sleepy eyes in the early morning.
Having entertaining toys within reach is a must. A car organizer that hangs off the back of your seat will allow tots to get to their toys and a family travel organizer that sits between kids is also great. Don’t underestimate a good old-fashioned sand pail to hold toys. Fill it with interesting things to play with along the way.
A travel tray for car seats allows kids to color, play with toys and hold snacks. The best travel trays collapse upon impact in case of an accident.
Traveling by plane? Pack a portable safety harness. Used with the regular airplane seat belt, it adjusts to snugly fit over the chest of a 22 to 44-pound child, providing a better fit than a lap belt alone. It does lack a belt that straps underneath, so children can still slip through the bottom. If you have an infant, a baby carrier or sling can be indispensable for giving your arms a break, especially when the little one falls asleep.
3) Pack the Best Toys
Ask your nanny if there are any toys your children have been particularly attached to lately. Packing some “old reliable” toys, as well as one or two your kids have never seen, adds to the excitement. Activities range with age and interests. If your kids are spaced a few years apart, it’s best to come prepared with individual activities and common games the family can play. A fresh pack of cards, a Rubik’s Cube, crayons, paper and stickers can get a creative family through some tight spots.
Magnetic games help keep all the pieces together. Look for things like tic-tac-toe, Sudoku, backgammon or four-in-a-row.
Toddlers will have a good time flipping through flash cards of colors, shapes, numbers and letters. Plan ahead and use a hole punch to thread these onto a binder ring so you won’t be playing 52-card pickup come pit stop time. Mini puzzles are good to have around, along with games that teach motor skills like lacing and tracing and stacking cups. The older crowd enjoys word games like Mad Libs or Brain Quest Trivia Cards.
This site has a collection of car activities for kids — all you need is a pencil and paper.
4) Stock up on the Best Drinks and Snacks
The holidays are exciting, but so many new things can make little kids anxious too. Why add on an upset stomach? Eating foods that are new should be a part of the holiday experience, but while traveling, remember to keep familiar foods around for comfort and satiety.
If possible, bring snacks for the trip. Don’t rely on vending machines or fast-food chains at rest stops or airports. A combination of whole grains and protein will keep the kids full. Throw in cut veggies and fruit to munch on.
Meghan Holligan-Whitney, a board certified associate behavior analyst based in Washington, D.C., swears by a traveling ice chest. Fill it with sippy cups of juice, milk or water and you can beat boredom with something new to drink or eat. “Fruit smoothies [packed with protein and calories] will keep them full and satisfied on longer trips,” she says.
Holligan-Whitney also recommends minimizing the stops. “Kids are used to short trips, and the more you stop, the harder it is to get them back into the car seat.” This is where traveling during the night or early morning may come in handy.
Focus on food that travels well,so it’s easy to pass around and makes a minimal mess. Think single-serve snacks, either pre-packaged or that you divvy up before you leave. Things like cheese sticks, cheese and crackers, fresh fruit (apples, grapes or bananas), trail mix (made with nuts, raisins, sunflower seeds and bits of chocolate), peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and instant oatmeal are great options that are family-friendly and shouldn’t upset little tummies.
Packing a few “treats” may also get you through when the going gets tough or the highways get jam-packed.
5) Plan the Best Routine
Although it is the “happiest time of the year”, traveling can turn your sweet Cindy Loo Who in a crabby Grinch. Stick to your at-home routine as much as possible to keep mood swings in check. Get up at the same time (except on Christmas morning!), enforce nap time and weave familiar foods into the holiday table. Think ahead when you’re traveling to pinpoint locations for naps and where to find familiar food or restaurants.
You can keep the holiday cheer alive when you’re traveling with kids. Listen to holiday music (if you can bear it), play car games like I Spy and keep an eye out in the sky for Santa.