Last Updated Oct 15, 2010 1:30 PM EDT
You've got to admire to those parents you see at the airport, the ones who don't hesitate to pack up the kids, the diapers, the car seats, and blankies. I'm in awe of the moms and dads in the security line who can execute the one-handed stroller collapse, deftly hoisting it up to go through the x-ray machine, all while bouncing a teething infant in the other arm.
Then there are the minivan families. Five hours and more in the car, battling traffic and fatigue, and they pull up in time for turkey. Everyone emerges smiling and without any visible bruises. With holiday travel time approaching, I had to ask: How do they do it? Here are seasoned parents' secrets to surviving air and car travel with the little people.
When FlyingUse Smaller Airports for Departures: Sometimes flights are cheaper; sometimes they're not, and you might not get a direct flight. But you'll pay less for parking, you won't need 30 minutes to get from your car to the terminal, and you'll spend less time checking bags and battling security lines. Plus, a layover can be great for antsy kids. "O'Hare has a 40-foot-high brachiosaurus skeleton in United's B Terminal, right by Starbucks and Garett Popcorn," says my friend Linda, who has flown cross-country with her toddler six times in the past year. "What's not to love about that?"
Risk the red-eye: When your kids can sleep on the plane, you're golden. If they don't sleep, you're looking at a miserable start to vacation. The only way to know is to try it. If you don't want to gamble with a sleepless night and you don't want to administer a little Benadryl (I see no problem with this tactic, used sparingly), try landing early afternoon - before naptime - for flying west; early evening for flying east. One friend from Seattle tries to keep her kids on Pacific Time when they're visiting grandparents on the East Coast, especially if it's a short trip. Sure, they're up a little later at night, but it makes for an easier transition back home.
Supply plenty of: Diapers. If you miss a connection or get delayed because of weather, you can restock on snacks and games while you wait at the airport. But good luck finding the size and brand of diapers your baby wears. Be sure to pack an extra set of clothes for the child in your carry-on.
Go Light on: Toys. Sure, Wikki Stix are great for both car and plane. I Spy books take a lot of time. A three-year-old needs 30 minutes to eat an apple, Linda notes, and that will keep the child's ears from popping during takeoff. But packing a bunch of new toys and activity books for the child to open throughout the trip means a load of junk for the parent to schlep. "Plus, it sets a rather high bar to live up to on subsequent trips," says one mom who's a seasoned traveler. Another friend agrees, especially for kids 4 and older: "I think it is good for them to be bored sometimes. If we set up the expectation that we are going to entertain them at all times, we will have to entertain them at all times."
Save Money: You can check a car seat for free on most airlines, so you don't have to pay to rent one when you get to your destination.
Worthwhile Investments: A CARES belt turns the regular plane seatbelt into a three-point harness. Wheeling backpacks for the kids let them share the load and feel important.
Know the Drill: Venturing across state lines for the first time since Junior was born? Review the security procedures, or risk irritating the veteran travel parents in line behind you. Advises one experienced mom: "Have your kid's shoes off before you get up to the front of the line. And don't argue with the TSA guy when he tells you that they need to come off. He really doesn't care that your kid can't even walk yet. We're all waiting behind you."
Splurge: Even if the toddler is young enough to sit in your lap, buy her a seat if you can. Otherwise you're looking at a 25-pound heating pad on your quads for six hours. You'll have better luck getting the child to sleep if she has her own seat.
Know Your Limitations: Making "good time" is secondary to occupant (read: driver) sanity. Take a break every two to three hours and take at least 30 minutes for lunch. "Pack non-perishable protein snacks," advises one dad. "There will come a time between the lunch break and dinner when your eardrums will thank you for this."
Books on Tape: Provide hours of entertainment, and you can stock up at your local library before you go. OK, so listening to Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid on CD might not be your idea of fun, but the kids won't make a peep. You can always rent from Cracker Barrel too.
Portable DVD player: For when you can't listen to another minute of Stink. Don't forget the oversized headphones.
Old Standbys: Play alphabet hunt, spot license plates, ask 20 questions. One friend says her family loves telling stories about superlatives. "We take turns talking about our best meal ever, most embarrassing moment, scariest moment," she says.
AAA Stores: Have a selection of travel games, like auto Bingo. Pack small plastic bins to store paper and crayons for each child, and the bins can double as lap-desks.
Have tips for traveling with the kids? Sign in to share them below.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Inha Leex Hale, CC 2.0
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