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No-Stress Holiday Travel with Kids

mother with children walking through airport

Traveling during the holiday season is never easy: Think traffic jams, winter weather, delayed flights, and crowded airports. This year, thanks to high fuel costs and cutbacks in airline service, things could be even worse. When you add squirming kids into the equation, you may be tempted to simply hunker down at home.

Nevertheless, millions of Americans are expected to hit the road this Christmas season. The holidays are a great time to visit relatives, reconnect with old friends, or even (lucky you!) take that long-awaited vacation to a warm and sunny family resort. "The trick to smooth holiday travel is careful planning," says Eileen Ogintz, creator of the travel site TakingTheKids.com. "And whenever you're on the road with children, it's important to stay flexible and calm." Keep your cool -- and keep your kids happy -- by following these savvy travel tips from our experts.

Make it a family affair. Don't wait until the last minute to get your kids psyched for your holiday journey. If you involve them in the planning process, they're likely to be more invested in the trip. Give them little tasks so they'll feel like they're contributing: Have your oldest child help you look on the Internet to find a movie theater near Aunt Judy's house, or let your toddler pick out the books he wants to take along for the car ride.

Clue kids in. Once you've nailed down the details, tell everyone exactly what you've got planned. Kids feel more secure when they know what to expect each day. Warn little ones about potentially scary situations, like the security check at airports. "Explain that the security machine will take a picture of her teddy but that it will be waiting for her safely on the other side," says Ogintz. If it's her first flight, prepare her by reading simple picture books, such as Going on a Plane, by Anne Civardi.

Time your travel. If you can, pad your schedule with a few extra vacation days so you've got some wiggle room in case of bad weather, illness, or airline delays. This will also allow you to avoid the peak travel days just before (and after) Christmas and New Year's. "If you're flying, try to book nonstop so you don't end up stuck in a random city because of a snowstorm," says Ogintz. For road trips, log on to Google Maps (maps.google.com) to find the best route and to avoid road closures.

Check on childproofing. Yes, Grandma's house is a loving, warm place to gather for the holidays, but it might not be the safest one for little kids. Talk to her about storing medications, cleaning products, and other hazards out of reach. If you're staying at a hotel, call in advance to ask whether the staff will childproof the room for you. Or take along a travel childproofing kit or a roll of duct tape to cover outlets, fasten back window curtains and cords, and secure bathroom cabinets.

Pack in plastic. Keep your suitcases organized by separating clothing in clear zip-top bags and labeling them with names and contents, such as Henry's underwear and Katie's dresses. This makes it easier to quickly find what you need, and you can store dirty clothing in them on the way back. If you expect to be bringing back more than you started with, stash an extra nylon duffle in your suitcase so you'll be able to haul your loot home.

Bring snacks. Have a supply of good travel foods (Cheerios, string cheese, bananas) with you at all times. If your child doesn't like the food on the plane or at a party, snacks are a great way to head off a tantrum from a hungry toddler. Water is the best on-the-go beverage because kids only drink as much as they need, which will cut down on emergency bathroom breaks, says Vicki Lansky, author of Trouble-Free Travel with Children.

Think safety first. Take your car in for a quick inspection (oil, antifreeze, brakes, tires) before you leave. Check the weather forecast a few days ahead to see whether you'll need extra supplies or travel time. Just in case, pull together some emergency essentials, including a small shovel, blankets, a flashlight, and bottled water. Make sure your cell phone is fully charged.

Beat rush hour. You can't avoid traffic jams caused by accidents or emergency roadwork, but you can plan your trip so you're not in big cities during the morning or evening rush. You might also consider leaving at night if you feel well rested and comfortable driving in the dark. There will be fewer cars on the road, and your kids will probably sleep most of the way.

Take breaks. Hit rest stops regularly to prevent your kids from getting stir-crazy or going into tantrum mode in the car. For every two hours on the road, children need at least 15 to 30 minutes to stretch their legs and run around. Lansky suggests bringing along inflatable beach balls or Frisbees.

Keep kids entertained. Let your children pack their own bag of toys, travel games, books, and so on. But bring a special surprise or two to pull out when they start getting bored -- maybe a toy they haven't seen in a while or a small gift you bought just for the trip. Give little ones their favorite lovey, and then read or tell them a story so they don't feel ignored. For older kids, encourage them to scout out license plates and road signs or have them track your route with a marker on a map. Books on tape or a portable DVD player also make great travel companions.

Get the luggage lowdown. Find out how many bags you're allowed to carry on and to check, and if there are any weight restrictions. Most major airlines now charge between $20 and $50 for a second checked bag -- and some make passengers pay for the first. Keep gifts you're carrying unwrapped, even if they're packed in your luggage, to make the security check easier. If you've got a lot to haul, consider shipping gifts and gear a week or two before you leave. Ground delivery might be less expensive than extra baggage fees. Visit the Transportation Security Administration at tsa.gov to find out about limits on carry-on gels and liquids, including baby food, formula, and breast milk.

Use the Web. Log on to your airline's Web site to sign up for e-mail or cell-phone alerts that will advise you about delays and cancellations. You can also check in online and print your boarding passes at home. Get to the airport two to three hours in advance so you have plenty of time to drop off your suitcases and make it through the security checkpoints.

Dress well. Since plane cabins can get warm on the ground and cold in the air, make sure everyone is dressed in layers. It's also smart to pack an extra day of outfits (along with diapers, snacks, and other essentials) in your carry-on in case of delays.

Fly right. Take the car seat for your baby to use on the plane. Though kids under 2 can travel on your lap for free, it's safer for your little one to have his own seat. Plus, your child will be more comfortable in a car seat, since he's already accustomed to traveling in it. Wake him on takeoff and landing to give him a bottle or a sippy cup (drinking eases the air-pressure changes, which cause many in-air crying fits). If you've got an energetic toddler, don't board until the last minute. "More time in your seats simply means more time for kids to get restless," says Lansky.

Factor in recoup time. Be prepared to lose a day after a long flight or drive. It's best to stick close to your home-away-from-home to let kids adjust to a new place and possibly a new time zone. If you do go out, keep it short and sweet.

Dine early. Your family may be more active than normal on your trip, which means the kids will be exhausted by the end of the day. Plan dinner for around 5 p.m., before they get too fussy or fall asleep. If you're going to a restaurant, be an early bird to avoid long wait times for seating and food and to save money.

Don't overdo it. When you're away from home, it's tempting to cram in as much fun as you possibly can. But too many people, parties, and activities can overload your child. Instead, focus on one big outing each day and schedule in plenty of downtime. This way your kids -- and you -- will avoid burnout and will return home from your trip feeling relaxed and refreshed.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Parents magazine.