Every fall I start thinking about where we’ll be going for the holidays. When I was growing up, holidays were often blissfully travel-free. Our house was the de facto destination for friends and families: a guarantee of spare rooms, home-cooked meals, festive decorations, and presents under the tree. On rare occasions when we did travel, we spontaneously piled into the family minivan with a cooler of snacks, overstuffed backpacks, and activity books.
It never seems that easy anymore. Our increasingly globalized families and jam-packed schedules make advanced planning essential, particularly when airplanes and tight budgets are involved. According to CheapAir.com, you’ll save the most money (on average) by booking a flight fifty-four days in advance. My partner and I sync calendars, request time off, arrange pet sitters, and then carefully monitor travel sites for the best deals within CheapAir’s suggested timeframe. Depending on your brood, it may be prudent to select a non-stop flight rather than a flight with multiple connections. This approach minimizes travel time as well as opportunities for losing items (or children).
Our car-to-gate survival strategy requires advanced planning as well. To save money and prevent lost luggage, we eschew checking bags and employ creative uses of carry-ons and three-ounce containers. We endeavor to keep everyone fed and hydrated without buying overpriced airport food. (Hint: Bring empty water bottles through security and fill them when you get to your gate. Ziploc® baggies filled with easy-to-grab snacks are great, too.) We equip each child with a small “personal item” (e.g., backpack) that includes a favorite book or toy, sugar-free gum, a blanket, and a host of activities to keep them busy. And because we’re tethered to our devices, we’re constantly triple checking to ensure we have tablets, smartphones, computers, headphones, and gaming systems—with the accompanying chargers, of course. How do we stay sane?
The truth is, we don’t. I’m not above small bribes to guarantee good behavior. We do our best to prepare by making extensive checklists a month in advance of our trip. By letting the list direct our priorities, we free ourselves from uncertainty. In addition, the list guides our packing protocol, ensuring that nothing crucial is left behind. It details everything from pairs of underwear to binkies to types of shoes to toothbrushes. Once the item is packed (or carefully laid out on the bed), it’s crossed off the list.
We’re also looking into TSA Pre✓™, which lets you apply for U.S. Department of Homeland Security Trusted Traveler status. Once approved, you’re allowed you to keep your belts, shoes, jackets, liquids, and laptops on your person or in your carry-on during security screening. If you ask me, that’s a real gift when you’re trying to shepherd little ones through long, cranky lines. The lengthy application process might not be appropriate for your family (or your budget; it costs $85 per person), but if you’re a frequent flyer, check it out.
Stay calm. Regularly remind the kids that they’ll be going on an adventure so that they, too, can get their brains in gear. And trust your gut. You’ll know whether your family can brave an airport during the holidays, or whether it’ll just be easier to drive. And you know what? It’s okay to stay home, too. But whatever you decide, don’t leave your packing ‘til the last minute—you’ll thank me later.