By Amber Leventry
Traveling with kids is daunting. Traveling with kids during the holidays is a new kind of stress. But it’s totally manageable. Last Christmas we flew with three kids under four years old and this Thanksgiving we packed the minivan and took an 11 hour road trip to see family. While I am not sad that we are staying put for Christmas, traveling with kids isn’t always awful. We survived long miles on the highway and made connecting flights at crowded airports, and you will too. Here’s how:
Expect the worst. Seriously. I am all for optimism when it comes to things like routine pap smears and dollar scratch off lottery tickets. But when it comes to my kids, I live in a constant state of being pleasantly surprised. They don’t know this, but expectations for my kids come with internal pessimism. When all goes well, my partner and I nod quietly at one another, happy to have been proven wrong in the best way possible.
Travel is the same way. Expect meltdowns, motion sickness, traffic delays, and overall cranky kids. Know that some parts of the trip will have one or more of these things happen at once. But in reality, the anticipation of a bad travel experience is worse than what will actually happen. Better to be filled with relief than the disappointment of things not going as well as you had hoped.
Food. I can’t stress this one enough. Pack a lot of food. Rainbow Goldfish, fruit gummies, almost anything dipped in fake yogurt are all really popular to-go items. We are likely setting our children up for some weird relationship with food, but it really does solve every problem. Your ears hurt because of the plane taking off and landing? Have a lollipop. You’re bored? Have a pretzel stick. You’re sad because you have to sit in my lap for the next 45 minutes? Have 15 vanilla wafers. We bribe with food, we soothe with food, and we get from one exit to the next with food.
Keep Driving. And when it comes to driving from one exit to the next, if one or more children are sleeping, don’t stop the car. I have driven with two Red Bulls threatening to tear open my bladder, but my discomfort was worth the 75 miles we were able to travel in silence. And we were 75 miles closer to our destination. Feel free to try to keep your kid asleep or happy if you do choose to stop. I did that once. I then drove the tread off of my tires in a hotel parking lot to try to get my then six month old daughter back to sleep.
Screens are not the enemy. For kids old enough to be distracted by a tablet, phone, or DVD player, let them. I bought books, activities, stickers and a whole mess of stuff to try to keep my young kids busy on the plane and in the car. I definitely used some of them in certain situations, but the bulk of the sitting time while traveling was done while watching a movie. Being still for so long is tough on adults, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s really tough for kids. Adults can read, sleep, or play on phones to pass the time. Kids need something to make the trip more enjoyable too. Let them binge watch Bernstein Bears or Daniel Tiger. With headphones.
Amazon Prime. Instead of packing stuff we know we will need once we reach our destination, we ship it. Diapers, formula, apple sauce pouches, sunscreen, body soap. We are not wasting money because we’ll either use it while on vacation or pack it up and bring it home. But we are saving luggage space. And we are eliminating at least one travel stretch where we don’t have to worry about the kids’ shampoo exploding.
Plan on everything taking longer than you think. Google maps can tell you one thing, but kids will determine when you actually arrive at your destination. Bathroom breaks, the need to eat more than snack food, and the unbearable urge to just run around a lamp post will turn your 11 hours of expected travel time into 15. And if you choose to fly to see your family this season, plan on fighting with strollers, unsuccessfully finding a kiosk which sells whole milk, and digging through a backpack to find a change of clothes for your kid because they had an accident before you got on the plane.
Getting a car rental seems to take forever, as does car seat installation. If your experiences are anything like mine, plan on it taking much longer than usual as you try to figure out seating arrangements for three kids while your oldest decides then is the best time to return to the airport to poop.
Accept that your kids will touch all the gross things. They will also rub their Hebrew National hot dogs on the rest stop dining tables and chairs, roll around on any floor surface, and lick bathroom stalls. No matter where we are, my kids manage to fondle a toilet like it’s the silk on a soft blankie. It disgusts me to no end. I tell them not to, but they hear the panic in my voice as a cue to drag their fingers around the toilet seat even slower. Germs haven’t killed my kids yet, so I trust watching them acquire said germs won’t kill me either.
This too shall pass. You will get from Point A to Point B, eventually. You may feel like you are living the treacherous journey of the early settlers on the Oregon Trail, but you will make it. Count on the GPS voice telling you that you have reached your destination. Know that the pilot will welcome you to the new city you are landing in. Expect clapping, cheering, and sighs of relief. Soon enough you will be telling yourself that your travels were not nearly as bad as you expected them to be.
Godspeed, parents. You can do this.