Tis the season of holiday travel. There’s a lot of yuletide advice out there on how best to get from A to B with kids in tow. But I wield here the simplest and best counsel. It all comes down to abolishing the three sources of travel misery: fatigue, hunger, and boredom. Almost all meltdowns, flip-outs, whining, and writhing can be linked to these roots. So just make sure your children are not tired, hungry, or bored. How? Well, follow the sage advice below and the 6-hour drive to grandma’s will be downright jolly. That 3-hour flight to Syracuse will be breezy and cheerful.
Here’s how to get ahead of the game:
Pack Good Foods
Fast food and airport restaurants are all-sorts-of nasty and overpriced. And if you’re ordering food on the plane it’s likely because you lost a bet or are just unorganized. So whether you’re traveling by road or air, always pack nutritious food for your kids. Make sure to have a variety of stuff they’ll actually eat. The good things they love, like PB&J, raisins, maybe turkey jerky. This is not the time to introduce jalepeno artichoke dip. Check out this definitive list of 25 travel snacks. Foods should be high in protein and low on sugar for a balanced mood. Don’t bring candy into travel. Sugary corn-syrupy treats get kids amped followed by a depressing crash, needing another fix just to get straight again. It’s a miserable cycle. And a kid chasing the sugar dragon is not fun to travel with!
The Engaged Child
A lap desk is a plane ride or car trip dream. I prefer THIS ONE. (Check out our 90 second review HERE). Super lightweight, kids can tote these through the airport themselves. They hold pens, paper, puzzles, crayons, little cars, legos, or anything else your kid is in to. Kids love being able to fold these out on their own laps too and create their own little work station world. The lip around the edge keeps all the materials from sliding around during turbulence or the unexpected right-hand turn.
Yes, absolutely keep that iPad on hand for emergencies, but you’ll be surprised how long kids can actually entertain themselves with a travel desk full of activities. Hours actually. Sure, fire up the Kindle Fire for a movie on a long flight. But for short hops, this desk will do. In fact, without a screen blazing, you may find your kid staring dreamily out the window for a while like people used to do.
Hand Out A Grip Of Prizes
Get a bunch of inexpensive little things for your kids. When you see them starting to get bored, or about once an hour, hand them one cool new thing, like a slinky or a bucket of civil war soldiers, or maybe a raccoon puppet. The travel version of Battleship is awesome and like 5 bucks! Stay away from things that make noise, bubbles, or Nerf Guns (or any other gun). Temporary tattoos are a good choice, so are Wikki Stix. Stop by any dollar store and you’ll find enough stuff to delight your kids for two days of travel for under 10 bucks.
Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed
NOTE: These next two are just overall strategies. We understand we don’t always have better options on when and how we travel. Just do what you can when it’s in your power, that’s all ?
Just don’t travel at weird times if you can help it. Getting the budget 5am flight is not a 4-year-old-friendly move. Don’t grab that late evening flight for 50 bucks less. Opt to drive or fly at times that don’t require rattling your child from slumber or keeping them awake past bedtime. The money or time you save on the front end is traded for a whiny child the whole livelong day and probably the next. Get your child to sleep early the night before travel. A full 10-hour sleep opportunity is advised. If your child is jam-packed full of sleep, they’ll actually be fun to travel with, believe it or not.
Break up travel
Instead of the grueling 7-hour flight or drive with a toddler, break it up with an overnight layover midway. Overnight connecting flights are usually much less expensive, more than affording you a night at the La Quinta in Tucson and a dip in the pool. Stopping midway on a drive may cost you cash, but will save you over two hundred bucks worth of sweet sanity. Your children will be better travel companions if you don’t run them like mules. Really. Give them ample rest and relaxation. for best results, no more than 6 hours of travel per day for kids 8 and under.
Check in with your kids on how they’re feeling throughout the trip. Be their pal and coach. Hand them water and snacks consistently. Don’t wait for them to ask. Make sure they take bites and sips. Keep that blood sugar up. Tell them what’s happening next and how they can help.
“We’re getting on the plane in 10 minutes. You can help by having your backpack on and holding these tickets.” (Obviously, have an extra set of boarding passes).
“We’re about to get in our Uber to the airport. You can help by saying good afternoon to the driver and asking how their day is.”
Keep them present and polite through little things like ordering their own drink from the flight attendant and saying good morning, please, and thank you. Encourage interaction and observation. Keep talking. Ask for help. Notice all the stuff they’re doing right and stay positive. An active and engaged 5-year-old becomes a cheerful and helpful travel companion not a snot-nosed-brat kvetching and complaining in seat 23B.
Wrap up: Sit Down and Have Fun or So Help Me…
Look, a lot of this isn’t rocket science, but we know it can be really helpful to be reminded of this stuff. You’re busy thinking about a million things — like are my sweatpants packed? Can I really trust Norman from next door to look after Tommy the Cat while I’m gone? Why do we have to leave the house, can’t we just FaceTime the family? — So we’re just trying to keep these things top of mind.
Try and remember that the whole point of all this is to be together. These are the days and the moments we tell ourselves make it worthwhile, so if you can, be willing to embrace a little chaos yourself. Have some fun, blow a straw wrapper at your son and race your kids to the end of the terminal. Then put them to bed and have a drink because DAMN! that was a long day.