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Both the joys and rigors of travel can be magnified when you have children in tow, so today TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele offers tips from his own experiences as a traveler and father to help you make the most of your next family vacation.
It has been said that there’s no instruction manual for being a parent. While Amazon would probably disagree with that statement, as a veteran of dozens of domestic and international trips with my daughters (now 2 and 7 years old), I can tell you for certain that there’s a scarcity of useful information out there about how to travel with your kids.
Traveling with children of any age presents some interesting challenges, and the trips you take with your kids are likely to be very different from the ones you took before they were around. So today I thought I’d distill everything I’ve learned into eight tips, which I hope will make your family’s future travels easier, safer, and more fun.
1. Find the right balance. I’ve often heard family travelers advised to arrive at the airport as early as possible. That’s nonsense; you certainly can arrive at the airport too early and find yourself exhausted before you even board your flight. Check for flight delays before you leave home, and leave just early enough that you can get through security about an hour before your flight departs. This will give you just enough time for a bathroom break and possibly a quick snack at the gate before boarding begins.
Another common piece of advice I hear is that you should carry as many snacks, diapers, and games as you can cram in your luggage. I regularly see parents trying to tote an entire playroom onto a flight, perhaps thinking that the sheer volume of toys and other gear will pacify their child during the journey. I suggest you ruthlessly control the number and size of your carry-ons to ensure that you have the essentials, but otherwise remain as unencumbered as possible throughout your journey.
If you do have a lot of stuff to bring with you, check out Nick Ewen’s guide to Avoiding Checked Bag Fees on Major Domestic Carriers, so at least you’ll only need an arm and a leg to carry things, not to pay for bringing them along.
2. Bring your own entertainment. Just as Batman has his belt, and James Bond is furnished with a steady supply of gadgets, parents need their own stockpile of life saving devices that can entertain their young children on a flight or during other lulls in travel. Options include coloring and reading books, card games, stuffed animals, and of course a media device such as an iPad and headphones. Best of all, once children reach about two years old, they should be able to carry (and want to carry) favorite toys in their own backpacks.
If you forget to bring your own, many airlines offer in-flight entertainment. Last year Delta announced that it would provide free access to movies, music and more on domestic flights of 90 minutes or more, and United launched free streaming movies and TV for Apple users. Check out Eric Rosen’s guide to the Best Airlines to Fly Coach Domestically for more details on in-flight entertainment offered by major domestic carriers.
3. Use teamwork. The success and comfort of a family vacation depends on each member doing his or her part. That means everyone has to leverage their strengths and resources to make things easier for the group. If one parent parks the car while the other checks in, everyone saves time and aggravation. Older kids can do their part by helping to take care of younger ones, and young children can get involved too. Even if the task at hand is as simple as filling out a luggage tag, giving everyone a responsibility makes family travel a fun team sport.
4. Utilize available cabin resources. The seatbelt light is on and the baby needs a bottle, so what are you going to do? When all else fails, you can try ringing the flight attendant call button and asking for help. I’ve seen helpful cabin crews bring hot water, beverages, napkins, and even wet wipes to struggling parents, even when they aren’t offering service.
Toys and games are sometimes available, and never underestimate the value of an air sickness bag as a waste disposal device. I’ve also had friendly seatmates graciously volunteer to entertain my toddler when I needed to run to the restroom. I can’t guarantee that every flight crew member or fellow passenger will offer to help, but in my experience, most people will try to assist, especially if they are parents themselves.
5. Leverage resources for frequent travelers. The same perks that are offered to frequent travelers are even more valuable to families. An hour in the customs line can be brutal after arriving home on a long international trip, so getting Global Entry for the whole family can be a huge advantage. It allows you to schedule shorter connections while giving everyone access to the TSA Precheck line, which can help your domestic travel run more smoothly as well.
You can also take advantage of credit cards that offer elite benefits like priority check-in and access to airport lounges, many of which have play areas for children. Those perks can help families both save time and avoid hassles.
6. Don’t forget loyalty programs. There’s no minimum age to join a frequent flyer program, so you should actively enroll your children and manage their accounts in order to earn as many points and miles as possible. Remember, once children earn enough miles for an award, it can be redeemed for anyone’s use.
If your family is flying on a mix of revenue and award tickets, book awards for the children, but pay cash for your own airfare to earn elite qualifying miles, since you’re more likely to reach (and use) elite status.
7. Get serious about travel gear. Great travel gear can make your travel life much easier, but the best gear isn’t necessarily the biggest or most expensive. On the contrary, I find that smaller strollers and car seats travel much better and are less expensive. For some suggestions, check out my guides to Essential Travel Gear for Families With Infants and Travel Gear for Families with Toddlers and Young Children. A lot of this great travel gear comes in handy at home as well, so you don’t have to buy too many specialized items.
8. Make backup plans. Every traveler has a horror story of hours spent grounded due to flight delays and cancellations. As bad as “airport vacations” can be for singles and couples, they’re far worse for families with young children. As a parent, give yourself a break and make a backup plan in case everything falls apart. Usually, this means bailing out of the airport and finding a comfortable spot to spend the night until a new flight can be confirmed.
More important than the plan itself is the attitude that travel is an adventure, and the unforeseen will occur. If you take unexpected detours in stride, your kids will have an easier time doing the same. Try to plan your trips to arrive home a couple days before everyone really needs to return for work and school. That way you won’t be afraid to check back into a hotel, order a pizza, and have fun at the pool, rather than remain at the airport desperately trying to stand by for every flight.
Please share your tips for traveling with children in the comments below!
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