If you're traveling this holiday season, you may be wondering how to ensure an enjoyable and stress-free journey for your family. Traveling with toddlers and preschoolers is a lot different from traveling with a baby, especially if she's potty training or never taken a big trip before. Read on for some tips for creating a positive holiday travel experience.
Before You Go
1. Build anticipation. Building anticipation about a big trip and the holiday celebrations to come can help keep your child both excited and patient throughout your trip. Even before you depart, talk to your child about what you'll be doing, what to expect, and who you'll be seeing. Give your child her own bag to pack with whatever she wants to bring. If you're traveling by plane and your child shows hesitation (or even if she doesn't), consider reading a book about airplanes and airports together. If possible you can also take your child to the airport days or weeks in advance to let her observe the hustle and bustle, as well as planes taking off and landing.
2. Pack or plan surprises. If your child is captivated by new toys, consider buying some small gifts for the car ride. Wrap them ahead of time and let her open them one-by-one throughout the trip. You can also plan other special activities, such as a stop somewhere special along the way.
3. Pack ahead of time. Before you even begin to pack, make a list of everything you need to bring. Making a physical (or digital) list can help you remember other things you'll need as you start to list important items. Start jotting down a list days or weeks in advance of your trip, so that you can add to it as you think of things. It may be helpful to make lists by bag (your luggage, your purse, child's toy bag, carry-on, etc.). Then pack your bags and the car the day before. You can continue to build excitement about the trip by having a "packing or tailgate party" the day before.
Stay organized by packing ahead of time and, if traveling by car, use car organizers to stow children's activities. This large organizer by One Step Ahead will keep all your child's things organized.
4. Pack your carry-ons wisely. Striking a balance between what and how much to bring in your carry-ons can be difficult. With young children though, it's probably better to bring along too much than too little. If you're flying, be sure to pack your carry-on with anything essential that would be hard to get if your checked luggage was lost (such as medications or a favorite toy). Opt for travel versions of things that you will need whenever possible.
For example, we love the Totseat fabric harness that's easy to pack and makes a great highchair when visiting family. Even if you're driving, consider a "carry-on" bag for the car with snacks, toys, wipes, and a change of clothes so you needn't rummage through larger suitcases mid-trip. Be sure to pack plenty of healthy snacks. A bib and extra wipes will rarely go unused with a messy toddler so be sure to pack extra.
5. Travel during sleeping times. It's often helpful to plan travel around your child's sleep time. If your children are toddlers and preschoolers, you've hopefully taken at least one big trip so you know how they sleep (or don't sleep) during travel. Still, habits can change as children grow so be as flexible as possible. If traveling by car, you may want to drive overnight or during a regular nap time if your child is able to sleep in the car. If traveling by air, you may want to choose very early flights in the hopes of the child going back to sleep on the plane, or alternatively overnight flights.
No matter when you choose to travel, there are things you can do to encourage your children to relax and catch some Z's. Bring along white noise CDs for the car or with headphones for a flight (or just tune into a static AM station in the car). Don't forget your child's favorite blankie or stuffed animal. For flights you may want to consider a lightweight blanket or sheet to pin up around your child to minimize distractions.
6. Continue to build anticipation. Just as you built anticipation for the trip before you departed, be sure to keep it going as you make your way to your destination. Continue to talk with your kids about the trip, the upcoming holiday celebrations, and family & friends. Bring along books or movies about the holidays that you can read or watch with your kid en route. Talk again with your child about which family and friends you will be seeing and what activities he or she would like to do for the holidays (build a snowman, eat Christmas cookies, sing Christmas carols, etc.).
7. Use airports and layovers (or pit stops if traveling by car) to your advantage. Let your child run around the airport and take in all the hustle and bustle. Encourage him to get out energy before you will be confined to your seats (and the very narrow aisle of the plane). Take him into airport gift shops to window shop or maybe even select a toy. If you let your child get a toy, draw out the selection process as long as possible and then tell him he will get it during the flight to play with.
8. Don't forget about entertainment. Movies during a flight can be a great way to occupy kids. If you don't normally allow TV at home but do fly frequently, movies in-flight can make a great special treat for kids to look forward to. They may even stay more engaged with the movie if they know it's only something to indulge in when flying. Choose holiday-themed movies to instill the understanding that the movie is a special treat. Similarly for lengthy car travel, you may consider allowing videos or games on a tablet (just be sure it's secure wherever you mount it so that it is not a hazard in an accident).
A travel tray, such as this one by One Step Ahead (which has been crash tested), can double for snack time and activities like coloring.
9. Put potty training on hold. If you're traveling with a potty training tot, or one who has only just recently mastered the skill, rest assured that there's nothing wrong with temporarily switching back to diapers. Regression during stressful situations like holidays is completely normal. Talk to your child about the potty throughout the trip and assure her that she can go back to big-kid pants once you reach your destination. Even if you switch back temporarily, bring along a portable potty in case your child insists on using one. If you stick with big-kid pants, be sure to pack plenty of extra outfits and be prepared for accidents.
For public restrooms, beware automatic flushing toilets which can scare kids and make them hesitant to use again. Throw a washcloth or carry around a small pad of Post-It notes to stick over the sensor so the toilet doesn't flush before your child is ready. Consider taking along your own potty trainer to make unfamiliar public or plane toilets less scary and more familiar (the BabyBjörn Toilet Trainer is a very well-reviewed, portable seat). Lastly, be realistic. If the thought of an accident in the middle of a long airport security line is too daunting, just go ahead put your child in some Pull-Ups. Keeping you and your child as relaxed as much as possible is much more important during travel than powering through potty-training bootcamp.
10. Relax! Remember: the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. Build in flexibility to your itinerary to avoid unneeded stress. Don't worry too much about sticking to your schedule. Airports and car travel alike are stressful and if your child senses this, he may become more stressed, and you will too. Arriving at your destination late but with relaxed kids in tow surely beats getting there on time but with cranky kids (and adults).
Once You Arrive
11. Childproof your accommodations. Whether you'll be staying in a hotel or at family's house, if you have a toddler you'll want to childproof your surroundings as much as possible. Remind your hosts ahead of time that your toddler is at that curious stage where he may be tempted to explore fragile family heirlooms. You can help by bringing along portable baby proofing accessories like gates and outlet covers. At the very least, pack a roll of duct tape which can be used to cover outlets, tie up drapery cords and electrical cords, and secure cabinet doors.
12. Be flexible, within reason. Remember that the holidays are a special time to celebrate, spend time with family, and create memories. Try to do everything you talked with your child about. Try to be as flexible as possible with nap times and rules (no TV, no sweets), but within reason. Don't be afraid to leave your company in the middle of festivities if your toddler really needs a nap or just some downtime alone with mommy or daddy. You know what is best for your child so don't give in to the pressure of well-intentioned advice from family. "Just one sugar cookie won't hurt" may sound reasonable unless you know from experience that your sugar-sensitive preschooler will be bouncing off the walls.
13. Don't forget about the trip home. Often in the chaos of getting some place we can lose sight of the return trip. Just as you did for your trip there, be flexible, pack wisely, and think ahead. Engage your toddler or preschooler by talking about what you did on holiday vacation and all the family & friends you saw, and (if applicable) how you will resume potty-training and big kids pants as soon as you get home.
Remember: be flexible, stay relaxed, have fun, be safe, and take the time to enjoy making memories with your children and family!