By Matt Villano, on December 22, 2014

5 tips for holiday family travel

Tens of millions of Americans are expected to travel during the 2014-2015 holiday season. Doing this alone can be stressful; braving it with kids can be downright nuts.

As someone who has traveled with his kids nearly every Christmas, I’ve got plenty of first-hand experience with the ins and outs of family travel during this busy time of year. With this in mind, here are my five top tips for a more bearable experience.

Art is your friend

Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you have to leave the art projects at home. Drawing, coloring, and paper-folding are all fun activities for an airport gate waiting area *or* at 35,000 feet. Another good one: Stickers, especially if you invest in some of those reusable stickers that kids can apply to a variety of backgrounds. (NOTE: Window clings also are great for sticking on the inside of airplane windows; just make sure your kids take them off before you disembark).

In previous years of holiday travel, my wife and I also have put the kids to work making paper chains on long flights. During these adventures, we’ve had the kids rip red and green construction paper into appropriate sizes (because we can’t bring scissors on board, of course), and have given them Scotch tape to make the loops. We even have had the girls make special chains to give out to flight attendants. Needless to say, recipients of this handiwork have been touched.

Make delays into games

Winter travel is rife with delays; it’s likely that at some point in your holiday journeys, you’ll have to sit through a few extra hours in an airport or on a runway. When faced with this reality, it’s important NOT TO PANIC; if your kids see you sweating, they’ll sweat, too.

A great way to keep the little ones happy during delays: Devise fun games. If you’re stuck in the terminal, this might mean playing football with someone’s folded-up baseball cap, or running around an empty gate area pretending to be planes (my younger daughter and I did this on a recent flight diversion from San Diego to Portland, Oregon). If you’re stuck on the runway, devise a word game, or dole out a reward (perhaps a Dum-Dum lollipop?) to the kid who spots the greatest number of 777s.

My younger girl, owning the gate area

Raise storytellers

It’s easy to plop your kid in an airplane seat with a Kindle Fire or iPad and pump him or her with movies and television shows for the duration of a flight. The problem with this strategy: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens devote no more than two hours to entertainment media each day.

In our family, we allow each girl about 45 minutes of screen time on each flight; after that, we revert to storytelling. We usually start with free-form stories—most of these usually revolve around winged cats (the girls love everything feline). Then we move on to a dice game called Rory’s Story Cubes. In this game, nine dice feature different images on every side; to play, a person rolls the dice and must tell a story that incorporates each of the nine items depicted in those images. Our stories get crazy! And they make time fly.

Minimize line time

It’s no secret that kids—and many grown-ups, for that matter—lack the patience to wait in long queues. This means that during the busy holiday travel season, security checkpoints can be a MAJOR challenge. If you fly frequently enough to earn the privilege to take your family through one of the expedited lines, do it. If not, consider signing up for CLEAR or TSA PreCheck, both of which essentially enable you to cut the lines (and bring children under the age of 18 with you for no additional membership fee).

Viewfinder Tip: When traveling with kids, carry more snacks than you need; if your trip is delayed unexpectedly, you don’t have to worry about anyone getting cranky due to hunger.

I just recently joined CLEAR and have not used it to fly with the girls yet. PreCheck, however, has helped us on numerous trips. One benefit: You don’t have to take off sneakers, bag your liquid toiletries, or pull your laptop out of its bag. Again, when you’re managing little ones (who never have to take their shoes off, BTW), not having to worry about these issues at the checkpoint makes a big difference.

Don’t forget to breathe

We’d be deluding ourselves if we didn’t admit that traveling with kids can be stressful. There undoubtedly will be meltdowns. You inevitably will need to manage anxiety. Heck, you might even find yourself face to face with a family travel-hater who tosses you the stink-eye because your child is kicking the dude’s seat. The more readily you accept these facts about your family trip, the easier it all will be.

Another trick to simplifying the experience: Breathing. Seriously. Especially when the kids aren’t cooperating, it’s way too easy to get caught up in the moment. Keep yourself calm with deep breaths. Focus on the destination. And remember that simply taking your kids away for the holidays will help instill in them a love for travel they (hopefully) will have forever.

What are your tips for more bearable family travel during the holidays?