The winter holidays are not just rapidly approaching; they’re already here. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or are just going somewhere nice and warm for your winter break, here are a few tips if you’re hauling your offspring out of your house in the next few weeks.
1. Check prices early.
Airfares skyrocket around the holidays — although you can often get good deals if you fly on the holiday itself — so check early and often. It is worth mentioning that the cheapest time to buy plane tickets for the December holiday season is the Tuesday after US Thanksgiving, as this is when major airlines have sales.
If you wait to book hotels and car rentals, you may find yourself without many options — I will say, though, that if you are renting a car, don’t bother reserving a top tier car at top dollar. Likely the agency will be out of many car options, and you will just get whatever they have no matter what you reserved; we actually walked in somewhere once and they just waved at a row of cars and told us to pick any one we wanted except the convertibles. Most car rental reservations are free, and many hotel reservations can be cancelled up to 24 hours beforehand, so it can’t hurt to throw down a reservation even if you think you might need to cancel it later — it will cost you nothing to reserve, and may save you a ton of money.
2. Leave early.
Blizzards, crowds, and staff who might be on holiday break themselves often result in overstretched airport situations. The earlier in the day you can fly, the more likely you are to take off on time — airport delays often stack up, with later flights bumping up against earlier ones and slowing everything down. Try to get nonstop flights if possible, and as early as you feel comfortable, even if it means hauling your offspring to the airport before their normal wake-up time.
Ditto if you’re driving — the earlier you can leave, especially if it’s before normal rush hour for your area, the less traffic you will hit. Most people like to sleep in a bit on their holidays, although sleeping in may be a distant memory if you have kids.
3. Expect crowds.
Even if you don’t celebrate the dominant holidays in your country, be aware that lots of other people do, and many of those people will be traveling at the same time as you. It is a fact of life that many people get time off from work in December — especially if they must use up paid vacation time by the end of the calendar year. Airports, train stations, and other travel hubs will be much more heavily trafficked than usual, which can make lines long and maneuvering difficult.
If you can, consider bringing a baby or toddler carrier rather than a stroller. Lots of irregularly-moving crowds around you mean negotiating your way to your airport gate could become a slalom; leave the stroller at home and strap your kid to your body for ease of transport. Added bonus: they can take naps in it, and also won’t grab all the breakable Christmas ornaments inconveniently placed at eye level.
Leave extra time to get through security and baggage check lines. Read the restrictions on your ticket carefully to see if you can check in online or electronically at kiosks in the airport, which will often allow you to print baggage check tags and boarding passes, skip the line at the check-in counter, and go directly to bag drop. More travelers moving through, and many of them who only travel once or twice a year, mean security lines get clogged with people who don’t know how to separate their gels and liquids, or whether or not to take off their shoes.
If you’re driving to your destination, expect lots of traffic.
4. Know your rights with TSA.
Be aware: just because there are lots of people does not mean you need to give up your rights. You DO NOT need to consent to a Millitron Wave Scanner at TSA — you can ask for a hand check or patdown. If you are traveling with a baby or toddler, you will often be allowed to go through the metal detector (usually as a whole family, rather than just the parent holding the baby) and you will also get wanded.
You may carry milk and/or formula for your baby or toddler (they say until the child is 2, but many TSA agents will allow it for older children unless they are obviously too old, like 9), beyond the liquid and gel restrictions. This milk or formula may be tested with a swab — I have asked what exactly is in these swabs before, and what they are looking for, and TSA refused to tell me. Internet research reveals that they are harmless, however.
5. Watch out for winter weather.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you’re in winter right now, and this can mean varying degrees of severity. Be cautious when you are traveling.
If you are driving, drive within speed limits, and ensure that you have the correct tires for your car; if you need winter or all-weather tires, get them put on your car several weeks before your trip so you don’t forget about it. If you are traveling to an area that requires snow chains (say, if you need to drive over the Sierras in California, the only place I have ever been required to put snow chains on my car), ensure that you have them in your trunk. You cannot drive fast or far with chains on, so you cannot put them on early to prepare.
If you are flying, expect delays. Airplanes require de-icing if you are flying from a cold region, or if it is actively snowing or close to freezing. This can delay the takeoff process, so be appropriately prepared for waiting on the runway. Flights can also be delayed in arriving (depending on where they’re coming from and how conditions are in the airport you’re trying to leave from). Bring LOTS of toys, games, and snacks. More than you think you’ll need. Like ten times as many.
If you are traveling with a car seat, either driving or on a plane, be aware that you cannot tighten car seat straps over jackets or snow suits. You can put your child in a light jacket or sweater and tuck a blanket around them if you are worried about them getting cold while they’re in the seat.
6. Kids out of normal routines are wacky kids.
You know your own children best, but I know that my daughter gets wild when her routine gets compromised. Traveling to see relatives means a lot of time spent away from familiar spaces, normal dinnertimes, and possibly also compounds some jet lag into the bargain. You will likely also be doing a lot of high energy activities: visiting new people, going to new places full of overstimulating crowds and activities, and stretching out bedtimes for one more visit with great-grandma.
Try to keep routines as normal as possible. Try to ensure you have lunch and dinner at regular times, and if they still nap, make sure they get a good nap during the day. Even if they don’t nap, it’s not a bad idea to aim for some scheduled quiet time every day to help keep things calm. Try to keep outings or big activities to one or two a day — it can be tempting to fit in as many activities as possible while you’re with friends or family, especially if you’re introducing a new baby around, so resist the urge to overextend yourself.
If you are dealing with jet lag, sadly, a good guideline is: it takes kids one day to adjust per hour of time change. This means that if you travel across 10 time zones, it may take kids up to 10 days to adjust fully. When we go back to the eastern United States from Sweden, a difference of 6 hours, it usually takes our daughter about 5 days to stop waking up for hours every night. Be prepared and take naps yourself if possible. Get lots of daytime play and sunshine, if possible. Buy a ton of coffee.
7. Pack all your own necessities.
Bring your kid’s favorite comfort objects (don’t forget that beloved stuffie or blanket), and some good toys that can be used in small spaces. Baggies of Lego or PlusPlus are crowd pleasers. Load the iPad or your phone with apps and games, especially some new ones they haven’t usually played with. Download some movies or tv shows — Netflix often allows you to save a small number of shows for later viewing. Bring lots of favorite snacks for you as well as your kids; don’t forget you get hungry and thirsty, too. Water bottles are a great idea and can be refilled everywhere. Bring as many diapers as you think you might need, plus 3, just in case of emergency blowouts. If you’re facing long flights or drives, try to create situations where your child will be able to sleep if they have to; whether this means playing soothing music on your phone, changing them into jammies, or whatever else… an unrested kid makes everyone miserable.
8. Get travel insurance.
For your own peace of mind, consider getting travel insurance even if you are traveling domestically. Travel insurance is only a few bucks and can cover disasters, delays, lost luggage, and out of state or out of country medical bills. My favorite travel insurer is WorldNomads, but you may actually have travel insurance if you book through your credit card (check the guidelines before you leave), or through your home or renter’s insurance.
9. Prepare for sickness.
Winter is flu season and being stuffed inside enclosed spaces with either just your loved ones or 400 strangers (in the case of an airplane) is not exactly a pathway to supreme health. Take it easy and eat well, drink lots of water, and wash your hands as much as you can. Sneeze into your elbow and not into your hand. Try to wash your kid’s hands as much as you can, since they are more likely to be touching gross surfaces than you — my daughter once licked a poster in the Montreal metro before I could stop her — and are disgusting little disease vectors. Bring a little first aid kit along that includes items you like to have when you feel ill: fever reducers, favorite teas or tisanes, heating pads, whatever. Bring your kid’s thermometer or get some FeverBugz, which are stick-on fever indicators for children, and are fun and easy to read.
Echinacea and vitamin C actually do nothing, but zinc has been proven to reduce the duration of colds. Check dosage information before giving zinc to your children, since it can be toxic if overdosed, but consider getting some lozenges for yourself in case you need them.