6 Tips for Stress-Free Holiday Travel with Kids

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Thanksgiving is here and the lure of spending time with family is enough to get us out on the roads and up in the skies during the busiest travel days of the year. Traveling with kids is challenging enough.  Throw these busy travel days in the mix and you can have a recipe for disaster. But a little bit of planning and organization can make the holidays with family feel like an actual vacation. You won’t come home feeling like you’ve been on a European vacation with the kids, but you will come home happy.

Timing is everything when it comes to traveling at Thanksgiving.  If your kids have the week off from school it makes things a little easier but even if they don’t, try and stay away from the crazy travel days, even if it means missing a day or two of school. A majority of folks fly on Wednesday and Sunday - try leaving on Tuesday and coming home on Saturday. Being home a day early gives the whole family a day to decompress and get back into routine before heading back to school and work.  

If your destination is within driving distance and you live near a large metropolitan area you know that the snake-like, slow-moving traffic that happens with the mass exodus can be enough to dampen your holiday spirit before you’ve been on the road an hour.  Think about driving when the kids are sleeping.  It’s not ideal but it’s better than sitting in stop-and-go traffic for hours and hours.

If that doesn’t work for your family, how about flying on Thanksgiving Day? Depending on how far you have to go, you can probably make it just in time for turkey and avoid all the pre-meal hullabaloo. Take the following Monday and maybe even Tuesday off, and you’ve still got enough time for a nice visit. An added perk, the price of flying might also be nicer on your wallet.

Pack Light

Do you really need to check bags? Luggage fees for a family add up fast. Packing light is not impossible (see my family travel packing tips). If you have school age kids, there’s no reason they can’t handle a rolling carry-on. This is not the time to spoil them. Grandma has a washing machine, so don’t pack the whole closet and limit the shoes. The pair you’re wearing on the plane and another for good measure is a good rule of thumb. And don’t lug things like diapers and wipes.  Buy them when you get there or consider shipping supplies before you go.  In the old days before luggage fees it was sometimes easier to take an extra bag but that is not the case anymore and the mail can be a cheaper option than the un-friendly skies.

Not checking luggage has an additional, often overlooked benefit. You can skip another line and walk right past the luggage carousel. This is usually about the time kids (and parents) are tired and ready to hit the wall, so by-passing the wait and the possibility your luggage has gone to Italy instead of Ithaca, can give you good reason to smile.

Get Online

It has never been simpler to handle all the paperwork that typically comes along with flying. Check in for your flight online, in the comfort of your own home and print your boarding passes. When you hit the airport, you can head right to security with your carry-ons.  If you’re carrying any liquids remember they must be 3 ounces or less and fit into a quart size plastic bag. Put your baggie in an exterior pocket, so it’s easy to find when you go through security.

Ponder Parking

Think about parking your car when you purchase your plane ticket. If you have a friend that can give you and your family a lift to the airport, take advantage of their generosity. For the rest of us, reserve parking ahead of time. This isn’t a trip to Las Vegas, don’t depend on good luck. Planning parking is a win-win situation.  Airport Parking Reservations and Park N’ Fly both provide parking around major airports and you’re guaranteed a spot and many times you’ll get a better rate, so you can save money for the next adventure. If you don’t want to deal with loading the kids on and off the parking lot shuttle, divide and conquer. Drop the kids and one parent off at the airport, while the other parks the car. It gives the kids plenty of time to stretch their legs and go to the restroom before making the trek through security.

Give Yourself Some Extra Time

There is nothing worse than getting up at the crack of dawn and driving to the airport only to arrive late and panicking that you’ll miss your flight.  Anything can happen on the way to the airport, and it usually does. Traffic jams, emergency bathroom breaks, a full parking garage — get the idea? Know the toll-free number for your airline. Program it into your cell phone. Hopefully, you won’t need it. But if you do, you’ll be happy you don’t have to waste time dialing information.

And it just stings when you finally arrive at the airport only to find the line to make it through security looks like the most popular ride at Disney World. Take a deep breath. If you gave yourself extra time, it doesn’t matter. When you get to the gate early, relax and think about all the turkey and stuffing in your future. That’ll probably make you hungry, and even if you’re not hungry, I guarantee by this point the kids are.

Pack Snacks

Snacks and kids go hand in hand, and airport food can often leave a lot to be desired and it’s expensive.  Don’t be afraid to pack food. As long as you’re not carrying liquids, security won’t have any problem with it. If you’re lucky enough to have made it to the gate early, you can have a picnic. It’s a fun way to pass the time at the gate or on the plane. And just think of how jealous the person sitting across from you will be …


Entertainment on the plane used to mean the in-flight movie but with smart phones, iPads and itouches many of the must-haves already live in our purses and backpacks.  Take some time when you help your child pack their carry-on bag (see my packing travel tips for carry-on luggage) and think of the things you and your kids use on a daily basis, that’s what you want to take on the plane.  For smaller children, add some excitement by bringing a new wrapped toy or game. Need entertainment ideas?  See our posts on travel related holiday gift ideas for kids and long list of travel activities for kids.

Amie O’Shaughnessy is the Editor of, a family travel resource offering tips and advice for traveling with kids, as well as comprehensive reviews of the best kid-friendly hotels and resorts.