Sure, there’s no place like home for the holidays, but what happens when home is far away? And you’re bringing baby along for the ride? While she may not have believed it herself when she was a new mom, family travel expert Corinne McDermott says there’s really no need to hesitate bringing even the youngest infants along. “The younger the baby, the easier it is to travel,” she says. “They’re not mobile; they’re not wiggling, and they’re eating and sleeping around the clock. It doesn’t really matter where you are!” So grab the pack ‘n play and off to grandmother’s house you go.
As you gear up for a road trip, start by making sure baby is safe and secure in a properly-installed car seat. And whatever plans you have for a timely arrival, scrap them. “You can’t plan around unexpected diaper changes or needing to nurse,” says McDermott. “If you go with the expectation that things will take a lot longer than usual, you’ll be fine.”
How should I plan my route?
Longer can actually be better. Rather than mapping out the quickest route to your destination, spend some time finding a route that has plentiful rest stops, as well as worthwhile ones. “Check out possible routes that may not be the quickest, but could be the most interesting,” McDermott recommends. “You’ll have to be making more stops now than when you hit the road pre-kids, it would be great if those stops could be fun and even educational, instead of just a truck stop/coffee shop.”
When is the best time to hit the road?
You may be in luck; McDermott says many babies tend to spend car rides asleep in their car seats. (But keep a close eye on your backseat passenger; there have been incidents of that upright sleeping position leading to positional asphyxiation.) Keep in mind, however, that means a more wakeful baby when you arrive at your destination. Consider driving later in the evening or even through the night to help baby maintain a normal sleep schedule, if he has one already. “If you're able, driving through the night is a great idea,” says McDermott. “One of you will be out of commission the next day, but that can be manageable while on vacation. Make a pact with each other to pull over at the nearest motel if you're simply too tired to keep going. Getting there safely is more important than getting there fast.” Alternatively, a Google Maps report points out that driving on the holiday itself is one of the best ways to avoid sitting in extra hours of traffic.
How do I keep baby occupied?
You’ll need to reacquaint yourself with the back seat. “When they’re small and rear-facing, it gets awfully boring in that back seat. Plan to spend some time sitting back there,” says McDermott. Whether you’re reading board books or singing a song, interacting with baby is the easiest way to appease him. “An engaged, safe and comfortable baby is usually a happy baby,” she says.
And when they’re older? Bring all the toys, snacks and DVDs you want; you’re going to end up doing whatever it takes to keep your kids busy and occupied. “This is not about good parenting, it’s about surviving your trip,” jokes McDermott, who allows unfettered access to the tablet on long trips (which would never be allowed at home). “They look forward to trips because they get more access to technology. Same goes for treats,” she says.
Even if you have all the gadgets and gear for a worry-free road trip, they won’t do you any good if they’re packed in the trunk. McDermott suggests you prepare the car before you pull out and make sure you have everything you and your kids will need–including wipes and hand sanitizer—within arm’s reach.
The biggest question: to preboard or not to preboard? It’s really a matter of preference and knowing your child’s temperament. Is an extra thirty minutes of sitting down a recipe for disaster? Or is that additional time going to help everyone get settled?
“Personally, if I let my kids run wild until the last minute, it takes them a long time to settle down,” says McDermott. “I get them in their seats, set them up with toys and put the diaper change pack in the seat in front of me. I prefer preboarding because it gives me the opportunity to get organized. You want to make sure you have access to a close overhead bin, as well as have time to install a car seat, if you brought one.”
When should I fly?
Chaos is inevitable around the holidays, but you can avoid some of it by traveling early. FiveThirtyEight.com reports that flights scheudled to depart between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. arrive 8.6 minutes late on average. For every hour later you depart, expect an extra minute of delays.
“Given the choice between an early flight or mid-afternoon, I’ll take early every time,” says McDermott. “Some kids might actually go back to sleep for the ride to the airport (mine didn’t) but I found they’re so stunned at being up and out that they just kind of sit there in shock.” As for booking the cheapest tickets, “steering clear of the weekends usually offers the best opportunity for reasonable airfare.”
What do I need on board?
You’ll want anything to help clean up a messy emergency. “Bring more diapers and wipes than you think you’ll need,” says McDermott. “Accidents happen. Stash plastic bags to hold trash until you have the opportunity to dispose of it properly. Bring a change of clothes for baby and for you, because if he makes a mess, it’s probably while you’re holding him.”
Extra food and snacks are essential, too, especially since holiday travel can mean big delays. Consider packing a first aid baggie, in case the unexpected comes up like baby has an allergic reaction on the plane. It can also come in handy once you’ve landed, since you won’t want to hunt for a pharmacy in a strange place at an odd hour. McDermott also recommends travel-sized diaper cream, baby shampoo, wash, moisturizer and oral re-hydration unfrozen freeze pops. Check out her more comprehensive carry on checklist here.
What about liquids?
Wondering what the deal is for formula, breast milk or juice? Boarding with children under two buys you more than just the TSA’s standard 3.4-ounce liquid restriction. But those items are subject to additional screening, and having them grouped together in a separate bag and ready to go will make the check-in process smoother. “It doesn't have to be a clear bag,” McDermott clarifies. “In fact, I usually use a thermal bag with a frozen applesauce or other puree or treat to keep things cool. It's just easier to show security when you have all of baby's food and drinks together.”
What do I do with my stroller?
Not to worry if you don’t have one of those cool micro strollers that fits in the overhead compartment. As you’re checking your luggage, tell the attendant at the counter that you’d like to gate check the stroller. They’ll give you a tag to attach to it, which is all the gate attendant needs to see as you’re boarding. The only stipulation: the stroller needs to be able to fold in half. With most airlines, it will be waiting for you as you deplane.
If you’re questioning whether you should bring one in the first place, McDermott says a stroller isn’t something you want to leave behind. “It can serve as a bed, a trolley and a high chair,” she says, explaining that your destination probably won’t have all the baby gear you’re used to at home.
How do I keep baby comfortable (and everyone around us happy)?
If you have the flexibility, choose seats that work best for your family. Do you want to be near the front so you’re the first to deplane? “My preference is to sit near the back of the plane,” says McDermott. “It's usually closer to the washroom, and the service galley where it's easier to catch the flight attendants' attention should you require assistance with anything.”
Once you’re situated, the key to a successful flight is plenty of distractions. McDermott applies her unlimited tablet-access theory to plane rides as well, noting that consolidating all your child’s books and games onto once device makes your bag a lot lighter. But it’s still a last resort. “Once you pull that tech out, it’s hard to go back,” she says, adding that she usually pulls out classic coloring books first.
“Regardless of the age of your child, you must stock your bag with enough distractions to keep them busy for the duration of your journey”, she says. “For babies this could mean little board books or soft toys with lots of ‘bits’ attached. For older kids, this could mean a portable game device or DVD player. New stuff will hold attention for longer but you needn’t spend a fortune. The dollar store is great for trinket-y toys, and if they’re lost or broken it’s not a big deal.”
How do I prepare for takeoff (and landing)?
Getting babies situated is half the battle. Soothing them during takeoffs and landings is the other half. “Babies and toddlers tend to feel the most pain from the pressure of takeoff and landing, since the Eustachian tubes in their ears are much smaller,” says McDermott. “The act of swallowing helps to clear them, so nursing, a snack, a bottle or a pacifier can often help. However, don't be afraid to administer a dose of baby pain reliever if your child really seems to be in pain.”
Still worried that wailing is inevitable? Some parents have made headlines for creating goody bags for their fellow passengers as a sort of advanced apology. But McDermott says that’s time, energy and money that would be better spent on making baby comfortable. And disgruntled adults can take care of themselves.
Train travel seems ideal, right? You’re free to move around, baby always has a view and you don’t have to keep your eyes on the road. “For older toddlers, you can’t beat it,” says McDermott. Some drawbacks, however, include inconvenient deboarding—you have a small window of opportunity to get everyone off that train—and limited storage space for bags.
There are ways to make things easier, though. Some Amtrak trains allow you to check up to two bags, and most major stations offer a free Red Cap baggage handling service. An extra hand can make getting on and off the train a whole lot easier.
While you can’t preboard, if you’re traveling with your partner, send them ahead to snag seats while you usher your slower toddler aboard. Ask the conductor which doors will open at your stop so that you won’t have to scramble to switch cars. Amtrak also offers great discounts for kids–children ages 2-12 ride at half price, and infants 0-2 travel for free.
Updated November 2016