I can’t make the family pressure disappear, but here are some tips to make getting and being there a little more fun and a lot less frantic.
Think About When You Travel
Let go of the idea that you have to celebrate Christmas or Hanukah with your family on the official calendar day. Persuading them might be not be easy but commit to the idea that as long as you’re together sometime between the winter solstice and the New Year, it counts. You can provide your kids with the holiday memories they want and avoid the craziest travel days by waking up at home on Christmas day and traveling before or afterward.
Don’t Schlep Presents
Unless you have a sleigh and 8 tiny reindeer, shop online and have the presents shipped to wherever you’re traveling. Yes, you give up the option to wow your family with quirky New York specialties, but the checked luggage fees are steep this season. If you’re traveling with kids you have more than enough to carry without worrying about that cheesecake from Juniors.
Plan Your Trip To The Airport
No one wants to miss a flight because they underestimated how crazy the airport would be, and during the holidays it’s possible.
The VIP services that airports and airlines offer these days are a short cut that’s worth the price if you’re traveling with several kids or older parents or as a lone parent with kids. Basic VIP services range from about $45 to $150 per adult (they generally don’t charge for kids). For that price you might get curbside help with your luggage, priority check-in (even with an economy ticket), the right to cut to the front of the security line, early boarding and sometimes access to a lounge. We tried this out over the summer at the busy AA terminal at JFK. We bypassed long lines and our time from curb to lounge was about 25 minutes. Check out the offerings from American and Frontier or from companies like Abercrombie & Kent.
If you go it alone, check in online within 24 hours of departing, even if you’re checking bags. review your airline’s policy on checking and gate-checking baby gear(some limit the strollers they’ll gate check) and the TSA’s latest policy on breast milk and formula. I like to print web pages about any policy I think an airline or airport worker might dispute, just in case. Bring milk if you think you’ll need it during your flight; it’s hard to come by in airports and on planes.
Speed your way to the gate by minimizing what you carry on board and being organized. Stuff your coats into your checked bags. Take a stroller you can easily fold and send through the X-Ray machine. Wear slip-on shoes and put kids under 4 in foot pajamas, regardless of when you’re flying, so you don’t have to hassle with their shoes.
Time Your Driving
I find that first thing in the morning can be ideal for a short drive–2 to 3 hours. My 4YO is more amenable to chatting, singing and amusing herself when she’s fresh and energetic. And you arrive with plenty of daytime left.
For longer trips where we really need her to sleep we try to have a very active morning and then drive after lunch when she’s likely to nod off.
We’ve had luck putting her in her PJs and driving after dinner. But I must say having her fall asleep this way is less certain now that she’s old enough to relish the novelty of being out at night. You also have to consider how well your child will handle being transferred to a bed when you get where you’re going. Once mine is asleep she’s determined to stay asleep so it’s worked out OK, but with babies it can backfire terribly.
Update Yourself on the Local Family Scene
It’s possible your parents no longer live where you grew up, or they’re still in your hometown but you haven’t checked in on the local kid scene since, well, you were a kid.
Search for local parent blogs and regional equivalents of Time Out for Kids and Mommy Poppins (there is a good list here). You might discover all kinds of activities from community tree lightings to family museum hours that will lure your relatives and friends out of their houses. It will make visiting more fun for your kids (who will appreciate not being cooped up in other people’s homes all week) and help turn an obligation into an actual vacation.
Who knows, maybe you won’t want to come home.