Things to do Now to Make Family Holiday Travel Easier

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Even here in Texas we have felt the beginnings of fall in the air.  That means many great things are just around the corner, including holiday travel.  I love travel, and I love holidays, but holiday family travel can be stressful (or worse) if you aren’t prepared.  The airport and airplanes will be full of family travelers who aren’t used to the routines, rules, and standard airline operating procedures.  That can lead to families with seat assignments scattered all over the airplane, crying kids who don’t understand why they can’t hold their stuffed animal through security, use their iPad during take-off, and (almost) crying parents who just want it all to stop.  Luckily, there are a few things you can do right now to help ensure that your own holiday travel goes as smoothly as possible.


  • Check your seat assignments early and often.  I think the #1 complaint I hear from traveling families is that they were assigned a seat away from their young child.  If you have young kids (or older kids that you want to sit next to), it is very important that you get seat assignments for your crew when you book your tickets.  This is not always done automatically.  Even once you have seat assignments together, it is important that you keep an eye on them every so often as they can change in the event of a schedule change, aircraft type swap, or just IT gone haywire.  If you wait until the last minute to worry about seat assignments, the flight may likely already be full and there will not be seats together for your family to occupy.  If this happens, you may also need to consider paying extra for premium seats together that may still be available when regular economy seats together are full.  If all else fails, you can try to trade seats with other passengers on-board.  Just be aware that they are doing you a favor, and don’t ask someone to give-up their aisle seat for your middle seat and expect that conversation to go very well.  Be proactive from the beginning with seat assignments and you can avoid on-board bribery and begging.
  • Try to get “good seats”.  While it is usually most important to be together on the plane regardless of where the seats are located, your flying experience can be more comfortable if you get “good” seats.  Young kids can’t sit in exit rows for safety reasons, but not all bulkhead seats are exit rows, so that is a location to look for.  You may also want to consider paying a little extra for economy seats with extra legroom.  Some airlines like United, American, and Delta have premium economy seats that can be secured for free if you have certain elite status levels, or for an extra fee to anyone.  If you are on Southwest that has open seating then you will want to be sure to check-in exactly at 24 before the flight so that you secure as early of a boarding pass as possible.  You can also pay a small fee to have the computer check you in even earlier to secure an even better boarding number.

United’s economy plus seats offer ample legroom

  • Think about what type of child restraint you will use, or not use, for your little kids on the flight.  In most cases, you don’t really have to use anything according to the FAA, but your child will likely be more comfortable (and safer) if you use a car seat or FAA approved CARES harness.  Once kids become mobile, they can be less than thrilled with sitting still in an airplane seat for long periods of time, but sometimes the comfort and familiarity of their car seat can help some with that situation.  Just be aware a car seat will likely put them in a position where they can easily kick the chair in front of them.  Consider having a family member sit in the seat in front of them if you can’t secure the bulkhead seats.  This can help with those times where they sneak in a kick or two.  The CARES harness is a good alternative to a car seat as it is much easier to transport and won’t put them closer to the seat in front of them, but it may not keep your kid as comfortable as a car seat.

C’s first time using the CARES harness a couple of years ago

  • See if any of your credit cards provide perks you can use like free checked bags or airline lounge access that can save you money and give you a better travel experience.  Cards like the United MileagePlus Explorer card provides two annual free lounge passes and free checked bags for up to two people.  Some other cards like the Amex Platinum card also provide lounge access for carriers like US AIrways, American, Delta, and more.  Lounges not only offer a better place to wait for your flight with drinks and snacks, but some also offer family rooms where your family can spread out and play.  Additionally, if something goes wrong with your flight, the agents in the lounges are often very empowered and capable of re-booking you rather than having you wait in the long line at the gate.

Family Room in American Airlines AAdmiral’s Club


Family room in United Club

  • Start prepping your kids for the flights now, especially if they are not experienced travelers.  By two years old my daughter knew the rules on the airplane “no crying, no yelling, no kicking”.  That doesn’t mean she followed the rules 100% of the time, but she did pretty well.  Talk them through what they will do on the plane, what is expected of them, and what to expect.  This won’t guarantee model behavior, but it should help.  There are children’s books out there that can help with this.  Some of the ones we have are: Little Airport Sticker Activity Book, Airport, Going on an Airplane, The Noisy Airplane Book, Amazing Airplanes, and Airplane Flap.  Here is a good post on a different site about some of these books.  There are tons more out there (most very inexpensive on sites like, and the more they read and know about airport and airplanes the better.

We taught her early on to carry (and pack) her own toys

  • Consider getting Pre-Check to avoid the long security lines.  Pre-Check is truly a game-changer for family travelers since it allows you to breeze through security without taking off shoes, taking out liquids, taking out computers, etc.  Children 12 and under can go through with the parents without having Pre-Check themselves.  I literally can go through security from start to finish in under 60 seconds with Pre-Check, as opposed to the long waits that can sometimes exist during peak holiday travel times.  Here is a fairly recent post about Pre-Check.  I wouldn’t recommend getting Pre-Check solely for holiday travel since it is a process and it isn’t free, but if you travel with some regularity this could be a good time to go ahead and work on getting approved for Pre-Check.  The TSA is opening up some Pre-Check enrollment centers beginning this fall, so there will be a new way to get approved for this awesome shorter path through security.


What other tips do traveling families have on things they do in advance in order to make holiday travel as smooth as possible?


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  1. Wait a second… Penguins can’t fly!!! But aside from that fact, where can I purchase one of those penguin shaped kiddie rollaboard suitcases?

    • ASW, it is made by Trendy Kids and called Percy Penguin. I bought mine from the Container Store, but they sell them in various stores. We love it! Only downside is the outside does scuff some during use, but otherwise it has been perfect.

  2. I usually agree with you on your points regarding travelling with kids, but I have to disagree about one point that constitutes “good seats.” Bulkhead seating maybe ideal for travelling with an infant 4 months old or younger because of the bassinet option on some airlines, but I do not see how it a “good seat” for a family with older toddlers. I find it very difficult to sit there with my family, because you can not put any of the things you need to grab at quickly (food, toys, electronics, wipes, diapers, etc) under the the seat in front of you or in a seatback pocket. You are kind of forced to put it in the over head bin. We were stuck in a situation where we thought bulkhead was a “good seat,” but realistically we couldnt get to the extra diapers and toys when the fasten seatbelt light was on. Nowadays, I leave the bulkhead to the taller folk and the families travelling with infants.

    • It all depends on what battle you want. We are able to keep enough of that on our lap so I would rather the extra leg space and no seat kicking, but there is a trade-off for sure.

  3. I agree with jedijood – the bulkhead is not the best place for families with young children. And I would worry about keeping toys and stuff on your lap – hopefully it is all stowed during take off and landing for the safety of all passengers. Just having to get up and down to retrieve all the kids stuff is a hassle. And being so close to first class is pure torture!! 🙂

    • We mostly have a coloring book and iPad in our seats so not too cluttered. I think this issue might make for a good post by itself. My guess is it comes down to number/age of kids and how much stuff you need to be able to reach at all times. With our one 3 year old we honestly don’t need much, but sounds like that varies. 😉

  4. Don’t assume that, just because you chose seats when you booked your ticket through and OTA (like Travelocity or Expedia) that those seat assignments were recorded by the airline. Check right away.
    Consider selecting seats two-behind-two or two-behind-one depending on your family’s configuration. In the first case, it allows both children to have window seats, the children to be isolated from each other if necessary, to sit together if desirable, and to be seated behind parents if they have trouble not interfering with the seat in front of them. In the later case, it allows the child to be seated behind one of the parents, and that parent to have a break from childcare.
    Consider a quiet read-aloud for the journey.
    If you prepare your kids with knowledge about all the interesting things to see at the airport using books like the ones suggested in the post, you may find there’s a not enough time before boarding the flight to take in all the lift-up trucks, luggage carts, stick-people, and so on.
    Remember that even for children that have flown before, this is still a novel experience and they’re likely to have lots of questions. Don’t fob them off with answers like “Soon”, treat their questions with respect and try to give them real, honest answers. The more information they have, and the more involved they are in the process, the more secure they will feel.
    Finally, accept that your activity for the duration of the traveling day is not going to be enjoying a movie or reading a book, but rather keeping your child engaged and interested so that they, you, and the other passengers have an enjoyable trip.

  5. Here are a few things we do in addition to all of the great suggestions made already. If you are taking a long flight, either cross country or across an ocean I always schedule the flight for as late as possible, preferably after 10PM or so. The easiest 2 and 4 year olds to deal with on a long flight are sleeping ones.

    We also like to get the very back row of the plane too instead of worrying about leg room or storage. There is usually traffic and noise back there from the people standing waiting for bathrooms, and on most long flights there is a room in the back of the plane where you can always take an upset child to settle them down and 99% of the people won’t even know (unlike if you are in row 15 everyone knows).

    For us, the early boarding they give to families is the worst idea ever…so you want me to spend an extra 30 minutes on the plane while everyone else gets on wasting our time…no thank you. We pack very lightly on the plane, just take the extra clothes for kids in case of a potty accident, the entertainment (iPads, Snacks, Toys), and we will get to the back of our plane when they tell us the doors are closing. I don’t know how many times we’ve had a last call over the announcements for the final call as we were standing at the gate…but it has been quite a few. Once they shut the doors you have plenty of time to get that car seat installed even if you have one.

    The last thing you want to do is blow all of your snacks/tricks/time waiting for others to board in my opinion. It stinks having to go through the narrow isles through seas of people to the back of the plane, but it is worth it for us.

    These are a few things that work great for us.

  6. I just want to note (because it is an issue I am passionate about) – there is a growing body of research connecting “screen time” (i.e. playing on an I-pad, watching TV, playing on a phone) with cognitive disorders including ADD/ADHD – so be very careful about a strategy where you stick your kid in front of an I-Pad/TV on an airplane for 8-10 hours. I’m not sure how well publicized this research is.

    Here is a good overview of some of the research a couple of years ago.

    As a fellow Texan with kids, I am just learning about this site and spending a lot of time reading.

  7. I follow all the rules mentioned above, but my last SJU_ORD was not that pleasant. We were all in Business class, my daughter is now 2.5 and slept for most of the flight and the rest she was good playing with her toys.

    My 1.5 toddler did not stop crying for the full 4 hours. I was very sorry for all other business travelers. You can prepare, but you cant control your kid. Immediately when we got off the aircraft, he stopped crying.

    • 18 months is one of the toughest and most unpredictable ages for travel. I would say 9 months – 24 months are the roughest ages. Sometimes it just doesn’t go well. Thankfully the flight does eventually end.

  8. @ORD-TGU @MP. Totally agree that 18 mo is a very difficult age on planes. Too old to just sleep or lie in your arms, too young to have any kind of attention span to sit in the seat and do anything.

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