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5 Secrets to Holiday Air Travel Success with Kids!

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There’s no place like home for the holidays. But getting there isn’t always easy, particularly if you are flying the not-so-friendly skies and doing it all with kids. Flight delays, crowded airports, TSA snafus, and holiday stress sometimes seem take the joy out of the holiday travel season. Holiday air travel with kids is not for the faint of heart! After the epic meltdowns that the 2022 holiday travel season brought, many travelers are rightfully trepidatious about what 2023 has in store.

Airport Holiday Decorations

My family travels by air nearly every December. We’ve done and seen it all at every age and stage with our kids. Some years it all clicks. You get where you need to go (and your bags make it too) and you count your Christmas blessings. And some years you find yourself stranded in Dallas thanks to a super-rare December Texas snowstorm. And with a sick kid, to boot.

There’s no way to guarantee holiday travel success. There is a lot that is outside of passenger control as the airlines try to recover from staff shortages and airports struggle with a shortage of air traffic controllers nationwide. Of course, winter weather can always throw a major curveball too.

But here are my 5 best tips for making it all a little easier if your family is traveling by air this holiday season.

Related: Tips for Handling Santa When You’re Traveling for the Holidays

Holiday Air Travel Tips for Families

1. Know Your Airline

Southwest Airlines Boarding at Burbank
Southwest is the only US domestic airline where bags still fly free.

A lot of infrequent travelers take to the skies during the holiday season, and that can be a recipe for trouble because they aren’t prepared for the current state of air travel. The rapid changes that the last few years have brought to the airline industry are significant. A lot of Americans have not flown regularly for several years to see these changes in action for themselves, and the holidays may be one of the first times.

The most common mistake that I see infrequent travelers making is simply not knowing the rules of the airline they are flying. They then get upset at the airport because there is some unusual airline rule or practice that makes things difficult or inconvenient for them. Doing a little research saves you stress on your travel day. This is especially important when it comes to traveling with kids.

Related: 3 Little-Known Airline Rules All Traveling Parents Need to Know

Airlines provide fewer and fewer amenities these days. Some of these changes hit family travelers the hardest. Here are common airline issues to think about as a traveler with kids:

Bag Fees & Rules


  • Do you have seat assignments together as a family? Many more airlines charge for seat assignments, especially if you booked the cheapest basic economy fare. And even though airlines say they are making an effort to seat young kids with at least one adult, how that plays out when planes are filled to capacity is another question.
  • Assuming you’ve snagged seats together at booking, have you double checked to make sure the airline hasn’t moved those around without your knowledge? It happens!


  • Will you be able to pre-board with your kids if that matters to you? Most airlines don’t pre-board families anymore (or pre-board only with babies), so you need to be prepared to get on board with the masses and move quickly.
  • Are you bringing car seats and strollers on board? How do you manage that and young kids? Do you know what to do to gate check a stroller?

2. Know Your Airport(s)

SFO Airport at Holidays
San Francisco International Airport at the Holidays.

Airlines are only half the battle. Some of the inconveniences of flying really are due to airport logistics. If you are flying in or out of (or connecting in) a new airport on your holiday, take a few minutes to look at an airport map and make sure you investigate any unusual rules that might apply. I’d recommend doing this even for airports you may know well, as a lot of them have had construction updates or other changes during these past few years.

Things to plan for with airports:

At Your Originating Airport

Holiday Air Travel with Kids - Cutting TSA Lines with CLEAR
Having CLEAR to cut long TSA lines can save up to an hour at busy airports around Christmas.
  • Will you have holiday traffic delays even getting to your departing airport? (In 2023 for example, construction on roadways near Charlotte Douglas International Airport have sometimes meant hour long delays sitting in traffic before passengers can even be dropped off at the curb!)
  • How busy is the airport you are flying out of? Will holiday crowds overwhelm the usual capacity and bring long lines?
  • Are you checking bags? If so, does the airport have self-tagging options that keep lines shorter?
  • Will you remember to check in and download boarding passes at home in advance to skip the counter if you are carrying on?
  • Are you up-to-date on all TSA shortcuts you might be able to use? In particular, don’t forget about family lanes that can save you time with younger kids. If you have TSA Pre-Check, CLEAR, or elite status, use it!

At your connecting airport

  • How far are you likely to have to walk to change planes? Do you need a stroller or baby carrier to do that with a baby or toddler? In some airports, an airline’s gates may all be in close proximity (think: Las Vegas when flying Southwest), making connections easy. In others (think: Atlanta when flying Delta or LAX when changing to a partner airline), you may have a long connection and terminal changes in your future.
  • Will there be food available that works for your family? Will you have time to grab it with long airport lines and staff shortages? Do you have a food and snacks backup plan?

At your destination airport

  • What steps do you need to take to get your bags and get to ground transportation and, ultimately, to your destination?
  • If you are taking a ride share, do you know where to go for pickups? Some airports like LAX require you to shuttle to a single pickup location. Can you do that with bags and kids?
  • If you are renting a car, do you need to take a shuttle or train or are cars located within walking distance? My family often send my husband ahead with my older child while I wait curbside with the bags and our younger child for him to pick us up. Getting all the bags and maneuvering a stroller on shuttle buses is often too hard to do. Think these kinds of logistics through. See my guide to rental cars with kids for all my best tips on how we divide and conquer to move through these steps quickly even in larger airports.

3. Be Prepared

Kids on Tablets on Airplane at Holidays
Holiday travel made easy with tech distractions.

Once you know your airline and know your airport, you can take steps in advance of your holiday travels to prepare yourself for potential problems and chokepoints. The Boy Scouts were definitely on to something!

Here are the preparations I often make when traveling with kids:

  • Entertainment: Bring a tablet or other tech distraction along with several tech-free toys and entertainment options. Variety is important, especially with younger kids. Download shows and apps before the trip because airline WiFi is expensive and also isn’t fast enough to stream video anyway.
  • Food: Very few airlines (especially domestically) have meal choices on flights any more, and the ones that are offered are often expensive, not kid-friendly, and in limited supply. Bring enough snacks to get you to your destination and then some. Need ideas? Here are 50 kid-friendly snack ideas for air travel to simplify your planning.
  • Travel Gear: Having the right travel gear in the right places is essential to traveling with younger kids. Think through things like car seats, strollers, travel cribs, baby carriers, and more. Decide whether to check at the ticket counter, gate check, or carry-on. And only take what you really need.

4. Be Proactive

Holiday Air Travel with Kids - American Airlines A321

During the holiday travel season, crowds and winter weather often are a recipe for delays and problems. In the last couple of years, there have already been multiple airline meltdowns caused by the most minor of triggers (thunderstorms elsewhere in the country caused our family a three day delay a few summers back and no one has recovered emotionally yet from what holiday travel looked like last year!). While we hope that this bad luck is coming to an end, it’s possible that more troubles could come before this year is up.

When and if things go wrong, be ready to take action to get your problems solved more quickly than others. In air travel, the squeaky wheel definitely gets the grease.

Watch the weather in the week leading up to your trip. Sometimes airlines will allow travelers to change their flights free of charge several days in advance if a big storm is on the horizon. Look for those waivers and act fast to move your plans.

If you do find yourself facing a serious delay or cancellation you didn’t anticipate, get to work. Get in a customer service line in the airport immediately but also call the airline directly while you wait in that line to see if you can get a phone agent to sort out your issue more quickly. Some airlines have robust social media help desks, particularly on Twitter/X. Use them if you can. You’d be amazed what a few direct messages can solve in some situations.

Suggest solutions to a gate agent if your flight is delayed or cancelled. Use your smartphone or laptop to research alternate flights or airports while you wait in line. Think creatively. For example, I always let agents know that they can look into alternate airports for me, particularly if I’m flying back home where San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and even Sacramento are all within reasonable driving distance. (Related: Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Airports.)

Last year, when the Southwest Airlines situation turned bleak, I even booked a refundable backup fare myself on American Airlines so my husband to get home from our travels and back to work. He was ultimately able to fly home on his original Southwest flights. We cancelled the refundable AA fare but were so grateful and much less stressed with that insurance policy of the extra flight in place.

5. Be Nice

Santa is watching this season, so be on your best behavior. Nothing gets the holiday season off on the wrong foot like mom or dad pitching a fit in an airport. Or kicked off a plane. Or banned forever from an airline. Not exactly the lesson you want to be teaching your kids during the holidays, right?

Air travel is stressful and it’s never been more so with the extra pressures the last few years have brought. That’s all the more reason to simply be kind during the craziness of it all. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll often find that employees treat you better if you are the only person keeping your cool in a stressful situation.

Are you flying for the holidays this year? What are your best tips for managing the madness?

Flying with kids during the winter holidays? Essential family travel tips and secrets for air travel around Christmas and New Year's from a parent who has been on 200+ flights with kids.

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Tula Carriers Australia

Wednesday 10th of May 2023

Thank you for sharing these fantastic holiday air travel tips! These tips will definitely make traveling with kids less stressful. Great post!

Tula Carriers Australia


Monday 13th of December 2021

Great information thank you for sharing this information

Dr. Jennifer and Dr. Tony Edwards | Weekends Count

Thursday 21st of December 2017

You are so right about being prepared and being nice. You can prevent so many meltdowns by preparing and airline staff are more likely to help you if you are nice to them. Great post!


Sunday 6th of December 2015

Love this guide, Leslie! We stayed at the Hyatt House in Emeryville last spring--great space, and they were so accommodating to our family--also a really good breakfast in the morning, definitely better than the average hotel!