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! And that may be truer than ever in 2021 after a year filled with several well-publicized air travel meltdowns.
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. In 2021 especially, there is a lot that is outside of passenger control as the airlines try to recover from staff shortages and other challenges. But here are my 5 best tips for making it all a little easier if you are traveling by air this holiday season.
Holiday Air Travel Tips for Families
1. Know Your Airline
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. So much has changed in recent years already with all airlines, but the changes that 2020 and 2021 brought are even more significant. A lot of Americans have not flown for several years to see these for themselves, and the holidays will be the first time.
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.
Airlines provide fewer and fewer amenities these days and 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
- Will your airline charge you for bags? Other than Southwest Airlines, all domestic US airlines charge for bags unless you have booked your tickets with an airline credit card that offers a free bag perk.
- Some ultra-low cost airlines even charge for carry on bags.
- Some airlines also can have unexpected bag rules that may trip you up, such as American Airlines’ rules about not being allowed to gate check larger strollers.
- Do you have seat assignments together as a family? Many more airlines are charging for that privilege, especially if you booked the cheapest basic economy fare.
- 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)
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
- 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 backup plan?
At your destination airport
- What steps do you need to take to get your bags and get to ground transportation and 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 toddler 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
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.
- 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
During the holiday travel season, crowds and winter weather often are a recipe for delays and problems. In 2021, there have already been a lot of airline meltdowns caused by the most minor of triggers (thunderstorms elsewhere in the country caused our family a three day delay this summer!). While we hope that this bad luck is coming to an end, it’s possible that more troubles are coming 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.
If you do find yourself facing a serious delay or cancellation, 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. 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, and San Jose are all within reasonable driving distance. (Related: Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Airports)
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 that this year has 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.