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5 Secrets to Holiday Air Travel Success (With Kids!)

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.

Holiday Air Travel - Flight Times

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

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. #familytravel #airtravel #holidaytravel #travelwithkids

Holiday Air Travel Tips for Families

1. Know Your Airline

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 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:

Southwest Airlines Boarding at Burbank

Southwest is the only US domestic airline where bags still fly free.

  • Bag Fees: Will your airline charge you for bags? Other than Southwest Airlines, all domestic US airlines now 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.
  • Seating: Do you have seat assignments together as a family? Many more airlines are charging for that privilege. 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!
  • Pre-boarding: 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.

2. Know Your Airport(s)

Holiday Air Travel - Girl Boarding Plane

Ready to fly home for the holidays.

Airlines are only half the battle. Some of the inconveniences of flying 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.

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? Can you check-in and print boarding passes at home in advance to skip the check-in line? 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!
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.

  • At your connecting airport: How far are you likely to have to walk? 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.
  • At your destination airport: What steps do you need to get your bags, rental cars, and more? For example, when picking up a rental car involves getting on a bus (rather than a train), we 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.

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!

Holiday Air Travel - Baby in Carseat on Plane

Prepared with his car seat and an iPad mini for a successful flight!

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

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. 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. Use them if you can. You’d be amazed what a few direct messages over Twitter 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.

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. Not exactly the lesson you want to be teaching your kids during the holidays, right?

Air travel is stressful and 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.

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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!