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How to Handle Santa When Traveling for the Holidays

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Traveling with your kids during the Christmas season? Kids often wonder how Santa will know to deliver gifts to the right place. And parents often wonder how they can possibly transport all those gifts back home!

Never fear! My family has been away from our home on Christmas Day on 8 of the 14 holiday seasons that we’ve had kids. Not surprisingly, Santa has figured it out every single time. If you are wondering how best to prepare for holiday travel and let Santa know how to handle presents this year (especially those larger items that can’t be easily packed in a suitcase or car trunk), here are all of our family’s best logistical tips.

CLT Airport During Holiday Travel Season

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Let Santa Know Your Plans and Preferences

Kids on Santa's Lap
Let Santa know your holiday travel plans if you see him in person for photos!

Your kids don’t need to worry that Santa will skip their home if he arrives to find the house empty and no children nestled all snug in their beds. You can and should let Santa know where you are going to be and how you’d like him to handle gifts.

How best to communicate to Santa? By writing a letter, of course!

The US Postal Service has its annual Operation Santa Program, so that’s a reliable way to get in touch with St. Nick. In 2023, the deadline to send letters to make sure they make it to the North Pole in time is December 11. The site has the official address to use as well as templates that kids can download to help them write a letter in Santa-friendly format.

If you plan to visit Santa in person at a mall, store, or other special event, that is another great time to let Santa know where you will be for the holidays. Now with the advent of technology there are additional ways to get in touch with him, including a number of websites that let you send an email to Santa.

Personally, I think Santa is enough of a pro that he knows it all without needing to be told. He sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, after all! Nevertheless, my kids have gotten a lot of peace of mind talking about a plan in advance and communicating where they will be to Santa directly.

What Should You Consider When Creating Your Instructions for Santa

Holiday Mood Lighting Aboard Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines in the holiday travel spirit with some Christmas mood lighting!

So just what kind of Santa plan will work best for your family? It depends on three factors:

  1. Whether you are traveling by car or by air,
  2. What gifts your kids are including on their Santa wish list that specific year, and
  3. Whether you are staying with family/friends vs. in a hotel.

If you have a car, it’s easier to transport more items, including even a larger gift or two, if necessary. But truly enormous presents like a bike, scooter, or giant stuffed animal may take up more space than you have in the trunk. This is especially true if you have a full car already or several kids asking for large gifts.

If you are flying or staying in tight quarters like a hotel room, you have to be even more conscious about space. With the cost and hassle of checked baggage (especially during the busy holiday travel season), you probably don’t want to be carrying a ton of stuff home.

Related: Secrets to Holiday Air Travel Success with Kids

Additionally, it’s really risky to put anything particularly valuable in your checked luggage. You don’t want to be in a position of needing to transport expensive electronics too big for your carryon bag. If your kids’ list includes those, you may want to take a different approach than if you have a toddler asking for a stuffed animal.

Santa Logistics that Worked for Our Family

Kids Opening Gifts and Santa Stockings at Grandma House on Christmas Day
Opening smaller Santa presents at grandma’s house on the East Coast on Christmas Day.

My family almost always spends Christmas with my parents on the other side of the country, so we are experts at how to manage Santa presents when flying. We’ve let Santa know that all of our larger gifts should be left back at home in California. Santa then fills everyone’s stockings at the destination where we are spending Christmas Day. He also drops off a few small and highly portable gift items there so there is something to discover on Christmas morning.

What kind of gifts work best at your travel destination? Candy, gift cards, small books, video game cartridges, travel games, and small toys are all ones Santa has left for my kids over the years (Santa gave our son a 2×2 Rubix cube one year that was a huge hit).

In some years when we’ve been staying with grandparents, Santa has also dropped off a group gift. Items like a puzzle, a board game, or football that the whole family can play while spending time together during the holiday season have worked well.

You certainly don’t need to tell Santa to do gifts in both places though. If what the kids want is small enough to manage completely at your destination, great! And if your kids are patient enough to wait until they get home after a trip to see what Santa has bought, that’s fantastic as well.

But I know firsthand that Santa doesn’t mind accommodating two dropoffs if that works best for your family. What’s one more house when he has a few billion to cover? I know of some families who have even asked Santa to come early to their home to drop gifts off before a trip too – he’s flexible!

Luggage & What to Pack to Prepare for Transporting Gifts

Mom and child at CLT Airport with Holiday Decorations

No matter where you are or where you are staying, be sure to leave a little extra suitcase space for transporting gifts home. Even if Santa plans ahead and only drops off small items, you may receive additional gifts from other friends and family members you need to transport too!

We often travel during the holidays with an extra portable duffel bag that packs flat. Plus, several of our favorite suitcases are expandable (this Briggs & Riley expandable spinner is my personal workhorse). Sometimes we are able to make space because we are transporting gifts for other family members that are given away, so consider that. If you are staying with family as we often are, you maybe even can borrow an extra suitcase if the gift volume gets really out of hand.

If you are flying, just be sure that whatever you pack doesn’t exceed the weight limits that your airline has for both carry on and checked bags. And know in advance just how much those checked bags will cost (pre-purchasing them on low cost carriers especially may save you a bundle or having an airline credit card can save you on fees too).

Have Someone Back Home on Santa Watch

As Christmas Day arrives, Santa will have made a drop off in one or two locations, depending on your requests. If you’ve instructed him to leave larger items back at home, your kids may really want to know if Santa made a delivery there. If you have a friend, family member, or neighbor back home watching out for the house and picking up mail, that is the perfect person for the job.

Grandma often checks on our house after Christmas and confirms that Santa made a delivery back home. But she is not allowed to spill any secrets about what the gifts are or to send any photos! We have a second “Christmas Morning” unveiling with our kids when we arrive back home after the holidays to see what Santa has brought there.

This approach has made the Christmas seasons that we’ve traveled a success for our family! Santa gets to do what he does best and we’ve traveled worry free to see our loved ones during the holidays.

Traveling for the holidays and not sure what to tell Santa? Tips for how to handle Santa gifts if you are somewhere other than home on Christmas Day.

Even More Tips for Parents

Need even more insider Santa travel tips? Parents, enter your email address below to unlock instant access to even more helpful ideas and considerations.

Thanks for popping behind the (free) paywall for even more Santa travel information. I want to make sure to help parents preserve the holiday magic for their kids who believe. Hence, the additional security! Here are the real nitty gritty logistics for how my husband and I pull Santa off most years when we are traveling.

As I already mentioned, we usually fly to the other side of the country where we spend the holidays with my extended family. Santa delivers smaller gifts for Christmas Day there and leaves the main items back home in California. Here’s how we plan and prepare for this divide and conquer approach to Santa gifts.

Make Two Lists

Snow and Winter Weather at Airport with Southwest Airlines Planes
Winter weather may slow you down at the airport during your holiday travel, but Santa can fly through anything!

The kids send Santa one list, but we split each of their lists into two as we begin to purchase gifts. The goal is to create a list of a few smaller items and stocking stuffers (of roughly equal number and value for each child since you know they keep track!). Those smaller items are what Santa drops off where we are on Christmas Day.

Everything else gets bought at home or shipped to our house for the usual home Santa setup (more below on how we manage that).

Ship Smaller Items Ahead to Your Destination if You Can

If you are traveling to see friends and family, I recommend shipping as many of the smaller gift items ahead as you can. That way, you aren’t struggling to hide gifts in the trunk of your car or the luggage you are bringing with you. Amazon Prime is your friend this time of year!

Shipping items ahead is harder to do if you are staying in a hotel (and impossible to do if you are spending Christmas aboard a cruise ship!). Sometimes hotels will hold packages for you, but many charge a fee for this kind of service these days. And there is always the risk packages get misplaced. So use this strategy sparingly if you don’t have a secure place to receive shipments.

Shop at Your Destination

If you are arriving sufficiently in advance of Christmas Day to your destination (with buffers for flight delays), you can also do some of your holiday shopping there. The helps you avoid having to ship gifts or bring them with you. This strategy can come in extra handy if you are spending the holidays at a destination where the kids will want special souvenirs anyway (like Disneyland!).

Just don’t count on this strategy to purchase items in high demand that might sell out. We usually only do this last minute shopping for items like holiday candy or gift cards that will be stocking stuffers. And make sure you really do have time to sneak away and shop without triggering suspicion. If you happen to have a willing family member who likes to shop and can pick up some items for you ahead of your trip, that is an amazing bonus as well!

Have a Plan for Concealing Gifts You Will Pack and Transport Yourself

Some things can’t be easily shipped in advance or purchased at your destination, so chances are good there are a few gifts you will need to transport yourself. I had carry everything last spring for the Easter Bunny when we spent Easter aboard a Disney cruise, so I know this can be extra tricky!

Be very careful about hiding things in your luggage. The last thing you want is for a kid spot a gift as you are packing or unpacking. I usually conceal gift items in my luggage in more secret places like an inner zip pocket that won’t get opened on accident. I’ve also packed some gifts in a sealed cardboard box and packed the box in my suitcase.

Immediately Unpack & Hide Gifts at Your Destination

Speaking of keeping the secret, you also need a foolproof strategy at your destination to avoid gifts being found before Christmas Day. If you are staying in tighter quarters with family or in a hotel, you need to be a little more sly!

My usual hiding spot is on the top shelf of a closet. I then put our empty suitcases in front of the gifts so they block everything from view. When we were on a cruise ship, I actually put the cabin life jackets in front of the gifts. Those wouldn’t be moved unless the ship was going down! (And I’d have bigger concerns than Santa if that were the case.)

Have a Santa Setup Plan for Your Destination

Stockings at Grandmas House with Group Gifts
Gifts set up on Grandma’s fireplace.

Depending on where you are on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you may need to do a little extra planning for how you are going to set up stockings and gifts. If you are in a home (whether a vacation rental or with family), it’s probably the same drill you have back home – wait for the kids to go to sleep and set up gifts in a common area like under the tree or by the fireplace.

But if you are in a tighter space like a hotel room or cruise cabin, you really have to think about how to sneak around successfully! I’ve never had to do Christmas in a hotel room, but I have had to do the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. Similar principle! It’s super stressful trying to set things up without making noise to wake kids or arouse their suspicions. Let me assure you from experience – you haven’t lived until you’ve crawled along the floor of a hotel room in Las Vegas silently trying to hide Easter eggs at 1am without waking a crafty and suspicious almost tween.

I highly recommend preparing and staging as many of the gifts as possible so all you are doing is setting them out. Stuff the stockings in the bathroom behind closed doors. Store them in a cabinet behind some towels to pull out when you take a midnight bathroom break. Think carefully about the noise certain gifts might make before you make them part of your plan.

How to Set up Santa Gifts Back Home: Two Strategies

Santa Gifts and Stockings on Fireplace
Santa’s gifts waiting for us back home after our trip.

If you are planning on having Santa deliver gifts back home as well, you’ll need a plan for setting those up as well. Remember: there’s no doing it at night after they are in bed. The gifts need to be set up and waiting the moment your family walks in the door back from your holiday travels. But the gifts also can’t be there when you walk out of the door either!

Some families I know have done Santa gifts early before a trip, but I don’t think my kids would have bought this approach at all, except at very young ages. With ours, the gifts had to be dropped in all locations overnight on Christmas Eve only! Here are the two ways we’ve managed that.

1. Set Up Santa Yourself Before You Leave on the Trip

When our kids were little, the way we handled this challenge was for one parent to load both kids in their car seats and put the luggage in the car as we prepared to head to the airport. The other parent used that time to run frantically around the house setting up Santa gifts in the living room. It was a scramble, but as long as we staged everything in one convenient place the night before departure, it worked well.

2. Have a Neighbor or Family Member Do Santa Duties After You Leave

Once our kids got a bit older, we knew that they would be wise to a parent spending an extra 10 minutes in the house while everyone sat out in the car. So we had to get sneakier!

Instead, we enlisted help. My mother-in-law often stays in California during the holiday season. So we gave her a key and had her come over to our home to set up the full Santa display for the kids. We’ve had a couple of other family and friend elves over the years as well.

The key is to leave explicit instructions. If you have pictures of what your setup looks like from previous years, it never hurts to share those. In our house, Santa fills stockings for everyone and sets larger gifts on the hearth and mantle for each child. So we stage the gifts for our helper by dividing up the gifts for each person in a separate (labeled) bag. We usually hide these bags in a concealed laundry basket the night before our trip – either under our bed or in a closet that won’t get opened by a kiddo. We conceal larger items in the basement of our house with detailed information and inventory for the helper.

As you can probably guess from reading this far, it has been a lot of work! But now that my kids are older, I can confidently state it has all been worth it. It really preserves the magic for our children, and we’ll be doing it all again another time later this year!

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