Whether you're trying to coax an antsy toddler to stay sitting (and quiet!), answering the endlessly asked question, "How much longer now?," or desperately trying to avoid being the parents with the screaming baby, travel with kids can be stressful! Luckily, there are some steps you can take before and during your trip to greatly cut down on your travel stress and prove that there are some exceptions to Seinfeld’s Law:
Plan Ahead: When planning your flight, take your children’s schedules into account. Planning around nap times, for example, can make the difference between a relatively peaceful flight and one that's frustrating for everyone. Also, allow more time than you think you need for security checks (being sure to stay up-to-date on TSA security regulations), getting to the gates, and unexpected events.
And, of course, don't forget to bring nutritious snacks for your kids and for yourself; you don't want to be caught hungry with no food options in sight, and giving kids something to munch on can have a mellowing effect.
Prep The Kids: When you're traveling with young children, it's important that they know what to expect from the trip ahead of time, especially if you have a child who is resistant to change or is flying for the first time. Small children can become upset by the unexpected, so be sure they know ahead of time that they will be expected to sit quietly for a long period of time, may have to remove their shoes at a security checkpoint, etc. Reading children's books about traveling can be a non-threatening way to acclimate them to the process ahead of time.
For older kids, and for those who have already traveled, a verbal walk-through of the experience is fine. Be sure to focus on trouble-shooting any issues that may have been problematic in the past, presenting a new plan for "this time."
Bring Portable Fun: If you're taking a long flight, it's wise to bring toys that travel well and can be used quietly. For younger children, this could include several "lift the flap" books, a coloring book, or a favorite doll. For older children, activity books, Leapsters, or travel versions of their favorite games can be mentally stimulating as well as engrossing. Tweens can be charged with the task of packing their own "fun bag" to keep themselves busy.
It's also a great idea to have a few surprises up your sleeve, or go on a pre-travel shopping trip where they are allowed to choose a few travel toys that can be opened only after the plane takes off. This can increase the excitement of the trip and buy a little extra time before kids get bored and antsy.
Provide a Sense of Control: While you may feel overwhelmed with the tasks of overseeing squirmy kids and endless baggage, your kids may wish that they had more responsibility -- or at least control -- in their travel experience. That's understandable: There's little room for spontaneity in an airport or on a road trip, and they have little input into the experience. Providing kids with a sense of control and "ownership" in the travel experience can also provide you with some extra cooperation from them, and can help to keep them occupied.
Allowing small children to choose at least some of what to pack, providing them with a choice of seat and letting them explore the terminal before the flight (with you, of course) can help them gain a sense of control in the experience so they don't try to assert themselves in areas where no choices are available, such as whether or not to sit quietly on the plane. Older kids can be given "jobs" like Timekeeper (so you don't have to keep answering questions like, "How much longer?"), Navigator (give them a small map and allow them to roughly keep track of ground covered on the trip), and Stuff Grabber (a position that requires checking to make sure that nothing is left behind in the terminal, on the plane, etc.)
Break Some Rules: When you’re traveling with children, it's a good idea to relax some rules for the sake of everyone's sanity. For example, while most of us put limits on the use of hand-held video games, those gadgets can be a godsend in the event of delayed flights and other mishaps. The same goes for food. While a balanced, healthy diet can provide the important energy your kids need, and can stave off mood swings, having a few treats in your bag can ease transitions for young kids. In addition, allowing your kids to eat their favorite fast food can help when in an area with unfamiliar food choices, especially for children who do better with routine and familiarity.
Plan Something For Everybody: The trick to a good family vacation is to plan something for everybody. If there's no one thing that can make every member of the family equally ecstatic, it's fine to plan different activities that will appeal to different family members -- just as long as each day contains at least one activity that everyone will enjoy. For example, a tour of the city can end with a visit to a children's museum, or a visit with adult relatives can include games for the kids or a trip to the local park.
Don't Forget Stress Management: In the event of a delayed flight, lost luggage, or the myriad other minor crises that can come with travel, it's important to keep a cool head and have a few stress management tricks up your sleeve. Remember to breathe deeply (from your belly rather than your chest) if you start feeling tense. Try a few yoga stretches with the kids before and after a flight or long car ride. And remember to focus your attention on the trip itself and all the fun that comes with it, rather than on the hassles of travel. Those hassles will be over shortly, but you can always enjoy the fond memories of a good family vacation. And with a little balance and forethought, you can find the perfect recipe for fun for your entire family.