The holidays are a special time for families: You laugh, maybe you cry, maybe you try desperately to avoid arguing about politics with your mom or football with your dad.
But mostly, if you’re a parent, you try to make things as fun and memorable for your children as possible, while also preserving some semblance of sanity for you and your partner. We spoke with Katie Dillon, the luxury travel writer behind the site La Jolla Mom, to get her tips for staying sane while traveling with your family during the holidays. What follows is a mixture of her advice, and some lessons we’ve learned through experience (aka, the hard way)—all organized, conveniently enough, by what to do when you’re getting there, and what to do once you are there.
Getting there: By plane
Single, childless people who complain about the TSA have no idea what they’re talking about. Getting your partner, a child or three (or more!) through the airport, onto a plane, and then back on the ground again without enduring a major meltdown (for your child or for you) is a Herculean task. Happily, there are a few ways to make it go a little more smoothly—maybe even without a meltdown.
Before you go: Pack up on snacks (Katie recommends lollipops), water bottles (no liquids), baby formula (if necessary/applicable) … and a little surprise for the kiddos. “I would go to those dollar bins at Target or Party City, and get those little toys,” Katie says. “And I would wrap them so it would take my daughter awhile to unwrap.” The wrapping is as important as whatever’s inside. In fact, if your kids are young enough, you can even skip the trip to the store. “[Sometimes,] I would just wrap stuff my daughter already had,” Katie says with a laugh.
If your children are old enough for screen time, a tablet or a fully charged phone is essential. (Some streaming services let you download a certain amount of content, so you might want to save Frozen, or a few episodes of Dora the Explorer, in advance.) You can also get an LCD writing tablet, which basically looks like an iPad, but functions like an erasable notebook. (Just don’t lose the stylus, Katie points out.)
Finally, one thing my family does is key: Designate one parent to go onto the plane early and set things up, particularly if your children are still small enough to require a car seat. The other parent can keep the kids busy plane-spotting, thus reducing the amount of time your child(ren) have to sit still. And if you have two or more children, it might be helpful to get seats where one parent only has to mind one child, which will make your child feel special (one-on-one time is always a plus) and keep one parent from getting overwhelmed.
Oh, and especially if this is your baby’s first flight: You never know how a child will respond to takeoffs and landings, which can be especially painful for some kid’s ears. Katie recommends asking your pediatrician in advance whether you should be bringing some form of pain reliever with you, and if so, what kind.
Getting there: By train
We’re just kidding. No one travels by train anymore. (And if by some chance you do, much of the advice and above applies.)
Getting there: By automobile
A child’s sense of time is nowhere near fully developed, and anticipation runs especially high during the holidays, so a car trip might feel like an eternity to your little one whether you’re driving across the country or just across town. As with plane travel, that means you’ll want to bring plenty of snacks (including healthy ones, if possible). If it’s a long trip, divide the journey up by planning breaks every 2 or 3 hours, or however often your kids start to get crazy.
While you’re in the car, Katie points out that there are plenty of ways to keep kids entertained. There are analog activities like singing songs, spotting license plates, or drawing. Or you can buy versions of those games on Amazon (or similar), which add visual aids like flashcards or the like. A lap tray can be helpful if your child likes to draw or write, and again, you can find nice ones at your nearest department or toy store. (Or use the LCD drawing writing tablet mentioned above.)
Then, depending on your child’s age, a book of knock-knock jokes or an atlas of natural wonders can keep them occupied for long stretches.
However you’re getting there, keep one thing in mind: If presents might be involved, you’ll likely be coming back with even more stuff than you left with. Pack light—or bring a soft bag for presents or souvenirs—if at all possible.
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Once you’re there: A relative’s house
First things first: Ask about the necessities for your child, from diapers and wipes (if applicable) to somewhere to sleep, before you leave your home. Chances are, you’ll need to either bring some of these things from home or buy them once you get there. (Or rent them—Katie mentions that some cities have services where you can pay to borrow gently used baby products. Everything from a stroller to a high chair to a pack-and-play.) Discuss what food will be available, in case you need to pick something up or if you need to navigate around junior’s allergies. (Offering to cook a meal or three never hurts, either.)
Every family celebrates the holidays in its own way. If you’re like ours, making sure each day has a few activities planned to get the children out of the house is key. As is naptime (for the youngsters, and frankly the oldsters) and the opportunity to relax. Just don’t overdo it, or feel compelled to wring every possible memory out of every waking moment. As Katie says, “It’s important for everyone to have their own space and be mindful of that.” Amen.
Once you’re there: A hotel (or cruise ship, or AirBNB…)
Maybe you’re meeting your family somewhere fun, or simply treating yourself and the youngsters to some well-earned relaxation. Whatever the case, you’ll again want to prioritize making sure your children’s basic needs are addressed. Happily, a lot of places have you covered. “A lot of hotels just have this stuff now——cribs, pack-and-plays, high chairs,” Katie says. “They don’t advertise it but it’s worth calling ahead.”
And again, pick a destination (or plan your activities) around what your children are likely to enjoy. (If you’ve always wanted to visit the top Michelin-ranked restaurants in Paris, a family vacation is probably not the time.) That said, saving a night out for you and your partner can be a gift in its own right. You can typically find local babysitters through sites like Care.com, or by asking around for a recommendation. (Some hotels even offer childcare services, though as you can imagine, they aren’t cheap.) Alternately, consider inviting a relative to join you—they’ll appreciate the invite, and might be an extra set of hands so you can enjoy a night on the town.
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Whatever your journey, and whatever your destination, Katie reminds us that conflict, frustration, and/or disappointment is inevitable—but none of those things should torpedo the whole trip. “I don’t know, I just feel like holiday travel is difficult,” she says. “Something is gonna go wrong. Do your best. Exhale. It’s worth it in the end… Usually.”
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Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.