The past year hasn’t been kind to travelers: From delays across the board to massive cancellations on major airlines to a total meltdown of the Federal Aviation Administration’s computer systems, travel has never been more challenging. Add traveling with kids to the mix and things can get more than a little chaotic.
Imagine being stuck in a city you know nothing about for an indefinite number of hours, potentially overnight. You only have the items in your personal belongings or in your hand. Your checked bags are who-knows-where. Your only dining options are day-old sandwiches, long lines for fast food, or expensive table-service restaurants.
Now, imagine being in that situation with the kids. small children. Or a child.
“Preparation is key,” says Summer Hull, travel content director and family travel columnist The points guy. Hull often travels with her children in tow. “We’ve been spared this year’s travel nightmares,” she says, “but we’ve had our share in the past.”
Emily Krause agrees. She is a family travel expert whose brand, A Mom Explores, shares the travel adventures of her family of six. Krause’s best advice? “Take stock of what you have on hand and your personal belongings and plan at least one extra day of essentials.”
What to pack “just in case” of a travel disaster
After taking nearly 50 flights with her four children, who range in age from 3 to 9, Krause has learned a few lessons about preparing for travel planning snafus. She always makes sure she has extra diapers and wipes, ready-to-feed formula or bagged breast milk for babies, and “tons of snacks,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Exactly, way more food than you think you’ll need. For you AND children.”
Breastfeeding mothers can also check if the airport they are in has a private lactation suite or shelter. And thanks to legislation like the Mother-Friendly Airport Act passed in 2018, medium and large airports are now required to have private pumping and nursing rooms. “I always have a big scarf with me when I’m traveling with a baby to use as a nursing cover or blanket for bedtime,” says Krause. “Of course, if you feel comfortable feeding in public without a cover, that’s fine too.”
If your little one is not interested in cold or room temperature milk or formula, there are two options. The first is to invest in a cordless bottle warmer, which can be especially useful when you’re stranded on the tarmac with a hungry baby on a plane without electrical outlets. Another option, if the idea of packing one more piece of equipment into your backpack gives you hives, is to ask the airport for a large glass half-filled with hot water and submerge the bottle for a few minutes to warm it up.
From years of experience reporting on battery-draining theme parks, Krause has also learned to carry multiple power banks to make sure those electronics stay powered. And, bring a multi-prong outlet or a USB port, in case you’re lucky enough to find a free outlet. “That way, you won’t have to try to find spots all over the airport,” she says. “Just one outlet can power all your tablets, phones and laptops.”
Don’t forget a few extra sets of wired headphones, too, just in case those AirPods don’t last.
How to deal with lost luggage and other luggage blues
The must-have travel product of the moment is the Apple AirTag. The media reported throughout the holiday travel season about millions of lost bags and AirTags helping their owners find them. Android users can use popular tile trackers, which work the same way.
Hull recalls returning from a family ski trip to a “luggage apocalypse” at the Houston airport. “Obviously we had to check bags because we had our ski gear,” she says, “and there were bags everywhere. Eventually they made an announcement that the bags were going out on the wrong carousel, so everyone has to check the surrounding floors. The claim of luggage.”
“It was dark,” Hull continues. “It had already been 90 minutes since the plane landed. It was late. We were tired. The kids were passing out. But I had an AirTag in my bag, which helped me find him while others were still looking.”
These kinds of stories (and her personal experience) have led Krause to have a “no checked bag” policy on family trips. “We kept losing our luggage and I decided one day that we would only travel with luggage from then on,” she says. “But sometimes you’ll need to check your luggage if you run out of space on the plane, so it’s essential to keep the essentials with you in your personal item in case you’re stuck at a stand or on the tarmac.”
Checking strollers and car seats is a common practice, but it can lead to disaster if you’re faced with a cancellation or delay when you’ve already checked them. “That’s why we always bring a car seat on the plane,” says Krause. “Plus it’s simply the safest way for children to travel by plane.” There are a plethora of options to make attaching a car seat more enjoyable, including luggage straps, backpacks, and folding car seat options designed just for the ride.
For strollers, consider choosing an ultra-compact folding stroller that can fit in the overhead compartment of the plane so you’re never without it. Many of the most popular travel strollers work for both toddlers and babies 6 months and older.
Another option, if you really want to remove the stroller and car seat at the departures desk, is to pack a fabric wrap or sling (which can also triple as a nursing cover, swaddling blanket or blanket), a lightweight collapsible stroller for babies or a compact hip carrier in your personal item.
During an airline snafu, be proactive … and be your family’s advocate
Hull says, “the more proactive you are in these situations with the airlines, the more options you have available.” She explains that just waiting for the airline to assign you a reservation likely won’t get you a desirable result, so it’s a good idea to come to the gate agent with options that will work. for you and your family. “Go online and find out what other carriers will fly to your destination, and don’t be afraid to ask to be booked on another airline,” she says. “Not every delay situation qualifies, but it never hurts to consider it as an option.”
Use all available communication options, says Hull. “Stay in line, but while you’re there, call the airline directly, go on Twitter to see if you can get the attention of their social media team, or try texting and DMing,” she says. “If you speak Spanish or the native language of the international airline, try that line for a potentially faster connection time with an agent. Use all your options. At that point, you’re settled on what the airline can offer. “
Hull also suggests asking for a refund if you have to make some travel decisions, ie whether or not to travel at all. You can also email or write to the airline later to express your concerns.
Ways to avoid family travel hassles when booking
Before you book your trip, you can apply some safes. Hull says try to eliminate bindings when booking if possible. “If you’re traveling with kids, direct is always best, especially when you’re coming home and everyone’s tired and cranky,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you won’t get stuck, but it reduces the chances dramatically.”
Hull also advocates having the right credit cards in your wallet to help make your family travel experience as smooth as possible. “Choose one that gives you lounge access, so at least if you’re stuck at the airport, you can have a more comfortable place to wait,” she says. “Some salons even have ‘minute suites,’ which are dark rooms where the kids (or you) can take a nap and recharge for the ride.
What to do when airline delays result in an overnight stay
An unplanned hotel stay doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Krause says a few things she would look for in an overnight hotel would be a free airport shuttle (“So I don’t have to worry about getting an Uber for my family of six.”) and free continental breakfast. “When kids wake up, they’re going to need a good breakfast to keep them energized and going,” she says. “Plus, they’ll be sick of their food by then.” Krause also suggests calling the hotel ahead of time to see if they have a pack and crib to play or roll in if you have a baby or toddler.
For Hull, her main advantage when choosing an overnight hotel is proximity. “I will always choose the airport hotel over any other option to eliminate the stress of transportation,” she says. “I love the Hyatt [located inside of the] Orlando International Airport. Beyond that, pick whichever hotel is newer: They’ll be your best bet if you can’t get one that’s physically connected to the airport.”
At this point, disruptions to travel plans feel all but guaranteed. But with some advance planning and proactivity while traveling, you’ll minimize the negative effects of circumstantial delays and cancellations, and maybe come out of it with a story to tell and tips of your own to share.
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