Because we live in Australia, deciding to tour the United States to see our family means enduring a Shackleton-esque trip home. We coupled that with five additional domestic flights in the United States (a total of almost 45 hours in the air in just a few weeks) this summer. When my spouse showed me the itinerary, I initially asked that he remove the needles from my eyes. These were children, not tiny rock stars promoting their album across the country. On the other hand, it had been two years since leaving the United States and we desperately wanted to see our families. We decided to go for it for love of country, family, and airline miles.
I’m happy to report we completed our tour of the United States with very little drama. OK, so I did shed a tear or two in my sleep mask mid-flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, but you can blame Charlize Theron’s Oscar-worthy performance in “Tully” for that and not my children. Most importantly, America did not disappoint. In six weeks we visited four zoos, nine museums, survived a family-wide stomach bug that ravaged us all, and spent one morning in the hospital for surgery (it’s cool! everyone is ok!). We ate really good Mexican food for the first time in two years. We saw fireworks on the Fourth of July. We consumed a year’s worth of ice cream because food is love on both sides of our family. Put simply, we made awesome memories with the people we love most and lived a lifetime in just a few weeks. Caveat: by “lifetime” I mean a “parent lifetime” which consists of one major excursion a day, lots of snacks and bathroom breaks, and promptly falling asleep with our children at 8 p.m.
This ambitious itinerary also meant a lot of time in transit and I was reminded that one of the great but often overlooked challenges of family travel is airport navigation. A little bit of planning goes a long way, and it’s worth it to think through how you’re going to handle those handful of hours before and after a flight; they set the tone for your vacation. I’m the Traveling Chief of Logistics in my family, so I think a lot about our documents, bags, wardrobe, and choreography (in that order). For your reading pleasure and amusement, I’ve compiled a list of items and tips to consider before traveling. Most of them are a mix of common sense and old school style; I swear by Ziploc bags, the humble backpack, and donning black when flying with kids. I even suggest using Washi Tape for something other than labeling your leftovers (who are those overachievers, anyway??).
In the words of Captain Barnacles from Octonauts: “Let’s do this!”
But First, Your Love and Partnership
If you’re traveling with your partner or spouse take a moment before your trip to conjure up those loving feelings. Remember those times you were childless and frolicked on beaches together, held hands at restaurants, and made all those lofty promises staring deep into the warm depths of each other’s eyes. Feel those tingly feelings. Once you have finishing bathing in the pleasant past, dry off and get ready to endure navigating the airport with your small children, a long haul plane ride, or multi-day road trip. This might hurt a little. I have seen more fights between parents while traveling with their kids than after a few drinks into Couples Taboo Night. My husband has helped me push through many an icky meltdown with my kids in transit and if we had not been on the same page that would not have been possible.
Keep Your Kids Busy and Use Your Resources Wisely
Take some time before you travel to game plan how you will keep your kids occupied in transit. Keeping kids busy on planes is an article unto itself but to offer the quick and dirty version I recommend finding some fun surprises in your local dollar store, notebooks, stickers, and, of course, the iPad (we wouldn’t leave you behind, buddy). My husband and I have developed a rhythm after these years of traveling; we typically each seat ourselves separately with one child in the plane and switch at some point. In the days when we had just one toddler, each of us would tag in and out of active parenting so the other spouse could rest and catch up on pop culture (because otherwise we live under a rock). We knew early on that it was senseless for both of us to be “on” the entire trip and utterly exhausted on arrival. This is our organic recipe for harmony but it’s different for every family. Like most stressful situations in partnerships, talking about it ahead of time is always a good idea.
Your Bags, Yourself, Your Documents
I have examined new and improved airport bags for frequent flyers, but I can’t bring myself (or my wallet) to purchase a product that looks good but is tailored for a businessperson and not a parent. Hint: if you have time to roll up your headphones into a perfect figure eight and stick them into the designated “earphone loop” you are probably not traveling with a kid and this bag is not for you. Here’s what I consider an appropriate carry-on for a plane when traveling with kids. Does it go on your back? Does it free up both your hands to handle more precious/sacred things like your children (or your coffee, you choose)? If your answer is yes then your bag passes the test. And, please, know your gear. I nearly broke out of line to help a bedraggled mother who could not close her own stroller to pass through security with two screaming children in tow. That’s a schoolgirl error you don’t want to make.
I don’t give my backpack enough credit. She’s pink, has a special compartment for my computer, and two front pockets, one large, one small. She was a gift from my husband when he became just plain disgusted with my well loved but dirty (and did I mention white?) North Face backpack. Hey, it was the early 2000’s. The two pockets in front are what I love best about my new and improved bag. The second largest pocket is big enough to fit the passports of my entire family as well as boarding passes. Being able to access the Ziploc bag that contains our passports/boarding passes quickly and then stow it away with ease is essential. Move quickly and efficiently through the airport and airport quality of life rises dramatically. This is pure choreography. The smallest pocket in front? Well, that’s a little more basic. It’s a pocket reserved for dozens of Star Wars Band-Aids I use to bribe my children through each step of the process because #priorities.
I mentioned passports. Are yours up to date? Check them! When you’re done, label your passports. I will emphasize, don’t be precious about it. Get some Washi or masking tape and put a little label on the front cover and write a name. Done. When you’re up at the ticket counter there are many times that only the adults will be required to show identification and this shaves precious time off of the fumbling inside your bag.
Ziploc Bags: I should be their brand ambassador. This is not the first time I’ve gone on and on about the power of the humble Ziploc Bag. Get the large gallon-size bags with the white tab to zip and dump all of your passports, boarding passes, and baggage tags into it. Everything you need is there, not perfectly organized, but you can get in and out of it fast. Again, I see all kinds of fancy family passport holders, but who wants to be daintily zipping and unzipping separate compartments for each family member? Vera Bradley is cute and all but have you ever hurdled divider ropes in the airport to grab a runaway toddler? Nothing cute about that. When it comes to my documents #Imwithziploc.
Count your bags
Checking a kid car seat? Count it among your bags. Last minute decision to put in Tommy’s puppy-shaped roller bag? Count it among your bags. I can’t say this enough. This number is very important when your kids are darting around your legs at the baggage carousel and all you can think about is how to get an Uber when you don’t have internet in a foreign country. (It’s a trick question, you can’t. It’s called a taxi.) I learned this lesson on bag count the hard way when my family arrived safely from Honduras to Louisiana but then realized I never picked up my son’s car seat to clear customs in Houston (apparently it passed the time throwing back margaritas at the airport’s local watering hole and hitting on other Gracco car seats, total sleeze). We have witnessed many a family leave the baggage carousel overwhelmed, exhausted, and a bag short or without car seats at all. Count. Your. Bags.
Dressing for Success When Traveling with Kids
With our baby son, we once flew from our home in Honduras to Panama. It was a quick flight. I thought nothing of the cute white linen shirt I chose for our travel day. Fast forward a few hours and approximately 2.5 baby blowouts later and I learned my lesson about my wardrobe choice. You might be able to turn a frown upside down but you can’t turn a white linen shirt inside out. I still wonder whom I fancied myself in the white linen shirt that day. Renee Russo in the Thomas Crown Affair? These days I opt instead for highly absorbent all black ensembles. Far from Renee Russo, I wear so many layers I look like the lady feeding the pigeons in Mary Poppins…. if she was in mourning. Don’t feel sorry for me, though, because now I don’t get mad at my kids when they spill juice on me. And if it’s up to the Apple Juice Gods (and, let’s be real, they’re in charge of a lot) my kids will spill juice on me.
Footwear! Remember it’s all choreography when it comes to airport security lines and you will have to take your shoes off. While most of us don’t own Velcro kicks like our kids (why DON’T we, by the way, ladies??), find a pair that are easy to take on and off. I promise if you have birthed a “runner” like me (I have two!), the security line will be the place they choose to Usain Bolt through the metal detector. TSA folks don’t have a lot of sympathy or time for those sorts of line shenanigans. They have more important things to think about than the fact that you don’t own a pair of TOMS.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Tantrum
Travel market studies have shown that more families with young children are seeing the world than ever before. There is strength in numbers. Sure, you might enter the Sisterhood of the Traveling Tantrum (I’m Grand Master status, by the way), but you will also be giving your children new experiences and bringing your family closer together in the process. So, kiss your partner, grab yourself a travel worthy black outfit, some Ziploc bags, and make memories beyond the safety of home.