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Family/Kids Travel

5 Rules for Bringing the Kids Home for the Holidays

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photoWhether you’re heading out on the road with your family for the Holidays or bringing home baby for the first time, Editorial Director Sarika Chawla has been in your shoes. Follow her five tips for packing, surviving travel disasters, and introducing your child to a large (and doting) crowd.

Taking the kids home for the holidays? There are the benefits that go along with visiting family: lots of helping hands, a spare bedroom instead of a hotel, and plenty of free time. Then there are the drawbacks… so many helping hands, no hotel, and all that free time.

No matter how old you are or how many therapy hours you’ve logged, few things push as many buttons as visiting family. And when you introduce a new generation to the mix, it doesn’t get any easier.

I recently schlepped my not-quite-toddling toddler on a family-meeting journey of epic proportions. I traveled for 32 hours with a 14-month-old, two suitcases, and one overstuffed purse, crossing the country in the aftermath of a hurricane, met up with family and made our way to New Delhi via London. If we could pull that one off, the lessons I learned will certainly help you get to Aunt Susan’s this holiday season with minimum stress.

Pack it, Buy it, Borrow it

When it comes to kid stuff, there are three options: pack it, buy it, or borrow it. It’s a balancing act to pack everything you need for a trip without massively weighing yourself down. There are the obvious immediate needs: diapers, formula or powdered milk, snacks, clothing, toys to keep them busy on the road. But pack only what you need for the road, and ship the rest ahead of time. Send it in a cardboard box, and you don’t have to deal with toting back an empty suitcase.

Above all, the most useful travel gear we’ve invested in is the Lilly Gold Sit ‘n’ Stroll. It’s a car seat that converts into a stroller…no need to travel with separate items. This came in especially handy in a country where car seats aren’t the norm (“It’s not that far; just put the baby in your lap” was the common advice in New Delhi). The seat is also FAA approved for domestic flights. (If you do buy only one seat and travel with a lap child, ask the gate agent to put you in a row with an empty seat. They’ll accommodate whenever possible because really, no one wants to sit next to you.)

The beauty of visiting family is that there’s always the option to borrow goods. Ask them to put out a call to friends and neighbors for a small crib or a Pack ‘n’ Play, a car seat, a few small toys, even a high chair if needed. You’ll be surprised how many families have old baby stuff stashed away.

The last option is to buy it when you get there—or pre-order items like diapers and wipes to be delivered to your destination. Not the most economical option, but it does allow for minimalist packing.

Packing Tip: If you don’t own a tablet or you’re one of those anti-screen time parents, rethink that position. A tablet weighs so much less than a stack of books and toys and takes up a fraction of the space. When you’re on hour 13 of your journey with an overtired kid, you’ll be grateful for the zone-out time. There are plenty of educational apps so you can let go of the guilt: anything by Sandra Boynton; My Baby Piano; spelling and numbers games, just to name a few.

You Get What You Pay For

The aggravation that comes with delays, cancellations, and missed flights is compounded tenfold with a child. Sometimes, those snafus are out of your control, but there are ways to make your life easier.

Travel insurance? Buy it. You want that protection that covers hotels and other out-of-pocket expenses if your flight is significantly delayed or canceled. I can’t think of anything worse than overnighting in an airport with a little one.

Then there was my biggest lesson of all: Book multi-city travel all on one ticket instead of separately. My recent trip involved traveling from LAX to Newark on United, and then Newark-Heathrow-New Delhi on Virgin Atlantic. The big problem? Most of New Jersey was underwater.

When I got the notification that my United flight Los Angeles to Newark was canceled, I knew I was screwed. The international Virgin Atlantic flight was on a separate ticket and it was still scheduled to operate on time, meaning they carried no responsibility if I couldn’t get on the plane. It was up to me to get myself and my child to Newark and on that international flight.

To make matters worse, the international flight was on a deeply discounted ticket booked through an airline consolidator. I called Virgin Atlantic to find out my options, only to be told that they had no authority to change my ticket because it was booked through agency. As for the agency, the New Jersey-based Travel Pros, Inc., all phones were out of service and their offices were shuttered for a week due to the storm. Office phones and cell phones were disconnected and emails went unanswered.

With so many roadblocks, there was only one option: buy a day-of ticket from Los Angeles to Boston, and drive with family to Newark. (Thank goodness for family.) Poor planning added $800, many hours of aggravation, and a spike in blood pressure for everyone involved.

Do Your Research

Even if you’re traveling somewhere familiar, things you didn’t notice before suddenly become abundantly clear when small ones come along for the ride. High altitude, extreme cold and—in my case—serious pollution can affect children in ways that never bothered you before. Researching these conditions ahead of time can help you prep more effectively.

What I definitely didn’t know was that our destination, India, is facing a nationwide outbreak of Dengue fever. The evening I forgot the mosquito repellant, the bugs took every opportunity to bite my son all over his face. Anyone who saw those bright red marks got a look of horror and began mumbling something about Dengue and viruses I found myself frantically Googling and mentally preparing to have him airlifted to the closest hospital. The good news? Dengue mosquitos mostly bite in the day time and his bites were harmless. Still, a little advance research would have reminded me to slather on the mosquito repellent religiously, and we could have avoided the whole mess—and a lot of itching—altogether.

Be Your Child’s Advocate

When bringing a wee one to see their doting relatives, know that everyone wants—no, expects—personal cuddle time. Whether it’s a toddler with separation anxiety or simply a cranky kid, know that it’s OK to say “no” to the next round of Pass the Baby. The same goes for late nights and relentless streams of family and friends coming to visit—if it’s naptime, don’t succumb to the pressure of keeping the baby up “just a little longer” or waking them up “just for a few minutes to say hi.” You’re the one who will have to deal with the repercussions of an overexhausted kid, not them.

Break Habits—You Don’t Have to Do Everything on Schedule

On the other hand, learn to trust your child. The rigid schedule that makes everything run smoothly at home just isn’t feasible on the road. There will likely be a meltdown or two as they adjust to altered times and a new environment, but kids are more resilient than they seem. The same goes for food—new surroundings may lead them to refuse what’s on their plate, but don’t go running for the comforting bananas and oatmeal “just in case he’s hungry.” It may take a day or two but they can adjust.

Don’t take it all on yourself. If someone offers to give you a break, try it. My kid is at the separation anxiety phase, which meant the moment grandparents, aunts and cousins picked him up for some play time, he screeched, wailed and reached his arms out for me. That, to say the least, is exhausting. It took two days to figure out that if I simply got out of his line of vision and they distracted him, he was fine. I found myself ducking behind furniture and hiding behind curtains and doors, secretly watching him play with his family—happy and oblivious. My son surprised me and that became one of the joys of our travel experience together.

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Text and photos by Sarika Chawla for