Traveling with kids can be tough. Here’s what experts say about how to handle the extra stress of flight delays, cancellations and other disasters.
Last year was not good for travelers: from total delays to massive cancellations by major airlines to a complete meltdown of the Federal Aviation Administration’s computer systems, travel has never been more challenging. Add in traveling with kids, and things can get even more chaotic.
Imagine being stranded in a city you know nothing about, for an indeterminate amount of time, possibly overnight. You only have your personal belongings or carry-on. You have no idea where your checked luggage is. Your only dining options are pre-made sandwiches from days ago, long lines for fast food or expensive table service restaurants.
Now, imagine being in that situation with your kids. A small child. Or a baby.
“Preparation is key,” says Summer Hull, director of travel content and family travel columnist for The Points Guy. Hull travels frequently with children. “We haven’t experienced a travel nightmare this year,” she shares, “but we’ve had the same experience in the past.”
Emily Krauss agrees. She is a family travel expert who shares her family of six’s travel adventures with her brand, A Mom Explores. Krauss’ best advice? “Take inventory of what you have with you and your personal belongings, and plan to pack at least one extra day of essentials.”
The “just in case” travel disaster
After taking nearly 50 flights with four children ranging in age from 3 to 9, Klaus learned a few lessons about being prepared for chaos in travel planning. She told Yahoo Lifestyle that she always makes sure to pack extra diapers and wipes, ready-to-use formula or bags of breast milk, and “plenty of snacks” for her babies. “Like, a lot more snacks than you think you need. For you and the kids.”
Nursing moms can also check to see if their airport has a private breastfeeding room or pod. Thanks to legislation like the Mother-Friendly Airports Act passed in 2018, medium and large airports are now required to have private rooms for breastfeeding and pumping. “When I travel with an infant, I always carry a large scarf with me to use as a nursing cover or a blanket for naps,” Krauss said. “Of course, if you’d rather nurse in public without a blanket, that’s fine.”
If your child is not interested in refrigerated or room temperature milk or formula, there are two options. The first is to purchase a wireless milk warmer, which will come in especially handy when you’re stuck on a plane with a hungry babe on the tarmac with no electrical outlets. The other option, if the idea of stuffing another piece of gear in your backpack gives you hives, is to ask for a large glass of half-full hot water at the airport and submerge the bottle in water for a few minutes to warm it up.
Based on years of experience covering power-hungry theme parks, Krause has also learned to carry multiple mobile power sources with him to make sure those electronics stay powered. And, bring multiple outlet plugs or USB ports just in case you’re lucky enough to find a free outlet. “That way, you don’t have to search for outlets all over the airport,” she says. “Just one outlet can power all your tablets, phones and laptops.”
Don’t forget to bring extra sets of wired headphones, too, in case those AirPods don’t last.
How to deal with lost luggage and other baggage blues
The must-have travel product of the moment is the Apple AirTag. The media reports on the millions of pieces of luggage lost throughout the holiday travel season and the AirTag that helps owners find them. Android users can use the popular Tile tracker, which work the same way.
Hull remembers returning to the Houston airport from a family ski trip when he encountered the “luggage apocalypse. “Obviously we had to check our luggage because we had ski equipment,” she says, “and there was luggage everywhere. Eventually they announced that the luggage had come off the wrong conveyor belt, so everyone should check the floor around them. The luggage was claimed.”
“It was chaos,” Hull continued. “It’s been 90 minutes since the plane landed. It’s late. We’re tired. The kids were losing their minds. But I had an AirTag on my bag, and it helped me find it while everyone else was still looking.”
These stories (and her own personal experiences) led Klaus to develop a “no checked baggage” policy during family trips. “We lost our luggage so often that one day I decided we would only travel with carry-on bags from then on,” she says. “But sometimes you have to check your carry-on if there’s not enough room on the plane, so it’s crucial to keep essentials in your personal belongings in case you get stuck on a layover or on the tarmac. “
Checking strollers and car seats is a common practice, but if you’ve already checked them and are facing cancellation or delay, it could lead to disaster. “That’s why we always bring a car seat on the plane,” Krause said. “Other than that, it’s the safest way for kids to travel by air.” There are a variety of options to make carrying a car seat more comfortable, including luggage straps, backpacks and convertible car seats designed for travel.
For a stroller, consider an ultra-compact folding stroller that fits in the overhead compartment of the airplane so you’ll never be without it. Many of the most popular travel strollers are available for toddlers and infants 6 months and older.
If you really want to give up the stroller and car seat at the departure counter, another option is to bring a fabric baby wrap or carrier (which can also be used as a nursing cover, swaddle or blanket triple), a lightweight folding baby carrier or a compact hip carrier from your personal effects.
Be proactive during airline chaos …… And be an advocate for your family
Hull says, “The more proactive you are with the airline in these situations, the more options you’ll have.” Simply waiting for the airline to rebook you may not give you the desired outcome, she explains, so it’s best to come to the gate agent with options that will work for you and your family. “Go online and see what other airlines are available to fly to your destination and don’t be afraid to ask to rebook with another airline,” she says. “Not all delay situations will qualify, but it never hurts to think of it as an option.”
Use all the communication options available, Hull said. “Get in line, but while you’re there, call the airline directly, get on Twitter and see if you can get the attention of their social media team, or try texting and DM,” she said. “If you speak Spanish or the native language of the international airline, try that line and it might connect you to an agent faster. Exhaust all your options. At this point, you depend on what the airline can offer.”
Hull also suggests asking for reimbursement if you have to make certain decisions about your travel, i.e., whether to travel or not. You can also email or write to the airline later to voice your concerns.
Ways to avoid family travel problems when booking
There are a number of breakdown coverages you can implement before booking your trip. If possible, try to eliminate contact at the time of booking, says Hull. “If you’re traveling with kids, direct is always best, especially if you’re coming home and everyone is tired and rambunctious,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you won’t get stuck, but it does greatly reduce the chances.”
Hull also advocates keeping the right credit cards in your wallet to help make your family travel experience as easy as possible. “Choose a place that gives you access to a lounge so that at least if you’re stuck at the airport, you can have a more comfortable place to wait,” she says. “Some lounges even have ‘mini-suites,’ which are dark rooms where the kids (or you) can take a nap and recharge for the trip.
What to do if an airline delay results in the need for an overnight stay
An unplanned hotel stay doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Krauss says some of the things she looks for in an overnight hotel are a free airport shuttle (“So I don’t have to worry about calling an Uber for my family of six.”) and a free continental breakfast. “When the kids wake up, they need a good breakfast to keep their energy up,” she says. “Plus, by then they’ll be tired of their snacks.” Krauss also suggests that if you have an infant or toddler, call the hotel ahead of time to see if they have a rollaway crib or folding crib.
For Hull, her top priority when choosing an overnight hotel is proximity. “I will always choose an airport hotel over any other option to eliminate the stress of traffic,” she says. “I like the Hyatt Regency [located] inside Orlando International Airport. Other than that, go with the newest hotels: if you can’t find a hotel connected to the airport, they’ll be your best bet.”
At this point, travel planning will almost certainly hit a roadblock. However, by planning ahead and being proactive during your trip, you can minimize the negative impact of delays and cancellations due to circumstances and possibly come away with a story to tell and share your own advice.