The travel frenzy that begins the weekend before a holiday is nuts no matter where you go. Preparing for holiday travel with a family can be stressful and really is not the same as preparing for a fun trip to, let’s say, Tahiti. For a normal trip to the relatives’, there is lots to do and lots to consider and usually no enticing beach on the other end of the effort. Maybe we should encourage our relatives to move to Tahiti.
I’ve done the cross-country schlep a few times, I’ve done the long car rides and I’ve done the plane trips with wiggly toddlers. As I think of all of you out in the crush to get to grandma’s house, I thought I might offer a few ideas to make it less stressful and, dare I say it, more fun.
Choose your travel day carefully. The two days before any holiday tend to be the most crazy and crowded. Thinking outside of the box can save money and headache. Case in point, a few years ago I went to Louisiana for Thanksgiving. The only day that seemed to work for the pack of relatives flying together, in terms of price and schedule, was ON Thanksgiving. I thought it was an insane idea but it was actually great. We took a 6am flight. There was nobody in the airport, the plane wasn’t packed either. The airport staff were festive. Best of all, we arrived at the perfect time, in the early afternoon, a couple of hours before turkey time. Air travel on Thanksgiving is great and I’ve done it a couple of times since then. Traffic is usually really quiet on holidays as well, I prefer to do long drives on the holiday itself, leaving home really early.
Use every travel trick available to you. If you have TSA Pre-check or Global Entry, remember that your kids under 12 can use it too. If you don’t have it, you should! It’s a bargain if you travel more than a couple times per year. Heck, at this time of year just using it once makes it worth it, and you can apply here. I timed both kinds of lines at the end of October, I saved a half hour by using the Pre-check line and that was on a slow day. Other simple time savers: check in ahead and print your boarding passes at home, always carry your bags on to skip the bag drop line, wear outerwear and shoes that are easy to slip on and off at security checks.
Be your most organized self. Confirm travel plans, arrival times and rides to and from the airport. Make lists if that helps you. Crowded airports and train stations are the top place to lose people or things. Make a plan for if someone in your group gets lost. Make sure everyone in your travel group has each other’s phone numbers and write your phone number ON your children. In Sharpie. I write on my kids arms in big numbers. Don’t worry, it will wash off….eventually. Mark all coats, bags and important items with a phone number or email address.
Pack well ahead of time. We all know to pack our bags well ahead for major vacations, but for a holiday trip to the relatives, it seems to always be last minute. Or maybe that’s just me. It’s so embarrassing that a professional traveler that teaches people how to pack can arrive at the family gathering without a toothbrush or underpants. I’ve learned the lesson, pack for family weekends with the same dilligence as a trip abroad and do it early. I’ve also learned the hard way that you must police the contents of your children’s suitcases. One of my kids once packed for themself, putting only stuffed animals and pjs in for a trip to Disneyland. Caught that one just in time! Packing ahead and setting the bags by the door the day before gives me a sense of tranquility, the feeling that the chaos of getting little kids out the door won’t ruin a trip that hasn’t even started. Forgot something important and don’t have time to go buy it? Buy it online and have it shipped to your destination.
Prepare the electronics. Charge everything and bring a back-up battery in case of delays. Make sure everyone has headphones that work and fit. I like to secretly load new games and movies on my kids tablets so that they have something new to enjoy, I’ll occasionally wait to tell them until they are bored with what they already have. Many airplanes now offer their in-flight entertainment on wifi for free if you have a tablet. Bring 2 pairs of headphones with a splitter and watch with your travel partner. There are great play-together games for smart phones that can pass the time without making a mess in the airport lounge like a board game would. Boggle is just like the board game, but is a pass and play game where you play against each other, one at a time. Heads Up is that game where someone holds the phone to their head with a word displayed on it, they try to guess the word with clues from others. The Game of Life never fails to entertain, just as it did 30 years ago. If everyone in your family likes music, have them all make playlists that describe themselves and swap devices at the airport. You might be surprised at what your kids or spouse actually listen to.
Get the car ready for comfy road trips. If you’re headed out by way of the road, my best advice is to leave super early. I love a good road trip and leaving at dawn gives me the feeling of being Queen of the Road-anything is possible! For a multi-hour trip in the car, I like to clean it well and get it organized. When my kids were smaller, I covered the seat in the back with a towel in case of snack mishaps, then filled a plastic bin with books, crayons and snacks. Books on CD or downloaded from the library are a great way to pass the time, as long as everyone in the car can agree on a book. Everyone in my family brings their favorite blanket and pillow in the car, making it a den of coziness. I have a tote bin in the back on road trips with spare clothes, drinks, snacks, emergency kit and a frisbee. You never know when a frisbee will come in handy at the rest stop for blowing off steam and stretching legs. Aerobie frisbees are fun for everyone, even the most uncoordinated person can make it fly like a pro. You can also lure people outside after holiday meals with a bit of frisbee time.
Go old-school and promote fun with games. We all know that family gatherings have the potential to be boring or awkward. Take the initiative and bring the party. Not everyone will be into a games, but it’s pretty likely that some will. We always do a Trivial Pursuit game, men vs women…which is kind of fun but can be contentious. If you want to promote family bonding without controversy, I’ve got a few other games to suggest. The Scrabble-like game Bananagrams is easy to pack, is a crowd pleaser for adults, and is free form enough to accommodate a crowd. Uno is still as fun as you remember it being and is the best solution to get small children involved. Apples to Apples is easy and hilarious, it’s a free association game and can be revealing about how much the group knows each other. There’s a kids version that you can mesh with the adult version for the all-ages crowd. For the more sick and twisted family, Cards Against Humanity is terrible in a wonderful way. It’s the same premise as Apples to Apples but with cards that are adult only. Don’t judge me on this one, it’s not for you if you’re easily offended, but this game has been great for bonding time, not sure I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life.
Reward yourself. A little self-care is important during the holidays, especially when family gatherings and travel stress are involved. I suggest indulging a few guilty pleasures. On the plane, I’ll usually bring some junk food I never normally eat and, sorry to admit, a People magazine. We can’t all be serious and respectable all the time! When I get to my destination, a cocktail is usually in order, a reward for surviving. For a little Italian twist to the holiday, I like the classic Venetian drink called “Bellini”, named after a famous painter. The color is supposed to remind you of the skin of beautiful women in Bellini’s paintings. Bring the ingredients with you to a family gathering and you may just be everyone’s favorite relative.
1 bottle of Prosecco (or any dry sparkling white wine)
1 bottle of peach juice, such as Kern’s Nectar
1 peach, fairly ripe
Blend peach juice and fresh peach together in a blender. Pour Prosecco into a champagne flute half way, top with peach puree and gently mix.