Traveling with kids can be tough. Here's how experts say to handle the added stress of airline delays, cancellations and other disasters.
Tired toddlers and cancelled flights are not a good match. Experts share ways to handle traveling with kids when things go wrong.
The last year has not been kind to travelers: From across-the-board delays to mass cancellations at major airlines to the 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 you're stuck in a city you know nothing about for an undetermined number of hours, potentially overnight. You only have the items in your personal item or carry-on. Your checked bags are who-knows-where. Your only dining options are days-old pre-made sandwiches, long lines for fast food or pricey table service restaurants.
Now, imagine being in that situation with kids. Little kids. 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 her kids in tow. "We've been spared this year's travel nightmares," she shares, "but have had our share in the past."
Emily Krause agrees. She's a family travel expert whose brand, A Mom Explores, shares her family of six's travel adventures. Krause's best advice? "Take stock of what you have in your carry-on and personal item and plan for at least one extra day of essentials."
What to pack "just in case" of a travel disaster
After taking close to 50 flights with her four children, who range in age from 3 to 9, Krause has learned a few lessons about being prepared for snafus during travel plans. She always makes sure to have extra diapers and wipes, ready-to-feed formula or bagged breast milk for babies and "tons of snacks," she tells Yahoo Life. "Like, way more snacks than you think you'll need. For you and the kids."
Nursing moms can also check to see whether the airport they're in has a private lactation suite or pod. And thanks to legislation like the Friendly Airport for Mothers Act, passed in 2018, medium- and large-sized airports are now required to have private rooms for pumping and nursing. "I always have a large scarf with me when I'm traveling with a baby to use as a nursing cover or a blanket for nap time," says Krause. "Of course, if you're comfortable nursing in public without a cover, that's fine, too."
If your little one isn't interested in chilled or room temperature milk or formula, there are two options. The first is to invest in a cordless bottle warmer, which can come in particularly handy when you're stranded on the tarmac with a hungry babe in a plane without power outlets. Another option, if the idea of stuffing one more piece of gear into your backpack gives you hives, is to ask at the airport for a half-filled large cup of 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 with her to make sure those electronics stay powered. And, bring a multi-outlet plug or USB port, in case you're lucky enough to find a free outlet. "That way, you won't have to try and find outlets 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 corded headphones, too, just in case those AirPods don't last.
How to cope with lost luggage and other baggage blues
The must-have travel product of the moment is the Apple AirTag. Media outlets reported throughout the holiday travel season about millions of lost bags and the AirTags that helped their owners find them. Android users can utilize the popular Tile trackers, which work the same way.
Hull remembers returning from a family ski trip to a "baggage Apocalypse" at the Houston airport. "We obviously had to check bags because we had our ski equipment," she says, "and there were bags everywhere. Eventually they made an announcement that bags were coming out on the wrong carousel, so everyone should just check the floors all around the baggage claim."
"It was pandemonium," Hull continues. "It had already been 90 minutes since the plane landed. It was late. We were tired. The kids were losing their minds. But I had an AirTag on the bag, which helped me locate it while others were still looking."
These kinds of stories (and her own personal experience) have led Krause to have a "no checked bags" policy during family travel. "We were constantly losing luggage and I just decided one day that we were only going to travel with carry-ons from then on," she says. "But sometimes you'll have to check your carry-on if they run out of space on the plane, so it's pivotal to keep the essentials with you in your personal item in case you're stranded on a layover or on the tarmac."
Checking strollers and car seats is a common practice, but can lead to disaster if you're facing a cancellation or delay when you've already checked them. "This is why we always bring a car seat on the plane," says Krause. "Other than that it's just the safest way for kids to travel on an airplane." There are a plethora of options to make lugging a car seat more palatable, including luggage straps, backpack bags and foldable car seat options made just for travel.
For strollers, consider opting for an ultra-compact folding stroller that can fit in the overhead compartment of the airplane 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 ditch the stroller and car seat at the departures desk, is to pack a fabric baby wrap or sling (which can also triple as a nursing cover, swaddle or blanket), a lightweight folding infant carrier 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're going to have available to you." She explains just waiting for the airline to assign you a rebooking is likely not going to net you a desirable outcome, so it's a good idea to come to the gate agent with options that will work for you and your family. "Get online and look for what other carriers are going to your destination and don't be afraid to ask to be rebooked on another airline," she says. "Not every delay situation qualifies, but it never hurts to consider it as an option."
Use all the communication options available, says Hull. "Stand in line, but while you're there, call the airline directly, take to Twitter to see if you can get the attention of their social media team or try text and DMs," she says. "If you speak Spanish or the native language of the international airline, try that line for a potentially faster connection time to an agent. Exhaust all your options. At that point, you're down to what the airline can offer."
Hull also suggests asking for reimbursement if you have to make some decisions about traveling, i.e. whether or not to travel at all. You can also email or write to the airline later to express your concerns.
Ways to head off family travel woes at booking
Before even booking your trip, you can implement some fail-safes. Hull says try and eliminate connections 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 does reduce the chances dramatically."
Hull also advocates for having the right credit cards in your wallet to help make your family travel experience as easy as possible. "Opt for one that gets you lounge access so at least if you're stuck in the airport, you can have a more comfortable place to wait," she says. "Some lounges even have 'minute suites,' which are dark rooms where the kids (or you) can take a nap and recharge for the journey.
What to do when airline delays result in the need to stay overnight
An unplanned hotel stay doesn't have to be a nightmare. Krause says a few things she'd 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 complimentary continental breakfast. "When the kids wake up, they're going to need a good breakfast to keep the energy up and going," she says. "Plus, they'll be sick of their snacks by then." Krause also suggests calling the hotel in advance to see if they have a pack and play or roll-away crib if you have a baby or toddler.
For Hull, her top priority when picking an overnight hotel is proximity. "I will always choose the airport hotel over any other option to eliminate transportation stress," she says. "I love the Hyatt [located inside of the] Orlando International Airport. Beyond that, choose whatever hotel is newest: They'll be your best bet if you can't get one that's physically attached to the airport."
At this point, snags in travel plans feel all but guaranteed. But with some planning beforehand and proactivity during the trip, you'll minimize negative effects of circumstantial delays and cancellations and maybe come out of it with a story to tell and advice of your own to share.
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