Holiday family travel: here’s the complete survival guide

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By Christopher Elliott

When it comes to holiday family travel, the so-called “experts” would like you to think it’s easy. Just read a few tips and then have a smooth trip to grandma’s for the holidays, or a late-year getaway to the mountains.

That’s nonsense.

The truth is, there’s only one way to ensure the stress of holiday travel doesn’t overwhelm you: stay home.

But that subjects you to a different kind of stress. The kids can only watch so much TV before they’re bored out of their minds. Also, grandma won’t be happy about you not visiting for Thanksgiving.

So you go. And you wonder, “Can I do anything to make this holiday family travel experience better than the last one?”

Here’s my complete guide to holiday travel.

The memories of your kids trying to dismember each other in the back seat are blocked, sure. But somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you know you survived a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” scenario. There may be therapy bills at some point.

The strategies I have are more pragmatic. I won’t oversell them. They include packing a few important but often overlooked items, having an on-the-ground strategy for avoiding unpleasant confrontations with your relatives, and maintaining realistic expectations.

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These strategies may or may not work for you. But if you’re headed somewhere during the upcoming holiday travel season with your offspring, they’re worth trying.

Almost 100 million Americans traveled during the last holiday season, according to a survey by Generali Travel Insurance. If you’re among them, this story is for you.

You can never get enough entertainment, food — or rest

When people hear that I’ve been traveling with three kids for the last eight years, they often ask me the secret to keeping it together. I pause for a moment and think, wondering if my answer has changed from the last time. It hasn’t.

“Give them food and plenty of rest,” I say.

I know, I sound like a doctor. But let’s unpack that advice a little.

When you’re traveling, you’re surrounded by food. Junk food. Burgers, fries, hot dogs, chips — they are filled with chemicals and preservatives and make kids irritable. But there are often long periods of nothing on the road.

That’s why I always stock up before I go anywhere. Quiz your kids about their favorite foods — make sure they’re healthy — and then buy twice what you think you need. I guarantee it’ll be gone by the time you arrive.

Rest is important too. Most serious fights between siblings break out after a deficit of rest — a long plane ride, a marathon drive.

Boredom is a factor. That’s why I recommend a device thoughtfully stocked with movies and documentaries. More important, bring books. Real books that don’t require a screen or batteries. Because devices run out of power, and you can only stare out the window for a finite amount of time. (Here’s everything that you need to know about planning your next trip.)

How to deal with the pressure of holiday family travel

I know what you’re thinking. Those tips could apply to any family trip. True. What sets holiday family travel apart from the rest of the year is the intense pressure.

It’s tens of thousands of cars crammed bumper-to-bumper on the interstate. It’s hundreds of people waiting impatiently to get through airport security. It’s dozens of distressed passengers ahead of you to get to the bathroom. And there’s one certainty: At the end of your journey, you will see your family, not all of whom you get along.

Maybe you aren’t looking forward to arguing about politics at Christmas dinner with Uncle Bob. In this political climate, who can blame you? Yet here we are.

I feel I should be completely transparent. I avoid family holiday events. I love my family, but when they gather together in a big group, oh boy! I prefer quiet, one-on-one visits outside the major holidays. I go to great lengths to avoid the mob on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

But if I must visit, and sometimes I must, there’s one way to survive. Keep your visit short and meaningful. Show up just before the main event. Make kissing sounds across the room. Exchange gifts. A little dessert. Then get outta Dodge.

Hotel rooms can save family relationships. By that, I mean you should find a reason to not sleep on the sofa or guest bedroom. I’m not worried about myself. But I’m concerned about one of my kids knocking over an heirloom vase or accidentally putting the toy poodle in the microwave. OK, they’ve never done that, but they’ve talked about it. That would be unfortunate.

There’s the door

Look, I have to be real with you. No story will protect you from the craziness of holiday family travel. You can plan ahead by bringing all the books and food. You can give your kids 16 hours of sleep the night before you fly out. You can stay in a hotel and make a cameo appearance at Christmas. And yet, it can still stress the heck out of you. (Related: This is how to avoid food fights on vacation.)

I have one final thought: Assuming you make it to your destination in one piece, there’s nothing that says you have to stay there the entire time. I mean, if it’s blizzarding outside, then sure, stay in. But in many parts of the country, you can — and should — get out for some fresh air. Experience the great outdoors. I mean, isn’t that why we travel?

I’m based in Prescott, Ariz., for part of the year, which has some of the very best hiking in America. Can you guess what we do after Thanksgiving dinner? No, we don’t sit around and watch football. We hike!

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t feel compelled to travel like a herd during the holidays. But it’s not a perfect world. Happy holiday travels — and good luck.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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