Bracing for Holiday Travel – Tips to Make the Ride Jolly (Especially if You Have Kids!)

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Tis the season . . . for travel nightmares. We’ve all been there: Never mind the rivers and woods, getting to grandma’s house in time for holiday festivities can be a real challenge, what with traffic, tolls and toddler temper-tantrums. Some people fly to relatives for the season, while others fly in the opposite direction for a needed vacation; meanwhile thousands upon thousands take to the road, and a trip of even a few hours can feel like a lifetime with cranky kids in tow.

Make travel a little easier on yourself and your family this holiday season, with ideas both traditional and digital that can streamline the process.

Give yourself the gift of an easier holiday season with these traditional road trip games, ultra-modern apps, and advice on gifting on the go and timing your travel to trump traffic.

It’s all in the timing

The biggest difference between arriving bright and early and arriving three hours late is when you leave. If you live in a crowded area or are heading to one, consider skipping the rush altogether by traveling on the holiday itself. After all, some of the lowest plane fares are on Christmas Day itself. I know – no one wants to miss Christmas morning! But if your plans are more fluid, you can save money on flights or time on the road by coming in day-off. Even choosing to fly mid-week as opposed to on the weekends between Christmas and New Years could make a big difference. Have your flight land you at the airport on Thanksgiving Day and you’ll usually find cheaper tickets and much smaller crowds to fight through, which means you could actually be saving time otherwise wasted in traffic.

Whenever you decide to head out, don’t wait too long to book, because airfare increases as the holidays get closer, especially in the weeks right before. On the other hand, if you’re traveling by car, make sure you have all the information handy because it might just be better to wait out the danger periods. Many areas keep track of high-traffic periods and areas to avoid; for example, I use New York City’s gridlock alert system to watch for periods when you simply don’t want to be on the roads. Make sure to look up traffic information both for where you’re coming from and where you’re going, even if it’s just to the airport. Don’t want to miss that flight!

Driving apps take the guesswork out of holiday travel

Got a long trip ahead of you? Be prepared with apps that are good for the holiday season and any other time of year. We’re talking ways to keep track of gas, traffic, tolls and even rest stops – all free, whether you have an Android or iPhone. GasBuddy is great for travelers not familiar with the area. It not only lets you know when gas stations are coming up (take some of the stress out of sitting in traffic with a low tank!), but gives you a heads up on prices and lets you chart out trip costs as well. TollSmart does the same thing but for tolls, so you can calculate what the trip is going to cost you, even if you use E-ZPass. Then there’s Waze, which warns you about traffic snarls and even suggests faster routes, updating in realtime so you don’t get stuck on the highway when there’s a speedier service road nearby. Waze users report conditions so the information is hyper-local and up-to-date. And iExit keeps track of upcoming rest areas, with photos and amenities; know before you turn in that you’ll be able to fill up your tank or hit the ATM during your pitstop. Knowing what’s open where when is a big bonus when you’re dealing with reduced holiday hours, too.

Oh, and if you’re going long distance, or to a new destination, and don’t have one yet, GPS navigation systems are often on sale this time of year. Not only do they help with directions, but many can give you a heads up about upcoming traffic and provide alternate routes – plus as an added bonus, kids love watching the screen and you can avoid answering the “are we there yet” question!

Pack for a long trip…

. . .Even for a short one. You never know when you’ll hit a monster jam, and you want to give yourself as much room to stretch out as possible. Those headed for big family parties and reunions are probably hauling a lot of gifts as a result. The biggest piece of advice, of course, is to think small: gift cards, toys with few moving parts to lose and even cold, hard cash. Ship bigger things ahead of time; it might cost you a little more up front, but you’ll be grateful for the extra legroom at hour five on the road. And if you’re flying, instead of driving, remember that chances are airport security will ruin your nice gift wrapping, so save the frills for once you land.

If you have a full car, what goes where also matters. Have a travel bag within arm’s reach, with things inside like wipes, change for tolls, a spare plastic bag for any messes or garbage, and maybe even a change of clothing (especially if you’re packing a carry-on bag for a flight). If it’s going to be a long trip, pack snacks for the kids but watch for stuff that makes a mess; skip cracker crumbs for string cheese or apples, for instance. Don’t bury things like chargers and heavy coats under piles of luggage, because you never know when you might need them unexpectedly. And remember to use those travel apps to plot out potential bathroom breaks ahead of time. You’ll thank yourself later!

Make a game out of it

If your holiday plans involve lots of driving, the tricky thing is to balance having everything you need to keep kids happy, with overloading on car clutter. Old-school car games like looking for license plates and state borders are just as fun these days; give your kids a spare map and have them ‘track’ your progress to keep them invested during the boring driving hours. Or buy a game set meant for travel like magnetic board games which make losing pieces harder. Simple card games could work for older kids; stash a set in your at-hand bag for easy reach. When all else fails, break out the Christmas carols!

But, hey, if your kids are always on their phones, you can still make that work without running up cellphone-data charges. There are multiple phone apps, for games like bingo, car karaoke and trivia. Not all of these apps are free, but they are a good way to keep kids involved.

Don’t forget the kids!

And keeping kids, especially young kids, involved is key. Avoid mid-trip meltdowns by planning ahead of time. Having snacks at hand can keep you from having to stop for unhealthy fast food. Don’t force little kids into long drives without breaks planned in; you might save an hour but you’ll arrive for Christmas Dinner with a carload of overtired, overstimulated children. If you have a flexible schedule, you could let your kids each pick a pitstop – a fun museum, restaurant, park or tourist destination you can pop into on the way.

Whether you’re flying or driving, give yourself holiday joy instead of holiday stress by planning ahead.

When you’re traveling for the season, you want the focus to be on spending time with loved ones, not the trip to get to them. Using apps to keep kids busy, packing smart and choosing the right time to head out are key – whatever you celebrate and wherever you’re headed, skip the travel frustration and keep things festive.

Still have some last minute shopping to do but aren’t sure what to get? Check out for great gift ideas and informative product reviews.

Gillian Kleiman, TopProducts Staff Writer

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