Soaking Up the Holiday Spirit

Little R, mesmerized by a window display at Selfie's.

Little R, mesmerized by a window display at Selfie’s.

You don’t need much of a sightseeing itinerary when traveling during holiday season; all you need is time to explore.

I’ve been reminded of this simple fact numerous times over the last week or so here in London. Every time I head into the city for a day of big plans with L and R, we are sidetracked by a bunch of decorations.

One day, we spent two hours watching a carousel in front of the Natural History Museum. Another day, we spent 75 minutes admiring the windows in front of Selfridges. Today, little R and I counted giant ornaments in St. Christopher’s Place (which, by the way, has the best shopping in the West End). I’ve already blogged about some of the fun we had with my folks at a decked-out Covent Garden Market.

Later this week, our plan includes dragging Grandma and Grandpa with us to South Kensington to marvel at decorations at Harrods and Harvey Nichols.

Throw in ice-skating rinks, Christmas trees, caroling extravaganzas and holiday lights pretty much anywhere around the city and I’d say we’ve got enough to keep us busy from now until we head home Dec. 23.

Oh, and unless we ride the carousels or do the ice skating, all of the stuff is free.

The lesson here, of course, is that especially when kids are young, it doesn’t take much to create a fun day of experiencing a new place during the holidays. I like to think the equation looks like this:

Spectacle + Snacks + Public Transit + Downtime (when necessary) = Smiles

I know this equation isn’t universal. And I’ve been doing this family travel thing too long to know that this equation isn’t going to work all the time. But with the right weather and the right attitude (and the right snacks, I guess, and no public transport delays), it sure puts family travelers in a good position for a day that everyone will remember for all the right reasons. And it hasn’t failed us Villanos yet.

What is your equation for a good family travel when traveling during the holidays?

The Secret to Pub Crawls With Kids

A typical lunch scene during our trip to Ireland.

A typical lunch scene during our trip to Ireland.

Confession: My wife and I spent nine full days in Ireland, and despite the fact that two members of our party are under the age of five, the grownups managed to sample an abundance of local beer every day.

Irresponsible? Perhaps. Gluttonous? Sure. Most of all, though, I like to describe our feat as GENIUS.

The secret to our accomplishment: the pub lunch. You see, most pubs in Ireland (and England, for that matter), start serving food around noon. Since very few locals swing by this early, a lunch visit just past 12 means you’ve got a) the place to yourself, and b) prompt service, since there’s no backlog of orders. Of course in Ireland, it also means Guinness. And Harp. And cider (for my bride). And whiskey.

Powerwoman and I applied this strategy every single day of our visit. Because the girls get up at 6:30 a.m., it was easy to build our days around a noon or 12:30 p.m. lunch. And because they both love fish and chips (which is a staple of most pub menus here in the U.K.), the kids were totally on board.

To put it differently, the question was never, Are we going to eat at a pub today? Instead, it was, At which of the pubs in [insert town here] are we going to eat?

For us, this was an effort to sample local culture by osmosis, a specific approach to work in booze and bar time to an otherwise G-rated affair. (FWIW, our favorite of the bunch was O’Dowd’s, a tiny bar in a Connemara fishing village named Roundstone. Coincidentally, this bar also starred in the 1997 Janeane Garofalo flick, The Matchmaker.)

For the girls, the meals themselves were similar enough to our usual meals while out and about. (Translation: They basically survived on chips and mushy peas). They drew with paper and colored pencils until their food came. When they were done—so long as they stayed at the table—they could resume drawing or make up a new game. If they behaved, they could score a few M&M’s from the secret stash in my bag.

The only downside to this strategy: We missed live music sessions, which normally take place after dark. The only difference from the usual approach to dining out on the road? Incessant toasting; every time Powerwoman and I ordered another round, we insisted the girls clink glasses with us.

While we didn’t make a habit of drinking more than one or two rounds, there were a few visits—especially when we were cabbing around Dublin—where we ended up clinking multiple times.

Thankfully the girls didn’t mind; after all, family travel is a vacation for Mom and Dad, too.

To what extent do you frequent local bars when you’re traveling with the kids?

Sex and the Family Vacation

Balcony...or Ram Zone?

Balcony…or Designated Ram Zone?

For most of us, family vacations are so exhausting that the grown-ups are lucky to get an hour of alone time between the moment the kids fall asleep and the moment we follow suit.

Still, every now and again (and hopefully more frequently than that), some of us might want to use that solo time to, well, get it on.

Yes, people, I’m talking about having sex on a family vacation. In the same hotel rooms as your kids.

Obviously, surreptitiously engineering this sort of thing without awakening the little ones requires a certain degree of strategy. I first wrote about this issue for my family travel blog at Parenting magazine. Now, however, inspired by unsolicited input from readers and friends, I’ve decided to revisit the topic for some additional tips.

Al fresco
Hotel room balconies are great for a variety of reasons. They usually have great views. They offer a chance to mix fresh air and (quasi-) privacy. And if you’re a smoker, they present a safe haven from the law. Especially after the kids are snoozing, balconies can serve another purpose, too: They can become the Designated Ram Zone (DRZ).

As you can imagine, a little discretion with this option goes a long way. If you strip and get busy with no regard for other guests, you’re likely to trigger a security response (and, potentially, land yourself in jail).

On the flipside, so long as most of the action is covered by a blanket, and so long as it’s dark enough to obscure certain details, it doesn’t matter what (or dare I say, who) goes down.

Into the closet
Depending on your hotel room, the closet might be another good spot for a tryst.

The pros: Doors that close and (in some cases) room to spread out. The cons: Pesky safes and ironing boards, and hangers that have a knack for making a ton of noise when inadvertently knocked down in a fit of passion.

(Also, people, beware of closet doors that are dependently linked to closet lights; you can imagine how, during certain repetitive movements, these might create a strobe effect.)

Going bold
Finally, there’s the vestibule—that hallway-width part of every hotel room between the front door and the beds. Though this option is the most exposed (i.e., there’s nothing separating you from the kiddos), most hotel rooms offer enough space for you and your partner to do your thang on the floor, mostly out of sight.

My advice: If you opt for this strategy, be quick. And again, cover with a blanket. Just in case.

It’s worth noting that if you opt to get after it with offspring in the room, it’s a good idea to keep the typical sex soundtrack on low. Powerwoman would divorce me if I shared our own stories, but good friends have told me that the experience of awakening their children with moans and groans was as traumatizing for the adults as it was for the kids.

Portable sound machines are a good way to muffle most “foreign” noises (sex-related and otherwise); our kids don’t sleep in hotels without the White Noise app from TMSoft.

Of course an even better option is challenging your partner (and yourself) to be quiet. No, it’s not easy. But with the right frame of mind, it can become sort of a game, and might make the experience even more fun.

What are your secrets for mixing sex and family travel?

Room at the Inn for Family Travelers

Exploring our surroundings at the Little River Inn.

Exploring our surroundings at the Little River Inn.

For many family travelers, the notion of crashing with youngsters at a romantic inn is a recipe for an anxiety attack. What if they’re loud? What if they disturb the neighbors? What if efforts to control the kiddos trigger an all-out melt down?

Yes, these are all legitimate concerns. But in the right kind of atmosphere, the experience actually can be pleasant.

I came to this epiphany late last month on a solo road trip with my two girls. As part of our adventure, we spent two nights at the Little River Inn, a circa-1853 lodge-style spot along the Mendocino County Coast. A number of family-friendly amenities there made the stay palatable for all of us—and other guests, too. Here a closer look at those that made the biggest difference.

  • Suites. Standard rooms generally can feel cramped for a family of 3 or 4 (or more). Thankfully, the inn offered the Llama Barn Suite, a private one-bedroom cottage about a mile from the main lodge. The girls and I used the front room like a playroom, spending time there playing games, telling stories and horsing around. At night, when I put the kids to sleep in the bedroom, I used the front room as an office and workout space.
  • Kitchenettes. We family travelers don’t need a full kitchen with a stovetop and oven, but a refrigerator and, sometimes, a microwave, sure make things easier. At the Little River Inn, I stocked the Llama Barn Suite fridge with milk and fruit to give the girls as snacks. One night, I made us popcorn to snack on outside while we looked for the moon.
  • In-room dining. We tried meals out (one night in Mendocino, the other in the Main Dining Room at the inn itself), but after two debacles (L triggered the first; R the second), I gave up and ordered room-service breakfast on the last morning. This was a nice luxury, especially since the kids woke up early. It also saved me from the (inevitably hour-long) process of getting them ready.
  • Open (outdoor) space. Hotel lobbies are great places for letting kids burn off steam after a long day of travel. Open fields and/or meadows are even better. Our accommodations at the Little River Inn had two options for this: A patch of grass right off the patio of the front room, and the beach at Van Damme State Park, located just across Highway 128 from the main lodge. I set the girls loose (under supervision, of course) in both spots. They returned happy and tired.

The fifth and final element of a family-friendly atmosphere at a small hotel is one that’s challenging to define. I like to call it: the Wild Card.

This might be an on-site swing set or playground. It might be a waterfall just outside the room. Whatever it is, the Wild Card must be something that piques your kids’ curiosity. And it can’t ever get old.

The Llama Barn Suite had a few of these.

No. 1, of course, were the namesake llamas—four of them in all, housed in a pen just a short walk from our front door. Every morning the innkeepers Marc and Cally Dym left us with radish greens to feed the critters. And feed them we did; my girls were obsessed (and still excitedly pontificate on what types of greens and goodies would make for good llama snacks).

We also had access to a beautiful garden, a spot where the Dyms grew everything from Zinnias and Peonies to strawberries, raspberries and sugar snap peas. (A note in our room informed us we could sample the fruit, in moderation.)

Finally, of course, was Rosie, the Bernese Mountain Dog that patrolled the area between the Llama Suite and nearby homes. Even though the pooch was twice their size, my girls fell in love with her and showered her with attention pretty much every time we left the cottage. The dog became the de facto mascot of our trip; my kids drew cards for her before we left.

The bottom line: The notion of vacationing with young children at a romantic getaway doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. As I learned last month, a few tiny touches can go a long way.

Just make sure you pick accommodations from innkeepers who understand what kinds of touches those might be.

For what kinds of amenities and/or features do you look when you book accommodations on family trips?

Packing Tips for Air Travel with Little Ones

Playing with Play-Doh balls on a recent flight.

Playing with Play-Doh balls on a recent flight.

Packing for travel is sort of like kissing—you always can improve. This statement rings especially true for family travelers; as our kids get older (and as we add more kids), the challenges of squeezing all of their stuff into a manageable number of bags and boxes require increasing doses of innovation and skill.

Fittingly, a reader recently emailed with a multi-part question about packing, and I thought it best to address her query here. The question:

“The hubs and I will be traveling with the 15 month old and the new baby soon. I wondered if you had packing advice – do you and your wife wear backpacks or bring traditional carry-ons, do you use one of those wheelers for your car seats, do you usually do a suitcase for the kids or just squeeze everything in one?”

Backpacks vs. carry-ons
On the subject of backpacks vs. carry-ons, the answer is yes—that is, both of us bring both, on almost every trip.

One of us takes a backpack filled with practical stuff—toys for the plane, two sets of back-up clothes (in case of accidents), a first-aid kit, and a Ziploc bag with child-strength Motrin, child-strength Benadryl and a thermometer (in case the kids get sick). The other takes a backpack that we’ve turned into a diaper bag; we’ve found this essential is easier to carry when you can just wear it on your back.

Powerwoman and I also each take one carry-on; usually we each pick a daughter for whom to pack. This keeps their clothes separate (and makes it easier to unpack).

Three other items we make sure to pack in one of the suitcases: A nightlight, a bag of outlet covers, and a camping kitchen so we can wash the kids’ cups daily (for more on the contents of that kitchen, click here).

On the subject of “wheelers,” the answer is N/A.

We’re not big fans of car seats on the plane (largely because our kids aren’t big fans of sitting in them), so whenever we bring them with us, we check them (it’s free!). Before our kids were old enough to sit on their own, we took them as lap-children. We started purchasing each girl her own seat around the 20-month mark.

Still, I know dozens of parents who use “wheelers” and love them. It really depends on personal preference—and whether you want to spend a flight crammed next to a convertible car seat.

(As an aside, we do own a set of wheelers—the GoGo Kitz Travelmate, to be exact—but it has sat in the same spot of our garage since L was three months old. In fact, if you’re reading this post and you want the wheelers, let me know; if you pay the postage, they’re yours.)

Kid suitcases
Finally, on the subject of kid suitcases, the answer here is “sort of.”

Yes, we do bring one kid-sized (and kid-themed) suitcase for each girl. No, we do not pack it as we pack normal grown-up suitcases. Instead, we usually let the girls “pack” their bags with stuff they know they’re going to want to bring along—for L on a recent trip it was three or four different stuffed cats; for R, it was a bunch of fake flowers.

I recognize this strategy is completely and utterly impractical. I also can tell you it is the part of the packing ordeal our girls anticipate most. The way we see it, this is a small price to pay to fuel some excitement for a day of traveling.

Also, on a more practical level, it’s good for them to experience what it’s like to pull a suitcase through a crowded airport.

What packing tips would you share with other moms and dads?

Lessons in Family Travel Preparedness

Our recent family road trip along the western side of Oahu certainly was filled with surprises.

Some of them were pleasant—on the way from Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa to Ka’ena Point State Park, we spotted a pod of dolphins frolicking in the surf and pulled over to watch them for a while.

Others , however, were not. Like the archaeological site that was closed due to vandalism. (Remember, Powerwoman is an archaeologist; ruins are regular stops on our vacations.)

And the flat tire that we picked up outside of Waianae.

Spotting dolphins, before the flat.

Spotting dolphins, before the flat.

I’ll spare you the details of how we got the flat (to be frank, none of us really knows). The important stuff: The rear driver’s side tire on our rented Chevrolet Equinox croaked, we called AAA, and the four of us spent three hours at a roadside McDonald’s waiting for a tow truck to come and pop on the spare.

(At this point, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just fix the flat myself. Let’s just say that I’ve learned the hard way that rental car companies don’t trust you to fix stuff that goes wrong with their cars, and if they find out that you did anything outside of you contract to the vehicle—anything at all—they will charge you. Exhorbitantly.)

(Oh, also, the rental car company could have come to fix the tire. But they estimated a six-hour wait.)

Ultimately, the encounter was nothing but a hiccup in an otherwise fun and fruitful trip. Still, the experience offered lessons in preparedness for family vacation road trips. Here’s a sampling:

  • If you’re planning on doing any major driving with the kids while you’re away, be sure to sign up for AAA Plus or Premier Service (or an equivalent) before you go. No, the three-hour wait time wasn’t ideal, but they did come and fix the flat for free. Had the damage been worse, they would have towed us back to Honolulu for free as well. When traveling with the kiddos (or solo, for that matter), It’s nice to know that you won’t get stranded.
  • Since space isn’t an issue, take the time to pack extra arts and crafts for the kids, just in case. If your children like sports, toss a ball in the vehicle as well. If you find yourself with a few extra hours to kill, these sorts of additional diversions certainly can’t hurt.
  • Triple up on healthy snacks so you’ve got enough to go around in case you end up staying out longer than expected. (We could have ordered just about anything from the McDonald’s at which we were stranded, but, quite frankly, Powerwoman and I don’t like our girls to eat that crap. We gave them blueberries and grain crackers instead.)

Also, if things go wrong, remember to keep your cool in front of the kids. Especially if they’re little (read: under five), the only reason they’ll get stressed by the situation is if they think you’re stressed. This means no panicking. It also means no snipping at your partner, and no yelling at deceitful customer service representatives (unless, of course, you can do so in a private spot).

Years from now, we’ll all be joking about the flat tire on that crazy day in Waianae. Hopefully, if you ever encounter similarly bad luck on the road with the family, you’ll be able to laugh about it someday, too.

What is the most unexpectedly stressful travel situation you’ve endured with your kids?

Balancing Work and Family Travel on the Road

Yours truly, working the cameras from HI.

Yours truly, working the cameras from HI.

As many of you know, Wandering Pod is only one of the things I do professionally; I actually earn a living writing about family travel (and business, technology, education, science, gambling, and other stuff) as a full-time freelance journalist.

This means that many of my family’s trips are work trips for moi. It also means that a big challenge on every trip for me is figuring out a delicate balance between time for work and time for family fun.

On some trips, finding that balance is easy—if we’re doing an overnight on which I’ve got only one assignment to report—I can scribble notes here and there but otherwise can relax. On other trips—those during which I’m juggling multiple assignments for various clients in different industries—equalizing the work/life equation is a constant struggle.

No matter how crazy a trip gets, I do have a few rules.

First, I always try to involve the girls in reporting. When we’re out and about, I explain to them what I’m writing about, and ask them to give me feedback on what they experience. I do this because I think it helps foster a sense of curiosity. I also want them to understand the effort that goes into creating original work (in case they ever weigh the potential benefits of cutting corners).

Second, even if I’m working my tail off, I try to log my screen time away from the girls. At night. In the early morning. In an independent coffee shop around the corner from the hotel. My thinking here is simple: They see plenty of me standing here in front of the computer at home, and I don’t want their lasting memories of me on the road to be me in front of my netbook or Galaxy tablet.

Finally, I make it a priority never to stress about work on the road. For my kids (and, really, the four of us as a unit), travel is an adventure; I don’t ever want it to feel like a chore.

I rarely am shy about sharing these rules with others; during lectures and other speaking engagements, these form the bulk of my presentations. In recent weeks, however, a few friends have asked me to supplement these strategies with everyday “secrets” to successfully managing work and family travel. Here, then, in no particular order, are my top five tips for juggling a little better.

  1. Spread out. One way to keep work and family interactions separate when traveling is to keep them physically separate. For me, this means spending extra money for additional space. Sometimes I’ll book a suite with a separate room in which to work. Other times I’ll opt for accommodations with a large balcony. When options are limited, I’ll go for a standard room and improvise in other ways. I’ve been known to turn the bathroom into an office for the night. (As an aside, from a tax POV, if you’re spending more on a room for space to work, you can deduct more of your hotel expense.)
  2. Communicate with your partner. Especially when you’re traveling with the whole family, it’s important to give your partner an honest AND REAL-TIME sense of what your daily workload is going to be. In our family, this means a daily debriefing on a) what assignments I need to tackle b) how much time each will require and c) when it would be most convenient for everyone for me to work. These chats help keep Powerwoman and I working as a team. They also enable her to figure out how and when she can plan solo time at the gym or spa.
  3. Focus. With distractions such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we modern humans have plenty of outlets to procrastinate and waste time online. When you’re trying to balance work and family travel, however, you can’t afford to be so profligate. To minimize distractions when we travel, I force myself to spotlight one task at a time, avoiding diversions such as email or social networking until I’ve met my deadline for the day. If I’m having particular trouble concentrating in the room, I’ll change the scenery, spending a few hours in the hotel lobby or the business center.
  4. Flex your schedule. Just because you’re grappling with work on a family trip doesn’t mean you’ve got to do so during normal business hours. My solution: I write at night, after Powerwoman and the girls have gone to bed. This works for two reasons: a) It helps me keep writing time and family time separate and b) Life is a lot quieter when everyone else is snoozing. Of course this strategy isn’t applicable when the “work” involves conference calls. Also, if I wasn’t a night owl, I probably wouldn’t be able to roll after midnight. Nevertheless, the point here is that schedule flexibility is your friend.
  5. Say, ‘No.’ Perhaps the best way to balance work and family travel is to minimize the balancing you have to do in the first place. This means thinking carefully about every assignment you allow to creep into your time on the road. In some cases, it also might mean rejecting certain opportunities, or requesting to push deadlines far enough away from your trip so the work won’t conflict.

Look, I don’t for a moment pretend to have all the answers. And, to be frank, after four full years of experience juggling work and family life away from home, sometimes I still really screw things up (let’s just say this month’s Hawaii trip was *not* a paradigm of balance).

At the end of the day, your top priority when engaging in family travel should be just that: family travel. For everything else, hopefully some of these insights can help.

What are your secrets to balancing work and family travel on the road?

Luxury Hotel Bathrooms: The New Nurseries?

Our "nursery" at the Trump.

Our “nursery” at the Trump.

One of our daughters—L, the older one—is a heavy sleeper. The other, R, wakes at the squeak of a mouse. As you can imagine, when the four of us hit the road and spend nights in standard hotel rooms, this mismatch can create some dicey situations around bedtime.

Our solution: We get creative.

Sometimes this means bringing tents to create rooms within the room. Other times it means crafting folding room partitions out of couch cushions.

For at least part of the time on our most recent trip to Oahu (we got home late Tuesday after 10 days away), it meant something else: During our stay at the Trump International Hotel Waikiki Beach Walk, we turned a second bathroom in our one-bedroom condo into sleeping quarters for little R.

By day, this room served its usual purpose—because it was close to the front door of our unit, we utilized the luxurious walk-in shower to rinse sand off our feet after days at the beach.

By night, however, we transformed the john into a nursery, complete with stuffed animals on the (closed) toilet seat, a sound machine on the sink and a giant crib on the tile floor in the center of the room.

When R was ready to go to bed, we pushed the crib toward the shower so we could swing the door around, then pulled it back and closed the door part way (to minimize disruptions).

Overall, the strategy worked beautifully. Behind the partially closed door (and with the help of those simulated crashing waves), R was able to sleep soundly while her sister, Powerwoman and I puttered about the rest of the condo. Because the bathroom had a bit of an echo, when R woke up in the middle of the night from the pain of new teeth, we were able to hear her cries without the aid of a monitor.

(In case you’re wondering, L can sleep through anything. She takes after me in that department.)

No, having our baby sleep in the bathroom at a five-star property wasn’t ideal. And I’m sure the marketing gurus at the property will cringe to read about how we improvised to get everybody some much-needed sleep.

The bottom line: It worked.

When you’re on the road with small children, practical trumps fancy-pants every time. The sooner we embrace this credo, the better off all of us will be.

What are some unusual sleeping solutions you’ve tried on the road with your kids?

Vacationing with the Spawn of Satan

Calm, after one of the storms.

Calm, after one of the storms.

When everyone in the family is behaving relatively well, family travel can be one of the most fulfilling experiences as a parent. But when one of your children is in perpetual meltdown mode, a family trip can be downright awful.

Powerwoman and I lived this nightmare for the first three days of our current trip to Oahu. From the moment we landed until almost exactly three days into our trip, L’s “spirit of Aloha” included prolonged temper-tantrums, hitting, biting and more hideousness.

In short, my older daughter was a demon.

As you can imagine, managing her during this dark period was challenging to say the least. We had plenty of the typical traveling-with-a-4-year-old negotiations (“If you eat three spoonfuls of corn, you can color in the giant coloring pad”). We also grappled with yelling, mood swings and paranoia. Minding our little spawn of Satan even had physical ramifications; because the child loves to scratch limbs when she’s frustrated, my biceps look like I’ve been attacked by a small mountain lion.

Thankfully, Powerwoman and I persevered through the misery until L’s behavior improved.  Here are some of the secrets to our (recent) success.

  1. Ignore. It’s tempting to be excessively hands-on while traveling, but the best way to handle freak-outs still is to ignore them. Yes, this meant that my child was the one screaming like a banshee outside the Ali’I Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center earlier in the week. It also meant that each of her major tantrums passed quickly, like tropical squalls.
  2. Be stern (when necessary). There’s a time and place for discipline on the road, and that time and place is different for every family. For us, it all came down to being kind; we raised our voices when L was being intentionally hurtful (usually to her sister), but otherwise kept an even-keeled, almost saccharine tone.
  3. Communicate. When one of the kids is having trouble behaving on the road, Powerwoman and I make a concerted effort to talk with each other about parenting strategies. I admit—I tend to analyze stuff too much (um, hello, I’m a blogger). Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to remind your spouse that you two are teammates. Then, of course, you must play like them.
  4. Remember the big picture. There were times in the early part of this week during which I contemplated flying home early with our offending daughter. Then my wife reminded me: We have two kids. From that point on, for R’s sake, I redoubled my commitment to engineering a FUN vacation, knowing that, eventually, L would come around. Sure enough, she did.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t pass along the stuff that *doesn’t* work. No. 1 on my list: Sarcasm. The few times we applied it with L, she neither understood nor appreciated it as a concept. The use of sarcasm also can be debilitating for the grownups. Yes, in the heat of the moment, Powerwoman and I would ask rhetorically, “Is this really happening right now?” Looking back, though, the question itself was just hot air; the truth is that L’s bad behavior was happening, and the only way we could get past those hiccups was just to continue exploring.

Another no-no for me (and I’ve mentioned this before): The screen as a babysitter. In our family, we believe in disconnecting when away, which means minimal screen time of all kinds. Believe it or not, old-school alternatives such as crayons and paper, books and stuffed animals are just as good today as they have been for generations. Even for kids acting like the spawn of Satan himself.

What types of strategies do you implement when our child acts like the spawn of satan on family trips?

Waging War on Meltdowns in Mid-Air

The cache; Hawaii or bust.

Part of the cache; Hawaii or bust.

From now until Sunday morning, y’all can refer to me as the General George S. Patton of family travel.

The now-legendary military leader, who fought in the European theater of World War II, was renowned for his strategy, his tactical precision, and the way he prepared his troops for battle. As we Villanos get ready for a five-hour flight en route to (two weeks on) Oahu, I’m attempting to pull a page from The Old Man’s book.

My task: To orchestrate a sufficient number of in-flight diversions/distractions for our uber-active and constantly-in-motion toddler, who has not flown since she learned how to walk.

Generally speaking, I believe family travel is best experienced when adventures happen organically. On airplanes, however, especially when you know your kid is going to have a rough time, a little bit of planning goes a long way.

I’ve decided to break down the four hours of cruising time (that is, everything but the 30 minutes during take-off and landing) into eight 30-minute segments. I like this strategy because the notion of spending 30 minutes on one task before moving to something else seems to match R’s attention span pretty well. What’s more, this same strategy worked with our older daughter on (much longer) flights to and from Europe.

Also, it allows for a certain degree of flexibility, because R undoubtedly will sleep for at least an hour or 90 minutes of the jaunt.

Here are some of the segment activities in my Plan A:

  • Pipe-cleaners and Cheerios for edible bracelet-making.
  • (Washable) Crayons and paper for coloring.
  • Books (that I and Powerwoman will read, of course).
  • Snacks (such as blueberries, pretzels, raisins, and more).
  • Easily removable stickers (for sticking anywhere and everywhere).

Plan B includes similar-but-different ideas: Dozens of Wikki Stix, Play-Doh (in small quantities), a dry-erase activity mat with dry-erase crayons, and glowy bracelets and necklaces, to name a few.

You might notice the absence of videos on this list. It’s because we’re sort of psycho about minimizing screen time for our girls. We’ll be ready with “Baby Einstein” programs and the PBS Parents Play & Learn app if we need them, but we really only plan to use those tactics as a last resort.

If all goes well, we’ll have one or two activities to spare by the time we touch down in Honolulu.

If the trip is a struggle—which, we understand, it could be—we’ll take in stride those dirty looks from fellow passengers and work together to get R through the experience quickly and quietly.

Either way, I’ll stand by my Patton-esque approach. In mid-air, you can never be too prepared to avert a meltdown. Beside, all of the diversions we don’t roll out en route we can save for the hotel room—or the trip home.

 What are some of the tactics you use to distract and/or entertain your kids when you fly?