Land, Air & Sea: Top Family Travel Tips From the Pros

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Family travel can be carloads of fun, but it can just as easily morph into a stressful event for all involved. This month’s school break and summer on the horizon afford families the opportunity to roam outside the Commonwealth, but travelers beware — there are some common mistakes/pitfalls to be had when traveling with kids. Though small in scope, these mistakes have the ability to make or break a vacation.

By Air

“The #1 problem is traveling with way too much stuff,” says American Airlines Flight Attendant Jennifer Brissette. “I get it, you want to keep the child entertained, but in this case — less is more.”

Brissette says she sees it all too often: parents struggling with multiple bags and children in tow. Instead, she recommends each traveler simply have a small backpack (which will fit nicely under the airplane seat), to be accessed whenever needed. Avoid packing children’s backpacks too heavy; that way children can carry the packs themselves. Otherwise, parents will likely end up toting multiple packs through the airport. For example, if your child likes to read, pack paperbacks, not hardcover books, she says.

Based out of Dallas-Ft. Worth, Brissette has nearly 21 years under her belt as a flight attendant with American Airlines; she also has a 5-year-old son. For these reasons, she is a treasure trove of knowledge on air travel dos and don’ts.

Another common mistake she often sees: parents not packing enough snacks for the kids during the flight. Be sure to bring plenty, she advises. Flights can get held on the tarmac for weather and other issues, which can lead to a family being stuck on that aircraft longer than planned.

“It’s no-frills on airplanes now,” she cautions. “Don’t count on food being left when we get to your row, or even edible food for the kids.”

The same applies for diapers — bring diapers if your child still wears them. While she mostly sees this problem on international flights, Brissette has had parents request diapers on domestic flights as well, and flight attendants simply do not have them to hand out.

Ear pain during descent is a common problem for children when flying. Brissette suggests Skittles. During one flight, she met a mom who brought Skittles for her son to chew during descent. The sticky candy gets stuck in kids’ teeth, causing children to keep swallowing while they eat. If your child is old enough to consume these safely, this can help relieve pain caused by altitude changes, when unequal pressures develop on either side of the eardrum.

Brissette notes flight attendants also love sippy cups because they prevent unnecessary spills on the plane. All it takes is one kick of a child’s foot to the tray table and all bets are off for those wide-mouth airline cups.

“If you bring a sippy cup, I will fill it with whatever you want,” she says, adding that parents should bring them through security empty. She also mentions that it is perfectly fine to bring bottled water through security — it only takes an additional 5 minutes of TSA screening to do so.

Bringing toys on board to help entertain kids is fine, Brissette says, yet she cautions parents against anything with small pieces, such as Legos, as these often end up sliding right off the tray table and under somebody else’s seat. At that point, nobody is happy.

Instead, Brissette recommends handheld games, magnetic games, a coloring book with 3 to 4 crayons, and of course, the iPad, which she describes as a game-changer in the world of air travel.

“Most parents are bringing them,” she notes. “Kids are really entertained by them and it has really simplified flying for many families.”

Be sure to bring headphones if you plan to bring an iPad or similar electronic device for your child to use during the flight. The crew may not have headphones for your child, and if they do, they may not have enough for everyone who wants them. Headphones are a must, according to Brissette, adding it’s simply a matter of common courtesy to others on the flight.

“I’ve seen parents who are reluctant to turn the sound down,” she adds, despite nearby passengers becoming more and more agitated.

Another big, yet all-too-common mistake moms and dads make: stressing out over a crying baby.

“When babies cry, do not stress. It’s natural,” Brissette says. “Don’t worry about people around you. Take care of your child and be present with them. As long as you’re involved and trying, people understand.”

Brissette says that for the most part, flight attendants really try to take care of their passengers and help them have a good flight.

“When I board the plane, I want to have a great flight,” she adds.

Here’s Brissette’s pre-flight checklist for parents. Remember, less is more:

• Snacks

• Diapers, if child still wears them

• Headphones

• Toys, no small pieces

• Blanket/comfort item

• Use the bathroom in the airport (it’s likely cleaner than the airplane bathroom).

Stacylee Aylward, experienced traveler and mother of three in Southington, CT, shares one last mistake parents tend to make: booking a late flight thinking the kids will sleep during it. Don’t count on that, she says.

“I thought I was so smart to fly at night,” Aylward says. “But what really happened was that when everyone else wanted to sleep, the kids were loud. At least if you fly during the day, the loudness is not so noticeable. Everyone on the plane planned on getting a good night’s sleep, so they were not happy.”

By Water

Admittedly, I am not a pro, but after taking four children between the ages of 2 and 13 on a four-hour-long whale-watching adventure last summer, I feel compelled to impart a couple of quick tips for parents who may be planning a similar day trip by sea.

Bring your own healthy snacks for the kids. Yes, boats in the business of tours may serve up burgers and fries as well as sugary drinks below deck in the enclosed lounge, and while this may sound like a great idea, it does not always bode well for the open waters. The heavy, greasy food, not to mention the sugary drinks, can quickly make little ones feel unwell.

Sit outside on the open decks. It gets cold on a boat with the wind rushing by, even in the middle of summer. However, simply dress appropriately and opt to sit outside anyhow. Sitting indoors seems appealing, but one peek into the indoor lounge on our way back to land revealed many seasick travelers, many of whom had spent a good deal of time in the indoor lounge or partook in the burgers and fries. Enough said.

If you’re still concerned about seasickness, purchase over-the-counter anti-nausea tablets and have everyone who is old enough take one prior to boarding the boat. Side note: They can make little ones drowsy, especially in combination with a rocking boat.

By Land

Dana Ticknor knows a thing or two about being on the road with children. Ticknor, the mother of 12 children, has spent the past six-plus years on the road full-time in her family’s RV, with eight of her 12 children traveling with her. With her husband Vaughn and the kids, Ticknor traverses the United States eight months of the year with their 42-foot travel trailer in tow. Along the way, they see the sights, participate in trade/craft shows, and volunteer their time toward disaster relief.

“For us, the journey is more of an adventure than the destination itself,” she says.

She recommends families try to enjoy the process of a road trip rather than making it a mad dash to a particular destination, adding it’s important to make fun stops along the way. For example, stop at an interesting restaurant, one in which you may not normally dine. Perhaps let the kiddos do research prior to the trip and let them choose stops and things to do along the route.

“Let everyone have some input into the trip, then they’re invested in the trip,” Ticknor says.

She shares great travel tips for parents regarding everything from toys, to food, to souvenirs — things she’s learned along the way during her time on the road with the kids.

“Our favorite things to take in the car are metal cookie sheets,” she notes.

She explains that because they’re metal, magnetic toys will not fall off and get lost. Also, the flat surface provides ample room for coloring, building Legos, or playing dice/cards. The small to medium-size sheets fit nicely in kids’ laps, and everyone can have their own cookie sheet because they will nest well together when not in use.

Another great item for keeping little hands busy in the car is Ticknor’s road trip hack for a Lego carrying case. She purchases plastic pencil boxes, then cuts down a Lego baseplate to fit the inside top of the pencil box. The cut baseplate is then secured into the lid of the pencil box with Velcro, and just like that, each child has their own Lego carrying case that doubles as a building platform. The high sides keep small pieces in check while the attached baseplate allows kids to build their newest masterpiece while in the car traveling. And, of course, it fits nicely in their lap!

For food, Ticknor recommends each child have their own water bottle on long car rides. The bottles can be filled along the way, as no parent likes to dole out money for bottled water. Bring a canister of a favorite powdered drink mix and a small funnel, and kids can make their own drinks in their water bottle.

Also, pack each child a paper bag of goodies. She suggests using small plastic storage bags to allow kids to make their own individual servings of healthy snacks and then putting them all in a paper bag for each child. This way, everyone has their own bag of snacks to munch on as they get hungry or bored.

She adds sweets should be kept to a minimum on the road because, let’s face it, we parents may not be keeping tabs on the tooth brushing as well as we do at home. And for those dreaded moments of carsickness, which are bound to happen to every child at some point, Ticknor advises parents to save empty ice cream containers and bring them on the trip. Keep in mind they are able to hold liquid, have a lid, and can simply be thrown away at the next available stop!

To keep the cost of a road trip down, Ticknor suggests checking out family membership rates at your local zoo and/or science center. Many zoo and science centers offer reciprocal memberships at other participating zoos and centers across the country. This can be a huge cost savings if you’re planning to stop at such places during your road trip because your family membership will get you in free or half-price at other participating zoos and museums.

For example, an annual membership for a family of five at the Museum of Science in Boston is $130 and it is an ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) participant. Single-day exhibit-hall-only tickets for two adults and three children would total $113. To find out more about these types of programs, visit and (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) to view the lists of participating science museums and zoos.

Another way families can save money on a trip comes by way of souvenirs. You don’t have to forego souvenirs altogether, Ticknor says, but rather realize that some souvenirs are more budget- friendly than others. Here are some souvenirs the Ticknor family enjoys while traveling:

• Pressed pennies: At 51 cents a pop, everyone can have their own. Aside from being a fun activity that most kids enjoy, the coins have the exact location pressed into them. Even better, they’re lightweight for travel and don’t take up much space, Ticknor notes. (See our story on the hobby of pressed pennies on page 34.)

• Postcards: Similar to pressed pennies, for 50 cents to 75 cents each, children can choose their own postcard from a location. They can then mail them home (less to keep track of) and/or write a note on the back about what they liked best at that location.

• Photo books: Ticknor suggests giving each child the use of a digital camera, borrowing extras from relatives if needed. Let them take their own pictures during the trip and then allow them to go through the pictures at home and pick out their favorites. Parents can then help kids create their own photo book of the trip, which can be inexpensive with the help of online coupon codes.

Ticknor blogs about her family’s adventures at Readers can learn more about the Ticknors and also find a plethora of information about family-friendly stops, travel tips, and road trip hacks (e.g., directions for the Lego case), as well as learn about their volunteer work, and more.

No matter the mode of travel, remember — a family vacation is meant to be fun. It’s an opportunity to share new experiences with our children. Make the most of it because these are the moments they will remember years later; quality time with the people they love most — you. And don’t forget that ice cream bucket.