How to Prepare for Those (Inevitable) Holiday Air Travel Headaches with Your Family

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The true sign of a veteran traveler is the ability to roll with the punches that holiday travel throws your way. An involuntary bump taught me to hope for the best but pack for the worst.

It all started when we didn’t bother with online check-in the day before our flight, knowing that we’d need to see an agent at the airport anyway to get our infant-in-arms boarding pass. Southwest also lets families board between the A and B groups, so the exact boarding position printed on your boarding pass doesn’t need to be an A to get seats together.

While my husband returned the rental car, I took my time getting our four kids through security and the bathroom and snagged some empty seats by the window so we could watch the airplanes before I asked the gate agent for a stroller check tag.

That’s when the agent informed me that they didn’t have room for our party of six on the flight. If you tell that to a mom who has spent that last several hours exerting ridiculous amounts of emotional and physical energy to get six bodies up, dressed, fed, packed, security scanned, pottied and ready to board on time—prepare for either rage or a meltdown. I managed to hold it together at the counter until my husband arrived from the rental car return and then collapsed into a chair with the kids.

Apparently, airlines commonly overbook to compensate for no-shows. What appeared to be my boarding pass was just a security document with a note on it: See gate agent for seat assignment. Translation: You are one of the last people to check in for this overbooked flight. Since you’re in that last check-in group, whoever gets to the gate first, gets a seat. The rest will be denied boarding.

Unfortunately, we were “the rest” and the next available flight to anywhere near our NYC destination wasn’t until two days later.

Now, I come from a family of voluntary bumpers. In fact, one year from my high school years we sent my brother ahead to host the New Year’s Eve party we were going to miss while my parents and I took a bump. Denied boarding compensation is usually well worth it.

But add four kids under five years old to the travel group, tack on a 40-hour delay and a bump is the last item on this mom’s wish list. Ironically, while we were getting settled by the window I recall hearing an announcement asking for volunteers to take a later flight. I remember thinking how horrible the logistics of a bump would be with our little ones.

Meanwhile, our names had moved over to the mandatory bump list. No one volunteered because, let’s face it: at the end of a holiday week, everyone just wants to get home.

Aside from me nearly bursting out in tears, we jumped out of the momentary shock and back into veteran traveler mode. The flexibility, resilience and positive attitude our family embodies got us through the next 40 hours until our flight home.

When faced with a bump or cancelled flight:

Psych up the kids for an extended adventure.

Kids pick up on their parents’ emotional cues. If you panic, so will they. Model how to deal with stress and move forward with your new plan. Our kids were incredibly patient—perhaps because I let them dig into the cooler of snacks I had packed for the plane. Or perhaps because, to them, the delay meant an extra two days of vacation with their parents’ undivided attention (which somehow gets lost during week-long trips with the extended family).

Claim your compensation.

The other major plus was that Southwest cut us checks for the amount required by law based on how long we would be delayed, in this case four times the ticket price for each of our five tickets. The way I saw it, that money covered the cost of our lift tickets and lodging during the Colorado ski trip from which we were trying to return. Some airlines will provide food vouchers to use at the airport, so don’t hesitate to ask.

Pull your checked bags.

We convinced the airline to take our checked bags off the plane, although after a long search in a sea of 200 black rollers, they could only find the kids’ suitcase. The gate agent said that the staff at curbside check-in, where we had dropped off our bags, are often contractors who aren’t as meticulous as the airline employees at scanning luggage. I wish I had taken the classic advice to attach a brightly colored ribbon or luggage tag to all our bags. I’ve never had trouble finding my suitcase at baggage claim, so didn’t think much of it. Now I see that some neon would have helped the ground crew locate my suitcase. Thankfully, when I pack our carry-ons, I include an extra day of diapers and other irreplaceable items (think: lovies, pacifiers, special presents, glasses, birth control, medication, etc.).

Make your calls.

Since we were delayed overnight, the airline booked rooms for us at an airport hotel. We avoided re-renting a car and instead mobilized with hotel shuttles, public transit and car services. We called out of work and school and let our family know our new plans.

Round up missing essentials.

The hotel provided toothbrushes, a shuttle bus, adjoining rooms and Easy Mac for the kids’ dinner. We picked up some essential clothes and toiletries at a nearby Walmart.

Explore your surroundings.

With a full extra day in Denver, we slept in, took Uber to the Children’s Museum, ate dinner downtown and rode the commuter train back to our hotel—all without needing a rental car or car seats. If you’re stranded at your hotel, do some laundry, have a tea party or dip your feet in the pool.

Being a veteran traveler doesn’t exempt you from travel dilemmas, but it does help you handle them with grace when they arise. Don’t let anxiety over traveling with kids leave you grounded at home. Take a breath and cut yourself some slack as you navigate holiday travels this season. Cancelled flights, flat tires, epic diapers, and lost presents will happen to the best of us at some point. Thankfully, we all get a fresh start in the new year.

Featured Photo Courtesy: ciggy1/Pixabay