Air travel continues to be the best choice for most families who are vacationing at considerable distance from home. Safely inside the aircraft, in the air and seeing the miles clip past far below is a satisfying feeling of ease and efficiency.
This is the point when the grandparents or mom and dad can finally usually take a nice deep breath and savor the time, to have made it to the other side of the, “state of drill sergeant-organizer-leader” and feel the first moments of relaxation- one of the reasons and great feelings of finally being on vacation.
Before you can finally get to this moment, however, you will have passed through several sometimes daunting steps.
So how do you best survive the taxis, shuttles, transfers, airport site navigation and TSA moments on the ground leading up to this blissful moment?
Read on for some tips and advise on how to move like a pro to your destination. The ideas that follow are the result of countless airport experiences traveling with older relatives and small children.
Planning and Pre-Packing- the Strategy Begins
Step one begins long before the excitement of the alarm sounds that the day of travel has arrived.
A week before departure start with planning about how many and what types of clothes and other things you’ll need and of what type of specialized gear your particular trip may require. A short trip to the beach is very different than a weeklong dude ranch stay or ski vacation.
Make Checklists (and check and re-check)
Make a list for each member of the family or group and start to organize each person’s things and expectations.
Clearing out a designated packing zone in a spare bedroom, family room or other common area will help you to visualize what and how much will be traveling along with you. Once you have decided what clothes and footwear are appropriate, take some time to consider the other necessary items that everyone needs- ticket confirmations, numbers for your destination with addresses and contact names, specific medications, identification (passports?), iPad, iPod or book, camera, that special teddy or video game,...? Having made sure everything is counted and re-counted, you now have a good idea of each person’s belongings and how much space will be required.
This is where the planning starts to really pay off. Several days before the trip, go ahead and start to group or pre-pack the items you will want on the trip, but won’t need until arrival. These are things like clothes, shoes and trip specific gear (boots, hats, swim gear, or skis for instance). These are best set aside early so you don’t risk forgetting them in a last minute packing rush. These are also things you most likely will not need for a few days leading up to the trip and won’t need until arrival.
At this same time visit your air carriers website to confirm the baggage policies and become familiar with any changes that may have occurred from the last time you may have flown with regards to weight, size or other specific constraints, additional costs, etc.
Last Minute Shopping
Now may be the time for a trip to one of the big box or specialty stores near you.
If you don’t already pack with the clear plastic vacuum styled bags inside your luggage, now is the time to start. This is an absolute must for modern travel. You will automatically be able to pack more in a smaller bag, better identify what you have packed, see where it is at a glance, better protect your possessions from the now seemingly obligatory rifling of TSA, and give a certain amount of weather protection to your valuables when your luggage may not.
The vacuum bags can also be combined with the fold and compress style clothes holder solutions like those offered by Eagle Creek. Once at your destination they make the move from luggage to hotel- cabin- condo- lodge dresser or closet much easier as well (and after you have used up the contents of one or more of the bags they double as dirty clothes dividers to protect the remaining clean wardrobe and other things for the remainder of your trip.
Having pre-packed what you plan to be the checked-in baggage will give you a good gauge of whether you may need to prioritize some of the families wardrobe or other “must bring” choices. A good rule of thumb is to under pack- this leaves room to bring back the real “must have” keep sakes and lessons the risk of a stressed zipper or buckle breaking at the onset of your trip. Besides, saving a shopping spree for your vacation travel can be a lot more fun than another trip to your local shopping mall.
With the list of non-allowed carry-on items identified from the airline website, clearly pack these items into your checked baggage. If you have questionable items, do yourself a favor by bringing several unused (new) zippered plastic freezer type bags that you can quickly deploy for a switch at check-in time from carry-on to checked-in baggage. This technique can also aid in “balancing” out a too heavy bag and an under weight one to avoid a baggage overage- especially helpful if the trip includes sports gear or other heavy/ bulky items.
It is a good idea to rehearse what everyone will wear and carry-on the day of the flight. Gone are the days when air travel was a statement of fashion. Think ease of airport screeners first and foremost. What is easy with TSA will be easy and practical for the remaining hours and miles as well.
Everyone should have their own carry-on. Make it a game for the youngest to be attentive to their special bag and agree as a group that everyone keeps an eye on everyone else’s things. For the kids (especially the youngest) backpacks are the best as they keep arms and hands free and give the little ones a place for the special things that will make the trip more comfortable for them. Before the trip help them decide the things that are most important to take along (this may require some parental negotiation).
24 Hours Before the Flight
Call or login to confirm the flight and print confirmations and possible confirm seating assignments. Each airline has there own policies regarding when they assign seating. If a window, aisle, bulkhead or exit row is important to you, take the time to understand the best timing for these requests or inquire about possible airline membership offers and perks that help ensure these options.
This is also a good time to confirm other reservations and plans after you arrive at your destination. Call the hotel, dude ranch, resort or tour operator and confirm that they are expecting you, at what location and at what time. Remember time zone changes!
The Big Day- Travel Hour
You know that it takes exactly one hour to go from your neighborhood to the airport- so plan for it to take two hours... seriously. The number one way to have an easy day of travel is to plan that everything will take longer than it should. This technique has served us countless times--- plan for the unexpected delays and you won’t be delayed. By getting into this travel habit, you will most often be at the beginning of the lines, have the easier screenings, and be in a better negotiating position with airline employees on baggage, seating and other perks.
Before You Lock the Door Behind You
Decide before you ever leave the house who will be in charge of what details while traveling. Designate the most organized and “cool under pressure” person to be the holder of itineraries, tickets, boarding passes, passports or other identification. Think about dividing debit, credit cards and cash between two individuals to lesson the inconvenience of a misplaced wallet or cash. Consider carrying valuables in a front pocket or zippered interior compartment of a purse or carry-on.
With the lists checked and re-checked, everyone packed and readied, take time to stop and review that everything is in order in the home or space that you are departing. Lights, stoves, furnaces, computers, locked doors, watered plants, alarm set- the list for the care taker- with everything turned off and in order, it’s time to head out!
The last thing we do before walking out the door is count all the baggage- a great way to keep track of all the baggage is to have one (or more) of the younger kids be the “official” baggage counter. This is one less thing for the adults to have to continually monitor and is a good “job” creator of importance for the littler ones. After the checked baggage is sent down the conveyor belt, the game can adapt to counting and watching after the carry-on pieces. In truth this is a good habit for everyone who travels in a group or with multiple baggage- rather than try to remember the exact look or description of each piece of luggage, you can just remember the number. Another trick we use is to tie a small and discrete ribbon or affix the same colored tape to each bag in the group to help avoid the “multiple black roller bag game”, where you and another travel both reach for the same identical branded suitcase and have to resort to the name tag. With identity theft being a very real concern for many people, by using this strategy, you can eliminate all but the most pertinent ID info on your baggage.
Travel in Comfort without looking like you just left the gym
Being from Colorado we are naturally inclined to wear layered clothing and this approach can serve you well when traveling form one climate to often a very different one. Airplanes are rarely the right temperature for everyone in the group and having a light sweater, sweatshirt or light jacket can save on packed space and offer a more comfortable flight(s). Consider limiting jewelry, watches, belts and other metal accessories as they can really slow you down, especially at TSA screenings.
If you really can’t live without something consider shedding it just directly ahead of the TSA screening and placing it in a safe spot within your carry-on.
Long pants tend to be the most comfortable and multi-purpose. With the new barefoot (socks) TSA screening requirement it is also a really good idea to wear easy on and off shoes like loafers or other slip-on styles. Laces will just slow you and your fellow travelers down.
Navigating the “Crazed Maze” Called TSA Screening
Before charging into the first seemingly available TSA screener, group everyone up and get an impression of where the fast lane is and where the “we won’t bother the business travelers” lane might be. Seriously. Go ahead and accept that if it is two or three generations in your party trying to find your way to and through the scanners, the loafer wearing, iPhone scanning-roller bag business set is not going to enjoy being held up by the three year old who has chosen to unload part of the contents of his “Elmo and Friends” backpack right in front of him. My wife and I tend towards one of the shoulder, or outside “lanes” when we have the grandparents and kiddo in tow- sometimes a TSA official will already direct you to a good lane, but if not, be mindful of the pace difference that you may pose to the faster travelers.
If you are traveling with electronic devices plan on being asked to remove them from your carry-on and proving that they power on. Arrive with your electronic devices charged if possible to help “prove” the legitimacy of such devices if possible- again, this can save time and the headache of being asked to step aside to prove the camera is indeed, uh umm, a camera... However, it is a good idea to have all electronic devices powered down to standby or turned off completely before having them scanned- including certain cameras, phones, iPads and computers to avoid the possibility of any potential electronic damages. If you aren’t certain, why take the chance- power down and play it safe.
Keep in mind, with the new TSA regulations it can be very difficult to completely avoid checked-in baggage.
Some airlines are fairly flexible with gate checked items which can also save some hassle and time, but always check ahead of time to this possibility.
Don’t be bashful or embarrassed if you are seemingly holding up other travelers- you are to be commended for traveling with a family of little ones (or older) in tow. Here is another chance to make a stressful situation lighter by assigning one or more of the kids (or a grandparent) the task of being a traffic cop of sorts- have them offer scanner trays to other travelers and allow them to leap past your temporary line slowing or obstruction while you round up the half scattered contents of the “Elmo” pack and get all the shoes, carry-ons and other items organized and in trays... in a light hearted and friendly way, smile and wave others past you until your entire group is ready- this has helped my family diffuse many aggravated “concourse runner”. The sincere smile is disarming to others and you may even end up with a new recruit to help you get the last super hero rounded-up.
This next step is really important, especially when traveling abroad or in a very congested screening area. Send the first mature and responsible family or group member ahead of everyone else and BEFORE any of the trays have been sent into the scanner. This person is now the designated “catcher” and insures that everyone AND everything is accounted for. Send all the trays together- try to avoid gaps. The same rule applies to the group- keep everyone together and organized (remember the “bag counter” job?). In some places this technique is more than just an efficient scanner technique, it is a way to prevent theft and possibly being separated form each other.
Having “aced” the scanners, you are officially on the “other side” and are almost done.
The Departure Concourse and Gate
With everyone and everything counted and accounted for, give yourselves a collective high-five or the now cool “knuckles” (ask one of the teens if you don’t know already...).
Now it’s just routing yourself down the given concourse and thinking ahead to the smooth flight, the first morning in the Rockies or your toes in the sand.
Just a few more steps to the departure gate with time to spare. Now is a great time to call ahead to your receiving destination to confirm transfers and other reservations one last time and to call the house sitter, friends and family to touch base- maybe even after arriving at your gate you’ll have time for a family photo to send off to Google +, Facebook or a quick tweet or two on how easy organizing your trip, TSA and check-in was.
Now, as the airline captains are fond of saying, “please sit back, relax and enjoy the flight”.
Happy travels and happy trails- we can’t wait to see you on the other end, at the arrival gate and at the ranch!