Flying with kids - 7 holiday travel tips

The holiday season is almost upon us, and flying with kids during this time of the year can make things even more challenging than usual. Here are some of my tips to help make your holiday air-travel go a little smoother.

Swedish winter-holidays.

1. Don't wrap the gifts
Really, it's not worth it, whether the presents are going in your checked luggage or your carry-on. If your bags get opened by security, then all those presents will have to be unwrapped and that will take time. Besides, the presents will look a lot nice if you wrap them when you arrive (things tend to get crushed in your bags!).

2. Bring extra supplies in case of delays
It doesn't take a big snow-storm to cause delays. Even something as simple and relatively short-lived as a freak hail-storm can cause long delays when you're traveling by plane. Traveling in winter (AKA winter-holiday-season) means you risk more problems of this kind. Of course you can't prepare for every eventuality, but just make sure you bring some extra supplies like diapers, medication, formula, snacks, etc.

3. Pack clothes that do double-duty
Depending on where you're going, traveling in winter can often mean that you need to pack a lot of bulky winter gear: winter coats, snow boots, ski pants, and so on. To make things easier, it's good if you can pack gear that does double-duty. For example, boots and jackets that are snow and rain proof. And if you can wear your jacket for "just around town" outings, that's even better.

4. Arrive in good time
I'm a bit obsessed with being on time in general, and being at the airport with a lot of time to spare in particular. During the holiday season, you might very well experience longer lineups at all airports, so arriving in good time is a great way to protect your sanity, especially if you have younger children in tow.

5. Tag your luggage
Unfortunately, airlines and airports sometimes misplace or lose your luggage. This can happen anytime you travel by plane, but if you get stuck in an airport with delayed and cancelled flights aplenty, the lost luggage can pile up. Make sure you tag your luggage, outside and inside!, to increase the chances of getting your things back, even if they are misplaced. For more tips on how to make your luggage safe, read Better safe than sorry: 10 luggage & packing tips.

6. Charge all your electronics before you go
It's always a good idea to charge your electronics before traveling of course, but during the holiday season when you might get stuck in an airport or on the runway for long periods of time, this is a real must. Make sure any tablets, laptops, and cellphones are fully charged so that you can use them for communication, and to entertain your kids.

7. Make sure you have space in your luggage for gifts received
If you brought some gifts with you, you probably have some space in your suitcases for a few gifts at least. Also, for those of us who have kids, it's a good idea to remind family and friends that you have to be able to fit any presents the kids get into a suitcase. (There are a lot of very nice presents that just won't fit easily into a carry-on or a suitcase!)

Flying with a child who has special needs - my experience & tips

My 9-year old son is an experienced traveler who has traveled by plane every year since he was born from our home in Canada to Sweden, Maui, the Canary Islands, and other places. He also has special needs. He doesn't have a clear-cut diagnosis like autism, but he has various issues with learning and speech, and also how he experiences and processes certain sensory input like sounds.

It hasn't always been easy for him to travel by plane. Don't get me wrong: he loves planes, but being on a plane is a little different than looking at them from the outside. There's a lot of travel-related stress, and there are strange noises, sights and smells on board. Airports are also strange places: big and busy, full of places where you either have to rush, or wait around for long periods of time. All of this can be, and has been, challenging for him.

He has overcome the challenges however. Once upon a time he was extremely anxious and fearful on flights. Any noise from the plane would make him hang on so tightly to my arm that I could barely move. There were times when he refused to put his seatbelt on because he was so scared. Those times are mostly over. He now knows what to expect on board, and at the airport, and that makes things a lot easier for him.

Over the years, as I've watched my son and learned from him, I've tried to better understand how he experiences travel-situations. Based on that, I've tried to use various strategies to help him cope with the stress of travel. After having my second child, I've also realized that many of these strategies can be helpful for any child, whether they have special needs or not.

All these tips are very personal, and I know that each child, and each child with special needs, is unique, and each family will find their own way to make airplane travel easier for them. 

1. Preparation & walk-through
My son handles any activity a lot better if we prepare for it ahead of time. We talk about the trip in general for weeks (and months) ahead of time, and we also talk about each step of the trip in detail. This means talking about in what order things will happen: first we go to the airport, then we park the car, then we go to the checkin counter, then we go through security, then we wait at the gate, then we get on the plane, then we get off the plane, then we go to the next plane, or wait for our luggage. And so on.

This might all seem like too much (my daughter sometimes gets annoyed with this detailed walk-through), but my son likes to know exactly what is going to happen, and in what order. These days, the walk-through is somewhat less detailed, and he doesn't need it to be repeated as frequently as he did when he was younger, but he still likes to go through the steps.

2. Be ready to answer questions
Understanding why things happen, and how things work is a big thing for my son. For example, the various strange noises on the airplane was a source of much anxiety and fear for him when he was about 2-5 years old. (I'm pretty sure they're a source of anxiety for many grownups too!)

What worked for him in this instance was that we read books about airplanes, and that we learned about what those noises meant. Then, once we were on board, we could name the noises and talk about them: that's the wheels going up, that's the wing-flaps changing position, that's turbulence ("bumpy air"). Knowing what is causing the sounds makes it easier for him to cope.

3. Visualize it
Using a visual planner to show the different steps of the trip can definitely be very useful. I haven't used one for my son, but I think if I had known about them when he was younger, it would have really helped. These days we count down the number of planes we need to catch when we go to Sweden (usually three), and that helps him. A countdown calendar to prepare ahead of the trip is also helpful to manage pre-travel anxiety and the question "when are we going?". These days, my son also likes looking at the maps on board the plane, the ones where they show how far the plane has traveled and how far it still has to go.

4. Manage the noise
Using earplugs or headphones to manage the noise-level on the airplane can be helpful for many kids. Usually both my kids wear headphones and listen to whatever movie they're watching (if they're not sleeping), but if your child is OK with it, noise-cancelling headphones and earplugs is definitely an option to consider.

5. Give yourself some extra time
Most kids don't respond well to stress and having to rush or hurry through any activity, let alone something as inherently stressful as travel. For kids with special needs, this problem is often exacerbated. I always arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare, just in case of long lineups or other problems. (3 hours ahead of an international flight is just fine by me.) It's just easier for my son and the rest of us if we don't have to hustle through the airport to get to the plane on time.

6. Talk to the airline ahead of time & talk to staff at the airport
In my experience, airline staff are usually very willing to try and help make your travel-experience better. I have mentioned my son's anxiety and special needs-issues to airplane crews at times, when I thought it might cause, or was causing, an issue.

If you think you might need some special considerations or help, let the airline know ahead of time, and also mention it when you check in at the airport. Things like wheelchairs, a ride between gates in the little airport cars, or maybe early boarding, can often be arranged for those who need it, but it's good to talk to the airline about it ahead of time. 

7. Keep calm
My own anxiety would sometimes get the better of me when I traveled with my son in the past. I  worried about him being anxious and in distress. I worried about us causing "a disturbance" on the plane. I worried about what fellow passengers would think and how we might inconvenience them.

It can be hard to manage these feelings, but I do a better job of it these days I think. Partly because my son is such a travel pro now, and partly because I've decided that other people can either show him some compassion, or they can choose not to do so. I can't control them, I can only control myself, and help my children to the best of my abilities. I come prepared, and I do the best I can. And that is good enough.

For more tips, check out these old blog-posts:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

In the last few days there has been a lot of talk, online especially, about the use of the word "retard" as a derogatory slur. This time, the debate was ignited when Ann Coulter used the word to refer to Barack Obama.

I don't really care much about what Ann Coulter says, because I think she mainly says things to stir people up, make them angry, and make them talk about her. After having mentioned her here, I will continue to ignore her, because I don't think she is that important.

The debate about using the word "retard" is important however. I have friends and family who use it, in everyday conversation, to describe something stupid: other people's decisions, bad software, what politicians say. Do I have a problem with the word? Yes. My son has special needs, and I am acutely aware that this word can be used as a derogatory slur against him.

Of course, most people wouldn't dream of calling a child or adult with special needs "retard" to their face, or even behind their back. Many of those people still think that it's OK to use the word, as long as you are not referring to a person who has special needs or a disability of some kind. I understand how they think, but I also think they're wrong. Why? Well, here I'm going to refer you to two insightful posts by other people who have already stated the case much better than I can.

Please click on the links and read the full posts. They're worth it. And check out the site:

1. "Being Retarded" - by Phoebe at Herding Cats
This blog-post explains perfectly why you should not use the word "retard" as a derogatory slur. It was published last year, but it's just as relevant today.
This is Maura.  Her diagnosis?  Cognitively disabled.  Which means retarded.  When you call yourself retarded, you’re also calling my child stupid.  Because you use the word as just that – another form of stupid.

Let’s get something straight here.

My daughter may have cognitive issues.  She may have delays.  She may never live on her own.  Scratch that.  She will never live on her own.

But Maura is not stupid.

In her own way, Maura is very smart.  Maybe smarter than us at times.  She has more self-confidence than anyone I know who’s called themselves “retarded”.  She is the best judge of a person’s character than anyone else I’ve ever known.

Yes, she is slow to learn things.  But she is not stupid.

I know that most people don’t use the word “retarded” maliciously.  Most people I know use it in a self-depreciating way.  And when I point it out, they go “Oh wow!  I’m sorry!” and they truly feel like a heel. But the thing is, you’re still using it in the way that people who do use it maliciously use it as – to describe stupidity.

So why not just use the word “stupid” instead?  Because I know what “retarded” is.  I live with it in the form of my daughter.  And in our world “retarded” doesn’t equate to “stupid”.

This beautifully written, funny, and intelligent open letter to Ann Coulter, is also a must-read.
After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me.  You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.

I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash.

Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor.

Buying luggage - 5 features I look for

My faithful travel-companions.
Shopping for a new suitcase means really thinking about how you pack, what you pack, and what's going to work for you when you're traveling. Whether you're traveling with kids, or solo, you will probably be looking for similar features, with some slight differences. Here are 5 features I consider when choosing a new piece of luggage.

1. Wheels
When it comes to luggage, luggage with wheels beats luggage without wheels every time in my opinion. Even small suitcases and bags can weigh a lot once they're fully loaded, and the wheels really help move them around. If you're traveling with kids, a wheeled suitcase can be very practical, especially at the airport: depending on the model and style, even a child can pull a pretty big bag if it has wheels. Also, if you can't locate a luggage cart, the wheels can really make it easier to get around with the kids until you find one.

2. Hard or soft?
If you've ever seen how suitcases are handled when they're loaded onto airplanes, you probably already know that a hard-sided suitcase can be a very good idea. However, a hard suitcase weighs more, and is often more expensive. When I travel with my kids, I have one hard-sided suitcase, and two soft bags (one of them wheeled). Anything that needs extra protection goes in the suitcase, while clothes can travel safely enough in the soft bags.

3. Durability
Luggage takes a beating if you travel by plane, that's a fact. Buy bags and suitcases that look and feel well-made: thicker fabric, good quality stitching in the seams, and strong zippers will be worth paying a bit extra for.  I swear by my old Samsonite suitcase, an Oyster that traveled with me for 25 years all over the world: it took a licking and kept on ticking. Many other brands are also great, just remember that cheap doesn't always mean cheap in the long run!

4. Color
Silly, right? And no, color is not a primary consideration when I pick a piece of luggage. However, when you're looking for your luggage on the baggage carousel at the end of a long flight, it does help if it's easy to identify and stands out from the crowd of black, and dark blue and dark green bags. Make it easier to ID any bag you get with stickers, luggage tags, and luggage straps. My kids are well-trained by now and will eagerly keep a look-out for "the green one", "the blue one", and "the other one".

5. Size
When you're traveling with kids, you obviously need decent sized luggage to fit everything you're bringing, especially if you're going on a longer holiday. However, a suitcase or bag that is TOO big isn't ideal, mainly because it is a) hard to handle, and b) will easily weigh too much for the airline. I have this problem with one of our hard-sided suitcases, and I've just learned to pack it about half full rather than stuff it to the gills.

Buying a carry-on: 7 features I look for

When you're flying with kids, you usually end up packing a lot more into your hand-luggage than you do if you're flying solo, so a practical carry-on can really make your trip easier.

My carry-on from a few years ago: I wore this one out.

Since I started flying with my kids, I bring two carry-ons: a backpack to hold the general supplies, and a small pouch that I never take off my person (no, not even in the bathroom!) that holds the absolute essentials like credit cards, passports, and my cell-phone.

Here are the features I look for when I pick my regular-sized carry-on:

1. Backpack or wheels
I personally prefer a backpack since it frees up my hands to help the kids with their carry-ons, and whatever else they need help with. If you're not into backpacks, I recommend a wheeled carry-on, to make it easier to lug everything around.

2. Zippers
Zippers are good. Bags with just a flap that closes over the opening just won't cut it for me. Zippered compartments keep things inside your bag even if you accidentally turn it upside down when stuffing it into the on-board, overhead compartment (yes, I did that...).

3. Outside pockets
It's nice to have at least a couple of easy-to-access pockets on the outside of your carry-on where you can put things like a water-bottle, snacks, some antibacterial wipes, or whatever else you might need frequently.

4. Cell-phone holder
Most bags, whether they are purses or carry-ons, do have a special cell-phone holder these days, and it really is handy. Just knowing that your phone is in that one place, rather than rattling around "somewhere" inside the bag gives me some peace of mind. And carrying it in a pocket in your clothing isn't always a great idea since you have to take it out whenever you go through airport security.

5. Several compartments
When you're carrying supplies not just for yourself, but for a baby, toddler, or young child, it is  nice to have several compartments so you can organize things a little easier. One big "hold-all" just makes things too messy. I'd say 3 medium to large compartments is preferable, at least for how I organize my hand-luggage.

6. A laptop or tablet compartment
This is becoming more and more common in regular backpacks and travel bags of all kinds. My current backpack/hand-luggage has a "checkpoint friendly" compartment for a laptop. I've still had to take the laptop out at all checkpoints, but the dedicated compartment does hold the laptop very safely and securely.

7. Durability
My carry-on endures quite a lot on our trips: I pack it pretty full, it does get rather heavy, and I stuff it under seats, jam it into overhead compartments, and generally mistreat it as much as I can. Pick a carry-on with durable seams, good quality wheels or straps, and strong zippers. Having a bag break while you're traveling is never any fun.

For the smaller pouch that I carry on my person during our trips, I also look for some particular features:
  • A comfortable strap - since I'll be wearing it standing and sitting.
  • Small and light-weight - so it's not in the way.
  • A well-organized interior - to hold credit cards, passports and my cell-phone safely and within easy reach.
  • Good looks - since I'm wearing it, it should at least kind of fit with my look (and that would be the "harried-traveling-mom" look!)
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