The busy holiday travel season is officially here, and according to AAA, this is set to be the worst ever, with a record-breaking 112.5 million travelers flying, driving and taking trains over the course of the holidays. That’s one in three Americans — a 4.4 percent increase over last year and the most since AAA began tracking these statistics. So whether you’re headed for home or for warmer climates, traveling during this time of year will feel like a massive undertaking. Add in children, and it can feel almost impossible.
Enter travel expert and host of PBS’ “Places to Love,” Samantha Brown. With almost two decades of experience under her belt (often with her 5-year-old twins in tow), Brown has figured out how to navigate travel in style. We caught up with Brown, who shared her top travel tips and tricks to survive the holiday craziness — and to travel like a pro at any time of the year.
1. Bring a small power strip. In some airports, an outlet is hard to come by. You need to charge your phone or computer, and they are all taken. With your own power strip, you can say, “Hey, can we share that power strip?” And now you’re in a much better place than sitting on the floor. I just get a basic power strip at Home Depot. It’s bright orange. I can see it in my purse.
2. Plan your return when you arrive. Another airport hack is that upon my arrival, I always plan my return. As most people beeline it to either baggage claim or to exit the airport, I like to look around. I check out where my gate is, because it’s most likely it’s the gate I’m coming back to. I check out the terminal. What are the amenities? Is there a nice restaurant, so that if I leave a little more time I can have a nice meal before my flight? Are there nice shops? Is there a massage place? Then I have a better idea of not just the amenities that I would have on my way home, but also the timing. I’m timing how much time it takes me to get through the terminal. I’m also timing how long it takes to get from the airport to the hotel.
3. Bring earplugs. I don’t leave home without cheap earplugs. Everyone has those nice noise-canceling headphones, and I don’t. I just find these big, cheap, foamy things from Home Depot, which do a really great job of blocking the sounds of an airport, which can be really stressful. There are announcements being made, 30 of which you don’t need to hear. CEO’s barking into their phones. Loud children. The great thing about foamy earplugs is that you can still hear everything, they just take the decimals off the sound level and muffle everything.
4. Bring a big scarf. I always wear a very large scarf, even in the summer. A scarf is what I call the Swiss Army Knife of travel. It has so many purposes. It keeps your neck warm. You can also keep your shoulders and your body warm (because of course, you never want to use the airplane blanket). If want to use the airplane pillow, you can wrap the scarf around the pillow. I also find that after red-eye flights when my hair looks terrible, nothing makes me look more chic than a scarf. I’ve also used a scarf to clean the screens of my laptop and my phone, because they get so dirty. I always have a scarf.
5. Use GateGuru. One app that I really love is GateGuru, because these days terminals are so huge. Inevitably, your gate is at the end of the terminal, and you have no idea if the coffee shop you just saw is your last stop for a good cup of coffee, or if there is going to be one closer to your gate. GateGuru shows you all the amenities in each terminal, but you can also see what’s close to your gate. Isn’t it nice to know that at JFK your gate is right next to Shake Shack? GateGuru allows me to have a full visual of my airport experience.
6. Use HotelTonight. Three times in probably not too many years, my flight’s been canceled and I have had to spend the night at the airport. HotelTonight gives the top hotels at that airport. I book, and I’m on my way. They already have my credit card, and it’s so seamless. The other great thing about HotelTonight is that it’s a search engine, but it just gives you the top choices, whereas every other search engine gives you a thousand choices. I don’t need a thousand choices. I just need five, and from five I can make a decision. That cuts down on stress too. Also, there is often a discount when you book at the very last minute, but I mean the very last minute. It’s like, I’m coming now.
7. Wait to board. This is a tip for when you’re traveling with children. Something that my husband and I always did when we traveled with our children when they were young was how we approached the pre-board. When they announced the pre-board for families traveling with children, my husband would board. We had two car seats, because we have twins. He would secure the overhead bin space with our stuff, and he would set up shop. Then I would wait until the very last row or zone was called — and after the very last person got on the plane, I would walk onboard with my kids. We’d put them in their seats, and then we would probably leave within 10 minutes. I found that this did two things. One, it removes a young child from what is absolutely the most stressful part of the plane ride, which is the boarding. Everyone’s stressed. Everyone wants to know if their bag is going to get in the overhead bin. Little children absorb that, and then they release it, and they usually release it when you’re in air. If you remove them from that entirely, they don’t absorb that stress.
8. Bring bubbles. Another big hack that I started doing with my kids was to bring bubbles. Under three ounces. Bubbles allow kids to jump and run in delight before they get on a plane. I’ve also used them a couple of times when I’ve been on a plane where there’s a screaming child, and the poor parents haven’t equipped themselves. It distracts the baby. I always forget that I should do this when I’m not traveling with my kids. I always think, maybe I should bring bubbles and pass them out to parents. Be like, “Here, this is something to help.” Every child and every baby loves bubbles.
9. Get the right pants. Last, but not least, I have my ultimate travel pants: the Saturday Trail Stretch Pant from Columbia. I have them in all colors, including camouflage, which I love because I feel like a badass. They’re well cut, so they look nicer than your average hiking pants. They don’t look sloppy. They’re tailored, and they’re super comfortable. When I bend down (especially as a mom, you’re always bending down), the knees give. They don’t stretch out in the waist. If you think about it, when you’re traveling you’re exerting a tremendous amount of energy and physicality. These are meant to be hiking pants, so they stretch when they need to, then go back to form. They have a utilitarian purpose, as well. They are easy to wash out in a sink if you’re desperate, and then they dry quick. What looks great for hiking Kilimanjaro is also great for getting through security.