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Traveling to Paradise

We relocated to Seoul, Korea from Connecticut when our four kids were aged three months, 17 months, four and five years old. The plane trip and associated travel were some of the toughest moments I can remember. The flight attendants shushing my kids, dropped and spilled food, other irritated passengers, a sobbing toddler when I escaped to use the bathroom, getting through security with two baby carriages, and the dreaded rousing of the jet lagged children once we landed (and still had to make it through the terminal). I think our journey was the definition of “schlep” and no one had fun.

Every summer as our vacation back to the states approached I would start to perspire and feel a sense of foreboding.  Traveling had become a “necessary evil” if we wanted to go on exotic vacations and/or visit family. But aren’t vacations supposed to be fun? Isn’t this what we save our hard earned vacation time and money for? We decided we needed to put Operation “Travel should be Fun” into effect.  Today, we live in Honolulu so we still travel long distances and continue to apply these plane travel strategies.

Operation “Traveling Should be Fun” starts with a basic premise. Going on a trip is exciting and riding on an airplane is an exciting idea to most kids. But traveling can be grueling, especially in the summer AND KIDS ARE NOT NATURALLY GOOD TRAVELERS. So as parents, we need to put a process in place to minimize chaos and add some elements of fun.

Tip One – Be in Control of Your Mindset and Mood

First you must convince yourself that staying positive is a mindset and you can do it! Oh, this is much harder than it seems and you will be tested repeatedly – the overly intrusive security agents, other passengers who seem to think the rules of waiting in line etc don’t apply, the overworked gate agent who acts as if she/he does not care about delays and missed connections, and yes, the dreaded “clueless or rude traveler” who holds up every line, can’t put their shoes back on and tries to board when they are not supposed to. And let’s not forget our children who start to complain and grumble at the first hint of inconvenience.

Don’t melt down! Something unplanned usually happens while traveling. Do not let yourself get angry and start raising your voice.  There may be more red-faced angry people at an airport in the summer than any other place on the planet. So just smile through the process and tell yourself you knew something would come up.

Tip Two – Meaningful assignments make traveling much more efficient

Give out assignments in advance and you will be surprised that your kids will complete them with enthusiasm. If your kids are too young to handle the task on their own, have them as “partner in charge” and do it with them. Here are our travel jobs:

The “plane researcher” finds the answers to these questions – Does each seat have its own electronics? Do they serve food your kids will eat? Where is everyone seated (you may decide to change things within the allotted seats). What kind of plane is it? What % of the time does this flight goes on time? is an awesome website to find the answers. If you are lucky enough to travel up in the front of the plane, are there outlets for your electronics?

The “weather checker” can help keep packing reasonable- this is a fun job that has the child report the current weather and the weather forecast expected in the next week. Also checks the typical weather during the period you will be there.  Then you can stop packing “just in case items” as you have a good weather barometer and can follow the packing rule: “When in doubt, leave it out!”

The “airport researcher” is important and becomes critical if you have connections – Where are the gates? Are they close to security? If you are connecting, will you walk to the next gate? What restaurants are there if you want to bring food on the plane? This was always important for us as we decided whether to check or use our baby carriages. They are a pain at security etc. but sometimes I needed one to physically make it across airports to make a connecting flight. Does the airport have charging stations? Many including San Francisco have them, and you can recharge the phone, ipad, ipod and other critical items that keep your family engaged.

The “electronics manager” – This person makes sure all devices are charged up and the correct chargers get packed. If you are four people with four chargers for the same device, label and bring two of them.  Also makes sure everyone has the devices packed in the backpack in a convenient spot to pull out during the security screening. My husband is in charge of this and ensures we have everything from cameras to phones to a portable DVD player with the kids’ favorite DVDs (carried in a special carrying pouch for DVDs). **And this person reminds everyone – turn your phone setting to airplane mode “ON”!

The “check in manager” – Most airlines let you print out your boarding passes in advance. This person should check the flight status on the date of travel (right up until you depart from your home) so you are following all the current news. You can also check this at as they track all departure and arrival information. Have your printed boarding passes and consider a curbside check in. Also decide the curbside plan in advance – will Dad let everyone off and then go and park the car and meet you at security? I also keep a printed itinerary and contact info for our destination in case something happens with the electronic copies. That is my job!

Tip Three – Pack Reading Materials

Every family member should have multi-media options for reading. One reading book and one other activity based book. My daughter loves mazes so she has a book of mazes; my son loves jokes so we always find the latest joke book.

We try to load one book on my kindle and they can “have a turn” reading. Can you imagine your child negotiating to read? At the moment, our 8 year old wants to read “Island of the Blue Dolphins” and our 12 year old loves the “Hunger Games” series.

Tip Four: Perfect the Art of the Carry-On

Optimize the balance between carry-on and packed luggage. Approach this as if it is a science — there is an optimal amount! For kids, the key is how many hours the items keeps them occupied. Here’s our short list:

Sample Carry-on for Mom and Dad—

Sunglasses, ipad, kindle, plastic bag with a toothbrush, foldable sundress, a few magazines, my iphone, a charger, kids’ snacks (yes we get stuck with them – goldfish, fruit snacks, graham crackers), something for work, earphones, pair of socks, travel itinerary and confirmations, and contact information, empty water bottle. I carry a separate purse as well.

Sample Carry-on for older child – (backpack) kindle & charger, ipod and earphones, change of clothes, a book each, notebook, pens and colored pencils, toothbrush and toothpaste, surfing magazine, socks, empty water bottle

Sample carry on for younger two- (in a backpack) Change of clothes, DS and games, action figures, a dinosaur, one book each, empty water bottle, socks, toothbrush, tiger stuffed animal, portable DVD player and several “Scooby Doo’s” and a “Despicable Me” DVD, empty water bottle, maze puzzle book.

Tip Five: Other Honorable Mentions

Wear sandals or flip flops as they are easy to take on and off at security (and on the flight). We see so many people wearing sneakers. Pack them in the checked suitcase unless there is a health reason to wear them.

Be nice to young mothers struggling to control their children. I was one and I massively appreciated a kind word or sympathetic smile.

Obvious but worth saying: pack as light as possible and be ready to be subjected to maddening security screenings! Also rental car companies and baggage claim waits are often mandatory on at least one leg of a journey.

In summary, summer traveling involving airline flights and airports will always be challenging but keep your positive mindset. You can do it and it’s worth it! Happy travels.

Eileen Wacker, a Harvard Business School graduate, lived and worked in seven different countries, including the United States. Wacker now resides in Honolulu, Hawaii, with her husband and four children, one of whom is a daughter adopted from China. She is the author of the new children’s book, Silent Samurai and the Magnificent Rescue, the third installment of the Mom’s Choice Award Winning Fujimini Adventure Series.