We were supposed to be toasting the holiday at a sumptuous dinner with our closest friends. Instead, we were holed up at the Salt Lake City airport, sharing stale peanut butter crackers with the kids.
Uh-oh. The gate agent announced another delay. First it was the weather. Then a problem with the plane. Would we ever leave? Would we never get there?
As the six-hour-late flight neared our Wyoming destination, a raging blizzard closed the airport. We traveled the last 150 miles by bus, staggering into Jackson Hole after midnight. We arrived bleary-eyed and starving, our cache of crackers long gone and our luggage mangled.
Why did we leave home? we wondered as we finally fell into bed early that morning.
Wherever you go during the winter holidays, even the best-laid plans can fall victim to missed airline connections, traffic jams or car trouble. (Good luck finding a mechanic who will install a battery on a Saturday night in December. Good luck keeping your language family-rated when the last flight of the night has just been canceled.)
It's time to face facts: Holiday travel delays are as inevitable and predictable as huge crowds and underappreciated presents.
``People have to remember that there are millions more drivers on the road than usual trying to navigate unfamiliar territory. Millions more are heading to airports, all competing for that same parking space. Road construction slows everything down. And then there's the weather,'' says Jill Mross, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association, which bailed out nearly 28 million stranded motorists last year.
That said, there is no reason to stay home when you want to go away. Simply follow my Taking the Kids and Getting Nowhere Rules of the Road and you'll survive -- maybe even with your sense of humor intact.
Rule One: Even if it's absolutely his fault, don't blame your spouse for the travel hassles. So what if he insisted on leaving late despite the dire weather forecast. Never mind that you're stranded in a strange city because she booked a connecting flight to save money.
Rule Two: Always pack bathing suits. You want to be ready when you make an unplanned stop at that interstate motel to wait out the ice storm. The kids will think you're the best parents in the world for the adventure. If you're lucky, there might even be a hot tub.
Rule Three: Bring plenty of rolls of quarters (nickels work for the preschooler set). Give the children a roll when the trip starts. Every time they whine or fight, take one coin away.
Rule Four: Don't leave home without a favorite, LONG storybook (the more chapters the better) in your carry-on bag. You always wanted to be the kind of family who gathered around the fire to hear a story. Here's your chance to read Dickens' ``A Christmas Carol'' from start to finish or Sholom Aleichem's Hanukkah stories. Get comfy in the airport departure lounge. You have plenty of time. Got some candy canes?
Rule Five: Remind Santa to put a few extra stocking stuffers where you can reach them quickly. There's nothing like a new disc for your teen's CD player, a new Barbie for the kindergartner or a stacking toy for the baby when you have 200 miles to go and you're hours behind schedule. From personal experience, I can tell you a Walkman for every child in the family will prove a terrific investment (don't forget batteries). If each already has one, a holiday book-and-tape set will be greeted with smiles.
Rule Six: Bring food and more food. At all costs, you want to avoid hungry (read that crabby) kids and spouses. Especially at holiday times, you can't count on roadside cafes or airport restaurants being open when you need them (for example, at 2 a.m. when you've already been at the airport for six hours). Take twice as much formula, juice and baby food as you need. Pack a double school lunch for everyone. Don't forget the cookies.
Rule Seven: Make sure everyone is cozy. When traveling by auto, bring pillows, blankets and water bottles for each child, along with backpacks holding the latest can't-live-without-for-a-minute treasures. No matter how much they beg, keep the troops under 12 safely buckled in the back. Keep babies and preschoolers in safety seats, of course. Even if your car isn't equipped with dual air bags, experts say the kids are safer that way.
Rule Seven: No writer's block allowed. Get out a pad and pen (or your laptop) and start writing a novel together. (Well, maybe not a novel, but a holiday story is doable.)
Here's how it works: Each family member takes a turn writing a paragraph. Don't groan. This could be the start of a new tradition. How about a screenplay? You probably won't sell it for millions, but you'll get some laughs -- especially when you find it in a drawer a few years from now. The project is guaranteed to take everyone's mind off the delays, for a while.
Rule Eight: Get some sleep. Get off the road if you're feeling tired. Remember that coffee or sugar will perk you up only for a short time. However far you have to go, stop every couple of hours. You need the break as much as the kids do. Take time for a snowball fight.
Rule Nine: Kick those tires. Grab the cat litter and a small shovel. Make sure all the tires, including the spare, are in good shape. The cat litter (or sand) and shovel can get you moving when you're stuck in the snow. Don't forget your cell phone -- you may have to tell mom to carve the turkey without you. Turkey sandwiches always taste better anyway.
Rule Ten: Start those deep breathing exercises -- the ones that didn't work when you gave birth. Then count to 10. Do this before you berate the gate agent about your late flight, missed connection and the fact your 3-year-old's assigned seat is in the front of the plane while the rest of you are in back. It's not the gate agent's fault. Be polite and he'll be more willing to help you. Besides, wouldn't it be nice if some benevolent stranger -- say, a retired nursery school teacher -- took care of your preschooler the entire flight?
Don't get your hopes up, but it is Christmas.
(Look for Eileen Ogintz's new books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')
(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to email@example.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)
(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate