Traveling Through The Holiday Crush

The back-of-the-van chorus is belting out holiday tunes, too busy to squabble. The roads are clear, the traffic light. You check your watch and smile. You're ahead of schedule!

In your dreams, maybe.

If only holiday travel were so easy. The reality may be closer to a nightmare. More than 40 million Americans are expected to hit the roads and fill the skies this holiday season, a time of year when weather is at its most uncompromising.

You might be stuck for hours on a crowded highway. (More than 80 percent of holiday travelers drive, according to the American Automobile Association.) Your flight could be canceled because of a snowstorm 2,000 miles away. The children will whine. Out of food and diapers, you'll vow never to leave home again, or at least until 2000 (when you can worry about the Y2K bug).

Worse, you paid a bundle for the privilege of packing your bags in prime travel season, not counting the favors it took to get the time off. Humbug! So much for that perfect holiday experience.

But wait -- the Christmas travel crush doesn't have to be a disaster, as long as you follow this ``Taking the Kids Holiday Travel Planner.'' We can't make the crowds or the snow disappear, of course. But we can try to keep your family safer and happier. And we hope you'll arrive feeling more like Santa than Scrooge -- as long as you give up the TV-commercial expectations.

Feel better? Let's get going!

-- Play Santa or the Hanukkah fairy. When the going gets especially slow, pull out the new baby Rugrat for the 4-year-old, a Barbie for her older sister, Matchbox cars for your son, glitter crayons, neon-colored pencils, holiday stickers for your little artists and a new hand-held electronic game or CD for the bored teen (assuming his earphones are glued to his head). Stash some colored Band-Aids so the kids can ``treat'' their dolls and stuffed animals en route.

-- Have earphones for everyone. Portable tape players for the children and their favorite tapes (along with a new holiday story) will go a long way toward keeping the peace, whether you're on the highway or the sky. You can rent or borrow story tapes from your public library. Listening Library has more than 400 titles to choose from -- from the Arthur aardvark stories, to Babe the pig's adventures, to favorite grade-schoolers' authors Matt Christopher, Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. (Two-cassette sets cost $16.98. Call the Listening Library at 800-243-4504; or check its Web site: www.listeninglib.com.)

-- Ask the believers in the family where they think Santa is this very minute. If they're old enough, tell them when you discovered the real Santa Claus. Use long hours in the airport or car to share your favorite Hanukah or Christmas memories with the kids. What was the worst New Year's Eve you ever had? Come armed with your favorite holiday storybooks, too.

-- Don't leave home without plenty of candy canes and a water bottle for each child. Youngsters always get hungry and thirsty just after you've passed the last restaurant for the next 50 miles or after the flight attendant has cleared the trays. You can't count on finding food when you need it, especially when you're expecting delays to lengthen travel time. Pack the equivalent of a school lunch for everyone. Treats go a long way to breaking up the tedium.

-- Grown-ups in front: Buckle the kids safely in the back in their safety seats or in their seat belts, if they're big enough. The National Safe Kids Campaign says many children between 4 and 8 still need booster seats for the seat belts to fit correctly (low over the hips and thighs, snug over the shoulders).

-- Never put a baby or young child in the front, not even in a car seat. They can be seriously injured or killed if an air bag deploys. Remember to buckle up yourself. Call the National Safe Kids Campaign (800-441-1888) for a free ``Buckle Up'' brochure; on the Internet, visit www.safekids.org, where you can plug in your child's weight and age to make sure you're using the right restraint.

-- Flying with car seats: Though you're not required to purchase an airline seat for your baby, the FAA strongly urges you to do so. Most major airlines now offer as much as 50 percent off for children under 2. They also will give you an empty seat, if they've got one. On bumpy flights, the FAA says, children under 40 pounds are far safer in their car seats. The kids will be much happier fliers, too. Just make sure the seats are approved for air travel; look on the seat for the government approval label. (Call the FAA's consumer hot line at 800-FAA-SURE; or visit www.faa.gov for safety tips on air travel with youngsters.)

-- Don't kiss the teens at the airport when you're putting them on a flight alone. If they don't want to be accompanied by airline officials (this is not required after age 12), make sure they're prepared for an emergency. Do they know how to make a collect call? Do they know the phone number of the person (Dad, Grandma, camp friend) who is meeting them? Instruct them to tell airline officials they are flying alone and need help if their flight is diverted or they miss a connection. Remind them never to leave the gate area with a stranger, no matter how well-meaning that person seems.

-- Stay until the plane takes off when you're putting any child on a flight. Airlines say that holidays are one of the heaviest times for children as young as 5 to fly unaccompanied. Get to the airport early to complete the needed paperwork. Make sure whoever is picking your child up knows to bring a picture ID. Send along snacks, games and toys. The flight attendants will be too busy to help entertain the kids. (For a ``Kids and Teens in Flight'' brochure, call the U.S. Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division at 202-366-2220.)

-- Ready, set, run around the van three times! Toss around a football, switch seats. Everyone will be happier after even a short break. The Automobile Association of America recommends stopping every two hours when you're driving long distances. And if you're driving in cold weather, make sure you've got a cell phone and plenty of warm clothes and blankets in case you get stuck.

--Shirt alert: You want to be able to grab spare T-shirts and sweat shirts fast, in case someone gets sick or spills a drink. Leave the cute holiday outfits in the suitcases. For travel, dress the kids comfortably and in layers so that you can add fleece shirts as you head into a cold climate or peel off sweat pants as the temperature climbs.

-- Get Ready for Chaos, Grandma! Before the grandchildren arrive, make sure hosts remember to put away their medicines and favorite knickknacks. Stock up on apple juice and Cheerios for the toddlers, pizza and peanut butter for the older kids. A supply of toys, art supplies and videos will instantly win everyone's affection. Ask Mom and Dad -- or the kids themselves -- for suggestions ahead of time.

-- Nothing to do! There may be piles of holiday gifts, but you can't count on them to keep the kids amused away from home. Make sure you remind children to say thank you, even if they received PJs. Besides what youngsters pack in their backpacks, savvy parents bring along some just-in-case favorites, whether they're headed on vacation or to Cousin Susie's house -- a tub of Legos, a baseball mitt and balls, a suitcase full of Beanie Babies.

-- Aachoo! Be prepared for sniffles -- and worse. No matter where you go, someone is bound to get sick, especially when too little sleep, too much food and changing weather zones are added to the equation. Take along your pediatrician's phone number and the name and number of a doctor in the city you'll be visiting. In an emergency, head for the nearest children's or university hospital. Try to reach your pediatrician first if your child gets sick so that he or she can coordinate treatment, pediatricians suggest. Always pack children's acetaminophen, a thermometer, first-aid kit and any medicine your child might need for chronic conditions like asthma or allergies. (The American Academy of Pediatrics Web site, at www.aap.org, can help you pack your first-aid kit and provide other travel smarts.)

-- Maintain do-nothing times: Don't schedule every minute, particularly if your children are coming to visit from across the country after months apart. Especially with new loves or stepsiblings in the picture, carve out some one-on-one time with each child. Give the kids -- and yourself -- time to get back in sync. Here's the chance you've been waiting for to build some new holiday traditions.

-- Keep a good joke handy: Whatever happens this holiday season, keep everyone laughing. Remember, the worst times on the road often make the best travel memories.

Happy travels.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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