Two parents and a child hold hands in the winter, carrying shopping bags

Traveling with your family for the holidays should be a time of joy. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

11 Tips for Stress-Free Family Holiday Travel This Season

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — and it’s also one of the most stressful for family travel. This is especially true if you’re planning to be in airports or on the road to gather with loved ones.

The good news: Planning ahead can go a long way in easing travel woes and bringing on the joy of traveling with loved ones.

To put more ahhh and less ack! in your journey this season, here are a few tips for a stress-free family trip.

Travel on the Holiday Itself (Or Well Around It)

A parent and two children look out on the tarmac from inside an airport
Planning ahead can make flying feel more like an adventure than a source of stress. (Photo: Getty Images)

Timing is everything when it comes to snagging the lowest possible airfare during the holiday season — not to mention easing your stress.

For Thanksgiving, if you can swing it, consider making a week out of a trip rather than traveling on the Wednesday and Sunday that bookend the holiday itself.

Booking holiday travel for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, whether you celebrate or not, can amount to hefty airfare savings.

Bypass Checking a Bag Whenever Possible

Not having your suitcase arrive at your destination with you is an inconvenience at any time of year. But it’s particularly bothersome during the holiday season when there are parties to attend and gifts to be delivered.

If you’re primarily traveling with adults and older kids, bypass checking your bags and put everyone in charge of their own carry-on along with a small backpack. In many cases it should be enough room for everyone to tote along what they need. If you’re traveling somewhere cold, try wearing boots and heavy jackets to the airport to save luggage space.

Consider the Timing of Flights

When it comes to planning, as well as the flights you pick, booking as early in the day as possible is always better. Always try to book the first flight of the day for holiday travel and opt for nonstop flights if you can.

At this time of year, winter weather is likely to throw a wrench into the equation, too, with the possibilities for snow and other weather delays across much of the country and world.

Taking the first flight of the day means it’s less likely you’ll be delayed since the domino effect of delays usually hasn’t kicked in yet.

Be Proactive with a Backup Plan

“Hope for the best and expect the worst” is a good travel mantra for any time of the year. But during the holiday season, more than ever, it can serve you well to have a backup plan in place before you even leave home.

Use flight apps to see where your airplane is coming from and if there are widespread delays. Tracking delays in real time — if they’re happening — can help you get ahead of the curve. It gives you the chance to make new plans before the cancellation or delay has even been officially announced (and everyone else is lining up for help).

The minute you hear a flight is heavily delayed or canceled, start looking up alternative options on your own while you wait for official help through an airline or car rental’s customer service line.

Assess the Accessibility of Family Activities

Four people, some adults, some children, walk on a snowy road in a line
To ensure that everyone has a great time, plan activities that are accessible to the whole family. (Photo: Getty Images)

Considering the mobility needs of all family members can help excursions and events run more smoothly. When planning activities, assess whether everyone who wants to participate can actually do so. And keep in mind that the suitability of an activity can depend on an individual’s interests as much as their physical abilities.

A driving tour of your destination, for example, might be better than a walking tour for your group. It’s also a good idea to call ahead to restaurants and attractions you plan to visit to request tables and ensure there’s access that will accommodate everyone equally.

Build in Plenty of Downtime

The lights, the music, the revelry: The holidays can mean a lot of stimulation — and sometimes overstimulation.

Consider the needs of everyone in your travel group by building enough downtime into your plans that there’s room to breathe and time to rest, recuperate and recharge in the midst of all the hubbub.

Plan a few hours a day for people to explore on their own, relax in the hotel room, fit in a workout or do whatever else makes them feel good.

Book an All-Inclusive Experience

Two parents and two children embrace in a pool
Choosing to stay at an all-inclusive resort can also minimize stress. (Photo: Marriott International)

Family travel inherently comes with a ton of moving parts. Consider an all-inclusive resort where your meals — and even some entertainment — are often incorporated into the rates.

That makes it easy to take the pressure off when deciding where to eat each night and who’s cooking, leaving more time for the hang-out-and-enjoy part of being together over the holidays.

Assign Everyone a Role for the Trip

Maybe one family member is in charge of travel documents and passports while another’s responsibility is making sure all of the suitcases have arrived in a hotel room or are loaded into the car.

Delegating responsibilities — no matter how major or minor — to each person in your group goes a long way toward making your trip a true group endeavor. It can be empowering for kids, too, to be in charge of researching and booking outings and restaurants, so don’t be afraid to hand them the reins.

Plus, sharing the load can take some of the planning stress off of you, which will be much appreciated as you wind up for holiday travel as a family.

Let Kids Bring Their Own Entertainment

Putting kids in charge of their own fun can put more joy in the journey for everyone.

Let kids build and carry their own travel entertainment kits filled with books, their personal screens (if they use them), markers, removable stickers for the car and airplane windows, and other things they’ve chosen to help while away the hours in transit. They can even pack their own snacks. (Just make sure the snacks adhere to airport security policy if you’re flying.)

It’s also a good idea to download entertainment onto your devices before you lose internet access — or have to pay for it.

Make the Experience the Gift

Three people snowboard and ski down a snowy mountain
Consider making the trip itself the primary gift this holiday season. (Photo: Getty Images)

For many families, much of the stress around the holiday season stems from the obligation of gift-giving.

If your family can handle bucking tradition, propose making a group decision to skip the physical presents and make the experience of your travels together the gift this year.

After all, the presence of everyone getting together in person is the real gift of the season.

Pack Your Patience

This last one is easy to forget but vital to bring along. Being flexible and not flying off the handle can be a game-changer when family holiday travels get stressful.

Try to remember you’re not the only one who finds travel trying at this time of year. Pack your patience and sense of humor, and always treat people with the same amount of respect and kindness you’d want to receive yourself — during the season of giving and always.