How to Handle the Nightmare of Traveling with Kids

Advice from a kids-carpool-driving child psychologist, a race car driver and others.

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When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern
I’ve managed to put it off for almost two full years now. Sure, I’ve travelled a few hours with my toddler — I think four and a half hours is my record — but in about a week I’m gearing up for my first big trip with my kid, and unfortunately, I’m doing it all by myself. I’ve got a six-hour flight followed by a couple of hours in a rental car. Needless to say, I’m dreading it.

Does it matter when I leave? How do I keep him busy? Will Netflix do the job the entire way? (And does that make me a bad parent if I do that?) Will the airport help me out at all? What if my kid freaks out? What if I freak out?

Basically: How do I handle traveling with a kid?

The Expert Advice
Mike, father of three boys: When we drive to Disney World from New York, it’s about 18 to 20 hours, but you’re looking at about 22 to 23 hours with all the stopping you have to do. We’ve done it a few times now and on those trips, it helps to leave later in the evening so you can try to get as far as you can with them sleeping, so you don’t have to deal with the noise. It also helps to have more than one driver if you can.

When the boys finally do wake up, honestly, we just give them each a tablet or DVD player and hope they don’t fight on the way down. Travel games aren’t a thing anymore: There’s no more 20 Questions, Mad Libs or that license plate game where you have to find all the states. None of that stuff keeps them entertained, so it’s just about trying to get to where you’re going without your kids driving you crazy.

Dr. Ari Yares, school psychologist, father of four and kids-carpool driver: I have four daughters, so technically, every time we’re in a car together it’s a carpool, but we also have an arrangement with other families where we trade off driving our children to basketball practice. So, with a half-dozen girls in the car, you never know what you’re going to hear.

One thing I worry about is if my daughters are being inclusive in the back seat. With a carpool, the arrangement is usually about convenience, which doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to be friends, so I try to make sure no one is left out of the conversation and make it clear that we speak kindly to each other if I hear something I don’t like.

I also put a lot of thought into who sits where. Since we have a minivan, I don’t want three girls in the middle row and one left alone in the back, so I make sure it’s two-and-two in those situations. You also want to avoid seating kids next to each other who will fight. Although, you may not always want the two best friends to sit together all the time either, as the occasional awkward silence may be the only peace and quiet that you get.

If you do get annoyed, just remember to stay calm and remind yourself that your number one priority is to get you and your children to the destination safely, so try to identify coping mechanisms that help to calm you. You can also utilize the radio for some calming music or even just to drown out whatever your kids are talking about.

Luca Filippi, father of two and race car driver: When you fly, it’s all about timing. On the way to the airport, I think the best solution is to have them sleep in the car so they can be more relaxed, because it’s easy for children to get over-excited about getting on a plane. Also, don’t tell them a hundred times that, “We’re going on a plane!” While that may be fun, it can cause them to get over-excited about it, so just treat it like it’s normal.

At the airport, try to find a close parking space and, if you can, use a shuttle bus as you have to do a lot of walking in the airport anyway. It’s always good to have a stroller with you for smaller kids, because you never know when they will get tired — the smaller the stroller, the better. Finally, there’s the timing: While it’s good to go there in advance, the earlier you go, the more time you have to fill. So, go early enough, but don’t go too early because then they can get bored and that’s when they get a bit naughty.

Rosemary Gleason, mother of a special-needs child: My son just turned 8 this last May and traveling with a child with autism can be a challenge. At first I didn’t know how he was going to respond to it, so I didn’t start traveling with him until he was four years old. For his first trip, I didn’t want to go someplace too far away, so I chose Boston, which was about five hours from my home in upstate New York. Fortunately, it was a success: He loved the pool, he loved the aquarium. I took him to the harbor and he loved watching the boats. I was relieved because with a child with autism, you never really know what’s going to freak them out until it triggers them.

When it came to his first flight, I did my homework and found out about TSA Cares, which helps passengers with special needs — you can call them ahead of time and let them know what you or your family member’s needs are. So I called them up and let them know my son is nonverbal; that he needs to be kept in line-of-sight; that he cannot be separated from me; that he cannot tolerate waiting; and that he needs a reduced-stimulation environment. They’re able to help me out with all of that. All you need to do is make arrangements ahead of time, then find a TSA agent when you get there and they’ll tell you where to go for TSA Cares.

His first flight actually ended up great. He loved watching out the window and most of our flights since have been great, though occasionally he’ll have a freak-out. There was one time we were in the Charlotte airport during renovations and the sound caused an episode. When he gets like that it can be bad. He’ll get overwhelmed and then he’ll hit me; he’ll have self-injurious behavior and hit himself; and he’ll scream like I’m murdering him, which causes a lot of people to pass judgement on me, especially since I know that the best way to calm him isn’t with discipline, but to speak in a calming way until he levels out.

It can be hard dealing with the BS from other people because my son isn’t obviously disabled, so people just think I’m some terrible parent who can’t control their kid. More than a few times I’ve had people say to me that I shouldn’t have brought my kid if I can’t control them. I used to try to ignore that stuff, but now I prefer to stand up for myself and my son. So now if someone says something, I’ll snap back, “He’s disabled. What’s your problem?” Doing that is way better. Screw them.

I also try to take in the good moments. Like, I’ve had teachers and parents of special needs children or people familiar with autism tell me what a good job I’m doing, and it just means so much to me to hear that. It’s wonderful and it really encourages me to keep being brave. Now, let me tell you, this kid loves traveling. That’s his jam. And I’m not going to let fear of some A-hole strangers or the occasional freak-out prevent me or my child from seeing the world.