Holiday travel can be stressful all on its own, with its traffic jams, long lines in stores, and weather delays. But when you bring along children and all their demands, anxiety levels—both yours and theirs—can elevate quickly.

To help begin and end your holiday trips on a good note, here are the best tips and tricks from our experts at CR's Auto Test Center for getting through the travel process.

Planes

Plane travel, by far the most “out of your control” situation, is unique in terms of its challenges.

  • Purchase a separate seat for your baby if you can afford it. Though it's not required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for babies under the age of 2, the agency recommends it, and so does the American Academy of Pediatrics. A child car seat offers your baby the best protection from unexpected turbulence and may provide the most comfortable trip for you and baby. Turbulence is the most common cause of nonfatal injury to airplane passengers and flight attendants.
  • Be sure your car seat is designed for use on aircraft. Look for a plane symbol and wording on the label that says the seat is approved for use on aircraft. Boosters aren't approved for aircraft use because there's no shoulder belt available. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the car seat’s lap-belt installation, because that will be your only option on a plane. Be prepared: The buckle on an airplane belt is quite different from one in a car and can make the installation challenging.
  • Take advantage of preboarding for families. If you're unsure whether this is an option, ask the customer service representative at your gate well before boarding begins.
  • For rear-facing-only car seats, plan on a carrier-only installation because it takes less space, and send the base through checked baggage or store it in an overhead bin.
  • Whether you’re using a car seat or holding your baby on your lap, select your plane seat wisely. It's not just about your fellow passengers; make sure you can get up and move within the cabin if you need to. If you can’t book the ideal location, check before boarding to see whether a better seat is available. For example, a bulkhead seat may offer additional space.
  • If you opt to hold your baby on your lap, you may still want to bring your car seat to your destination, even if you're renting a car. Though child restraints are available from car-rental agencies, you won’t necessarily be familiar with what you’re getting, which can make it difficult to install correctly. Stick with what you know. Airlines usually don’t charge baggage fees for car seats, and they will often provide a protective plastic bag to cover it as part of checked baggage. 
  • If you're frequently traveling with kids, consider using a carry bag or cart on a set of wheels to move it around the airport more easily.
  • Allowing a baby to nurse or use a pacifier or bottle during takeoff and landing may help balance the pressure in his or her ears and ease any ear discomfort.
  • Be aware of the FAA policy regarding car seats, because some flight attendants may be less knowledgeable. It may be beneficial to carry pages 8 and 9 of the FAA advisory.


Go to Consumer Reports’ 2017 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more. And be sure to check our Daily Gift Guide.
 

Trains

  • Most trains don’t have seat belts, so securing a car seat won’t be an option. Consider how best to keep a little one safe and comfortable. But avoid simply propping a car seat on an empty seat, because abrupt motions of the train could upset it.
  • Arrive early, because most trains don’t have assigned seats and you'll want to be able to select a good spot.
  • Unlike planes, trains allow you more mobility even when they're in motion. But take care to steady yourself, particularly when you're carrying a little one. If toddlers are walking, hold onto a hand to steady them.

Automobiles

  • Before starting your trip, give your child car seat a check to be sure everything is secure.
  • Plan your route to try to avoid traffic, and expect to take breaks for the little ones. Time the stops if you can so they line up with their usual schedule for naps and meals.
  • Once at your destination, be sure to take the same care in securing a child in other cars that you would in your own. Don’t compromise your child’s safety for a short trip, even if it means taking an additional car.
  • Be aware of the child-safety laws in states you'll be traveling in and through, because they can be different. In particular, booster-seat laws vary from state to state. 
  • When packing a car for a road trip, make sure that luggage and gifts are properly secured to avoid becoming projectiles in the event of a crash. Most SUVs, minivans, and wagons have cargo covers or luggage tie-downs behind the rear passenger seats. If you're driving a sedan, it’s best to put all luggage in the trunk.
  • Make sure your tires are in good condition and have the correct inflation pressure. (Tire pressure drops in colder temperatures.) That's particularly important if you’re traveling where winter weather may be a concern. Make sure your oil has already been changed, the washer fluid has been topped off, and you have an ice scraper with you. Also be sure to have warm clothing for all just in case.

And last, be patient. Though kids may make travel a bit more stressful, they are the greatest joy of the holidays.