Not all my tips, just my BEST ones.
I spent my first 28 years living in one suburban Maryland county, putting down deep roots with lots of family and close friends. I have, since, spent the next 14 years in either Texas or California. So I’ve learned a lot about traveling for the holidays with kids, mostly by trial and error. On top of that, as homeschoolers, we incorporate learning into everyday life, and holiday travel is no exception.
With all of this experience from the trenches, I could give you tons of tips. Holiday travel and gift-giving. Holiday travel with babies. Holiday travel and homeschooling. But you’ve probably read most of them on another website already. So, instead, this article is my “best of the best” from all the categories.
So without further ado, I present to you my list of top, most helpful, favorite things I wish I had known from the get-go about holiday family travel.
Best Tip for Saving Space (and postage) on Gifts
Give digital, a subscription, or an experience.
We’ve all heard the advice to have your gifts shipped to your destination and then pile all the gifts you receive in a FedEx box for shipping home. This is great advice, but there are even better options if you think outside the box.
Save space by gifting (and requesting) digital products. These days, digital gifts can be way more than just gift cards. Many kids play online games where real money can be exchanged for game currency, which they can use to “purchase” items in the game. My girls would rather have this than real money! Give an online class, a celebrity cameo, or a TV or music streaming subscription. There are so many unique digital gifts for which there is no need to wrap or pack!
Speaking of subscriptions, subscription boxes are all the rage, and there is one for absolutely everyone with every interest or hobby imaginable. There are even ones for pets. This is another perfect no-pack gift idea.
Bonus Homeschool Tip: There are so many amazingly cool educational subscription boxes that will supplement your curriculum and the kids don’t even realize they’re learning. Tell Gramma this is what they want!
My favorite gifts, though, are experience gifts! And I’ll tell you why they make the best holiday travel gifts. Not only do you not have to ship or pack them, but experience gifts . . .
- offer another way to enjoy your travel destination. Visit a local tourist attraction or natural wonder. Pick something that you would not be able to experience at home.
- make a fantastic group gift. Take the whole family to a play or show. Even an evening out at the movies makes for wonderful family memories.
- are great opportunities to pack some learning into the trip. See some historical sites or tour a museum.
Best Tip for Holiday Travel with Baby
Stop taking all the baby things. Source local.
Traveling with babies and young children means lots of stuff, especially for those longer holiday trips. When it suddenly occurred to me to borrow local for all the paraphernalia, it was a complete gamechanger!
If you’re traveling home for the holidays, ask siblings, cousins, or old friends if they have any extra baby items that you can borrow for your stay. I did this for friends coming for an extended Christmas stay with their infant and toddler. It only took two phone calls to arrange a portable crib, highchair, double stroller, baby gate, and activity center. All I had to do was pick them up. My friends didn’t have to bring them, and it made their visit so much more pleasant than trying to manage without.
IMPORTANT: Make sure all items you place a baby in are like-new with no missing or damaged parts and that they’ve never been recalled. Disinfect everything before using. And it’s a good rule of thumb to never borrow car seats—best to know exactly where those have been.
Best Tip for Saving Your Sanity
One word. Boundaries.
I know. I know. If it were only that easy, right? Well, if there is any time to draw up some good personal boundaries and hold your ground, visiting family for the holidays is it. Don’t let the excitement of the season make you abandon everything you and your kids need to be your best selves. Here are some things I’ve done that haven’t always been easy, but I have always been glad I made the effort.
Keep sleep schedules as close to normal as possible. If you are changing timezones, try to acclimate slowly. You can even start doing this in advance. Resist the urge to shortchange the kids on sleep to fit in all the things. Naptime is sacred.
Don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be all-the-family-all-the-time. Especially for the introverted among us *raises hand*, socializing can be exhausting. Don’t feel bad about carving out some time from extended family get-togethers to spend with just your nuclear family or even—dare I say it—by yourself. I let it be known that our bedtime routine with the kids is a private affair no matter whose home we are a guest in. Popping out to do some last-minute holiday shopping is another great excuse for some me-time.
Here is a tip within a tip. The best way I’ve found to accomplish boundary setting with minimal friction is to not wear out my welcome in any single home. I usually split extended trips home between my mom’s house and my best friend’s.
Best Tip for Maintaining Your Own Traditions
Think small but special.
One of the downsides to traveling with kids for the holidays is that you sometimes trade the cherished holiday traditions you’ve cultivated in your own home to visit someone else’s. Bringing a few of those traditions with you is a smart way to give little ones a comforting piece of home when they are celebrating in a new place.
The trick is to choose meaningful moments that are easy to recreate on the road. We give our girls pajamas every Christmas Eve and read them the same Christmas story. This is a small thing we can do, no matter who or where we are visiting, to keep our own family traditions going, even while we enjoy new ones.
And speaking of new traditions . . .
Best Tip for Making New Holiday Memories
Incorporate traditional food from the place you’re visiting.
You don’t have to be traveling to an exotic foreign country to explore new holiday food. People in every region in the US have their own unique, seasonal cuisine. Whether you are visiting family or just spending the holiday somewhere new, try to incorporate a local dish into your festive menu.
In Maryland, our culture is largely based on our setting around the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the local foods that are traditionally enjoyed at Thanksgiving and Christmas are oysters, crab, and ham stuffed with kale and cabbage. I remember my Granny using leftover turkey from Thanksgiving to make turkey and oyster pie.
Exploring the tastes of the places you visit is my favorite way to make new holiday memories. And this tip is the perfect segue to my . . .
Best Tip for Homeschooling During Holiday Travel
Research local culture, holiday traditions, and foods.
Ah, sneaky school—every homeschooler’s favorite type of learning!
Maryland’s state dessert, a traditional Christmas treat, is a Smith Island Cake with its glazed chocolate icing poured over the cake and between each of its up to 15 layers. The story goes that, in winter, when the men went out to harvest oysters, their wives could not send with them the usual buttercream frosted cakes, because they would spoil in the damp weather. So they created these glazed versions with pancake-thin layers that would hold up on the days-long harvesting expedition.
A location’s holiday foods and traditions are woven from its agriculture, geography, economics, wildlife, and history. Researching these things about your travel destination is a fantastic unit study. Even better—try making some of these recipes and have the kids do a presentation for the family about the dishes and their history. Travel to the same place every year? Pick a new state to study and sample from each time.
So these are my personal, very best tips for holiday family travel—lived and learned the hard way. May they sleep on the plane, and never get the flu at your in-law’s, and may all of your holiday travels be merry and bright.
Written by Vida Mercer: Vida is a second-generation homeschooler, writer, writing coach, and curriculum developer. Born and raised in Southern Maryland, Vida met her husband, Jonathan, literally on horseback during a stint in North Texas. Now, they live in Northern California where they love to travel, day trip, and weekend with their two daughters. They, of course, incorporate their adventures into their homeschool lifestyle and wouldn’t have it any other way!