A Contingency Checklist for Family Travel

Sep 21, 2015

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The possibility of things going completely wrong is just part of the nature of traveling with family. TPG Contributor Jessica Lawler shows you how a little bit of planning can help you deal with unforeseen obstacles on the ground and in the air.

On a recent month-long trip to France (as a last hurrah before my husband began his post-graduate school job), we experienced it all: sick children on long plane rides, delayed flights, missed connections and lost baggage to top it off.

I’ve learned to pack three essential items that help carry us through unpleasant travel situations: a medicine bag, a change of clothes for each family member and extra non-perishable snacks. Besides stashing these items in your carry-on bag, you can prepare for the worst by knowing what to do when travel plans don’t pan out.

Speak softly and carry a big first aid kit. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Speak softly and carry a big first aid kit. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Being sick yourself or having a sick child can make you question your decision to travel in the first place. As a mom of two little girls, I always carry a medicine bag that includes a fever reducer like Tylenol; Benadryl in case of an allergic reaction to something new; nasal saline spray for congestion; a basic first aid kit; and lavender oil for its multiple uses.

I thought I was prepared for the worst, but my all-time travel low came when both my toddler and I became extremely ill an hour after taking off from São Paulo, Brazil. The flight was a red-eye that we’d planned to sleep through, but instead I spent seven hours filling my own sickness bags and making sure my child survived the flight, too. The flight attendants were extremely helpful, from asking other passengers if they had Pedialyte with them to bringing extra crackers and ginger ale to our seats. If you aren’t as lucky with FAs on your flight, ask for the purser to assist you.

In the end, I learned that it doesn’t hurt to bring even two changes of clothing on international flights — and it’s possible to survive your worst in-flight nightmare.

My oldest daughter has learned to sleep anywhere.
My oldest daughter has learned to sleep anywhere, thanks to all the delays we’ve encountered.

Delayed/Canceled Flights

On a trip from Newark to San Francisco, our flight was delayed for two hours after we had already boarded the plane. In hindsight, I wish we would’ve called the airline during that waiting time and asked to be put on cautionary standby for the next flight. This status doesn’t remove your seat on your original flight, but it increases your chances for getting on the next flight when you make it to your destination.

If your flight is delayed and there’s a chance you could make your next flight, it’s worth asking the flight attendant to try to get you off the plane as soon as possible. While it’s trickier with children, it can be done. Once when I was traveling without my husband, a kind passenger even helped me carry my two sleeping children so I could catch my next flight!

Having elite status with an airline can be a lifesaver when it comes to both delayed and canceled flights, since calling a preferred phone line gets you speaking to someone faster without tortuous wait times. Be respectful, but ask lots of questions about things like which hubs and which airlines the agent has checked for availability. Spending extra time in the airport with a family in tow is not ideal, so be sure to exhaust your options. In that vein, Star Alliance Gold lounges have saved the day for my family many times. Some lounges have excellent family rooms (we love the family room in United’s Tokyo-Narita lounge) as well.

Whether you’re stuck on the tarmac or stuck in an airport, entertaining kids with games and physical activities helps to keep everyone calm and pass the time. We play games like I Spy, sing nursery rhymes, tell stories and read books. If we’re stuck in the airport, we do laps on the travelators or escalators, have races in empty areas, call or FaceTime other family members and visit the airport shops to learn more about the city or country where we’re biding our time.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
That plane that just departed was your family’s next flight — what do you do now? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Missed Connections

Most of the information above applies to surviving missed connections, too. When we missed a connecting flight by a mere five minutes and subsequently had to wait five hours for the next available flight, I tried to maintain a normal schedule for my kids, like changing them into their pajamas around their usual bedtime. Always ask to be put on a different airline if the agent can’t get you out the same day. It could be worth filing a DOT complaint if things go completely awry.

Luggage gets lost sometimes — so be sure to have a back-up plan. Photo courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center.

Lost Baggage

In addition to bringing extra clothes on board, it’s worthwhile to tuck your toiletries in your carry-on bag (especially on international flights), as they’ll come in handy in the unhappy event that your luggage gets lost. We’ve had both suitcases and car seats go missing, and appreciate the lost luggage benefits attached to our Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. In addition to leveraging credit card benefits, it helps to have status with an airline; you’ll get better reimbursement options for the contents of your luggage. This benefit can go a long way for a family, so be sure to keep your luggage receipt tags so you can make the most of an unfortunate situation.

While this list of possibilities is by no means exhaustive, hopefully it will help you to be more prepared for the unknown when you travel with your family. Better yet, hopefully you won’t come across any of these scenarios!

What are your tips for facing travel contingencies? Please share them in the comments below.

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