Dan Miller shares his secrets to traveling with lots of kids. (Photo: Dan Miller)
When travel writer Dan Miller of the site Points With a Crew travels with his family, they don’t just board a plane: they invade it. Dan and his wife, Carolyn, have six children — three boys and three girls ranging in age from 3 to 15, all of whom are experienced travelers. You think it’s hard traveling with a crying baby, a fidgeting toddler, or a pair of fighting siblings? That’s child’s play for the Millers. When this family travels, they roll eight deep, Brady Bunch-style. And Dan and his wife are battle-tested experts in large family vacations.
“Traveling with a large family presents some of its own unique challenges,” says Miller. That’s an understatement. In reality, hitting the skies, the roads, or the rails with multiple children requires the patience of Job, the precision of a Special Forces operation, and the peacemaking skills of the U.N. And lots of snacks.
Needless to say, Dan’s learned a thing or two over the years about this form of juvenile crowd control. Whether you have six kids or just one, his tips will help make your big family vacation survivable.
Beware of “H.A.L.T.”
What to avoid. (Photo: 2/Noel Hendrickson/Ocean/Corbis)
What is “H.A.L.T.?” It’s the biggest enemy of a big family trip — and often the difference between a smooth vacation and one that drives everyone insane. “On a trip, you don’t want anybody Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired,” says Miller. “Those are the things that you really have to watch out for. If your kids are hungry or tired, they’re going to have a bad time and that means you’re going to have a bad time. Bring lots of food if you’re on a airplane or on a road trip.” If you successfully manage “H.A.L.T.” you’re more than halfway to a good family trip.
Electronics and Gadgets: Not the Life Savers You Think They Are
Go gadget free. (Photo: Ilya/Stocksy)
Some parents believe handing a kid a gadget like an iPad or gaming app is the magic cure for keeping kids quiet and happy during trips. Miller admits he and his wife have fallen into that trip. “There have been times in my life on a road trip where a portable DVD player has saved the day,” he says.
But Dan says if you have multiple children, gadgets can be counterproductive. “Unless we have six copies of the exact same game or the exact same iPad, the kids just fight over who gets to play with what,” Dan says.
So rather than just storing the gadgets in the trunk or in a checked bag, Miller makes his family vacations electronics-free zones. “I’ve found that if the kids know that [the gadgets] are there and you’re just not letting them use it, then they just get angry,” he says. “They’re like, ‘I know it’s in the trunk, just go get it!’ Whereas if you can say, ‘Hey, it’s not even here,’ then after a while they start having fun, either reading books, or listening to the music that we’re playing or even playing the Alphabet Game.”
Another benefit of no-gadget vacations: the parents don’t spend their time checking email or Facebook.
Take Advantage of Airline Loyalty and Frequent Flier Programs
Yes, you can use those miles. (Photo: Angela Lumsden/Stocksy)
For a family of eight to be able to fly together somewhat regularly, one would think they’d have to be multi-millionaires like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who recently were pictured flying coach with their six kids. But Miller says big families not headed by two wealthy Oscar winners can do the same.
The secret, Miller says, is hoarding airline loyalty points and frequent flier miles. “One of the reasons that I started the blog, Points With a Crew, was just to be able to help [large] families travel,” he says. “I found so many of the miles and points blogs out there focus on flying in first class and staying in five-star hotels.”
When Miller collects points for his large brood, he does so with the goal of racking up enough points for free tickets rather than fancy upgrades. He recommends travel hacking strategies like credit card signups (which often award tens of thousands of points just for signing up) and shopping online (many airline rewards programs give you bonus points if you use their websites to access popular online retailers).
Those points add up. “We ended up using 170,000 Southwest points to be able to fly our family to Lake Tahoe for a family reunion and back,” he says.
Be Realistic: Your Kid Will Make Noise
Little noisemakers. (Photo: Tim Pannell/Corbis)
“You want to be realistic about your expectations,” Miller says. That means if you’re expecting your kids to be as quiet as church mice during your flight or car trip, well, you’re the one who’s tripping. “I don’t have the expectation, nor do I think it’s realistic, that kids would be completely quiet on an airplane.” he says. “The problem that I have is that kids make noise, and even a small noise times six kids can be loud,” he says.
So forget about getting complete silence from small kids; containment is key here. “I try to be aware of how my kids are affecting other people. We do try our best to keep things manageable.”
Remember: Not Everyone Finds Your Kid Charming
My kids aren’t monsters! (Photo: Michael Clement/Masterfile/Corbis)
If you fly with a bunch of kids, you may run into fellow passengers who aren’t used to having them around. Miller recalls an unfortunate encounter his family had with a woman during what he calls a “high-stress” flight. “It was a flight that had been delayed for several hours,” Miller remembers. Miller was seated behind his three boys, who apparently had annoyed the woman sitting in front of them. “She turned around at the end of the three-or-four-hour flight and asked my three boys if they were with somebody or if they were ‘unaccompanied monsters,’” he says. “So my wife was like, ‘These are my kids,’ and the passenger talked about how the boys had made her flight miserable and that they were very rude children. And then she told us that we were the type of people that shouldn’t have children.” Ouch!
“I didn’t feel like my kids were being super loud,” Dan says. But rather than argue with that woman, as parents will often do when someone calls their children monsters, Dan opted to take things in in stride. “I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt,” he says in hindsight. “She was probably having a really bad day.” That kind of empathy likely went much farther in defusing that situation than responding with a “Oh, no you didn’t…!” would have.
How to Seat a Family of Eight on a Flight
Seating can be a nightmare. (Photo: Ilya/Stocksy)
When flying with their large family, Dan and his wife are in the same situation they’re in at home: hopelessly outnumbered. So when they fly on an airplane, how have Miller and his wife figured out how to keep an eye on all six children?
The simple answer is, they haven’t yet. “It’s a work in progress,” Miller says. For Miller, selecting seats beforehand is not an option like it may be for some travelers; it’s a necessity. “I really do feel like it is your responsibility as a parent, as a family, to do what you can to get your family to sit together. It’s not the airlines’ responsibility.” But in a pinch, he will appeal to a gate agent to help seat his family in the same vicinity.
Dan and his wife also play with different seating arrangements — and no, Mom and Dad don’t always get to sit together. Dan says he’s sat in front of the plane with some of his older kids while his wife sat near the rear with the younger ones. But if the parents do separate on the plane, they’re not strangers. “I periodically walk back to where my wife was with two of our younger kids to make sure that they’re okay,” Dan says.
Make Your Flight an Adventure
Flying is fun. (Photo: Canelson.com.ar/Moment/Getty Images)
It’s easy for us grownups to get jaded about flying. But rediscovering just how cool flying is can be a great way to keep your kids entertained, engaged, and (relatively) quiet on a flight. “Look out at the sky. Look at the clouds. Read the in-flight magazine,” are Miller’s suggestions for in-flight activities that can help keep your kids occupied.
“[Airplanes have] all these different things that kids have never seen, or don’t see very often,” he says. Exploring all the new and exciting elements of air travel can turn travel into a fun adventure for your kids — and perhaps make you rediscover how awesome air travel can be.
What Can You Do if Your Baby’s Crying on a Plane?
It’s better to fly at night. (Photo: Deux/Corbis)
“There’s not really a lot you can do,” Miller admits. But he shares one thing that’s worked in his family. “Try to fly late at night, when they should be sleeping,” he says. “A sleeping baby is probably the best baby you’re going to get on an airplane.”
Get Adjoining Rooms
Room for six-plus. (Photo: TripAdvisor)
“None of my kids are old enough that we feel comfortable having them be ‘in charge’ of their own rooms,” Miller says. So his family opts for adjoining hotel rooms whenever possible. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible. “When adjoining rooms aren’t available, we usually have a ‘boys room’ and a ‘girls room’” — which means Mom and Dad have to sleep in separate rooms with three kids each. “Adjoining rooms mean the difference between my sharing a bed with my wife or my very wiggly six-year-old son,” Miller laughs.
Sometimes You Can Depend on the Kindness of Strangers
While you may run into some passengers who don’t appreciate sharing a plane with your kids, you can also encounter others who not only like traveling with children, they can help wrangle your heard. Miller tells one story about the time he and his wife were flying with five of their kids and were unable to sit together.
“Two of my boys were by themselves, next to this older lady, and she was just the sweetest lady,” Miller recalls. “She really kind of took care of our kids. I was a row or two behind them and so I was there kind of checking in on them. I was really thankful for her. Most people are nice and most people will try to help you when you can.”
Let’s be real: when many of us see a family with a bunch of kids (especially small kids) board a plane we’re on, we immediately think, “Oh, no… they’re going to scream/cry/kick my seat/run up and down the aisle/annoy the heck out of me during the whole flight!” Dan admits that some parents’ laissez-faire attitude toward controlling their kids not only makes life miserable for other travelers, it gives big families like his a bad name.
“Yes, there are parents who are not interested or are not able to control their children,” Miller says. “But I think that the majority of parents are just trying to do their best to keep everybody quiet — and to get from point A to point B without disrupting other people.”