(Tribune Media Services) -- As if traveling with the kids over the holidays weren't tough enough, this year we must contend with airline surcharges and swine flu, as well as all the usual annoyances and delays that go along with traveling -- especially with children -- during the busiest travel weeks of the year.
There is some good news, though. Travelocity's Genevieve Brown reports that domestic airfare is down 12 percent from last Thanksgiving -- hotel rates are down even more.
Good luck to those of you taking a new baby home to meet the relatives this Thanksgiving. (That was my first flight with my babies too.) My "Taking the Kids 2009 Holiday Rules for the Skies" will hopefully keep you healthy and make your travel cheaper and easier this holiday season:
--Juggle your dates. Travel the Monday before Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving morning, the week of Christmas rather than the following week and you could save more than $100 a ticket, says BestFare.com's Tom Parsons. Those airline surcharges we are hearing so much about are only for the busiest travel days, like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Sunday, November 29.
Airfarewatchdog.com's George Hobica adds that you are smart to consider airlines that give "fare drop" discounts like Jet Blue, Southwest and Alaska; they refund the difference if a fare goes down between the time you buy and the time you fly. Other airlines also offer refunds but deduct hefty change fees.
--Book a direct flight, even if you have to pay more, suggests Travelocity's Brown. And if you have to connect, allow at least three hours between flights. The planes will be packed and if you miss your connection -- all it takes is one major storm somewhere -- you won't find enough seats on the next flights for your family. Make sure you get seat assignments too. It will be impossible to get seats together when you arrive at the airport for a packed flight.
--Look for "family designated" security lanes at airports to avoid the icy glares of harried business travelers behind you and your stroller. Allow at least an hour more than you think you'll need and check in online.
--Travel with carry-on bags not only to save fees (Jet Blue and Southwest currently are the only domestic carriers not charging baggage fees), but also to save time. You'll get to the gate -- and out of the airport at the other end -- significantly quicker. As an early holiday gift, get the kids their own rolling carry-on, monogrammed with their name in a favorite color, from Lands' End or L.L. Bean. (Listening, Grandma?)
If necessary, ship suitcases, snow sports gear and holiday gifts ahead. If you are staying with relatives, rent a crib (it isn't safe to use the one your mom has had in the attic for 30 years). Google a rental place near where you'll be staying or check out www.rent-baby-equipment.com or http://www.jetsetbabies.com/. They can deliver diapers!)
--Buy a seat for the baby and toddler and bring their safety seats onboard. Yes, they can fly free until they are two, but everyone from the FAA to the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that young children are far safer -- not to mention more comfortable -- in a safety seat, especially when a flight hits turbulence. You'll have a more comfortable flight too.
--Stash sandwiches, snacks and reusable water bottles that you can fill when you get through security. This way you not only feed the kids healthier en route but also save considerable money and time. You don't want to have to run for the gate -- as I've had to do -- after being stuck in an interminable security line with no time to stop for food, while facing a three-hour flight with three kids, with only crushed Goldfish in your purse.
--Keep that hand sanitizer handy and use it often. "Parents should not be afraid to travel due to H1N1," says Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, a pediatrician and editor of www.pediatricsnow.com. We've just got to travel smarter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an excellent guide for parents (www.flu.gov) and you'll also find tips at the American Academy of Pediatrics' Website, www.aap.org.
"Cough into a tissue or the crook of your elbow," Dr. O'Keeffe says. And stay home if you are sick. Don't go visit relatives who are sick either. Don't share drinks or food, adds Dr. Chris Tolcher, a California pediatrician, medical school professor and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
--Just in case someone gets sick, bring along common over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, Dr. Tolcher suggests. Ask your pediatrician to recommend a physician in the area you'll be visiting, particularly if any of your kids has a chronic condition. And consider travel insurance. According to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, you'll be covered if one of you gets sick away from home or if you have to cancel for H1N1 or other illnesses, as long as you have medical documentation.
--Make sure kids who are flying as unaccompanied minors know where they are going. (Yes, kids have been put on wrong flights.) Give them a cell phone and all of the phone numbers they might need. Teens need to know that if their flight is diverted or if they miss a connection, they've got to speak up and tell the gate agents and flight attendants they are alone. You don't want them to get lost in the shuffle.
--Say thanks but no thanks to the relatives and opt for a hotel. Now through December 30, get a second night at half price as part of Omni Hotels new Spirits and Sprinkles deal (http://www.omnihotels.com/). Also, check the official tourism Web site for the city you'll be visiting or try www.hotels.com and www.travelzoo.com.
There is one other bright spot. A new American Express survey reports that nearly 20 percent of those who traveled last year will be staying home. Maybe that will make it easier for the rest of us. And perhaps the airlines will offer a last-minute sale.
Pass the turkey.