Most of us only get a week off at a time, and even when you include the adjacent weekends, we're talking about a nine-day stretch. Realistically, that's about long enough to drive just a few days from the Delaware Valley and back. A fair amount of nice destinations fall within this framework (everything from the Shore and Poconos to Florida, New England and eastern Canada). But an airplane can put you within easy reach of Yellowstone National Park, The Grand Canyon, or San Francisco, and places like these hold far more allure, especially if you and your kids have spent most of your lives on the east coast.
Getting affordable plane tickets is where a lot of family vacation dreams begin and end. Prices can fluctuate wildly in the months prior to your vacation date, and it's hard to know when to pull the trigger. Book too soon and you may be disappointed when prices fall later on. Book too late and you may find that the plane is filling-up and the remaining tickets are expensive.
I start any airplane trip by budgeting for all other expenses first. Hotel and rental car prices are often stable and can usually be locked in far in advance with very generous cancellation policies. Once you have those expenses figured out (along with good estimates for gas, food and excursions), you can now see how much is left over for airplane tickets. Next, allow yourself some time, preferable a few months or more, to try to find a good match. I use standard travel websites like Travelocity or Expedia to compare and track prices. Some of these sites make price-watching easier by sending you email alerts when prices fall below a given level. I also pay special attention to prices on different days of the week, since it's often cheaper to fly on certain weekdays and during off hours. It might be worth flying on a Wednesday and a Thursday for example, assuming your boss will give you parts of two weeks to travel. In addition, I make it a point to check Southwest.com, since that airline does not participate in the other travel websites and often has competitive rates and fewer fees.
In general, non-stops are a lot better for kids because it cuts the boring, travel time. But they can also be more expensive, and we go with connecting flights on occasion when the price difference is great enough. However, you can also find cheap non-stops, especially if you're willing to fly at a less popular time, like mid-afternoon or very early.
Carry-on, my good fellow!
Given the fluctuating state of airline fees, it's hard to know what advice to give in terms of luggage. In general, though, we've found it helpful to pack light and use those small, wheeled bags that fit in the overhead compartment. We've never paid a bag fee, as of 2010, and we've always been able to find room in the overheads. This is partly because of our children. They share bags, and the five of us often only have three to stow. We bring other small duffle bags or schoolbook bags that fit under our seats. This way, we can head straight to the rental car counter once the plane lands, rather than waiting for bags. This system was reinforced about eight years ago when we took a quick trip to Bermuda. We decided to bring snorkel gear, which meant checking a bag---the only time we've done so in almost two decades. Guess what? The airline lost the bag. Never again! Check your airline's baggage policies, though, before you try to carry on your things. There will be limits as to the size and numbers of bags you can carry on, and you want to make sure you're on top of the rules before you get to the airport.
Jana Tidwell of AAA Mid Atlantic says that if you're traveling with an infant or young child, bring along an infant/child seat that meets current safety standards. "The Federal Aviation Administration recommends that children weighing less than 40 pounds be placed in child/infant seats," Tidwell told me.
Very young children can fly without a problem, but they will need to have the experience well explained to them in advance. For example, a typical non-stop flight to California from Philadelphia includes about four hours and forty-five minutes in the air (and more on the taxiway). To Denver (a good starting point for the Rockies and Yellowstone), it's about three-and-a-half hours. So, the emphasis should be on how, aside from the take-off and landing, flying can be a little boring, and patience will be important. If it's their first flight, though, the airport/airplane experience will probably be a lot more fun and exciting for them than for you! Nonetheless, be sure to bring entertainment along for the ride. Hand-held video games are a good time-killer (although you can't use them during take-off and landing), and if the game systems come with headphones, you might find that they work with the airliner's sound system, making it possible to listen to music or an in-flight movie without having to pay for a headset. A small, half-sized deck of cards has come in handy with my kid, as Crazy 8's or even 500 Rummy can be played on your fold-down tray tables. Books work, too, if the kids are into reading, but make them smallish paperbacks (no sense lugging around heavy or unwieldy books on vacation). Throw some healthy snacks in a carry-on and don't forget chewing gum. Little ones may not enjoy feeling their ears "pop" as the plane rises and falls through different pressure levels, and chewing and swallowing eases this discomfort.
When you book your flights, make sure you let the airline folks know the ages of any children traveling with you. This will help avoid the misfortune of being placed in an exit row. Exit rows may have more leg room, but airlines do not allow young children to sit there as a safety precaution. In the event of a mishap, they want able adults occupying those seats who can open and use exit doors quickly. Similarly, when picking your own seat assignments, avoid the exit rows. If you don't, it will cause confusion and potentially delay the departure while the flight crew moves everyone around. AAA's Tidwell also suggests asking for the first row in coach. There's more leg room there, and your kids will be separated from the majority of fellow passengers if they get cranky.
Finally, some kids may not like the idea of flying. You should talk to them about it and ask them if it sounds fun before you book. But there's plenty of reassuring information around in case of weak knees. It's true that flying is safer than driving a car, in terms of people miles travelled versus accidents. The fact I like to throw out there is this: everyday, at any given moment, there are thousands of commercial jetliners in the air worldwide. And every day, thousands land safely. It's remarkably few that have problems, and your odds of a problem-free flight are even better when you're flying major U.S. carriers.