Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the inn
The children were whining and raising a din:
''Santa won't find us cause we're in a strange town.''
But holiday travel need not let you down.
The storybook image is one of children waking up Christmas morning and running downstairs to see what Santa left under the tree. But the reality is that Christmas is the busiest travel time of the year, with people vacationing or visiting far flung family and friends.
Colleen Phillips of Portland, Ore., for instance, always takes her children to see her parents and her husband's parents, driving more than 500 miles to three different towns.
They've tried all the permutations; staying in a hotel, staying with family and visiting before and after the holidays so that they can have Christmas morning in their own home.
''I think it's important to see family around the holidays,'' Phillips said. ''I think that's what it's all about.''
While traveling with children over the holidays has its own rewards, it also has additional challenges.
Marianne Neifert, a pediatrician and author known as ''Dr. Mom,'' said even when children are enjoying a trip, they may have some sense of loss because the holiday isn't unfolding the same way it would at home.
''Having something celebrated in a familiar way brings a lot of reassurance and comfort to a child,'' she said, ''especially this year with all the upheaval.''
That doesn't mean families should stay put for the holidays, but a little planning and foresight can go a long way.
The Phillips' for instance, bring their own stockings whenever they are away from home on Christmas Day, and they write a letter to Santa so he'll know where to deliver the presents. The year they stayed in a hotel, they brought a small artificial tree from home.
The farther you travel, the more creative you might need to be.
If the scene from your window is a sandy beach, then regardless of how festive the hotel lobby is, you might get your children involved in decorating your room to help evoke the holiday spirit. Or you can call ahead and ask to have the room decorated for your arrival.
You can request milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas eve, or get help finding a restaurant that serves potato pancakes on Hanukkah.
''Think of everything you do at home and ask the concierge to run interference for you, or your travel agent can help,'' said Kathy Sudeikis, of All About Travel in suburban Kansas City, Mo.
Bring along some traditions from home -- Christmas stockings, Hanukkah menorahs and familiar holiday books and videos -- but also be open to trying some of the local ways of celebrating, said Lisa Bain, executive editor of Parenting magazine.
''You want to hang on to your traditions, but one reason why people travel during the holidays is to do something different,'' she said. ''You're creating a special memory for your child.''
Similarly, Bain suggests a combination of gifts from home and local gifts to mark the vacation.
Air travelers need to be especially prudent about gifts because of the logistics of getting them to and from your destination.
You might consider ordering them from catalogs or on-line retailers, and having them shipped directly to the hotel or family you'll be staying with. This not only keeps the children from finding the gifts, but it's especially useful this year, because airlines will not allow wrapped gifts in carry-on items due to security concerns. (Just remember to bring wrapping paper, tape, batteries, and an extra suitcase to bring the gifts home.)
For older children, Sudeikis recommends gift certificates to chain stores like the Gap that can be used on the trip or at home.
Dr. William Sears, author of more than a two dozen books on parenting, cautions parents not to get fixated on the gifts.
''Kids need the relationships of the holidays. The time together,'' he said.
For that reason, Sears thinks traveling over the holidays can be an asset. ''It's an opportunity for family rebonding away from the usual distractions of work and housework,'' he said. ''You want your children to remember more the relationships than the stuff they got.''
That's what the Phillips' do with the long hours they spend driving.
''We try to make the trips fun in the car. We try to go by houses with lights and sing Christmas songs and have time to talk in the car,'' she said.
Even when they're staying in a house full of people, Phillips said they always try to find some quiet family time on Christmas Day. They'll sneak off to a bedroom to play with a new toy, for instance.
And the opposite is also true. If you're on a vacation with just your immediate family, don't forget that there are people the children would normally see on Christmas.
''Make sure you call home and give them a chance to connect with whomever they're not seeing,'' Bain said.
It can take some extra work, but traveling over the holidays can make the celebration extra special.
''We're definitely exhausted by the end of the season, but we have a good time and get something out of it or we wouldn't continue to do it,'' Phillips said.
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