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These 10 Ingenious Tips Will Stop Your Kid’s Travel Meltdowns Before They Start

What's worse than a crying fit at home? One when you're on vacation. Use these tips to keep your kids—and you—calm, cool, and collected.

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Traveling with kids can be tough no matter what. Between the physical stress of traveling, new sights and sounds, tempting treats, and reasons to stay up way past bedtime, meltdowns seem almost inevitable, especially if your child has sensory processing issues. But there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of a travel meltdown.

“A meltdown is very different from a tantrum,” says Amanda Morin, a parent advocate, former teacher, author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, and expert for from Understood.org, “A tantrum is an outburst that happens when a child is trying to get something he wants or needs. A meltdown is a reaction to feeling overwhelmed.”

Use these troubleshooting tips to help you anticipate your child’s needs and avoid vacation meltdowns.

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Practice your trip

For older kids, this may mean looking over the route, routines, and schedule for your trip and talking about what they can expect to see and hear. For example, exploring a new place, from big cities to America’s nicest small towns, might be loud at night or may have unfamiliar smells. Younger kids can benefit from a pretend practice run. Turn your living room into an “airport” or “museum,” and walk through what might happen there. Provide multisensory input, such as listening to the sound of plane engines starting up, showing a video of planes, or wheeling a suitcase around the house. You can also role play going through a security check with your child.

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Give yourself extra time

Instead of an hour ahead of time, plan on getting to the airport two hours before your flight. Not having to rush will help keep your child’s—and your own—stress levels down. This reduces the chances that your child will feel overloaded by the stress of hurrying through a new situation and this alone can prevent an anxiety-related meltdown. Check this clue on your ticket to find out in advance if you’re going to have a long wait time at airport security.

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Bring a busy box or survival pack

To keep your kid occupied at the airport or on a long car ride, pack a travel-appropriate busy box, that will keep her happy for hours (or at least prevent her from asking “Are we there yet?” for the umpteenth time. Keep the kit within her reach in the car or on the plane, so she can grab what she needs even when your focus is elsewhere. Or, if your child is sensitive to sights, sounds, textures, or smells, you might have already found tools that help her self-soothe. Fill a small backpack with those items she might need, such as sunglasses, earplugs, and fidgets.

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Stop for frequent breaks during car trips

Sitting still for a long time in a small space can be difficult for kids. Leave enough time in your plans so you can stop every few hours for a 10-minute break. If you know your child will need quiet time, it’s a good idea to map out parks or rest areas along your route in advance. If he needs to burn off more energy, give him a soccer ball to kick around.

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Pack familiar toiletries

While it’s nice that hotels provide shampoo, soap, toothpastes, and even towels, your child may be overwhelmed by these new things. Pack the toiletries she’s used to and the towels you know she’ll use. It’s a simple way to make your child feel more at home and avoid a meltdown.

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Look for good spots during airport waits

If you miss a flight or have a long layover between flights, the wait is tough on everyone, but especially your child. For some kids, the noise of airport announcements, people rushing to catch flights, and planes taking off may be too much stimulation. Find out if the airport has a play area for kids, or try taking a walk around the terminal and look for a quiet corner to kill time. Be sure to avoid these airport mistakes.

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Be strategic in your boarding options

Some airlines, but not all at all airports, offer pre-boarding, and this helps some kids. But if your child might do better getting on the plane after everyone else, ask if that’s an option. Other things to consider are arranging for aisle or bulkhead seating that has some extra room, and letting the flight attendants know your child may need a little extra assistance. (Be sure to stress there’s no danger, but that you want them to be aware.)

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Let your child get used to his travel and vacation clothes

If you’re traveling to a different climate, don’t forget to consider that you may need to hit the stores for some seasonally appropriate clothes that fit your child. Letting him try on or try out his bathing suit in the shower or bathtub to make sure it’s comfortable is a good idea. If possible, let your child choose the clothing he would like to wear and pack, as many kids could throw a tantrum if you forget to pack their favorite shirt.

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Bring familiar foods with you

You can pretty much guarantee that a hungry child will be a cranky child, so it’s in your best interest to always have food on you while you’re traveling. Also, if your child is a picky eater or has taste sensitivities, she may have trouble with what’s available to eat at the airport, your host’s home, or the hotel restaurant. So bring along non-perishable foods you know she likes instead of asking her to adapt to brand new ones.

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Follow the same routine as you do at home (whenever possible)

It’s tempting to go with the flow on vacation, but any change in routine can be tough on kids. Following the same rules can help. If jumping on the bed isn’t OK at home, it isn’t OK at a hotel or someone else’s house. Think about his regular rhythms, too. If your child gets cranky at night, you might want to finish the day’s driving before dinnertime or if mornings are tough, you might want to avoid an early departure. As always, keep bedtimes as close to the same as possible. Traveling is never easy. Add kids to the picture and it can be doubly difficult. But follow these 10 tips and you might get yourself one step closer to stress-free travel.