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Are we there yet? How to survive trips with kids

There's probably a reason John Steinbeck chose a French poodle for a companion in his on-the-road classic "Travels with Charley": the grizzled wordsmith may not have possessed the mettle to cut across the country with a carload of kids.

Still, thousands of brave young Utah parents will hit the road or airways with youngsters in tow this summer.School's out. Time to travel.

"Every year we go on summer vacation and I vow it will be my last," Tammi Jensen, a Salt Lake mother of three, says with a laugh. "But every year we're back in the car heading somewhere."

The siren songs of places like Yellowstone National Park, Disneyland or grandma's house are, at this moment, reaching children.

Their parents know a host of vacation-related monsters stand between them and those enchanted destinations -- travel horrors like red-eye connecting flights, quarrels over the window seat, scraps over seating arrangements -- and, of course, that fearsome smell coming from the back seat of the kid-filled car.

Still, kid-travel experts say a bit of prevention can make your family trip -- via air or car -- much easier.

Traveling with little kids and still hoping for a carefree flight? Start by giving yourself plenty of time.

"Always, always arrive at the airport at least an hour ahead of your scheduled flight time," said Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Kristin Nelson.

The usual hassles like dealing with traffic on the way to the airport, finding a long-term parking spot, locating the terminal shuttle and, of course, waiting in line at the baggage check-in are only compounded with a brood of kids, Nelson said.

Extra time also allows for those expected, unexpected troubles. You can often tell which parents arrived early for a flight -- you can always tell which moms and dads showed-up late.

"Get there early, it's so much less stressful," Nelson said.

Kids are sometimes spooked about stepping on an airplane for the first time. Again, enlist a little planning, Nelson said.

Stop by the airport a few days before your flight to familiarize them with airports and air-travel procedures. It's wise to explain the security measures, ticket gates and flight schedules when you do not have to worry about chasing down your plane.

When travel day arrives, the kids will feel like seasoned travelers, and they'll be much more comfortable.

Air travel can be thrilling for older children, but an airplane is little more than cramped seating space for little tykes. Parents can make things fun and familiar by bringing favorite munchies.

And don't forget small toys like little cars and crayons. "Try to introduce them one at a time," Nelson said. Too many goodies at once will overwhelm a child -- and most of the toys will likely end up on the floor.

Air-travel environment can also be a challenge for kids. Shifting cabin pressure may cause discomfort for infants or toddlers, so make sure they suck on bottles or pacifiers during take-offs and landings, Nelson said.

Plane cabins can also go from warm to chilly several times in the course of a flight, "so make sure children are dressed in layers," Nelson said.

And take more diapers and formula then you think you'll need. A messy diaper makes for a tedious flight for baby, parents and your neighbor sitting next to you.

Most airports were not designed to be kid friendly. Never, never leave young kids alone.

Some airlines do allow unaccompanied travel for kids over, say, 5 years of age. But parents should familiarize themselves and their traveling children with policies and procedures for kids traveling alone.

Also, Southwest and other airlines encourage parents to bring along a youngster's child restraint device they use in the car. Any standard car seat will fit fine in most coach airline seats.

Again, become familiar with airline policies on child travel before your flight.

Nelson also offers sage advise for kidless passengers: exercise a little patience with parents and rowdy kids. Controlling children at 30,000 feet is tough.

Car travel and kids have long been a little slice of summer Americana.

"Only, when we were kids, seat belts weren't so important," said father Michael Miller of Salt Lake City.

Travel with kids sprawled across the backseat floor now and you're breaking the law. It's no secret that seat belts dramatically increase your child's chances of surviving a traffic accident.

Beyond that, enlist a little enterprise to make car travel fun for kids.

The usual "I-spy the license plate" always works, but several Web sites now offer new travel tips for families. And a kids page on the American Automobile Association Web site http://www.aaa.com educates youngsters on things like child restraint seats.

The preparedness principle vital to stress-free air travel applies to road travel. Take a few extra minutes, bring along a fun snackpack and drum up clever answers now for when the kids inevitably ask, "Are we almost there?"