Driving Home for Christmas
There’s rain on my window, I’m thinking of you
Hard to believe the man who made this could also make this. Two songs that open in the front seat of a car and couldn’t be more different. Feel free to use either as a musical accompaniment for the last TNF of the year.
Christmas is upon us. Time to be with family, for elaborate meals with all possible configurations of trimmings, and promised piles of presents for your kids—even the naughty ones.
But before all the joy, an unassailable beast stands before you, blocking your way—holiday travel. The final boss battle, the ultimate hurdle to overcome before you arrive at the promised land of non-stop eating and at least 48 hours spent in boxfresh pyjamas.
Travel is the necessary evil of the holiday season, and—depending on where you’ve chosen to live—you might have quite the trip on your hands. I’m always envious of folks who boast of a sub-sixty-minute jaunt to see both sets of grandparents at this time of year. Many cite Die Hard as the ultimate holiday movie, but Planes, Trains and Automobiles will always hold a special place in my heart, it being 15 years and counting I’ve been making Christmas manoeuvres of my own.
For the uninitiated, or those who need a refresh (the movie is only to be streaming on Paramount+, which feels like a crime against humanity at this time of year) Steve Martin plays Neal Page, an ad executive stranded in New York City two days before Thanksgiving. Around the mid-point of the movie, after a diverted flight, a broken down train, and an overcrowded bus ride, he arrives at St. Louis Airport and decides to try his luck with a car rental. One iconic scene—in a movie filled with many—sees Page taking the transfer bus to the parking lot and discovering an empty space where his rental is supposed to be. He treks back to the rental desk, through the snow, across the runway, and loses his shit on arrival.
Whilst there’s no excuse for blowing up on an unsuspecting desk clerk, we’ve all been there. Everyone’s got at least one holiday travel disaster to tell. I’m writing this essay—at least the first draft of it—from the departure lounge of an overcrowded Manchester Airport, returning home after a week visiting family. A day of snow has predictably decimated the country’s infrastructure, painfully predictable for an island you’d assume would be comfortable dealing with harsh weather conditions. Where’s Mr Plow when you need him? The status board is lit up like the world’s most terrifying Christmas tree, CANCELLED and DELAYED lights twinkling above, as welcome as the offensive uncle that arrives at this time of year.
It’s good to be at the airport on time. It’s even better to be there earlier. We’re still waiting on the scientific community to align around a peer-reviewed paper educating us on the ideal time to arrive at the airport. In the meantime, we’ve all got our own beliefs, and dads get enough grief on the topic. Manchester Airport, easily the worst airport I’ve flown from—and that includes departing from a significant number of so-called “developing countries”— decrees that all passengers must arrive three hours early, or risk missing their flight completely; thanks to their oversubscribed check-in gates, a skeletal security staff still making its way to normal capacity after the pandemic, and a shocking layout that has half the seats necessary and enough choke points to give a Counter-Strike map designer a run for their money.
You know what they say about kids: the days are long, the years are short, and airport delays are always a disaster. But hold-ups occur whatever your mode of transport, and sometimes getting out of the door is half the battle. Exiting the house at the pre-ordained time, any time of the year, is reason for celebration. In December? It’s a Christmas miracle. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend the first chunk of your trip reflecting on the efficiency of your egress. Or inefficiency, to be more precise—maybe, your youngest decided that 6:05 am was the perfect time for a meltdown, deciding that right now was the perfect time to search for Raphael—no, not that Raphael, not the classic Turtle silhouette, not the one he’s been saying for over a year was his favourite; no, he means the other Raphael, the one that up until five minutes ago he referred to as “the scary one,” the one from the 2014 movie, where the Turtles look like Michael Bay was intimately involved in the character design process—“THEY NEED TO BE GRITTIER, MORE REAL.” And whilst searching for said toy, your son may have dropped one of Raphael’s small plastic Sai into the big toy box, and wants you to marshall a search party for it, in this moment, ten minutes before the taxi to the airport is due to arrive, a literal plastic needle lost in a toy-filled haystack. Or is that just me? That got a bit specific, didn’t it.
If your preferred method of holiday transport is the four-wheeled kind, you’re not turning up hours early, but you’re still measuring success in your own way. Are you going for the hallowed “zero stopper,” the holy grail of road trips, where all the right snacks and liquids are packed, the tank is sufficiently filled—and the kids are efficiently drained—so toilet stops aren’t required, where you plan your departure in military fashion, hoping to maximise the chance of them napping for a significant chunk of the trip. Or are you optimising for time well spent, a few comfort breaks along the way, and a slight bending of the normal rules, where fast food becomes a distraction and a reward; a carrot dangled in exchange for good backseat behaviour.
It’s times like these you’re harshly reminded how much easier life was B.C. (Before Children.) They’re catalysts for chaos, inflating any minor inconvenience, with any surmountable issue sans kids—a delay that could easily be passed in an airport bar, for example—becoming a completely different beast when they’re present. Travel is tougher with kids. There’s no use sugarcoating it. When we lived in San Francisco, we were regularly flying back to the UK to see family, a short 11 hour hop over the entire United States and Atlantic Ocean. There was one particular flight that stands out, Padme on the cusp of walking by herself—arms raised, constantly seeking a helping hand, too wobbly to make it on her own, but too determined to do anything but try—where we spent the entire flight doing laps around a Boeing 747, a mile-high re-enaction of a long distance velodrome race, bringing equal amounts of anger and glee to the passengers we passed again, and again, and again, and again. And to think, you used to spend an entire flight plugged into a movie, your only worry what to watch next.
There may be a light at the end of the tunnel. I started this essay at one airport, and am putting the finishing touches whilst on another plane, en route to India, where we’ll be spending Christmas and New Year. The plane wasn’t full, so we adopted a 2-2 formation, kids in front, parents behind. They were relatively well-behaved, keeping themselves occupied with the onboard entertainment, and only needing minimal interventions. I’m holding out hope this is a bellwether on future travel trends, a destination we’re all heading towards.
This is the last you’ll hear from me in 2022 (unless you’re a paid subscriber, we’ll be talking about our highlights of the year next week). Sending you all the best for the holidays, best of luck for whatever travel you have planned, and hoping that you and your family have a wonderful few weeks.
A few holiday travel tips
I asked the dads in the community for their travel tips at this time of year, and threw in a few of my own. Bon voyage!
If you’re flying with young kids, invest in a car seat travel bag. They make life a little easier for getting car seats in and out of the airport, but their true value is in their ability to surreptitiously pack extra clothes and heavy jackets—a must for those of us returning to colder climates—without having to pay excess luggage charges. Pick them up along with some packing cubes, and you’ll be able to double the luggage you’re bringing back, without paying extra baggage charges. Kevin
I'm the snack guy on road trips. Gotta make sure we have plenty of snacks and drinks for everyone. I also make a new playlist each time. My wife has done some fun stuff before like a few envelopes they open at intervals with small activities they can do. As they've gotten older we've drifted more into just letting the teens just watch movies/play video games to survive. Not sure how it's going to go this year with the toddler since we're still trying to mostly (kinda) keep him screen-free. Probably lots of Baby Shark. Troy
If you do end up getting delayed, and are based in the EU, Regulation 261/2004 means you’re entitled to compensation if your flight is delayed longer than three hours. If this happens to you, be careful not to accept the terms the airline will quickly send you over email—this is a way that they can escape paying you what you’re actually owed. 3+ hour delays have sadly happened to us a few times over the last few years, but thanks to “those dreaded Eurocrats in Brussles” at least you’ll get paid for your time: depending on the distance you’re flying, their atonement fee can be anywhere between €250-€600 per passenger. Kevin
Have a bag of books, toys, and snacks. When they get tired of one, swap it out. Trolls on the stereo also helps, as does the ability to move all the sound to the rear speakers in the vehicle for the inevitable third listening. Neil
Make sure to test anything you’ve downloaded for offline viewing by switching devices to Flight Mode whilst still at home. There are more than a few apps that aren’t quite as effective at saving things as you’d hope, a fact I’ve learned the hard way. Kevin
Sadly I think my main tip is 'nobody consume any liquid for the 6 hours prior to departure Stuart
Bumper Christmas Special Edition
Signing off for 2022
That’s it from me this year. I’ll be back online in January, when I’ll be wrestling with the existential crisis of turning 40. Send tips. If you’re looking for a last minute gift for a dad you know, gift subscriptions are always available, and I’ll send the lucky dad a badge and some stickers in the new year.
Let me know how you enjoyed this week’s issue, and TNF in general this year:
Branding by Selman Design. Illustration by Padme Maguire. Survey by Sprig. Thanks for reading, commenting and emailing throughout the year. Follow The New Fatherhood on Twitter (for now at least, though I’m starting to feel my way around Mastodon here) and if you’re interested in following our travels I’ll be sharing a few things on Instagram. See you in 2023!
A special Christmas wish to those who actually listened along.