I recently spoke with a friend who was thinking about skipping an upcoming vacation to avoid the hassles of flying. It baffled me to think that someone would miss taking a potentially wonderful trip due to anxious feelings about getting through airport security. I wondered why she would choose to miss out on a great escape due to fear – until it happened to me.

Late last year, I was scheduled to fly to Miami to participate in a weekend class for my Life Coaching Certification. With temperatures starting to drop in Hampton Roads, it seemed like a good time to combine business with pleasure, and I invited my sister, her son and my two daughters to come along. The plan was to  catch up with the newest member of the Florida Hernandez Gill clan, my brother’s and his fiancé’s baby, in between classes

So, off we went.

I flew down a day early so I could report to class first thing in the morning. My sister and our kids were to arrive the next day.

This was my first time flying solo. Previous trips were either with my spouse or family members. So I made use of these rare moments alone, reading, thinking and enjoying a little me-time. Even with multiple connections, this leg of my journey went smoothly. Good for me!

The next day, when my sister arrived with kids in tow, I immediately saw that she was highly agitated. This was so unlike my usually calm sibling. Although they avoided connections by flying straight to Miami, I knew it must have been trying traveling with a teenager and two youngsters. We continued with our weekend, though, enjoying the warmth of the sun, a visit with my brother and the camaraderie of our time together.

The day before our return, I felt my tension rise as we prepared for our early morning flight. In the moment, I thought we were pretty organized. Hotel near the airport; check. Bags packed; check. Kids bathed and outfits ready for morning; check.

Wishful thinking.

Our alarms went off at 3:30 a.m. Thirty minutes later; we were in the car and heading to the airport. That’s when my anxiety kicked in big time. Maybe it was our unfamiliarity with the airport, or the added stress of returning our rental car and checking bags, but the day went downhill fast. There we were, five altogether, approaching the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) line, loaded to the max with a stroller, booster seats, shopping bags and attitudes. Everyone has to take their shoes off, and then put them back on? Are you kidding me?

I’ll spare you the details; let’s just say that no one behaved well – including me! Amid the flagged baggage check, connecting flight, wait times and missing piece of luggage, I went into full panic mode. We made it home safely, but our emotions were rather scarred.

A few days later, as I reflected on our plane ride adventure, I thought about how we could have been better prepared. Some things we did right, others woefully wrong. And who can completely anticipate people’s moods when they are under stress? Perhaps the “future me” will be able to afford first class, avoiding the rush to the boarding lines and cramped coach seating. Until then, here are a few steps I highly recommend to avoid airport anxiety:

  • Plan ahead. When booking your flight, pick your preferred seat and make sure you have enough time to make connecting flights without rushing. Pack the day before, and print out your boarding pass in advance.
  • Stay at a hotel near the airport the night before your flight. In our case, this alleviated some of the stress of an early-morning flight. Most airport hotels offer free shuttles for those who aren’t driving.
  • Arrive early at the airport. Most major airlines recommend arriving at least 1 hour early for domestic flights and 2-3 hours if you’re flying internationally. This allows plenty of time to get to your gate, settle down and spend time relaxing. When traveling with kids, let them pack a small carry-on bag filled with a book, small puzzle, a snack or hand-held game.
  • Anticipate the TSA line. The TSA check-in will go smoothly if you have your boarding pass and ID ready, wear shoes that slip on and off – and don’t rush (the person behind you will be just fine). If you fly frequently, see if you qualify for TSA’s “elite security access,” which expedites the process.
  • Calm yourself during the flight. Practice calming techniques for the take-off, such as measured breathing, meditation or a relaxation app. Once the flight is underway, distract yourself by talking to the passenger beside you, reading, listening to music, knitting, journaling or completing a crossword puzzle. Again, games, videos and headphones will keep children busy.

At the end of the day, I’d rather travel with a little anxiety than not travel at all. It’s a great way for families to bond, see beautiful places and enjoy experiences they will remember all of their lives. So really, that trip to Miami? I’m betting we will recall it with fondness in the years ahead.