Is Stress-Free Air Travel with Young Kids Even Possible?

I realize that such a post comes at an inopportune time, as summer is nearly over, but I figure that these tips will come in handy on upcoming holiday travel as well.  Having traveled via airplane with my first (and now second) child several times – short trips, cross-country trips, and even internationally – I have several tips I’d like to share when traveling with your own kids to make it more enjoyable and hopefully less stressful.  With a little forethought and preparation, traveling with kids can be fun.  Don’t let it scare you or send you into a panic.  Actually, babies are easy to travel with – it’s the toddler age that gets a little bit more tricky, but completely DOABLE!

BEFORE YOU TRAVEL

  • Most people will tell you to book nonstop flights whenever possible.  However, after having experienced several flights on both nonstop flights and flights with layovers, I now prefer the latter (at least with the toddler and preschool age) if you are traveling distances of 4 or more hours.  Breaking up your trip isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Younger children get antsy being in a confined space for too long.  They need room to stretch out, walk, and even run.  It’s also a great opportunity to have a meal and use a real bathroom (or at least one that is appropriately sized).  And if your layover is long enough, perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to have the child be ready for a nap on the next leg of the trip!
  • Avoid crowded planes by booking flights during non-peak times, such as Monday-Wednesdays (avoid weekend travel whenever possible) and afternoon or late evening flights.
  • Traveling with kids is not to time to use Buddy Passes or fly standby, if you can avoid it.  You need to have somewhat of a predictable schedule to follow.  Leave that kind of travel when it’s adults only.
  • If you can, book flights during nap times and sleep schedules.
  • If you happen to be crossing over several time zones, consider slowly adapting to it.  By this, I mean, alter the kids’ sleeping schedules by 15 minutes toward the new time zone each day until you reach the desired time zone.  If you are only at your destination for a few days, I would encourage not to change their schedule and just “go with the flow.”  Or you can do my procrastination method (it happens every time, though totally unplanned), and get the kids totally off-schedule and sleep deprived the day before the trip.  By the time we get to the airport, they conk out anywhere and you can adjust them to whatever time zone you need.  Works like a charm for me.
  • If you are traveling overseas, make sure you pre-book a baby bassinet for sleeping, if necessary.  Different airlines have different age limits and regulations for when you can book one, so be sure to check well in advance (they are usually first come, first served).
  • If flying internationally, make sure you research the rules and regulations for infant/toddler car seats and snack foods (dairy and produce is often confiscated).
  • Once your flights are booked, do a quick search online for the layout of each of the airports you will gracing.  Find key points of interest to entertain the kids during long waiting periods – shops and tot play areas are great.  If you are one of the fortunate ones to have a membership to a club lounge, find those as well.  Those can be a great source of (better) food, extra comfort, and free services.  Ahhh, I miss those days of elite travel!
  • Prepare children for the flight.  Especially if this is the first time they will be flying, talk to them  about each part of the process and of the noises (of the plane) so they know what to expect.  The more they know, the less fearful they will be.  Also, build up their excitement.  Consider checking out books at the local library that talk about plane traveling, or even purchase something new (perhaps a new backpack) to get ready for the trip.

PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIP

  • My tendency is to over-plan (read overpack), so I often feel like a bag lady.  However, when things do happen (and they will) I am prepared, and that bag tends to look more like the magical bag of Mary Poppins.  My philosophy is prepare for the worst and nothing will happen.  Fail to prepare and it inevitably will.  Because we traveled so much, I used to have an Excel checklist of all the items I was to pack in the carry-on and in the main suitcase for my infant/toddler.  Now, I am so used to it that I can wing it.  This method may prove helpful for some of you, lest you forget something of actual value back home.
  • Especially if your child is under two, bring along the birth certificate.  I also brought along his passport, but I understand that many of you would not have one for your children unless you travel internationally.  Make extra copies of these to keep in your suitcase in case they get lost.
  • Also bring your child’s medical records.  I’m not talking the whole folder here, just the necessary and relevant information if he/she needs to be treated for anything during your trip.  Include phone numbers of your pediatrician.  When I was pregnant with my son, we traveled overseas to Austria and Hungary at the cut-off date of 32 weeks (yes, I was that crazy).  In fear that I would have him early, I researched every birthing facility from here to Timbuktu.  I also traveled to California in my last month of pregnancy, so I had previously spoken to a local doctor there (prior to my trip) to act as my doctor should I deliver while on that trip.  In other words, I had an “escape plan” for everywhere I went.  Now, you don’t have to be that prepared, but if you have special circumstances, just keep those in mind when planning and packing.
  • Bring any medication that your child routinely takes in your carry-on.  It’s a good idea to keep it in its original container (especially if it is a prescription).  Also pack essentials like a pain and fever reducer, diaper rash cream, allergy medication, nasal saline solution (the plane can get dry and hurt sensitive noses), and ear numbing medication in the carry-on.  I have never had to actually use ear-numbing suspensions on a trip, but I always feel better to have it handy in case the pressure starts to bother their little ears too much.  Unfortunately, you will have to ask your doctor for a prescription for it.  Though I don’t use any, some people bring along motion sickness medications and Benadryl (one pediatrician recommended it to make the child drowsy).  I prefer to have my child alert and unmedicated whenever possible, but I won’t be judgmental if you give it to yours.
  • Make sure to label all of your belongings (distinct, bright and colorful tags or pompoms are great), including your children.  This means to have them wear ID bracelets.  Even a luggage tag interlaced in the child’s shoe works well.
  • Dress comfortably.  For the baby I usually have a short-sleeved onesie (depending on the season), a pair of Babylegs, a light, easily removable sweater and a blanket.  For older kids, “soft pants,” as we like to call it (by this, I mean lightweight, comfortable pants resembling pajamas), short-sleeved shirt, light jacket, socks, and Crocs (or something similar).  Airplane temperatures are fickle.  Sometimes they are horribly hot, and other times they are frigid.  I have never been perfectly comfortable (temperature-wise) on any plane.  It’s also wise to choose distinct clothing for your children to wear, so that if they do get lost it will be easy to spot them in a crowd.  Some people have even taken photos of their kids right before they leave for the airport. That way, if the kids do disappear, they have the most recent photos to help authorities look for their missing children.
  • Because you will inevitably have to take your shoes off at security check points, it’s easiest to  wear flip-slops or shoes that are easy to slip on/off (like Crocs).  However, these are not advisable if you have to run to your gate (not that you would be running anyway, right?).
  • If you take your infant and toddler car seats, make sure they are airline approved.  If you opt not to, make sure you have an alternative waiting for you at your destination.  They also have nifty car seat/stroller combos.  It’s pretty much a car seat on wheels.
  • You may choose to use a stroller at the airport.  Most people prefer lightweight or umbrella strollers, but I always liked my BOB utility one.  If you don’t take a stroller (or even if you do), you may want to consider a sling/wrap/baby front carrier/backpack carrier.  These are especially handy when you are claiming your luggage at the end of your trip.
  • One good piece of advice someone once told me is to buy a new toy (or two or three, depending on how long your trip is).  Nothing expensive (it can even be purchased at a dollar store).  Also, pre-prepare activity kits of things your children will enjoy into individualized ziplock bags.  These can include crayons and a coloring book, cards, books, and other toys that won’t easily fall or roll away from your seat or tray table).  Of course, don’t reveal it until you are actually on the plane.  Don’t make the mistake of brining noisy toys on the plane either.  Bring toys that will peak their interest, but nothing that makes noise (for your sake and everyone else’s).  Things that I have found that worked best for my own kids were light-up toys and fans (anything with lights or motion work well to prevent or appease a meltdown).
  • Here is a sample of what to pack in your carry-on bags (of course it would be slightly different if it’s an international trip).  Feel free to change it up to fit you.

In my carry-on: Chapstick, water bottle, extra shirt for me, wallet and necessary documents, medications for all, wipes, hand sanitizer, kleenexes, laptop or portable DVD player, DVDs and CDs, phone charger, phone, emergency (mini) toiletry bag of just the essentials (in case my luggage doesn’t show up), baby’s food,* baby utensils/bowls, disposable baby bib, nursing cover or shawl, at least 2 safety-pins (larger size), baby blanket, gallon-sized plastic bags (or small waste basket liners) to hold dirty clothes/diapers/trash, a separate bag or ziplock (in this bag: two diapers, a travel-size case of wipes, another ziplock bag, extra pacifiers, lollipops, gum, bribing candy/treats, small but super duper interesting emergency toy), camera (with batteries and charger)

*Jarred baby food, snacks, unopened/sealed water bottle and/or juice box, powdered formula or pre-packaged single serving formula are all okay to take through security for a baby or toddler.

In each child’s bag: Their own snacks (and lots of them – think variety and nonperishable items in a snack trap container that won’t spill), water bottle, a change of clothes (include underwear), their toys/books/activity packs, teething toys, loveys (favorite blanket or toy), blanket, travel pillow, 3-4 extra diapers than you normally would use

AT THE AIRPORT

  • Arrive early.  Allow plenty of time for check-in and connecting flights. Really, you will thank yourself for allotting more than the recommended time.  It’s never a good idea to sprint through the terminal to get to your gate with all your gear and children in tow.
  • Ask to sit in bulk head seating.  Though you won’t have a pocket to store your belonging in front of you, it will also mean you have no one in front of you (for your children to kick and annoy).  It also means you have more space.  If you can’t get these seats, you can try getting seats close to the bathrooms.  However, please note that if your children are sleeping or trying to sleep, it can be aggravating to hear toilets flushing or have people congregating near your seats waiting to use the restroom.
  • Don’t forget to fill up water bottles while you are in the terminals (after security check points).
  • Let the kids discover the joys of the airport (it burns off energy, too).  This is not the time to use the toys.  Now is also not the time to have them sit quietly. You need to reserve that for the airplane.  My son loved crawling and later walking and running around a controlled environment, riding escalators and moving sidewalks, watching planes take-off and land, playing in the tot play areas, browsing the gift shops, and visiting the water fountains (be careful not to get wet, and to step aside to let others use it).   He used to “talk” on the pay phones (gross, I know, but it kept him busy and happy), converse with strangers, and play his little violin (when we were visiting family, he often brought his violin).
  • Remember, now is not the time to give up your coveted seats for that extra ticket voucher, no matter how tempting it may be.
  • Go to the bathroom and change diapers right before boarding and right after landing (so you won’t have to worry about it as you are searching for your luggage or have take the luggage with you to the restroom).
  • If you can, eat your meals while you wait at the airport and save the snacks and naptime for the plane.
  • Smile at everyone and look helpless if you need extra help.  I have found that the damsel in distress look (or perhaps the struggling mom act) really works.  People seem to flock to your aid or volunteer their seats, etc.
  • When checking in, ask if the flight is full.  If it’s not, oftentimes they can give you a block of seats with no one else in your row.  This is especially helpful if you have a lap infant.
  • Now is the time to use a toddler leash, if you have one and aren’t opposed to them.
  • If you decide to bring car seats with you, take them with you to your gate (that is, if you have extra hands), even if the kids will not be using them on plane.  I also do this with strollers.  I check them at the gate.  That way, you have them as you deplane.  They also take a little bit better care of them than if you would check them as luggage.
  • Get the children to carry their own back packs.
  • Make sure you pre-board.  Most airlines allow people traveling with small children to be the first to board the aircraft.  There are downfalls to being the first ones on the plane (you are in the plane longer), but I feel the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.  You get plenty of time and space to board, to sit, and to find a place for your overhead bags that are actually near you.  You can also ask for your amenities (pillow, blanket, drinks, where applicable) before the crowd swarms in.

ON THE PLANE

  • First of all, relax!  You’ve made it ON the plane, and that’s already half the battle.  There hasn’t been a mom that hasn’t been in your situation, no matter how terrible it may get.  Though you feel others are glaring, staring, and sighing at you (and some will), ignore them.  When you are calm, your children will be more apt to follow suit.
  • Take out the separate bag in your carry-on and place it in the seat pocket in front of you for easy grabbing.
  • Little ears are more sensitive to pressure during take-off and landing.  Have babies nurse, suck on a pacifier, or drink a bottle during this time, and have older kids chew gum or suck on a lollipop.  Crying, though unpleasant, also helps relieve some of the pain caused by pressure.  If they are sleeping, don’t wake them up!
  • If the above doesn’t work, pass out courtesy ear plugs to everyone else around you!  :)
  • Ask for bottles and meals to be warmed in advance of when you need them.
  • If you need a privacy screen, this is where those safety pins come in handy.  Take the pins and a blanket to create a private cubby by fastening the blanket to the seat in front of you and the one behind you.  This is especially great for nursing, changing clothes, or when you need the kids to settle down for a nap.
  • Introduce toys/activity packs/books one by one.  When they get bored with that particular toy, get out another one.  Try to space them out accordingly so that you have toys throughout the duration of the flight.  This also goes for bribing candy and treats.
  • Be prepared to lose a few things.
  • Repeat with me, you will not be able to rest much less sleep with young children.  If you are one of the very lucky few, then wonderful.  Just don’t expect it.

What do you do that works on flights?

Comments

  1. 2

    I have used your Excel spreadsheet for packing on our trips! Good tips. But I have flown standby everytime I have flown with Camden and it isn’t that bad. I just check the availability the night before and if it is open, I go ahead and fly that day, if it is pretty full we wait a couple of days. This just requires being flexible in your schedule. We do not fly standby during holidays or on the weekends and we do ok.

  2. 3

    You have a lot of good advice, like the ID tags on the kids. I hear you about packing a lot of stuff – I don’t just have a diaper bag, I have a huge tote bag that holds tons of stuff. I feel like a pack horse (on a daily basis!) but I am prepared for almost anything I encounter!

    We took my toddler on a cruise when she was almost 2, and it was in the Bahamas so she didn’t need a passport. However, we got passports because I had no other form of photo ID for her. It scared me that there wouldn’t have been any way to prove who she was (someone else could say she was their kid or whatever). The ID tags are great idea.

  3. 4

    What a great post about traveling with young children! This is a post anyone who travels with young children should definitely bookmark. I love what you’re doing for families at The Village of Moms. I gave you an award at http://LivingMontessoriNow.com/2010/08/20/awards-to-happily-pass-on/

  4. 5

    Sarah: Yes, the way you guys have done it isn’t so bad (except that time you couldn’t fly out that day and had yo keep trying). Overall, stand by flying is doable but isn’t the best choice with kids, especially when connections are involved. Just in case.

    Marysa: I take J’s passport every time we fly for that very reason!

    Deb: Thank you so very much for the award. I feel so honored, but can’t take credit. VoM has so many wonderful mommy writers, and it’s to them that I owe all my gratitude!

  5. 6

    OMG Thank you so much for these! I have been freaking out so very much about our upcoming 10hr long flight just baby (11mo) and I in about 3 weeks from now! I’m still anxious, but I really think these tips are going to save my life.

  6. 7

    Great checklist here, I espically love the breaking flights up, nonstop can be exhausting for little ones.

  7. 8
    Tian Kinasih says:

    Thank you for your helpful information! I always need umbrella stroller and baby carrier, it a must have list!

  8. 9

    I especially like your idea about using a blanket and safety pins to create a “privacy screen”. What a great idea to block out some of the distractions – or maybe even to make a cool little fort/hideout as a distraction :)

  9. 10

    Thank you for linking up at Travel Tip Thursday! Your post was featured this week. Hope you will come link up again this week!

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