How to Survive Flying with Kids, so Other Parents Don’t Kill You!
Once upon a time, I was that traveler who would watch a family board with a baby or toddler and silently pray they weren’t sitting anywhere near me. Today, well, I still do that – only when I’m not traveling with my own kids.
Yes, I too have ruined someone’s day by boarding a plane with my little ones. But I've also learned that the woes of flying with the kiddos are far outweighed by the benefits of bringing them along to explore the world.
Today, I am proud to say that I never once had either of my children cry on a plane, run up and down the aisles, or throw a tantrum. Now 13 and 14, my dynamic duo are pros at flying – and roll their eyes when they see babies and toddlers boarding, knowing not all kids survive a flight without tears.
Save yourself from the dirty looks and the stress of dealing with an unhappy child trapped in a small space with the seatbelt lights on by using these tried-and-tested tips.
Trust me: You can make it out alive.
Choose Flight Times Wisely
Follow your children's sleep schedules when timing your flights, and save yourself from family-wide nervous breakdowns.
I learned that nighttime flights meant my kids were most likely to sleep, while early-morning flights caught them when they were awake, but also the most happy during their early years. And I avoided flights in the afternoon, when they would get hungry and tired.
Coinciding flights with my child’s naptime or bedtime ensured they slept more on the plane, which meant less stress and misery all around.
Make Sleep Time Easier
Some kids have trouble sleeping on planes. To make napping a little easier, I would select a three-seater, sit in the middle, and let my then-toddlers curl up and lay their heads on my lap so they could rest. (Not the most comfortable for me, but hey, it meant a quiet flight.)
To make this go more smoothly, I'd also bring blankets and whatever sleep-time comfort items my children could not be without.
I found that headband headphones were helpful to have, as they wouldn’t fall out of little ears and could help drown out the noise of the plane for my kids to sleep. Often, just having classical music playing was enough. Some good ones to try are CozyPhones and FIRIK Kids Headphones; both have cute animal designs and fun colors.
Book Bulkhead Seating
Booking the bulkhead seats means not only that you have more leg room – which is glorious enough – but also that you have more space for kids to lie down on the floor during the flight. (As long as the seatbelt signs are off, of course.)
On some planes, bulkhead seats also come with travel bassinets/cribs for infants. Those who offer this service on certain planes include American, British Airlines, Delta and United Airlines.
Just note that you may have to call the airline to request a bassinet, and that some airlines don't provide them until you are at the gate. These can mainly be found on larger planes traveling overseas.
Select Seats at Booking
It’s really not fair what airlines are doing to get every last penny out of us, including charging us for seat selections, but it’s the way it is.
Today, free seats may only be middle seats or perhaps certain rows, which may not have availability for your entire family. Don’t take your chances on getting seats together when you check in; splurge and pay the fee to confirm your seats at the time of booking. It’s stressful enough to travel with kids, let alone to beg for someone to swap seats with you so your 4-year-old isn’t seated beside a stranger.
Say 'No' to Lap Seats
It may be cheaper to have your child sit on your lap (for ages 2 and younger, per airline regulations) but do you really want to hold your squirmy child for three straight hours? How will you eat or drink when the snack cart comes? And won’t it look funny when you are attempting to drink a glass of much-needed wine while holding your baby?
Not only does a seat for your child free up your body, it is safer for your child to have a seat. Young children can safely be buckled in using a special airplane harness, such as the Kids Fly Safe harness shown here. Infants are safe in many car-friendly infant carriers. (Just make sure to double-check your specs.)
My daughter’s infant carrier fit well on her first flight, where she was snug and comfortable in a familiar space and slept the entire flight.
Leave the Large Gear at Home
I’m amazed at how many parents attempt to carry car seats and strollers along with their luggage. Leave these at home and instead, use a baby carrier or a small umbrella stroller that is not only lightweight, but won’t cost a lot to replace if broken when gate-checked. (Actually, an umbrella stroller could fit in the overhead compartment.)
Many hotel chains offer rentals for baby gear, meaning you can have strollers, car seats, high chairs and Pack ‘n Plays ready and at your disposal once you arrive, without having had to carry any of it.
You can also utilize baby-gear rental services such as Baby’s Away and BabyQuip.
Introduce Something New
Whenever I’d fly with my kids while they were young, I’d bring a brand-new activity book or something they could play with that they had never seen before. Kids can quickly become bored with their toys, so a brand-new surprise can buy you extra distraction time. I would not break out these treats until the plane was in the air.
Of course, you should bring a full arsenal with you for a flight, including tablets with educational and fun videos, small toys, books and coloring books. If you are worried about space, don’t forget that each person with a seat gets to carry on a bag. I had my kids carry their own backpacks full of toys, activities and blankies to keep my carry-on space free for my own things, and also to teach them responsibility.
As the kids grew, so did their bags.
Stock up on Snacks
I always make a point to purchase meals and snacks before reaching the gate. I never bother to eat in the airport; instead, I save mealtime for the plane, as it helps to kill time.
Having snacks and drinks also eliminates any issues if you end up stuck on a tarmac, in turbulence with no food service, or with an-inflight menu lacking anything your children will eat.
Exhaust the Kids
Yes, it may be easier to walk through a busy airport with a young child in his or her stroller, but you are wasting precious time that could be exhausting your child so they may sleep on the plane.
Some airports are doing a much better job at helping parents by providing play spaces, such as Logan Airport’s KidsPort in Boston and Philadelphia International Airport’s play area, put together by the Please Touch Museum.
If the airport you're in doesn’t feature a play space, simply walking around, watching planes or sampling some of the airport art, like the cool rainforest installation in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, will do the trick.
Take Advantage of Family Boarding
Families with children 5 and younger get priority boarding when flying. (After first class, business class, special card holders, military...).
Some well-traveled parents may think boarding last is the best approach, because they can keep their kids moving around right up to the last minute. I disagree. Using the extra time to board before hordes of people come crashing through the aisle is quite helpful.
Boarding early guarantees your carry-on luggage has space, and gives you time to get the kids harnessed and belted safely, without getting in the way of the other passengers – always a stressor.
Help Little Ears
Babies and toddlers often cry on planes because of the air pressure. As adults, we know how to adjust and “pop” our ears, but little ones don’t.
For babies, giving them a pacifier or bottle at takeoff allows them to use their sucking motion, which keeps the pressure from building.
For toddlers, gummy candies like Sour Patch Kids or Twizzlers can keep them chewing throughout takeoff.
Teach Your Children the Rules
Children are small, so their feet happen to stick straight out, making it easy for them to kick the back of the seat in front of them. Tray tables come with cool knobs that are exciting for kids to discover – one twist and a tray drops down! Wow! Of course, they also want to turn around and see who is sitting behind them to say hello.
Airplanes are exciting for kids, so allow them to be excited, while gently explaining the rules, just as you do for how they should behave when sitting in a restaurant. Your kids don’t know they are doing anything wrong.
I wouldn’t just tell my children not to kick the seat in front of them; I explained that every time they did that, they were kicking an actual person and how must that feel? Every new experience is a teachable one; they’ll learn. Have patience.
Understand This: The Bathroom is Your Friend
Airplane bathrooms are certainly not where anyone wants to spend a good deal of time – but they are enclosed spaces that work in a jam when an outburst does take place. Instead of trying to politely shush your child when a tantrum has begun, take your child to the bathroom.
If I noticed a child starting to get too out of sorts, I would take her (typically, it was my daughter) to the bathroom, where I could let her get it out and then eventually calm down. When you have an infant who needs to be rocked, standing in the bathroom works well. Yes, you may be in there for a little bit, but most passengers would rather have that scenario versus a screaming child.
Focus on Your Kids
Remember, at the end of the day, you won’t see the people seated around you when you arrive at your destination. Don’t worry about the dirty looks and calming your child for the sake of others. If your child is upset, focus on your child and making him or her feel better.
Other parents have been in these shoes, and most of us will lend a hand when we see a parent struggling.