Carry-on Baggage: My Top 10 Tips For Air Travel With Tots

Posted by savannahkase on January 12, 2018 in Advice, Parenting |

Cambodia with 2 under 3 – totally worth the trip!

All three of my children have taken a cross-country or cross-continent flight before they were two months old, and each has racked up more than 10,000 miles before they turned one (too bad we can’t get flight rewards for babies!). My husband and I aren’t gluttons for punishment or out to prove anything. We simply wanted our kids to meet their grandparents, located in California and Port Elizabeth, South Africa. And while I was nervous about our first flight with our first child (almost five years ago), I can honestly say that I look forward to air travel with my three small kids. We are taking off for a double-layover trip to southern California tomorrow and I am excited for the quality time together.

There is nothing special about my husband and me or our kids. Anyone can enjoy flying with small children, if you have the right mindset and supplies. I also think it’s great to introduce kids to air travel early, but it’s never too late to start. Three years ago, I posted tips for flying with infants, and still stand by that long list. Below is a summary of my best advice for flying with kids under five (because once they are six or older, screens and snacks are basically all you need).

Happy travelers

1. YOUR Attitude at Altitude – My husband and I can’t help but snicker at the first-time parents who spend the whole flight fussing (and getting increasingly flustered) over their child. They are notably stressed and their child reflects that stress. The flight is a miserable ordeal that they all must survive. In my family, flying is an adventure and we are all in it together. My husband and I don’t get on a transatlantic red-eye expecting to get a good rest, but we know that each of us will at least get to eat, watch a movie or two, and nap. We work as a team, the kids included, to ensure that happens, and everyone does his or her best to have a good time.

2. Mile-High Rules – It is impossible to strictly adhere to your usual rules on a plane. Everyone, adults and kids, are out of their element and have limited control. Some parents react to this situation by cracking down, yelling at their kids every minute. Others abdicate their parental responsibilities entirely in favor of ordering a whiskey and putting on noise-canceling headphones. Both extremes are likely to result in obnoxious behavior by the kids. Instead, my husband and I emphasize a few “Plane Rules,” that we talk about in the days and hours leading up to our flight. These focus on the fact that we are all sharing a small space so need to be respectful. For example, it is never appropriate to yell or kick someone’s seat while on a plane. Keep the plane rules few and simple, then let other rules slide. Your kids will likely get more screen time, sugar, and attention from you than they might normally, but these air-time indulgences won’t hurt them and will help ensure you all have a good flight.

Visiting the captain is so much fun!

3. Grown-up Tag – If you are traveling with a teammate, set clear expectations up front that you will share responsibilities, and how. That way, when you smell that poopy diaper, one of you can grab the changing pad and escape to the restroom while the other seamlessly takes over snack duty. Whether you have an adult traveling companion or not, do not be afraid to ask for help. Remember that many people on the plane have been in your shoes – flying with small children – and are happy to lend a hand. I am constantly surprised by the kindness and understanding of flight attendants and passengers.

4. Slow and Steady – As a single person, I scoffed at the official recommendation of arriving at the airport 90-120 minutes before my flight. Who wants to spend all that extra time sitting at the gate? Somehow, with small children, checking in, going through security, taking shuttles and/or moving walkways, using the bathroom, etc. takes up all that time. Sure, you can push it, but you will all be frenzied and stressed by the time you get to the gate, which is a terrible way to board a plane. Instead, our family treats the entire door-to-door journey as an adventure. We keep track of how many cars, buses, trains, planes, and moving walkways we ride on, and use any extra time at the gate to get our wiggles out.

5. Spare Tires – Although most parents fixate on the time in the air, navigating an airport with small kids – especially if you have a tight connection – can be even more stressful. With three kids, we have found our double umbrella stroller to be a valuable investment. It keeps our children from wandering off and helps us move fast, plus it is easy and free to gate check. When we had just one or two toddlers, we used a Trunki to keep our kids moving in the right direction. If we were killing time they got to pull it, but if we needed to hurry, they could ride.

6. Prepare For the Air – Try to reserve window seats for kids, so they can look out but won’t get bumped by carts or passengers coming down the aisle. Even in this era of extra charges for seat selection, many airlines will let you reserve seats together if you are flying with small kids. If you are flying internationally with a baby under age 2, you can request bulkhead seats and a cot or bassinet for your baby. I love snuggling with my kids, but I’m always glad to strap them in on a long flight so I can nap or eat. Speaking of eating . . .

7. Food, Glorious Food – Without hesitation, my older kids will tell you that their favorite part of flying is eating on the plane. On international flights, I pre-order kids’ meals so they are thrilled to get chicken fingers or mac n cheese, plus a juice box and cookies, all in separate containers on their individual tray. I try to recreate this experience when we fly domestically and I have to bring the food. I make something they like that is easy to eat, and present it in lots of component parts (which makes eating both more fun and take up more time). You can also turn snacks into an activity, for example, by giving kids a baggie of cheerios and pipe cleaners so they can create edible jewelry. Also, I highly recommend wipeable bibs if you have a long travel day. There’s nothing worse than spending 20 hours with pizza sauce on your shirt. Finally, if traveling internationally with another adult, consider ordering a special meal for one adult. Special meals (I can recommend the Asian Vegetarian meal) are delivered before the flight attendants come through the aisles with the general meal carts, which allows one adult to eat while the other helps the kids with their meals (also delivered early), and then the adults can swap childcare duties when the general meal arrives.

8. Plane Presents – I wrap little gifts for my kids to open on the plane. Nothing fancy . . . a book, small tub of play-doh, an action figure, easy craft kit, pipe cleaners . . . it does not even have to be new, just unexpected. Novelty is your friend when trying to entertain kids (of all ages) in a confined space. I recommend presenting these as mini-rewards, but you can get creative with the ways your children can “earn” them. Also, the wrapping is critical because it adds an element of surprise and value to the item.

9. Headphones – Planes make some people nervous and / or claustrophobic, and kids are no exception. I have found noise-canceling headphones can help ground antsy kids, whether they are at altitude or stuck at the gate. They are also a key entertainment aid. By age 2.5, my two older kids would happily sit through a movie or listen to music on a plane, but only if they could hear it. Kid-sized noise canceling headphones with volume dampener enables them to follow their show without having to blast the sound. Just remind them to keep their laughter and talking down. If you have more than one kid, an inexpensive headphone splitter can also come in handy when both kids want to watch the same thing at the same time.

10. Sweet Dreams – For small babies, airplanes are like huge white noise machines so they tend to sleep more than usual while on board. But around age one, the excitement and strangeness of being on a plane make it hard to settle down to sleep. A favorite blankie, pillow, or lovey can help, or a special travel pillow or eye shades can signal, “this is how we sleep on a plane.” Because, at the end of the day, a row full of sleeping kids is the ideal end state for parents, flight crew, and fellow passengers.

Trust me, flying with small kids is not as bad as you imagine it will be. Sure, there are always tricky moments, but nothing as hard as dealing with multiple jet-lagged kids.  I will report back when when I master that mess!

The dream!

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