Travel with Kids: Airplane Edition

“Travel with kids”: does this phrase strike terror in your heart?

I don’t know about you, but when I see a family wrangling a toddler or two—and maybe even a baby—boarding one of my flights, I admit that I view the situation with not a small amount of trepidation. How can I forget a particularly gruesome 11-hour flight to London, with an inconsolable one-year-old in the premium economy cabin?? By the end of the flight, he was positively hoarse from screaming…and all of us (parents, passengers, crew…maybe even the luggage in the cargo hold) were positively frazzled.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

One of the top requests I receive from my newsletter subscribers is “how to travel with kids on airplanes.” With the holiday travel season upon us, I feel that now is the perfect time to discuss the matter.

Lacking actual progeny of my own, I enlisted the wisdom of a fabulous group of mothers to flesh out this blog entry. Some of them are west-coast wanderers, some are committed cross-country fliers, one is a frequent trans-global trekker, and one is a South American expat! Their suggestions on how to manage airplane travel with kids in both a safe and smart fashion were myriad and marvelous. As such, I’ve grouped them into four main categories for easier perusal. Read on for their best tips regarding airplane travel with kids!

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Oooh, shiiiiny!

Travel with Kids Tip #1: Keep ‘em entertained

Key words: novelty, bribery

Electronic devices with games and movies were a big hit with a couple of the moms, with the caveat that the child should wear earbuds to prevent disturbing fellow passengers. One mom was a big fan of plush toys (even if the kid bangs a plushie on the tray table, it won’t make noise).

Novelty is key when it comes to travel entertainment. Kids enjoy the surprise of new stuff to make the time pass more quickly (I know some adults like this, too!). You can certainly buy new toys and treats at the dollar store before your journey, but you can also squirrel away a few of your kids toys several weeks before the trip. They will delight in seeing “an old friend” again!

Washable markers and crayons were popular with one mom in particular. Her kids love to draw, so providing them with shiny new coloring books and non-damaging writing implements is apparently one of the highlights of her girls’ flights…scenery be damned! 😝

Keep extra-special treats on hand for emergencies. By this, I mean “melt-downs.” If your child is absolutely losing his sh1t, every single mom said it was a-okay to bribe your kid with a special treat. Yeah, maybe Dr. Spock wouldn’t approve, but this is your sanity at stake! Bribe with impunity.

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Essential elements for your on-board hygiene arsenal

Travel with Kids Tip #2: Keep ‘em clean, keep ‘em healthy

Key words: extra outfits, layers

The name of the game when it comes to kids’ travel clothes is EXTRA. Toddlers spill stuff. Babies have a way of…exploding. At both ends. 😜 So all moms who mentioned this topic in their interview said to bring at least one extra outfit per child (and preferably two). A few moms also suggested bringing an extra change of attire for the parents, as well (see “exploding babies” comment above). You can pack all that extra clothing into large Ziploc bags and squish the air out for compactness…and you can put any soiled clothing into those same Ziplocs for hygienic quarantine.

And don’t forget to layer!! Air travel thrusts you into a plethora of climates. It might be freezing cold when you start your journey, and the next thing you know, you’re sweating through your Lululemons. You don’t like it, and your kids don’t, either. So take the time to check the weather at your destination. Make sure the clothing you wear in transit will accommodate both your departure and arrival climates…even if it means stripping off (or adding on) a few layers.

Airplanes are veritable flying petri dishes, so having hand sanitizer, um, handy is vital. It’s also a good idea to carry kid-specific pain relievers and fever reducers. It goes without saying that you’ll want to make sure your kids have all the required vaccinations for your ultimate travel destination.

One mom I interviewed swore by this tip for kids’ earaches when the cabin pressure changes in flight—especially on descent. If your child is too little to chew gum or practice the Valsalva technique, ask the flight attendant for a few Styrofoam coffee cups to put over your kid’s ears. Apparently, this helps equalize the pressure. If your airline eschews Styrofoam, she said you can try putting a warm towel (or even a heated baby wipe) over their ear, then covering it with a plastic cup. Heck, I might try this tip for myself! 🙂

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Would that all flights were so entertaining….

Travel with Kids Tip #3: Keep ‘em fueled

Key words: snacks

Although it’s getting less bleak, the sustenance one can acquire in airports and on airplanes remains less than ideal. And if you’ve got picky eaters in your family, eating on the road can be downright difficult. For these reasons, every mom who mentioned food in their interview emphasized the importance of packing their kids’ favorite healthy snacks. Protein bars, apples, and baby carrots are popular choices.

If your kids are too small to handle a regular drinking glass, make sure you pack their sippy cups for water on the plane. Some airlines have kid-friendly toppers for glasses, but most, sadly, do not. Even though airplane air is notoriously dry, flying with a wet lap for any amount of time is the opposite of fun, regardless of how old you are.

You can pack chilled food items if you plan properly (this is especially important for transporting breastmilk for nursing moms…who may not want to whip out a boob mid-flight!). There are all sorts of nifty collapsible soft-side cooler bags. If you’re on a long-haul flight, one mom said she’s had no problem scoring bagged ice from the flight attendants to add to her cooler mid-trip.

Here is an especially clever tip that my expat mom shared: when it’s time for meal service on a flight, she asks the flight attendant if she can have her child’s meal brought first, and then her meal after she’s done helping him eat. She says the crew is sometimes less than happy to do so, but she’s not been refused yet!

Travel with Kids Tip #4: Keep ‘em safe

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See? Your kid WANTS to be in a safety restraint device!

Key words: car seat

We all like to save a buck…but think twice before doing this at the cost of your child’s safety. While the FAA allows you to hold a child in your lap under the age of 2, physics suggests this may not be the safest move. In case of severe turbulence, your arms simply can’t prevent a lap child from flying off into space! Research has shown that falls from an adult’s lap are the second-most common cause of injury to kids on planes, just behind burns from hot foods and beverage…and how many of those burns were caused by the adult intaking hot meals over the lap babies??

There’s an easy way around this, of course, but it’ll cost you the price of another seat (although perhaps at a discounted fare): put your kid into an FAA-approved car seat on the plane. This seat does double-duty when you arrive at your destination, as it can be strapped into your rental car, too. And when you’re traveling to countries that don’t require kids to be inside a car seat, having your own seat is a godsend, because it’s practically impossible to find car seats in those destinations!

You’ll also want to maintain control of your kiddo, especially those wriggly toddlers. Your first line of defense should be a good offense: wear ‘em out before the flight! Run ‘em ragged before you board the plane. You can do this in the airport terminal or before you leave your house. Napping kids are the easiest kids to wrangle in flight, which means that evening flights (especially after you wear them out physically) are potentially a golden time to fly.

Barring this option, consider early flights, when your kids are fresh and in a good mood. One mother mentioned a major caveat: do NOT assume your kids will nap at their usual time of day. The novelty of flying may mean that they’ll be ready for a nap, but too excited to sleep…which means crankiness and calamity.

Lastly, don’t let your children unbuckle and jump up and down on their seat. Don’t let them wander around the aisles. Picture what unexpected turbulence will do to their little unrestrained bodies. Envision them bumping into a flight attendant while s/he is pouring scalding hot coffee. Not a pretty scenario, eh? It’s your job as a parent to keep your kids under control, not the airlines’. So do it for safety’s sake, if not out of common courtesy for your fellow passengers.

* * * * *

A huge thank-you to all the mothers who shared their suggestions for how to travel with kids! A couple of these wonder women have kick-ass online businesses where they also provide frequent tips on how to incorporate kiddo-care into their daily work routines. I’ve linked their websites for you to check out at your leisure:

Happy travels!

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