One of the perks of growing up overseas and working in international marketing in my 20s is that I have some pretty impressive stamps in my passport, and have learned tons of helpful travel hacks, but regardless of how many air miles I’ve accumulated over the span of my lifetime, nothing could prepare me for the challenges parents face when flying with children.
It wasn’t until I become a mom myself that I truly understood that no amount of planning and preparation can guarantee you and your little ones will have a smooth flight.
And even when things do go according to plan?
There will always be passengers who give you dirty looks when they see you and your brood boarding the same flight as they are, and while I’ve had some pretty fantastic experiences with airport personnel and flight attendants when flying solo with my daughter, I’ve had my fair share of doozies as well.
Oh, and did I mention I have a fear of flying?
My fear isn’t nearly as bad as it was when I was a child, but it’s still lingers in the back of my mind every time I travel, and helps keeps things interesting.
The good news?
My daughter loves to travel.
I’ve put so much work into perfecting the experience for her over the years to ensure she remains happy on long flights and doesn’t catch onto the fact that I’m trying not to hyperventilate into a barf bag when we’re 40,000 feet above safety, and I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Of course, that’s not to say every single flight my daughter and I have taken together has gone smoothly. She once developed a tummy bug while we were flying from Las Vegas to Toronto, cried inconsolably for 2 hours, and then puked all over herself, my husband, and me, and another time she burned her finger on an exposed light bulb during a 6-hour weather delay on the tarmac in Austin, Texas.
But those situations tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
And while both of those experiences were pretty hellish at the time, they ended up being good learning experiences for me and have helped me anticipate the worst to ensure I’m prepared.
So, without further adieu, I present to you my top 17 tips for flying with children.
1. MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS WELL-RESTED
Traveling with a tired and cranky child isn’t fun for anyone, but if you’re also feeling exhausted and short-tempered, you’re in for a looooooooong journey. Make sure everyone gets to bed early the night before, and if you have a wonky flight time that has you up in the middle of the night, prepare ahead of time by adjusting everyone’s schedules for a few days to ensure your entire family gets ample sleep before heading to the airport.
2. CHECK YOUR FLIGHT STATUS
Airlines aren’t always good about informing passengers about flight delays until they check in for their flight at the airport, but if you’ve ever tried to keep a toddler entertained for 6 hours in an airport lounge before a long-haul flight, you probably already have a flight tracker app on your smartphone. Right?
3. CHOOSE YOUR SEATS WISELY
While you can’t sit in an emergency exit row with small children, window seats are great for kids as they can decorate them with window clings and lean against them when they are ready to sleep, and aisle seats (especially those close to the bathrooms) are good if you have a kid that suffers from motion sickness as they can get in and out of their seat easily when they aren’t feeling well. Oh, and just a word of caution – seats behind the wing tend to experience more bumps and turbulence!
4. GET TO THE AIRPORT EARLY
While hanging out in the airport isn’t exactly exciting, it’s important to give yourself lots of time for long lines and other hiccups, especially when you have a little one in tow. The last thing you need is to feel rushed and overwhelmed before your journey even starts. Remember that kids not only pick up on our emotions, but also react to them, so the last thing you want to do is start your journey feeling anxious and stressed. It’s not good for anyone!
5. GET YOUR KIDS EXCITED!
I was absolutely terrified of flying when I was a kid, which made all of those round-the-world trips we did absolutely horrible for me, and while I’m still not overly comfortable on planes, I make the experience as exciting as possible for my daughter. We start planning what toys we’re going to take, what games we’re going to play, and what we’re going to do when we get to our destination weeks in advance, and I find the more pumped up she is, the easier the experience is for me.
6. GET THE SILLIES OUT!
Another reason I like to get to the airport early is that it gives me time to take my daughter for a nice, long walk before we board our fight. I’ve seen parents play tag or blow up an inflatable beach ball to play with to get even more energy out, which is pure genius if you ask me.
7. TAKE THEIR FAVORITE TOYS AWAY
If your child spends hours playing with one particular toy (Let me guess? The iPad?!), try to limit the time you allow her to play with this toy (or completely eliminate it) for at least 3 days before your flight so it’s fresh and new. And if you have older kids, you can use this as a bartering tool when you’re struggling through the hell that is airport security (‘Come on, kids! The sooner we get on the plane, the sooner you can watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on your DVD player!’).
8. PACK NEW TOYS
Whenever we travel, I put together a backpack filled with brand new toys for my daughter. I stock up on dollar store toys and things I find on sale in the weeks leading up to the big day, and usually get a couple of things she has been eyeing at her favorite toy store, and I find it goes a long way in keeping her excited and happy during the journey.
9. BRING LOTS OF SNACKS
While most airlines offer kid-friendly food options, you can never predict what they’ll have available, and if you have a picky eater, you will be doing yourself a huge favor if you pack a ton of snacks to take with you. I invested in a Rover lunchbox from PlanetBox because I love that I can pack a bunch of different food options in one, durable container, but there are heaps of other bento box ideas you can buy on Amazon. As a rule of thumb, I like to pack double the food we should need for the time we are traveling to cover unexpected delays, and sometimes I pack a bit more!
10. PACK A FIRST AID KIT
My daughter once burned her finger on an exposed light bulb over my seat 5 minutes before takeoff after a 6-hour delay in Austin. Thankfully, the flight attendants were quick to help (and the airline compensated us with air miles), but it reminded me how easily kids can hurt themselves, and how important it is to be prepared with their favorite bandaids and age-appropriate first aid creams.
11. STOCK UP ON MEDS
In addition to injuries, you never know when your child is going to spike a fever, have an allergic reaction to something, develop diarrhea, or start projectile vomiting when you’re nowhere close to a medical clinic, so never (ever) board a plane without a miniature pharmacy in your carry on luggage.
12. PACK EXTRA CLOTHES…FOR EVERYONE
If your little one has ever puked and/or had a diaper blowout mid-flight, you probably don’t need this reminder, but just in case…ALWAYS PACK EXTRA CLOTHES! And if you don’t have a spare set for yourself and your little one is sick? Ask a flight attendant for a few blankets so you can cover yourself and (hopefully) avoid the need to change.
13. CHARGE EVERYTHING
While more and more planes offer in-seat charging stations, it’s a good idea to ensure iPads and portable DVD players are full of juice before take-off as they serve as great distractions when your kids start to reach their saturation point.
14. PACK LOTS OF ACTIVITIES
While iPads and stickers and play doh might go a long way in giving you 20 minutes of peace and quiet on a normal day, you’re going to need a lot more than that to keep your kids entertained on a long flight, so do some research before you start packing. You can find 20 easy travel activities to keep kids happy on an airplane RIGHT HERE, and you can find heaps more on Pinterest. Don’t forget to pack a few activities and games you can play TOGETHER to pass the time. The more you interact with your child, the happier she will be.
15. PACK A SET OF PAJAMAS
If your child is still napping or you are taking an overnight flight, make sure to pack your child’s favorite pair of pajamas in your carryon luggage. My mother did this on all of the long-haul flights we did between Singapore and Canada when I was a kid, and I found it much easier to fall asleep when I was comfortable.
Even when you’ve had enough and don’t think you can handle another game of Crazy Eights, make sure to keep a smile on your face. The happier and more positive you are, the smoother the flight will be for everyone.
And don’t forget to…
Whether you’re traveling on an airplane with your kids for 30 minutes or 30 hours, it isn’t easy, so if things don’t go as planned (spoiler alert: they won’t), take a few deep breaths, order yourself a glass of wine, and remind yourself that it’s just one day of your life, and that whatever is on the other end is worth it.
See? Flying with children doesn’t need to be as bad as some would like you to believe. By taking the time to plan ahead and ensure you are prepared to handle most of the things that can (and will) happen when you’re 40,000 feet above the ground, you are putting yourself in a position of power to get through the experience like a pro.
And if something goes wrong?
You’ll put on your big girl underpants and deal with it.
And then you’ll flag down the closest flight attendant, order yourself an alcoholic beverage, and take notes to ensure you never make the same mistake again.
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