Tips for flying with the kids

I’ve come to view my role in traveling with the kids like a general preparing for war. A well planned, well prepared, well executed mission makes all the soldiers happy. And they all return home in one piece.

I like to think my kids are pretty well traveled. By the time my first born was a year old, he’d flown to Europe, Hawaii, Florida, Oregon, Texas and host of other US states. And with traveling so often I’ve learned some valuable lessons. So here are my top ten tips for a successful family flight.

1. When you’re booking your flights try to get a non-stop. It may cost a bit more, but you’ll be happy you paid it. There’s nothing worse than having the first leg of your flight delayed because of weather and then running at a dead sprint, with your kids and all your luggage through the airport, only to discover you’ve missed your connection! It’s so much easier to get on one plane and be done.

2. Consider travel time to and from the airport, and flight departure times when choosing a flight. I have some friends who’s kids do great on red eye flights. Mine don’t! They love the excitement of travel and being on the plane. They almost never sleep on the plane. So I just time the travel so that they’ve had a good night’s sleep and then the travel is the activity for that day. When I’ve tried to time it for nap times on the plane it’s backfired on me. Inevitably I end up with a tired, cranky kid that gets overstimulated by all the excitement and doesn’t fall asleep until the last 30 min of the flight! But ultimately you know your kid the best, and if they’ll sleep anywhere, then plan to have nap-time on the plane.

3. Traveling on Saturdays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are usually less crowded. Which means flights are a bit less full, which could be good if you want to get a little extra room to spread out. Also flights mid-day are generally less crowded than morning or evening flights.

4. Make sure you book your seats when you book your flight. You can always look at the available seats before you book that particular flight. If you have a connection, try to sit toward the front of the plane so that you can get off faster. If you’re going non-stop, consider sitting in the rear of the plane as you might luck out and get some empty seats near you. My trick for booking seats when traveling with 4 people is to book the window and aisle seats on a whole row. (a, c, d, f in a typical B737- or a “3 and 3” configuration.) Then leave the middle seats open. Chances are, if it’s not a full flight those two middle seats will stay open and you get a little extra room. And if it is a full flight, someone will gladly trade their middle seat to have a window seat, and you can still have all of one row and the adjacent aisle seat.

5. Pack a change of clothes for the kids AND for yourself in your carry-on. There’s nothing worse than sitting through a 5 hour plane flight with wet pants. Or worse, showing up at your destination covered in spit-up, vomit or pee.

6. Bring extra everything. A few extra diapers, a few extra wipes, extra snacks, extra gum, an extra bottle etc. Planes get delayed. And sometimes you can have an unexpected minor delay that turns into a major delay.

7. Sign up to get an email from the airline to notify you if your flight is delayed. And if you find out that it is, get on the phone to the airline immediately. Most times they can rebook you on another flight and you’ll have more certainty about your departure time. If you have the option, get on an earlier flight, not a later one. Everyone from your originally delayed flight is going to get to the airport, discover the flight is delayed and try to get on the next available flight. You have a much better chance of getting on a flight that leaves earlier than your scheduled flight than a later one. If the first person you speak to on the phone at the airline can’t help you, then ask to speak to a supervisor. Plead you case about traveling with kids, they understand. And if you can only get on the standby list, then take it. You will automatically get rolled over (on stand-by) to the next soonest flight if you don’t get that one.

8. Bring gum for take off and landing. The pressure change is hard on little ears (especially if they’ve recently had a cold or runny nose). But the prospect of a piece of bubble gum is exciting! And it encourages them to swallow, which will “un-pop” their ears. If your kids are too young for gum, bring a sippy cup
or bottle (buy a bottle of water after you’ve gone through security to fill it up) and give it to them right before take off. The swallowing action will keep the pressure equalized.

CONDITIONAL: if you’re breastfeeding, try to abstain from it until you’re on the runway and you hear the captain say you’ve been cleared for take off. That way the wee one doesn’t get too full or become disinterested before you want them to have it. But if the wee one falls asleep in your arms before take off, no worries – don’t wake them. For some reason the pressure change on the accent is much easier on the ears than the decent. For landing, I would always try to get my babes to nurse, even if that meant waking them to nurse. Otherwise they’d wake up screaming!

9. Bring entertainment for the plane. Don’t rely on the in-flight entertainment for the kids. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes the movie sucks, sometimes you’re kids are too young to care about it. My rule of thumb when mine were under 3 was to bring one toy for every 5 min of the flight. Because that’s about the attention span of the wee ones. Bring paperback picture books, crayons and paper, small things of play dough, cars, trains, stickers, little dolls, anything they’re interested in really, and some things they’ve never seen before. I always hit up Target before a flight and find a few new things to surprise them with on the plane. The dollar spot is a great place to find small, inexpensive things. And one of my favorites is those painting books that use only water. Just remember, the main source of entertainment is YOU. Gone are the lazy days of catching up on your celebrity gossip on the plane…prepare yourself for a full flight of Peek-a-boo, “look at that”, and singing songs. Be prepared for that and it wont suck. And if you get a break, whoo hoo!

10. Charge your electronics. If you’re bringing a DVD player or an iPad, charge it the day before and make sure it’s at 100% before you get on the plane. Nothing worse than resorting to electronics only to discover they’re not available. If you have more than one kid, stop by an electronics store and get a headphone splitter. That way if they want to watch the same thing, they can. And DO bring your own headphones for the kids. They generally like the bigger ones that cover their whole ear as opposed to little ear buds. If they’re too big on the top of their head, take a sock or clean, unused diaper from your carry-on and roll it up, put it on top of their head so the ear pieces fit right on their ears and not their cheeks.

BONUS TIP- If you’re going somewhere just for a weekend, and you’re renting a car, consider renting the car-seat as well. It’s usually only $10 a day and sometimes it’s worth it to not drag that heavy thing through the airport!

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