Gone are your carefree days of sipping a pre-flight rosé and slipping on an eye mask after takeoff. You are a parent now, and flying as a family is a minefield of disasters from blowouts in babies to bazooka barfs in big kids.
Tips for Flying with Kids
Whether you’re flying with a toddler prone to sprinting away or a grade schooler who turns into kidzilla when she’s bored, here’s how you can tackle the most common challenges of flying with kids.
Surrender to the Unknown
The child who was perfect on the flight out may be determined to make sure you become that family on your return trip. Expect to be surprised and accept that you can’t control everything (especially people’s reactions).
And remember: Your child’s behavior may not even be the issue. Matt Wittenstein, an American living in Paris who travels extensively with his eight-year-old daughter, got a crash course in family travel mishaps: “Her first flight was an international one—my wife and I took her to Portugal—and we were traveling with pre-bottled formula. The bottles were fine everywhere except London, where they made me open half of them to prove… well, I don’t know what. But it did mean that most of the formula we brought was wasted.”
Divide and Conquer
Sharing all pre-flight duties with your co-parent can result in packing too many snacks and too few passports. When you’re flying with kids, give everyone specific tasks. You’re in charge of passports and packing for little kids. Older kids can pack their own bags. Your co-parent is in charge of everything else.
Don’t Vacc and Fly
Schedule any routine or travel-specific vaccinations at least a week before you travel. That quick stick at the pediatrician’s office can lead to fevers, rashes, diarrhea, and other minor side effects that become major inconveniences when you’re trapped on a plane.
Kids don’t usually need ID for domestic flights, but it’s not unheard of for airline personnel to ask to see some form of identification for under-twos or younger teens.
Stuart Weber remembers trying to get his 13-year-old daughter checked in and being surprised when they asked her to show ID. “She wasn’t old enough to drive and her school didn’t issue IDs. We argued until they finally checked her in, but with today’s security that probably wouldn’t work.” To avoid potential issues, fly with copies of your kids’ birth certificates.
Pre-Board… Or Don’t
Assuming the airline even has pre-boarding for families, it’s not necessarily worth it when you’re flying with kids. On one hand, you won’t have to worry about lugging a car seat, carry on, and kid past 27 rows of knees and elbows. On the other, a few more minutes of toddling around the terminal or going crazy in the kids activity zone may prevent an in-plane meltdown.
Bring the Car Seat
Invest in a Gogo Babyz Travelmate (it turns car seats into strollers) because there are great reasons to not only spring for a seat for babies and toddlers, but also to have them fly in the car seat they’re used to.
According to Dr. Alisa Baer of TheCarSeatLady.com, safety is the number one reason to bring an FAA-approved car seat. “First, you can’t safely hold a baby in your arms or in a carrier during strong turbulence or an emergency. Second, families that don’t buy a seat on the plane may be letting children ride unrestrained to and from the airport. While your state may say it’s legal to ride in a taxi without a car seat, the laws of physics still apply. And third, gate checked seats can get broken or lost. Keeping the seat with your child is the only way to ensure you can leave the airport safely.”
But there’s no perfect model. “Parents ask me to recommend the lightest possible car seat but that’s irrelevant,” adds Dr. Baer. “Even light convertible seats will weigh 10-12 pounds, and the average seat can weigh 25 pounds. I tell parents to stop thinking about the weight of the seat and think about how well it can be secured in the plane and in the cars available in the country you’re visiting.”
Note: While all domestic carriers allow FAA-approved seats in the cabin, international carriers have their own rules—and some don’t allow car seats, period.
Bring the Stroller, Too
In the U.S., gate checking your stroller means it’s there when you deplane. Elsewhere, you might be picking it up at baggage claim— and carrying whatever was in it. Skip the gate check and travel with an ultra compact stroller like the Mountain Buggy Nano, which takes all infant seats (no adapters necessary) and can be stowed in the overhead bin in its carry bag.
Opt for Longer Layovers
Wittenstein’s experience taught him to take a more relaxed approach to itineraries when flying with kids. “If a layover is unavoidable, try to make it a long-ish one,” he said. “There’s plenty of time to get to the next flight, and kids have time to run around. Keeping the airport experience stress free helps make the flight a lot easier.” There’s also the chance you can get a real meal into kids before re-boarding.
That Tile Mate tracker you clipped to your carry-on can do even more good clipped to toddlers prone to making a run for it or jumping onto random luggage carts.
Make It Fun
Pack the big bribes, whether it’s candy you usually refuse to buy or especially coveted books and toys. If your parenting style doesn’t include bribery, think of it as a flow of positive consequences for assured future good behavior.
Treats for infants and young toddlers do double duty wrapped in paper bags – getting it out is part of the fun. Throw screentime limits out. As Wittenstein put it, “This is a good time to be more relaxed about normal rules.”
Don’t count on finding a barf bag in the seatback. Gallon zipper bags are easier for kids to hurl into, anyway. Plastic bags have other uses, too, from odorless diaper disposal to ensuring your row doesn’t look like a junkyard by the end of your flight.
Forget Flying Fashionably
A big scarf doubles as a wrap for babies or a blanket for bigger kids. And a clean shirt can do wonders to boost your mood, so bring spare clothes for everyone. Kids should wear whatever is comfy, and put tiny tots in whatever you can change easily. Jammies for long flights? Why not jammies for short flights? You’d wear footies if you could.
Let Sleep Happen
Go through the motions of your kids’ bedtime routine on night flights, because hey, it’s worth a shot. But before you’re high fiving your co-parent because your kid slept through, know that some time zone changes will make cat naps the better option.
Anyone who still claims that getting there is half the fun—particularly in the era of no-frills air travel—has probably never flown with an overtired infant, a bulky bucket seat, and a bulging Pacapod.
The absolute best thing you can do when flying with kids is check your usual priorities at the gate. So what if your kid is double fisting the juice, watching non-stop movies, and you’re doling out Swedish Fish like it’s your job? Up there in the sky that is your job! Go with the flow and you’re more likely to get to your destination with your love of travel intact.
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