We live in San Diego, and my parents live in the St. Louis area, so ever since I became a mom, I’ve racked up quite a few frequent flier miles just going back and forth. We even fly up to visit my husband’s parents, although we live in the same state. (What can I say? California is very, very large.) From that first time, with an infant who was less than a couple of months old to now, traveling with two small boys who are enthusiastic at best and obnoxious at worst, I’ve figured out a few things about successfully getting from airport to airport with them.
- WAY over-pack.
I’m talking about your carry-on here. Just plan to have a large bag or even two large bags. You will not regret having extra stuff but you might well regret running out of diapers or wipes or snacks or changes of clothes. There are times and places for traveling light, but flying with small children is not one of them. When mine were in diapers, I would bring 5 or 6 and a pack of wipes and two changes of clothes each. Don’t forget extra pacifiers and/or bottles. Then, for entertainment purposes, I’d go to a dollar store and buy some cheap stuff that they’d never seen before and stick all that in my bag too. We still have a plastic bag full of little toys—like a kaleidoscope and wind-up toys and flip books—that they only see when they’re on planes. It’s hard to overestimate the power of the surprise and the shiny new. (One caveat: avoid the loud beeping or music-playing stuff. Everyone else on the plane will thank you for this.) Play-doh is also great for flights. It doesn’t take up much room, it isn’t loud and it’s perfect for tray tables.
Now that mine are old enough for their own cups, I make sure to bring empty water bottles for them that I make a point of filling up as soon as we’re though security. Of course, they’ll bring you a little plastic cup on the flight, but who knows when that will be, and my boys don’t respond well to thirst. (When the flight attendant does come, they get to order juice, which is a treat for them.) Plus it’s always good to be able to hand them a drink if their ears start to hurt during takeoff or landing. The key to flying with babies (at least for me) is to nurse or give them their bottle as soon as or even before the plane starts to take off. If their ears start to hurt, sometimes they’re too fussy to drink or latch on because they don’t know it will help. I had great luck with my babies then falling asleep for much or even all of the flight, soothed by full tummies and the sound of the engine.
Then if your baby falls asleep or your older children are busy playing, make sure you packed something for YOU to do: a magazine or book to read, headphones to listen to music.
- Technology is great, but always have a back-up plan.
I’m a huge fan of the little movie players for kids on flights. Mine look forward for weeks to picking out the movies they want to watch on the plane. But remember to also pack the charger (for the layovers and/or delayed flights) and child-safe headphones. I’ve heard many flight attendants ask parents not to play movies without headphones, so the sound doesn’t disturb the other passengers.
And don’t rely wholly on the movie players, smartphones, or tablets. The very first time I flew with a DVD player for my son, I turned it on, waiting for the magic to happen, and then realized I hadn’t charged it properly and it was dead. And this kind of thing still happens, even to older, wiser me. Just this last week on a trip home to visit the grandparents, that handy DVD player with its two headphone jacks just stopped working on the flight out. On the way home, I thought I had it all solved, by purchasing a headphone splitter so they could watch movies together on my tablet (which only has one headphone jack), but it turns out that with a splitter already cutting the sound in half, those child-safe headphones (which restrict the volume level for little ears) were barely audible. (We were able to sort it out by giving each one an ear of my earbuds, held in place with those non-working child-safe headphones.)
Things like this often happen (at least to me!), so I like to have some other stuff ready in case the technology doesn’t happen that day. Also, most airlines are still very strict about not using tablets or even phones until the plane has reached a “safe cruising altitude” which can take a half hour or so. So in addition to the movie players, I always have Play-Doh, the bag of little dollar store toys, books, and several other assorted toys. Luckily, my two are old enough to carry their own backpacks now!
- Apologize in advance.
One of the things that most stresses me out about flying is the potential reaction of the other passengers if my child misbehaves. After all, you can’t exactly take your child outside or leave. You’re all stuck there together until the plane lands. Although I’ve found that people are generally extremely kind, particularly to mothers traveling on their own, I’ve started introducing myself to those around me before flights, particularly the lucky person sitting in the seat right in front of my four-year-old. I say a quick hi and let him or her know that my four-year-old is sitting right behind and apologize in advance for any kicking of the seat he might do. I say to let me know right away if it’s bothersome and I’ll take care of it as best I can. This kind of advance warning somehow seems to defuse this potential conflict right off the bat. It’s harder to be annoyed at someone you already met and had a little personal contact with. I think it also helps other passengers to know that I’m already on top of it, or at least am trying to be. Usually people are as nice as can be and assure me they won’t mind even if he does kick their seats. In fact, no one has complained yet, and believe me, it’s not because he’s not kicking. (Poor four-year-olds. It’s not easy when your feet never touch the floor.)
This kind of thing can feel more difficult when you’re dealing with fussy or crying babies, but I think it still works to introduce yourself ahead of time and try with all your might to make friends. It’s also hard to underestimate the power of treating those in the row ahead or behind you to drinks (bring those Southwest coupons if you have them!). A friend of mine always travels with $5 Starbucks gift cards and hands one out to anyone who is particularly helpful or kind.
- Get the flight attendants on your side.
These men and women can make your flying experience much easier. I make sure to smile and greet them as soon as I get on the plane, and have my children do the same, now that they’re old enough. I’ve had flight attendants go out of their way to make sure we got an extra seat for my lap child, volunteer to hold my sons (when they were babies) so I could use the restroom, and offer to bring me extra drinks or snacks before the flight because they knew how thirsty and hungry breastfeeding can make you! But I don’t expect this sort of treatment. Instead I try to go out of my way to respect their rules and not make extra work for them. One small thing many mom fliers may not know is that flight attendants want to dispose of each diaper in a separate plastic bag that they will place in the general trash rather than in the bathroom trash (for reasons of smell and of space). So it’s nice to ask for the bag in advance when you’re waiting in line for the bathroom for that awkward cramped diaper change, rather than make the flight attendant dig through the bathroom trash receptacle for it after the fact.
- Food is your friend.
I try, I really do, to eat well and encourage my kids to do the same, but when we’re flying, this rule goes out the window. I load up on treats like chocolate (M&Ms or bars that break up into individual squares are great because you can parcel them out one by one). And those cans of potato chips that you can buy in the airport or sometimes on the plane are really good for air sickness–something about the combination of fat and salt. The easiest flight I ever took with my boys was a flight where we ended up in first class out of the sheer necessity of using up some frequent flier miles. They fed us for the entire flight—warm nuts, appetizer, meal, dessert. Never has a flight gone by so fast. I vowed to take that lesson to heart and now bring a full meal in a plastic bag (nothing fancy—sandwiches and chips) just for something for all of us to do. Plus, many airlines don’t serve anything more than snacks now so if the boys are hungry after those peanuts, it’s going to be a really long flight if I didn’t bring anything extra. When we’re flying on the flights that still do sell food on board, I will often pay the exorbitant prices just for the distraction and little added excitement. Hopefully, those full bellies will lead to happy movie-viewing or maybe even, a nice nap. Maybe even for all of us!
I hope these tips have been helpful for you. What are your best tips for flying with children?