Flying with children can be difficult. Flying with a 1 year old? Flying with a toddler? Flying with a 3 year old? Flying with teens? It doesn’t matter how old the children are – each age range presents its own unique challenges.
Flying can be stressful at the best of times (delayed flight anyone?), but add into the mix an upset baby or a restless 10 year old and you have an even bigger headache! But… it doesn’t have to be stressful! In fact, it can be fun to fly with children and expose them to new experiences, places, and people.
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Flying with Children – Expect the Unexpected!
My older brother is a transatlantic airline pilot, so I’m pretty used to traveling and know a few “inside” tips to make life easier. But the first time I traveled with my son, I was not prepared!
I flew with my eldest son when he was 3 months old. We took a 9-hour flight to England to visit my family and show off our new bundle of joy! It certainly wasn’t the easiest flight and I was badly prepared (this was before Pinterest, so where could I look for good travel advice?!).
I pretty much survived the flight by reciting to myself “All things end. Time is not infinite. This flight will end!”
The next flight with my son, 6 months later, was even worse! Again we were traveling to England, this time to celebrate Christmas with our families (so imagine a very full and busy flight!).
Unfortunately, he started to vomit about 15 minutes before we were due to board the aircraft. He then continued to vomit for the next 9 hours of the flight! He had caught a nasty stomach virus and couldn’t even keep water down.
This time I thought I was better prepared – I had 2 changes of clothes for him and one for myself – that would be more than enough, surely? Well…. we got through those clothes within the first 30 minutes of the flight! The flight crew were amazing and helped us survive a very long and stressful night flight.
I did feel bad because I’m sure the passengers near us and the flight crew all caught the virus too. Eventually, we all got sick and then passed the bug onto all our family too, so it wasn’t a very enjoyable trip. No-one enjoyed the Christmas dinner that year!
Practice Makes Perfect… Sort of!
Over the years I’ve traveled all over the USA and Europe first with one child, then two and finally three young children – many times on my own. Flying with children doesn’t have to be stressful.
I’ve browsed some of the travel ideas on Pinterest over the year and I love the look of some of them! But as a single working mom, I didn’t have time/resources to implement most of the ideas (handmade travel activity packs? Awesome… but no!). So below are my no-nonsense tips to flying with children of all ages!
Tips for Flying with Children of all Ages
Tip 1 – Flight Time
You want to pick the time of your flight carefully. Depending on the age of your child and their sleep habits. If your baby always takes a 2-hour nap (we wish!) at 2 pm, then try to find a flight that takes off a little before then.
It’s also a good idea to pick the earlier flights of the day. These flights tend to be quieter and less likely to be delayed too.
Tip 2 – Dress for Comfort
It’s important to dress in layers for a flight. Some times the aircraft can be boiling hot and other times freezing cold!
Also, the temperature at your destination might be very different from where you start. No one wants to be sweating in their winter clothes while waiting for their baggage in Florida!
Make sure your little ones are also dressed in layers and with easy zippers, velcro etc. Skip the buttons and laces, these just slow you down and can be uncomfortable to sit in!
Tip 3 – Seating
It’s best for a child not to have the aisle seat in an aircraft. Although it’s tempting to put your toddler next to the aisle, so they can get up and down easily, that’s also the exact reason not to do it. It can be dangerous for your little one if they jump up just as the cabin crew is bringing through the drinks cart.
Tip 4 – Downsize your Stroller
Depending on the age of your child you might want to take your stroller into the airport with you. Consider downsizing to an easy to fold umbrella stroller. Or if you think you can manage without a stroller, consider getting a kiddie leash!
An umbrella stroller will be easy to fold and unfold to put it through the x-ray machine at security. Once you get to your gate, ask the gate agent to check-in your stroller and then you can pick it up once you land.
I love the Kolcraft CloudLightweight Stroller. It’s lightweight and has a nice roomy seat, so an older child can ride in it too if they get tired. It also has a large sunshade, something that a lot of umbrella strollers don’t have.
Tip 5 – Car Seat
This is a tricky one. I never took my baby/toddler car seat onto the flights with us. I normally flew internationally
and the airline would provide a booster seat for my toddlers. If you do decide to take the car seat with you on to the flight, be sure to check that it is FAA approved.
I know some parents who swear by a car seat cart, that basically turns your child’s car seat into a stroller! Win-win!
If you are traveling with a baby ask about getting a bunk-head seat on long-haul flights, as you can take advantage of the bassinets that many airlines have. A complete lifesaver when traveling with a baby!
Tip 6 – A Backpack
For years before I had children I would travel with one of those cute wheeled carry-on bags. I could fill it up and generally not need a full-size suitcase if I packed it carefully. The first time I traveled with my eldest son, I used a wheelie case… big mistake! I’m not sure why I didn’t think it through – pushing a stroller and pulling a wheelie case is not easy!
You might be tempted to just use your diaper bag instead. Nope! You’ll need more space than that. A good size backpack with lots of pockets is the perfect bag for flying with children. You can throw it on your back and then both your hands are free for general child corralling!
Tip 7 – Baggies
I always travel with lots of zip-lock baggies. I use them to separate our things, so it’s easy to find everything in my overstuffed backpack! Also, it’s good to have a few spare ones for things like dirty diapers or clothes, so you don’t get a stinky backpack.
Tip 8 – Divide & Conquer
So this goes with the baggies. Separate everything into baggies or pockets in your backpack. Have a baggie for pacifiers (take more than 1 pacifier!), one for snacks (lots of snacks!), one for pens/crayons, one for each complete change of clothes… you get the idea!
Make good use of the pockets in your backpack by assigning each pocket a purpose – one for kids activities, one for clothes, one for snacks, one for important documents and IDs/passports… again, you get the idea
Tip 9 – Goody Bags
Make sure you bring plenty of things to keep your children amused. I’m always amazed when I see parents who bring just one book or toy on a flight. The child will tire of that toy very quickly (especially if it’s one they’ve already played with).
If you have time before your trip, go to the dollar store and pick up a few easy to pack new toys/activities for your child. I’ve heard of parents who even wrap the new toys to make it more exciting for the child. I love this idea – just make sure you have somewhere to put the trash!
Examples of small toys:
- Wikki Stix (this party favor pack is the cheapest way to buy them, and the small packs are perfect for travel)
- Small can of play-doh
- Travel Spirograph
- Stacking cups
- Sticker mosaic pictures (take them out the box before you go and put everything in baggies!)
- Gel window clings (if you have a window seat!)
- Hot Wheels car
- Books to read independently and together
Do NOT bring any toys that make noise! Hearing Ba-Ba-Black Sheep twenty times in a row is annoying for any parent. Just imagine how annoying it will be when you’re a passenger and listening to someone else’s kid’s toy!
Tip 10 – Electronic
We all know that our kids are addicted to electronics and we might try and fight it by limiting screen time. But when traveling, take advantage of this addiction!
Before you leave, load up your phone or tablet with lots of kid-friendly audio-books, games
Make sure you don’t pick apps that need internet access to run. Minecraft is the go-to app for long journeys in my family!
Tip 11 – Headphones
Don’t forget headphones! For some reason, kids love to listen to that annoying music that goes along with their favorite app game. So make sure you have kid-size headphones for your little one to use, either for their game or the audiobook/music/movie you downloaded for them.
Tip 12 – Charge, charge, charge!
If you are taking electronics on the flight with you, you want to make sure they are fully charged before the journey. I always have them plugged into the car, so they get that last few minutes charge before hitting the airport.
Also, consider getting a portable battery charger. Depending on what one you go for they can re-charge a dead phone or tablet, so your little one can keep playing.
If you’re flying a long distance (like going for a fun-packed trip to Barcelona!), then you might want to ration how long your child spends on their electronics, to make sure the charge lasts the whole journey. When I fly to England with my children, I encourage them to use the in-flight entertainment, so it spares their batteries for when they get bored later in the flight.
Also if you are flying internationally, remember there might be a long wait to get through customs and immigration once you’ve landed.
Tip 13 – Prepare for the Airport
Air travel has changed a lot in the last few years and it’s important that you and your children are prepared for the airport. If your child hasn’t flown before, talk to them about the security process.
Explain that their items (including beloved blankie) will have to go through the x-ray machine. If they are under 12 years old, they are not required to take their shoes off, but you might want to explain that you will be taking your shoes off.
The TSA has lots of great information about children and airport security. They also include information about what liquids you can and can’t bring through security when traveling with children.
Tip 14 – Play areas
A lot of airports now have children’s play areas. They aren’t always in every terminal or all that easy to find. So it’s worth stopping by an information desk to find out if the airport does have one.
It’s a great way for your little ones to run off some energy before the flight. And it also uses up some of that waiting around time, which can be as challenging as the flight itself.
Tip 15 – Board Early… or Don’t
This one is a real judgment call. I used to board early with my children and discovered that it was actually a bad idea! You end up being in your seat so much longer, while you wait for everyone else to board. Things to consider when boarding early:
- Is it a large aircraft? The larger the aircraft, the longer it takes to board everyone. You could be on the plane an extra 30-40 minutes (or longer!) if you are traveling on a very large aircraft (like on long haul flights).
- Will storage space be limited? On some flights the over-head bins get full very quickly, so you might want to consider boarding early, so you can make sure your bag is directly above your seat. Or just make sure that your backpack is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you.
BONUS TIP – Ear Popping!
As the aircraft takes off or lands the pressure in our ears change and this can be very uncomfortable for small children (and us!). There are quite a few tricks to equalize the pressure, but sucking on something is the easiest with children. Lollipops, pacifiers, gum, formula bottle, mom’s boob all work!
Also, be prepared that your baby is likely to cry for a short while until their ears pop. If your baby starts to get fussy BEFORE take off, don’t worry! The cabin pressure can actually change before the flight when they close the doors and pressurize the cabin.
Just remember that traveling with children can be fun! You’re exposing your children to new places and people, these are great experiences for them to have! Take a deep breath and enjoy the ride!
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