Every traveling parent has been there: pacing the aisle of an airplane, grasping a wailing baby or wiggling toddler, trying to avoid the accusing glares of fellow passengers.
In anticipation of this crisis point, some considerate parents give their seat neighbors gift cards or apologetic goody bags to buy some goodwill in advance. And with good reason—it’s no surprise that the “rear seat kicker” and the “inattentive parent” topped a recent survey identifying the most annoying types of passengers to be seated near.
But does travel with small children have to be hellish nightmare every time? With the holidays—and high-volume family travel season—upon us, Quartz talked to some veteran parent travelers on their tips to ease the process.
Before you go
Book your travel with your cargo in mind. Try to pick flights that seem likely to work best with your kids’ schedules. Align shorter flights with nap time. Avoid red-eyes that are too short to allow for a full night’s sleep. And while it may be pricier (or on some routes, impossible), avoid layovers when direct routes are available.
If a layover is unavoidable, and you have your choice of stopovers, pick airports with child-friendly amenities. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, a common layover stop for international travel, has several play areas for kids, and even a Kids’ Forest. It’s not the only one, though. There are many kid-friendly airports across the world, from Paris to Singapore.
Call in advance. It pays to let the airline know if you’re bringing any pint-size passengers along, not only to book kids’ meals (on flights that still offer meal service) but for seating purposes, too.
On some flights, you might be able to reserve a bulkhead seat with access to a baby bassinet. (These bassinets, which sit on a table that attaches to the wall, really are meant for babies; they’re generally too rickety for toddlers. Also, be aware that you’ll have to take the baby out and put him or her on your lap every time the fasten-seatbelt light turns on.)
Traveling with toddlers may be the one time you prefer the back of the plane to the front. You’ll likely have a shorter trip to the lavatory this way, and that access will be especially welcome when the beverage cart is blocking the aisle farther up the plane. On planes with two aisles, selecting the middle row is a good move for larger families—it makes it easier for both parents to get out, with the kids seated between them.
Prepare the kid(s). If they’re old enough, talk to your kids beforehand about what to expect and how to behave. You don’t want your toddler terrified and confused by the look, feel, and sound of the airplane. Use airplane-themed toys, and your imagination, to teach them about airplanes: “There’s the wing, there’s the door, there’s the tail, there’s the pilot.” Your little ones will have fun looking for, and pointing out, all those things on travel day. And do warn your kids that their favorite blankie or toy will have to take a trip through the X-ray tunnel at airport security.
Prepare yourself. One Quartz parent shares some often-overlooked advice. While most of your preparations will focus on the kids, the parents need some mental prepping, too. For starters, lower your own expectations for the experience. Don’t expect to have a relaxing flight and don’t count on getting much sleep. Especially when they’re little, most of your time will be spent time feeding, cleaning, or entertaining your kids. You might feel wiped out when it’s over (and perhaps not so eager to go on a major hike the day you arrive at your destination). For your own sense of sanity, you’re better off accepting that reality from the start.
Snacks. They’re essential for kids of any age. Dried fruits and crunchy vegetables are healthy options that won’t get crushed in your baggage. Granola bars work, too, but go for the harder varieties, not the soft ones that get mushed up easily in their packages when pressed between other items.
Other essentials. Ziploc bags will be your friend through the baby years and well beyond. The gallon-size bags are great for wet or soiled clothes, and smaller ones are perfect for portioning out snacks and storing unfinished snacks. A wash cloth or two, pre-soaped or not, will be helpful for the really messy accidents, and you’ll also want hand/face wipes and hand sanitizer in your carry-on bag.
Remember the rules. Even harried parents need to abide by Transportation Security Administration regulations. Consult the TSA’s website for more details; the agency has an entire section devoted to traveling with kids. Medications, baby formula, baby food, expressed breast milk, and juice are allowed in reasonable quantities—meaning they can exceed the 3.4 oz (100ml) rule for other liquids and gels carried on the flight—and you can pack them separately from toiletries and other carry-on items that you’ve packed in your clear, quart-size, zip-top bag. But don’t forget to declare your extra items for inspection at the checkpoint. When it comes to snacks, food in the form of a liquid of gel (juice boxes and pouches of fruit puree or yogurt) are generally not allowed, but dry snacks like cereal, bread, and turkey sandwiches are good to go.
Listen to your mother. My own mother tells me that when I was little, she would pack a diaper for every hour we would be at the airport and on the plane, extra outfits in anticipation of messes, a blanket and layers in anticipation of see-sawing airplane temperatures, bottles and powdered milk for feeding, and medicine for any possible sick spells that could come about. “It’s better to be over-prepared,” she says.
Charge, charge, charge. Tablets are like magic baby screens, making them extremely valuable to parents inflight. (My mom says she really missed out.) Make sure you start your trip with a full battery, and take advantage of airport plug-in stations when you can. Kid-friendly travel apps include electronic coloring books, and an update to the classic computer game Oregon Trail. Here’s a list to get you started. And remember, a good pair of kids’ earphones is a must, since the airplane ones can be too big for kids or too flimsy for them to hear through.
Other entertainment options. Travel-size board games can be useful, but avoid games and puzzles with a lot of loose or moving pieces that can get lost or be thrown around and cause a fuss. Coloring books and crayons, sticker books, and card games such as Old Maid never get old. Try giving your kids a backpack or small roller bag if they’re old enough; they might enjoy the independence and responsibility of toting along some of their own stuff.
Dress your kids in bright colors. It’ll make it easier to keep track of them in a crowded airport terminal.
Let them run and stretch while they can. Running laps at the terminal or jumping around right before a flight can ensure a quieter—or at least less fidgety—takeoff. Angela Tsai, a frequently traveling mother with a useful blog (she also makes travel-friendly, sustainable accessories for new mothers), ignores the pre-boarding announcements for families and purposely gives her kids as much time as possible to wear themselves out before a flight. She likes to bring party balloons and blow them up for some calorie-burning playtime; the balloons can easily be discarded before boarding. If they’re crawlers, pack a plastic sheet for them to roll around on before boarding.
Consider the carseat. Although it is undeniably cumbersome, bringing your child’s familiar car seat, especially for kids 18 months or younger, ultimately can make the trip a lot easier and more comfortable for them. Also, you’ll have the bonus of a sure thing on car safety once you reach your destination. But there are steps to take if you plan on lugging a car seat through the airport.
- Make sure it’s FAA-approved for use onboard.
- Call your airline ahead of time and let them know you’re bringing one.
- Decide whether you want to check it or not.
- If you do check it, bring a special bag for it, or wrap it up tightly to protect it from dirt and damage when it’s tossed around with the rest of the flight’s luggage.
Many parents swear by the Sit N’ Stroll, an FAA-certified flight seat that doubles as a stroller; one colleague said she has been through six of them, and has taken them to Belize, India, Turkey, Tanzania, and major cities across the United States.
Be aware that your child can’t use her car seat if she isn’t guaranteed her own seat on the flight. While kids fly free up until the age of 2 on most airlines, because they can travel on your lap, you might want to spring for a ticket for your child. At 18 months, it becomes a lot harder (and more uncomfortable) for them to fall asleep in your arms, Tsai says. On the other hand, shelling out for that extra seat can be frustrating if your child doesn’t wind up using it, or if you wind up on a flight with plenty of extra seats.
On the plane
Be appreciative. It’s important to be nice to the people around you, but don’t overdo it with apologies. Parents should remember they have a right to go places and a right to bring their kids with them.
Befriend a flight attendant. This can make all the difference. Flight attendants often are happy to help entertain a kid or turn up with kid-friendly snacks when you need them most. One colleague at Quartz says she and her daughter still talk about the flight attendant from a trip they took four years ago; he gave her a personalized goody-bag when she missed the snack service. They still have the bag—a clean air-sickness bag that he had decorated with her name and scribblings of crowns and stars, and filled with snacks and airline promotional trinkets.
Consider—carefully—some medicine. This is an intensely polarizing issue. My mother recalled giving me a dose of cough syrup to put me to sleep when my baby cries got out of hand. Many parents nowadays turn to medication such as the allergy medicine Benadryl to sedate their kids on flights. Always be sure to check with your child’s doctor first. If you are using meds for this purpose, try them at home first to make sure your child has no adverse reaction, abide by the recommended dosage for your child’s age and weight, and be aware of the risks.
Help them “pop” their ears. Many children are wailing away on flights because the rapid change in pressure causes discomfort in their inner ears, and they don’t yet know how to “pop” them like adults do. Make sure they are eating, drinking, or sucking on something during takeoff and landing to prevent this: a bottle or a pacifier for babies, or a sippy cup or piece of candy if they’re old enough. If you breastfeed, takeoff and landing are good times to nurse. You can also invest in children’s air travel earplugs, designed to relieve air pressure pain.
Keep your eyes on the prize. If things get really bad, just remember: no matter how terrible it is, it will end. Then you’ll be at your destination—the reason you got onto the plane to begin with—and then you’ll probably never see those people again. Once you’re there, it’ll be worth it.