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Tips for Traveling with Kids: The Airplane
Should I have my head examined?
The idea of traveling with children can bring sweat to the brow of any parent. The packing, the preparation, and worrying about the reaction from fellow travelers all add to the stress. However, airplane travel has become a necessary part of modern life with an estimated 100 million people flying every year in the U.S. The global figure is close to 1.5 billion and you can bet that a fair amount of those are kids.
Despite what you may have heard, there are ways to get through it with both your sanity and relationships intact. We've been traveling with our kids since they were very little, and have now seen most of the 50 states and several countries. Much of that time we were going to meet my husband so I was the only grown-up. This lens contains some of the traveling tips we've discovered to make our trips as smooth (and fun) as possible.
How do you feel about traveling with children?
Plan your Travel Days and Times
Certain days of the week are simply better for traveling in regard to both traffic and price. For example, unless there is some type of special event, traveling with kids on a Friday evening is asking for trouble. People are trying to get away for the weekend so the airport is packed and the price is steep. The best and usually least expensive days to fly are Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday because there is less demand.
If you're flying internationally, also think about what time your flight will be landing so that you can hopefully reduce the amount of time it takes to get through customs. (This doesn't apply to certain flights, such as Canada-U.S., where immigration is processed on the outbound leg.) One of our speediest trips was LA to London when we arrived at 11:00am on a Sunday morning. There was literally no one ahead of us in line, a rarity at busy Heathrow.
Consider an upgrade
When traveling with children by plane, upgrading to the next level of service can be well worth the price. Many airlines offer Premium Economy which, at its most basic, offers more leg room and a better location on the plane. On other airlines, it's practically the same as Business Class with separate check-in, premium meals and other amenities, and the price difference is sometimes not that great. One of the best flights we ever had was on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles to London. We had exceptional service with upgraded entertainment and large, roomy seats. We were able to book our Premium seats just behind Business Class, their highest level of service. Not only was it quieter and with fewer people, we got the "leftovers" from Business which included cookies right out of the oven!
Narrate your travel day
Logic would suggest preparing your kids in advance when traveling, but I've found the details don't really stick and they end up asking you billions of questions anyway. A better solution I've found is to explain what's happening in real time. "This is where we drop off our bags so the men can put them on the plane." "We're going to stand in this line where the lady is going to look at our passports, and she might ask you some questions." Not only does it help your child make sense of the hustle and bustle, but also serves as a distraction from the endless waiting.
Pack a carry-on bag for each child
This is a great task that helps kids of all ages feel a part of the trip-planning. Let your child pick a reasonable number of toys, books and a comfort item but include a few surprises when they're not looking. I also like to add pens/pencils/crayons and scratch paper because they never think of that. If it's going to be a long trip, I sometimes sneak in a brand new toy. Be sure to add a few of their favorite easy-to-pack snacks, like pretzels or granola bars.
I also make sure that the kids can carry whatever they pack. I think it's very important to train them early on to be responsible for their own things, especially someplace like an airport where your focus is needed on other tasks. Trust me, this will pay off and make future traveling much, much easier.
Think ahead about food
We all know about the quality of airplane food. Now, we also have to think about added cost and availability. I've been on several flights the last few years where they have run out of the more popular options. Now that my kids are older, it's not as big of a deal, but it can be very difficult with a little one. The simplest option is to buy your food in the airport before you board. I can't say the quality is that much better, but at least you know you'll have something the kiddies want. The other option is to order a special meal, if your airline still offers that. Not only are you more likely to get something you & your kids will eat, you will most likely be served first which is always helpful with a hungry child.
Take advantage of early boarding
Whenever I hear them call for early boarding and see young families hanging back, I want to yell at them "Don't you understand the gift you've been given?" Early boarding gives you a chance to gate-check your stroller, find your seat and stow your assorted kid stuff without the pressure of other passengers breathing down your neck. It also gives you a chance to discover any potential seating issues (like the airline having re-assigned all of you to an exit row...been there). Use it.
Some people have the opposite strategy of being the last to board so their kids can run around a bit longer to burn off energy. This might help if there are two adults traveling, where one can go ahead and get all the gear put away but this approach hasn't worked for me. I've found if you let them run around and get excited, it actually becomes harder to settle them down once they're on board.
Similarly, wait until everyone else de-planes before getting off. It's really much nicer and you're more likely to get a helping hand from the flight attendants. It also once led to another perk: my kids got invited to look around the cockpit and take pictures with the captain.
Carry as little as possible
It goes without saying that you should pack light - one rolling bag and one backpack per kid - so that they can help manage their own things. But I've also found it helpful when traveling to keep everyone's hands as free as possible to reduce the chance of leaving something behind. If your child is bringing their favorite doll, make sure there's room in her backpack for it. If your child is wearing a jacket or sweatshirt, make sure he can either tie it around his waist or stick it in his carry-on. When we travel to or from a cold climate, we stick our coats in our suitcases before we check them, and then pull them out at baggage claim on the other end. (Obviously this would be a problem if your suitcase goes missing, but hopefully you're wearing layers. Seriously, though, we've luckily only had one misplaced bag in the last twenty years and that was a ship to airline transfer...in Florida.)
Kids like having their own suitcases. These colorful options will stand out in a sea of black luggage and help you find yours faster at baggage claim.
Modern day air travel can take a toll on anyone and trying to enforce all of your regular rules can make it even harder. So loosen up and give yourself (and them) a break. One of the reasons my kids look forward to long trips is because it's like Christmas, Hanukkah and their birthdays all rolled into one. They each get a choice of candy or gum at the airport, they can watch movies/TV all day and stay up all night if they want. What kid wouldn't want to go?
Use technology sparingly
Modern technology is a miracle, with its portability and multitude of entertainment options. But, like everything else, it can get old when faced with a long travel day... and then the whining starts. So don't be too quick to whip out the IPad. (I've seen parents hand them over while standing in line for security.) Making the kids wait a little is OK, and can also help encourage good behavior in the airport.
Here are some ideas for fun and easy to pack items.
Bring your best attitude
A smile, a thank you and a willingness to laugh will go a long way to making the day easier. People are more likely to help you (or at least take pity on you) if you are polite and respectful of their job and their space. And if that sunny attitude comes from your child, it can melt the heart of the most hardened airport worker.
A good attitude will also make any difficulties easier on your child. For example, if you or your child has to undergo extra screening at security, don't treat it like a traumatic experience. My seven year old once repeatedly set off the machine so he had to be hand-checked with the wand. I explained to him that the big machine wasn't working right with him and they just had to make extra sure he wasn't carrying something he shouldn't be. And then I made a joke about how it must be all that extra candy he had stashed in his pockets, which made him laugh. He walked away feeling like a VIP.
When All Else Fails, Try Bribery
I once knew a man who would pass out Starbucks coupons to everyone seated around his child on the plane as soon as they boarded, as sort of an advanced apology. This man was clearly a genius because he knew that sometimes, no matter how well you've prepared, there's a chance your kid will annoy someone. He spent a few bucks but felt it was well worth the goodwill it engendered on the flight.
With kids, I prefer to use the word "incentive." Bring or buy something they don't get to have often, but really love. As previously mentioned, a new toy or book works well or, with my son, candy. Any kind, doesn't matter. Keep it small and use sparingly.