This post, originally titled “Clear Skies Ahead: Must-Read Tips for Airplane Travel with Kids,” first appeared on Savor and was reprinted with permission.
There’s no doubt that talking about a long flight can fill a parent with trepidation. I remember one flight home from my in-laws in Europe when my youngest was around 1 1/2—that danger zone when he was mobile, but not talking; opinionated but not able to be reasoned with. He would neither sit still nor fall asleep. My husband and I spent the entire flight taking turns walking him up and down the aisle, while the other grabbed 10 minutes of a catnap or a movie in between. It was the longest 7 hours of my life. Needless to say, he fell asleep on the cab ride home.
But even though we all have such travel traumas to share, it shouldn’t deter you from taking the plunge. Traveling a lot at a young age has made my kids more flexible, better eaters, more adventurous, and has given them perspective on and appreciation for different cultures. Having to do the overseas trip at least once a year to see family, we’ve gained some valuable insights. We can spare you our rookie mistakes.
1. Talk it up
Reality is what you make it when you travel (or, for that matter, with anything with kids). Tell your kids what it will be like on the plane, look at a map, do a google search for pictures, visit the local library to get them excited. You can even have them pretend to be passengers. You may be dreading the trip, but if build anticipation for the flight, your kids may surprise you.
2. Check out your plane options
A built-in seatback TV can be a lifesaver. Even when my kids were too young to really play the games, they loved just switching between the screens and pushing all the buttons. Not all planes have them. Seatguru can tell you what the amenities are on each flight, and it rates the amount of legroom available.
3. Get them their own rolling suitcases
Having their own bag gives them a sense of responsibility and also allows them to prepare and get excited for the trip. Grandparents are always searching for the right gift to give, and this is perfect for any kid. We got great ones at Kids Travel Zone for about $36-60 that could be personalized with both an array of cute icons and a child’s name. Even small kids can wheel a decent sized-suitcase. We would go for the larger ones as my kids always want to pack for themselves, but the first ones I bought were really too small for anything more than a weekend or their plane bags.
4. Bring a complete change of clothes — even for older kids
We have paid the price on this one. It may seem like extra socks are overkill, but when your older child spills a drink and it hits her feet, you’ll be thrilled that you have a fresh pair. And you cannot have too many diapers or pairs of underpants for kids who are still potty training. If you face that unpleasant situation where you luggage is lost or delayed, a back up is a lifesaver.
5. Time your flights correctly
We had the brilliant idea once of booking an overseas flight around 9:30 so the kids would be tired and fall asleep. The problem is on overseas flights there’s often drinks and then dinner service, so the lights don’t actually go off for an hour or so. Plus, kids are excited for the beginning of a flight, so it’s good to give them a little time to adjust.
6. Register for TSA Pre-check
It’s not the easiest project, and you need to do it in advance. But as soon as you see the security line snaking around the corner while you giddily pass it by, you won’t regret it. We swear. Note that some credit cards will even reimburse you for the charge. Also, be sure you get everyone signed up, and then separately make sure you have registered everyone’s number with your specific airline (It’s not automatic). If even one person in your group doesn’t have TSA approval printed on their ticket, you’ll all have to go through the full security line.
7. Follow home routines
Even if you’re boarding after your child usually goes to bed, bring the PJs, toothbrush, and a storybook on board. Going through the routine will help get them in the mood to snuggle in.
8. Buy a box of bandaids
A box of bandaids can keep a toddler busy for hours. Instead of rationing them out as you might at home, (if your kids are as bandaid-crazy as ours were) buy a box and let them loose. They will love the idea that they can have as many as they want. They can stick them on paper, on themselves, on their siblings.
9. Surprise gifts
For not much money, you can go to a drugstore or Target and get a bunch of $2 gifts that can be opened every couple of hours during the flight. Ideally, you’ll buy something they can actually use to entertain themselves. Those invisible ink books work great.
10. Special snacks and other food issues
Part of our pre-boarding ritual is that my kids get to choose one plane treat. Usually my kids choose a pack of gum, which also doubles as a way of keeping their ears open. They like the choosing as much as anything. Everything is 5 times the price in the airport, so, ideally, except for the drinks, we bring everything with us. It’s amazing how cheap even your expensive neighborhood sandwich place can be compared with the inflated prices at the airport! You really cannot have too much food with you for a flight. And bringing from home also ensures you’ll have more healthy, fresh food.
11. Buy squishy headphones for young ones
We specifically didn’t say buy expensive headphones, but you do need squishy ones. The other kinds you can buy on the plane or that come with your phone just prove too difficult for smaller ears.
12. Have a special “travel toy”
We have pretty strict rules on electronics in our house, but travel, like the first three months as parents to a newborn, are about survival. When we travel (and I mean during the actual transport time), we are a lot more lax. This is the one time that my kids get fairly extensive use of their handheld electronics. Sometimes they get $2 in the app store for a new game or we will download a new movie. Mari Hernandez-Tuten reminded us how great audio books are. We get them from the library and, on long car trips, they have been known to stay in the car after we reach our destination to hear the end of a chapter. It’s also a great way to wind down before bed, rather than the visual stimulation of a movie.
13. And one more electronics point …
If you have an iPad or DVD player and multiple kids, invest in an audio splitter cable so that two kids can enjoy a movie together (or 4 kids with one headphone each!). There are a ton of these on the market. We like these dual headphone splitter adapters because they also come with dual volume controls, so each kid can control the noise-level.
14. Go to the bathroom
Our children always like to wait until the moment the captain announces you can’t get up to make their own announcement that they have to go. We go right before boarding and just as we get on the plane to be on the safe side. (Don’t ask us about the time we got stuck for an hour on once. Let’s just say the blanket served its purpose.)
15. Bring a journal
Journals are a great way to build up excitement for a trip and sustain them while they are there. Plus, they make a great keepsake after the trip. (They’ll fit right in your Savor memory box!)
16. Meet your neighbors
People expect kids to act up on a plane. Mostly, they just want to be able to see that you are doing your best to be on top of the situation. Do not underestimate the power of a greeting or an apology to diffuse a situation. It’s easy for someone to harumph or complain to their neighbor about a stranger; it pops the balloon instantly when you become a real person, own the chaos, and fall over yourself apologizing.
17. If you have a screaming baby …
As they have with avalanches and being attacked by bandits, The Complete Worst-Case Survival Guides have provided invaluable points for this one. Along with suggesting you take the baby for a break to the bathroom (where you can play mirror games or pretend to be walking down the stairs) or that you bribe your neighbors for forgiveness with free drinks or ear plugs, they provide the most helpful reminder there is: “Remind yourself that you will never see these people again. Repeat.”
Jenny McAllister-Nevins is a co-CEO of Savor, which helps families celebrate every day moments. Their line, The Library, reinvents keepsake storage to make it easy, fun, and stylish. Bespoke, book cloth boxes give memories the special home they deserve, with a labeling system that guides you in what’s worth keeping. Their blog, Our Savorite Things, includes easy ideas for enriching family life. Visit savor.us to learn more.