Flying with Kids? Read This First

by Lisa Oppenheimer

Anyone who has ever flown with a small child can attest to the challenges. Take one toddler, put him in an enclosed space, make him sit still for three or more hours, and voila: unhappy camper. 



Still, it is possible to navigate the friendly skies with child and your sanity. It’s mostly a matter of thinking ahead.

For starters, reserve early. Not only will you get a better seat—preferably together (unless you were secretly hoping to seat the kids elsewhere)—but you’ll also reduce your odds of getting bumped since unassigned passengers are usually the first to go.

Think about getting everyone a seat, too. Though children under age two can sit on a parent’s lap, it’s ill advised, if not for safety, than for convenience. "My kids were so used to sitting in their seats in the car," says my friend Tammy, "that it never dawned on them to ask to get out." Some airlines, such as American, offer discounts for the under-2 set, so ask when making reservations.

As for where to sit: some parents swear by the infamous bulkhead seats with that smidgen of extra legroom. The downside is that there’s no under-seat storage, which means you’ll have to jump up every time you want to retrieve something from your bag. Some airlines only dole them out at the gate, others pre-assign bulkheads for frequent fliers, but it never hurts to ask.

Some other tricks of air travel:

Be prepared: Bring an extra set of clothes for parent and child, and a plastic bag for the dirty ones. Pack more diapers and wipes than you think you’ll need. I once used my entire supply waiting through a lengthy flight delay.

Feed ‘em: Snacks and drinks and a few treats will keep your novice flier happy with minimal reliance on flight attendants. Bring something to suck or chew on (bottles and pacifiers for little ones) for pressure changes during takeoff and landing. Keep a tight lid on beverage-service drinks by packing sippy cups from home. Food service has been diminished drastically since the old days. You can always ask in advance about the rare on-board kids’ meal (although expect to be laughed at).

Keep ‘em busy: On board entertainment options have improved with satellite TV on many carriers (check the entertainment schedule on your home computer before flying), but the fare is not always appropriate for kids. Better yet, be crafty. Bring crayons, markers, coloring books, paper, pens, and pencils. Want to make your pre-schooler really happy? Bring Scotch Tape. My kids spent an entire three-hour flight creating tape-sculptures. Decks of cards and favorite books are great time passers, as are personal music players and books on tape. Travel games are a bonus, but beware of those "Pop-o-Matic" gizmos that rattle the passenger in front of you every time you press down. Wrap a few inexpensive trinkets to hand out as gifts at desperate moments.

Make pit stops: Hit the bathroom before the "Fasten Seatbelt Sign" is lit for the last time. The time between initial descent and arrival at the gate can be an eternity—especially if your potty-training toddler has to go to the bathroom.

Arrive early: You definitely don’t want to try and sprint through the airport with bags and kids. In the same vein: ensure when making reservations that you have ample time between connections.

Avoid spills: Don’t order anything red or purple unless it’s in a sippy cup. This includes tomato juice, Bloody Marys, red wine, and even colas.

Keep a tight rein: It’s one thing to take your child for a walk down the aisle, another to let him run loose. Air travelers generally frown on children staring at them while they’re trying to sleep—or torturing them with endless unsolicited games of peek-a-boo. And please . . . no kicking the seat back.

Finally, if you’ve done everything and still can’t tame your savage beast, take heart. True, you may get some withering stares as your little one tests his lung capacity, but you’re doing your best. And even if your fellow passengers don’t have children of their own, those passengers were kids themselves once—probably.

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