Flying with children is life’s opportunity to dish us up a big dose of empathy. Remember that time before having kids of your own? When you had the solutions to every parenting problem? Of course your sister’s kid has ADD. After all, she lets him watch way too much TV, eat too much sugar and go to bed a ridiculous hour! And that screaming child in seat 13C on the flight to Las Vegas? Obviously spoiled rotten. We can certainly see who rules the roost in that family, can’t we? Looks like someone needs a good dose of Benedryl. And who the heck takes their kid to Vegas anyway?
Now I’m the one flying with children! Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It’s my 10 year anniversary of being a traveling mom. Ten years ago, in November 2002, I took my first international flight with our oldest daughter, Gracie. Since then, we added 2 more kids to the herd and have flown well over 100,000 miles. We just returned from a month-long trip to Thailand and Dubai. The children (and adults) fared superbly on 55 hours on airplanes.
But that’s not to say we didn’t have to put a lot of thought and planning into managing expectations. (How do you prepare an active 6 year old boy for a 15 hour flight?)
Kim Wallace on BabyCenter.com provides some solid air travel advice.
The Secret to Flying with Children
Like many parents with young children, you may have a fear of flying that has nothing to do with the aircraft and everything to do with the possibility of a tantrum at 30,000 feet. In close quarters. In front of strangers. But don’t worry. With careful and creative planning, you can help ensure that tensions don’t rise when the plane does. Here are some child-tested suggestions from travel experts — flight attendants, travel agents, and frequent-flier parents — for air travel with young children.
Flying With Children: Booking your flight
Nonstop flights are preferable in most cases, since there’s only one ear-popping descent to worry about. (Young children have a hard time coping with the uncomfortable pressure changes that accompany landing.) Also, with nonstop flights you avoid the hassle of lugging everything and everyone to a connecting flight. On the other hand, depending on the length of your flight and the temperament of your child, you may want to schedule a layover. Some parents find that splitting international or long domestic flights into two legs is helpful; their children can enjoy a brief change of scenery and stretch their legs.
If you’re catching a connecting flight, New York travel agent Rabia Shahenshah suggests budgeting at least an hour for the connection. If you don’t want to battle crowds, avoid peak flying hours. The emptier flights depart late at night, in mid-afternoon, and early in the week. If avoiding potential delays is a higher priority for you, consider booking the first flight of the day.
Most important, view the journey through your child’s eyes as much as possible. What time of day would be best for him? Will he be tired enough to sleep? Too excited to sleep at all? You’re the expert when it comes to your child’s personality and scheduling needs.
When you’re flying with children, you can request a special meal for your child if he’s a picky eater. Every major airline offers special meals, but most require notification at least 24 hours before takeoff. Children’s menus feature familiar items like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and burritos; some airlines even offer meals from popular fast-food restaurants. Your child will likely prefer one of these options to “mystery meat” and rice. (By the way, you can order a child’s meal for yourself, too.)
It’s good practice to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician before the flight if your child has symptoms of a cold. He might have a mild ear infection, and you may not know it until it’s too late. An infected eardrum can rupture during the descent, causing excruciating pain and permanent hearing damage. If this is a possibility, you may need to postpone your flight.
Flying With Children: Sitting in the Gate Area
In her 28 years as a flight attendant, Chicago-based Cheryl Kinkead has witnessed countless parenting successes and disasters. She suggests arriving at the airport early so you can have your seats assigned (or confirm assignments made at the time of booking) ahead of the crowd. Otherwise, if it’s a full flight you risk being separated from your child.
Another reason to arrive early: Bulkhead seating. Many parents swear by these front-row seats because of the increased legroom and proximity to the lavatories. Normally, these seats are reserved for frequent fliers until the day of the flight, when any remaining spots go up for grabs. But bulkhead seats have their drawbacks, too. For one thing, says Lani Leydig, a travel agent based in San Mateo, California, there’s no under-seat storage; if you request bulkhead seats, say good-bye to your carry-ons until the “fasten seat belt” sign is turned off.
While you wait to board, encourage your child to expend as much of her energy as possible so he’ll either sleep or relax during the flight. Some airports (Seattle, San Jose, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Boston) have Kidsports play areas, complete with blocks, slides, crawl spaces, and the like. If you find yourself in one of these child-friendly airports, it’s important to establish a time limit right away. Keep reminding your child that it’ll soon be time to go; this may forestall a tantrum later.
This is also a good time to help calm your child’s fears about flying, if he’s anxious, and to help him feel comfortable with the transition from ground to air, says Georgie Chambers, a mother of three from Davis, California. Ask him what he thinks takeoff will feel like. What will the plane look like inside? What kinds of sounds will it make as it takes off and lands?
Reiterate your travel plans to your child. Remind him where you are going and what you’ll be doing there, so he knows what to expect. This is also a good time to talk about behavior on the plane. If you anticipate trouble, try using a reward system to manage your child’s in-flight behavior. Explain that he’ll receive a special treat — a gift, some special time spent together, a trip to the ice-cream shop — if he sits quietly. And don’t forget to make a pit stop before boarding, to cut down on trips to the tiny airplane bathroom.
Flying With Children: Boarding
To preboard or not to preboard? It’s a long-standing debate. Families in favor say it’s best to board early to ensure finding plenty of storage space. Preboarding also gives you time to properly position your child’s car seat in the plane. That said, your child might not be thrilled about confinement in a cramped cabin. Airplanes tend to be stuffy before a flight, and you never know how long you’ll wait before takeoff. That’s why some parents advocate waiting until the last moment to board.
Flying With Children: During the flight
Once the flight is under way, it’s time to play Santa Claus. (Santa flies, too, right?) Every hour or so, give your little one a gift to unwrap. The presents don’t have to be fancy or expensive; they might include books, snacks, or stickers. But it’s best to give items your child has never seen before, since these will hold his interest the longest. A little creativity goes a long way, too. Airsickness bags dolled up with crayons become puppets. A piece of paper taped to the window serves as a sticker gallery.
It’s important for your child to be entertained, but you can best achieve that goal by giving your child attention. Explain the sights as the plane takes off and lands. Take an active interest in the things that amuse him. The more secure he feels, the happier his trip will be.
Of course, eventually your child will want to walk around. If the aisles are free of carts and the seat belt sign is off, take him for a stroll. He may even meet other children his age.
In the confines of the cabin, it’s wise to be a little more lax with discipline than you normally would be. Quiet conduct that you ordinarily wouldn’t tolerate may be preferable to the protests that you could provoke by being too strict. If your child does reach the boiling point, remind him that he stands to lose his good-behavior reward. And if he still doesn’t cooperate, it’s important to follow through — don’t give in and give him his reward once you’re off the plane. If he learns that Mommy and Daddy are softies in public, his behavior in these situations will only get worse.
Barring any outbursts, the most difficult part of the flight is the descent. When the plane reaches 8,000 feet, the pressure inside our ears is higher than the cabin pressure, and our ears start to pop. Your little one won’t know how to relieve the pressure, so he’ll need your help to keep the discomfort at bay. Play a game in which you make funny faces at each other. This will get him to stretch his facial muscles and move his jaw, just as adults do to relieve ear pressure. And have a bottle, sippy cup, or juice box ready for him, since swallowing will also help.
Back at the gate, it pays to wait while other passengers leave the plane. The cabin staff will most likely help those bringing up the rear — including children and their tired parents.
Bon voyage! We wish you the best in your adventures flying with children!