How to Fly With Small Children

3 Feb

It’s not all overwrought musings about bike racing around here.  If air travel with small kids doesn’t qualify as a form of discomfort, voluntary or otherwise, I don’t know what does.

My wife and I decided early on that not traveling once we had kids was unacceptable. For starters, our jobs require a nomadic lifestyle. Secondly, we knew we would have to compromise on so many other areas that letting go of travel — one of our shared loves — seemed a bridge too far. Finally, kids today are coddled and mollified in virtually every way imaginable. Becoming part of that by saying, “ok, we’ll bend to the whims of this child and never go anywhere” seemed like it would send the wrong message to our children about who we wanted them to be.

That’s not to say travel, especially air travel, with kids doesn’t suck. Quite often it does, even when the baby doesn’t throw up all over you while you’re solo parenting two kids on an all-day trip.  (OK, that happened to my wife on the train, but the point is the same.) My rules for how to cope:

  1. Embrace The Suck. Chill the heck out.  Kids feed off stress and reflect it back onto their surroundings.  You’ll get there, really. There will be irritating bits and it won’t be like those great spontaneous trips you took solo or as a couple. But if everything’s setting you off, then the kids are just going to pick at each other, you, whatever it takes to get that tension out.
  2. Don’t Neglect The Little Comforts. This is part of chilling out. If a cup of decent coffee will put you in a better mood, go for it. If getting Junior a fruit cup at the coffee shop will fill them up and occupy them, all the better. Airport prices are steep, but you don’t need any additional barriers to travel. Roll with it.
  3. Security: Get Organized, But Take Your Time. Don’t try to rush through the screening line. (See above, “Embrace The Suck.”) While you’re waiting in line, get all that junk sorted out (cell phone in bag, belt off, etc.) so you can get everything on the belt in a leisurely manner.  The hard chargers behind you can stuff it; they should have known better than to get in line behind a family. Kids will feed off stress and if you try to rush you’re just going to all explode in a cloud of cheerios, phone charger cords, hand sanitizer gel and Thomas the Tank Engine debris. Enlist the kids to help you put things in bins/on the belt so they don’t make a break for it.
  4. Use Brinksmanship Liberally. Last spring, we had to fly for my great-grandmother’s funeral. Obviously we booked whatever seats were available, without much say about whether they were adjacent. So, two minutes before push-back, when the flight attendants hadn’t managed to help us resolve our scattered seating and no one was volunteering to switch, I simply explained to my then-three-year-old in a loud, calm voice that “No one wants to swap seats with Daddy, so you’ll just have to sit by yourself for the whole flight. It’s ok, I’ll only be five rows back.” As I walked away and he started to sniffle, one of his erstwhile seatmates reluctantly concluded that moving to a middle seat would be better than a window next to a scared, crying toddler for four hours. Good decision, dude.
  5. Crying On Planes: OK For Kids, Not For You.  Keep your composure. Kids cry on airplanes. You try to fix this because you want to soothe the child, not because you’re worried about what other people think. The airline already took care of that part by seating you right next to the engines and/or toilets. If someone’s genuinely helpful, then engage, but otherwise, we just ignore the other passengers. Again, kids feed off stress. You will only add tension to the situation by worrying about disapproving looks or comments from other people. Many of them are just frustrated bullies anyway, so a reaction gives them what they want.
  6. Technology Is Your Friend. Except When It Isn’t. Yeah, we use the DVD/iPhone/in-seat video crutch. It works, and we monitor our kids’ overall screen time, so I’ll put our record up against anyone but an absolute techno-abolitionist’s any day, thanks. Be prepared for malfunctions, though. Before we thought to pack our own video, we’d become a bit too glib about the in-seat video on Icelandair. The boy loved the shows, it was free, we didn’t have to carry anything – what’s not to like? The whole row of screens going blank 90 minutes into a five-hour flight, that’s what. Explaining to a two-year-old why his video doesn’t work when he can clearly see that everyone else’s on the plane does was a task beyond my parenting skills, and we had tantrum city for an hour until he collapsed from exhaustion. He’s older now, and books and crayons are an acceptable substitute, but we haven’t forgotten the lesson from that trip about having a backup plan.
  7. Use The Ultimate Weapon: Nearly empty water bottle + two plastic straws/coffee stirrers + cap screwed on tightly = In-case-of-emergency baby toy. Learned this trick from a flight attendant. It works, for realz.
  8. Anticipate The Freakout. Pay attention; kids follow patterns. Ours always start to wig out for the last 30 minutes of any flight. Doesn’t matter if the flight is 45 minutes or four hours, for that last half hour they are antsy, fussy, and irritable. My guess is it’s the combination of anticipation and pressure changes from the descent. Without fail, they will both then fall asleep five minutes before landing. Once we noticed this pattern, we could deal with it (mostly just by chanting, “it will be over soon, it will be over soon,” again and again).

What works for you?


4 Responses to “How to Fly With Small Children”

  1. Micah February 3, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Nice list. My little one isn’t mobile yet, so I still have time to learn these tricks before I have to deal with a child that has definite opinions.

    For the baby, what worked for us was to make sure he had something in his mouth from the second we took off until we were sure we had leveled off, then again from the moment we felt the descent start until we landed. If we gave him something to suck on, he would use it as soon as his ears started to bother him. So, landing in Orlando, my 4 month old slept through the entire descent while every other child (at least 20 of them) was screaming. It was hard not to get cocky at that moment, but I’m sure the other shoe will drop before too long.

    Oh yeah, and we also ignored anyone who wasn’t smiling at the baby.

    • learninghowtosuffer February 3, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

      Yeah, I forgot the bottle/pacifier for ascent and descent trick. Definitely key.

  2. Dave February 5, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    A trip to the $1 store before the flight does wonders. Whip out a new (disposable) toy every 30-45min or so and you are cooler than Santa!

  3. mark h July 19, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    great list and guide. Just went xcountry with my 3yo and 1yo and was hectic but you are correct that you just gotta keep your eye on the prize/destination and you and the kids will pull through..much like a bike race

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