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Family Travel| How to win at parenting on your next flight

Updated: May 22, 2017
By: Krystal Rogers-Nelson

Mom and son checking out an airplane before flyingFew things are more precious to parents than creating memories with their children. From travelling to new places to visiting family members, I treasure the moments I’ve shared travelling with my child.

Getting there by plane, though, can be nerve-racking. We’ve all seen the open letters and blurry phone videos posted online of disastrous airplane experiences involving kids. Confining a child to a small seat or a parent’s lap on an airplane is a herculean task.

But flying with kids doesn’t have to turn into a miserable excursion parents must endure. If parents prepare for the worst-case scenario, the airplane ride can evolve into a fun adventure with kids. Here are flying tips, packing essentials, and relaxation must-haves for you and your little ones.

Pay Extra and Book Early for Good Seats

Federal regulations allow children under twenty-four months to fly without a seat as a lap child. Though it sounds great to save money on tickets, babies are divas and may require some extra room. If you can afford it, pay extra for seat perks to keep your baby happy:

  • Book a bulkhead seat. If you book early enough, you can pay for a bulkhead seat that has extra legroom. These are the first row of seats that don’t have another row in front of them, so your child won’t have a seat back to kick and another row of people to torture.
  • Getting the best seats for your familyBuy another ticket. Pay extra so baby can have their own seat next to you. If your baby has a separate ticket, you can bring their car seat on the plane, too, and strap them in for the duration of the flight. Babies are typically much more comfortable in their snug car seat than wiggling in an adult’s lap.
  • Bring a travel vest or baby carrier. If you check the car seat as baggage at the airline’s front desk (this service is free, but bring a trash bag or car seat bag to wrap the car seat while it’s stored with the rest of the luggage), consider using a baby carrier or a travel vest for your child. Both will keep your baby strapped to your chest so you can attempt to relax hands-free during the flight. And, if I’m being honest, carriers and vests keep my baby from sliding off my lap when there’s turbulence.
  • Secure an aisle seat. Nothing is more annoying that constantly climbing over your fellow passengers to take your toddler to the bathroom for the fifth time or to bounce your restless baby down the aisle. If I can’t take up the whole bench with my spouse and kids, I book an aisle seat because it’s so much easier.

As of 2015, average passenger load factors for domestic flights were the highest they’ve been in over ten years, according to the Bureau of Transportation, with that number dropping minimally in 2016. These factors influence how airlines handle family seating. Though you could formerly expect a gate agent to rearrange passengers so children and parents could sit next to each other, those days are long gone. Parents will have to navigate this situation themselves, asking neighboring passengers to switch their seats. But you can take some steps to solve this problem.

  • Book early. The earlier you book, the more likely you will secure seats side by side.
  • Pay extra. The peace of mind will be worth the extra money.
  • Check in early. Check in right at the 24-hour mark before your flight so you can hopefully rearrange your seats if need be.
  • Contact customer service. Use a public social media site like Twitter or Facebook to ask for help from the airline.

Over Anticipate Food Needs

Eating a bananaThere will likely be zero plane food to interest your child outside of tiny cups of soda. And a hangry child is miserable for everyone to endure. Pack lots of food options for your child, but stay away from too much sugar to keep them calm. Granola bars, fruit pieces, and cheese sticks are easy options that are hard to spill. Remember to follow the TSA guidelines—no canned food or liquids.

The one exception to this rule is formula, breast milk, and even juice for a baby. Those liquids can be screened separately if they’re over 3.4 ounces. Keep your baby drinking or at least sucking during takeoff and landing, when the changing air pressure is painful for children who don’t understand how to yawn and pop their ears. The sucking motion will open the ear canal and relieve the pressure.

For my toddler, I bring a sippy cup or water bottle with a straw, since airlines don’t have cups with lids. I make sure my child is either drinking out of the sippy cup or eating something chewy, like fruit snacks, during takeoff and landing to help with the pressure changes.

Pack a Bag of Distractions

To keep my child quiet and occupied, I pack a few new trinkets. I wrap up the toys for him to open during the flight, which adds to the excitement. Stay away from anything with lots of tiny pieces, like DUPLOs or LEGOs—trust me. The airport floor is a black hole that will claim a tiny toy piece, never to be found again. Magnetic toys and anything that features buttons (like an old calculator) are entertaining and less likely to get lost.

I include some easy arts and crafts in my arsenal of tricks, too. I pack some small, inexpensive items that keep my child occupied for long lengths of time. Triangular crayons are a genius item to bring on plane trips because they won’t roll off tray tables, and sticker books are another fun, small option to pack.

Make Technology Your Best Friend

Family Illustration getting ready before the flightNo judgement here: hand over your phone to your kid the moment they’re bored on a flight. It’s a great way to kill time without disturbing other passengers, so give your child free reign of a tablet or smartphone. Before you leave, download new games and movies for your child. I pack some kid-sized headphones, too, so the rest of the passengers won’t give me the evil eye when they are forced to hear the “creature report” on Octonauts.

Before you get to the airport, also spend some time toddler-proofing your phone. Otherwise, your child may take control of your phone and remove apps, randomly call a stranger, or browse questionable YouTube videos.

While these general tips will help you avoid most of the struggles when flying with your children, each age group is different and presents their own set of travelling challenges. Here are some age-specific tips, along with packing essentials to help your little one feel happy and safe on a flight.

For Babies

Packing Essentials: Extra diapers, change of clothes, blanket, milk/formula

Take Nap and Bedtimes into Account

It’s cute when parents think their baby will sleep through a red-eye flight. I’ve made that mistake, and I caution you: don’t do it. Schedule your flights around your baby’s sleeping routine. Chances are small that a baby will peacefully slumber through a red-eye or nap on the mid-day flight if it doesn’t match their sleep schedule.

Make Kindness Your MO

Treat everyone on the plane with kindness, even the unhelpful stewardess and the eye-rolling passengers. If I’m overly sensitive to the other passengers and the fact that none of them want to sit near a baby, they reciprocate with kindness. One parent went so far as to make goodie bags for the passengers around them on their baby’s first flight. Though you’re certainly not expected to make a mini care package to your fellow travelers, a kind gesture goes a long way.

For Toddlers

Packing essentials: Sippy cup, smartphone, new toys, comfort item

Give Them Lots of Love

Children are keen at sensing their parent’s stress, and they can then mimic those feelings, especially as toddlers. Be ready to shower your child with extra hugs and kisses during your flight. The affection will ease their fears in an unfamiliar place and reassure them that everything is going to be alright. I make a point to check in on my toddler’s wellbeing frequently on a flight and offer my lap as a pillow and my hand for back rubs.

Bring a Comfort Item

I always bring my child’s lovie, his special toy he can’t leave home without. A favorite plush animal or blanket helps kids feel happy and safe when they’re on a potentially scary airplane ride. But keep a vigilant eye on the lovie—the last thing you want is to misplace your kid’s favorite item.

For Older Children

Packing Essentials: Small carry-on, simple crafts, tech devices, kid-friendly headphones

Teach Proper Etiquette

While a lesson in airplane courtesy will be ignored by my toddler in my home, older children will often listen to and hopefully follow behavior standards on a flight. Advise them to refrain from any actions that will disturb other passengers or brand you as “that family” by the flight crew. This includes talking loudly, aggressively playing with the tray table, touching all the buttons, repeatedly moving the seat up and down, and using the aisles as a lap track.

Put Them in Charge of Their Bag

Past toddler-hood, I put my child in charge of their own carry-on luggage. Consider a backpack or a small suitcase with wheels. I give my young child free range to pack their bag, reminding them that I make final editing decisions. Books, self-containing toy sets, and card games like Go Fish are great items for older children.Todder adventures on thier first family trip abroad

Flight Relaxation Tips for Parents

Once my little ones are happy, I do some things to keep myself comfortable on a flight, too. Here are some ways parents can relax during air travel.

  • Bring a good travel pillow. Travel pillows come in all shapes today—from a three-armed J pillow to an expanding foam pillow. The extra neck support relieves tension in my neck and shoulders that builds up if my child acts up during the flight.
  • Change into slipper socks. Removing my shoes during a flight is a tiny bit of relief, but I don’t want to walk around on the plane without my shoes. I bring a pair of slipper socks that I change into so I feel hygienic while I walk around the plane.
  • Use a face mist. Airplanes are notoriously dry—the outside air pumped in is void of moisture at high altitudes. Face mists are my favorite way to hydrate my face. Full of calming scents, they’re a wonderful luxury to indulge in throughout the flight.

You can never be too prepared for a flight. Even if the flight doesn’t go well, go into it determined that you won’t feel guilty if your child has a YouTube-worthy meltdown. You are a great parent, and a flight is a small blip of your child’s life.

What’s your number one life saving tip when flying with your little ones?

Comment below, and share this article with friends who are planning a summer getaway with their kids.

Krystal Rogers-Nelson

Krystal is a freelance writer, artist and child-wrangler.  She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah where she spends a lot of her time giving piggyback rides to her three year old and hugging trees. With a B.A. in International Studies from Humboldt State University, she is an experienced world traveler and sustainable living guru.  When she can sneak some alone time, she’s either planning her next travel adventure or making art.

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