Flying with Kids

Flying with kids can be really fun, especially the first time they fly if they're old enough to look out the window and understand what they're doing. But air travel with kids can also be one of the most miserable experiences of parenting… if you don't plan ahead.

Many of the tips and tricks on this page are appropriate for kids flying alone as well!

My #1 trick for flying with kids:

If you have more than one child, book seats in 2 rows (rather than all spread out next to each other in 1 row.) Then, you can put your youngest child behind one of YOU instead of behind a stranger. While I'm sure you won't want to hear any whining and you won't want your seat kicked either, you're likely MUCH more tolerant than a stranger would be and, if you're like me, you'll worry a lot less. Plus, it's REALLY fun to listen to your children when they don't KNOW anyone's listening :-)

My #2 tip – Hide Toys:

One of my best tricks for air travel with kids, especially when my kids were young, was to hide several small, lightweight, quiet toys away in a bag several weeks before we were to travel. Then, when I pulled the toys out on the plane (or in the car…,) the kids were delighted! The younger the child, the shorter the attention span AND the shorter the memory! It was often as if I'd given them a brand new toy!

Kids Travel Bag:

If you have a little more time to prepare, you can make it even MORE exciting (and long-lasting) by making each child their own "travel bag" or "activity bag". Ask them to think up a fun name for it! You can even have them decorate their bag ahead of time and tell them you're going to surprise them with activities inside (warn them if it's going to be their existing toys versus new stuff – they'll be fine with either if they're not expecting new!) They might even enjoy filling the bag itself a few days (or even weeks) before the trip.

The key is that they get the bag AFTER they get in the air! This gives them something to look forward to and helps fill at least a few minutes of the trip with just exploring what you've packed for them. Some ideas for goodies/activities in kids travel bags are:

  • Pads of paper
  • Small books
  • Crayons, colored pencils (NO markers unless they're truly washable!)
  • Sketch pad
  • Diary or travel journal (You can even find kids travel journals for very young kids that are focused on drawing what they did each day rather than writing sentences!)
  • Finger puppets
  • Paper dolls
  • Puzzles
  • Small, quiet games (matchbox cars were one of my sons' favorites although his personal car "sounds" could not be muted!)
  • Magnetic games
  • Stickers
  • Small, easy crafts (pipe cleaners, Glue stick and foam shapes, toothpicks, styrofoam spheres – see who can make the most creative animal or creature out of these things)
  • Cards
  • Clay or play dough (and zip-lock bags to keep their creations)
  • Snacks that can be "played" with (build forts out of pretzel sticks, marshmallows, and raisins, toothpicks, cheese sticks & grapes if you can keep them cold and not-squished,…)
  • Activities that YOU can do with your child (Can you think of a better time to give them a little of YOUR time?) – Tick-Tack-Toe, Hang Man, reading stories, telling stories,… They'll be thrilled to have Mommy or Daddy all to themselves for a few hours. Of course, this works best if you have a good adult-to-child ratio.
  • Origami paper (and a how-to book)

Older Kids and Teens:

Now that they're older, we generally pack Nintendo DS (Game Boy or any small, electronic device that can be muted!) and sometimes an iPod or other music source with headphones or compact ear buds. Headphone splitters (so that 2 can listen at the same time) are easy to find and inexpensive and can really help for packing light. No need for separate music devices! Many flights have built-in music as well. Bring your own ear buds or ask for some from the Flight Attendant. DO monitor the channel your child picks though. They're not all appropriate.

Remind your kids to fully charge their devices the night before you leave or you'll hear more whining with your teens than you did would with a 2 year old!

Bring a deck of cards, puzzle books, or other small, quiet games for older kids and teenagers EVEN if they insist they don't need them. In fact, don't ask them. They'll just say they don't want it and then they'll NEVER fess up that you were actually right. Ask them to pack a few amusements and then go see what they brought. Veto anything that will annoy you or other passengers and then, if they didn't bring enough, pack some yourself. Surprise them when they get to that "I'm bored" stage.

Popping Ears:

The biggest consideration when flying with a baby is generally popping ears!!

While ears generally pop naturally on their own, there are times that the eustachian tubes (the passageway from the middle ear to the back of the throat) are unable to equalize pressure on their own. Children tend to have smaller eustachian tubes relative to adults so they can suffer from this problem more often. Colds, ear infections, and even allergies, can also make it hard for ears popping to occur on its own. Here are some tips to help your kids avoid the ear popping pain and pressure:

If you're nursing, hold off (as long as it's feasible) so that you can nurse just as the airplane takes off when the air pressure starts to build. Start even later if need be to ensure the baby's still nursing AFTER you reach the top altitude, when the ears really start to hurt. Of course, this can sometimes be difficult, with delays at airports, but it's worth the effort. The only thing worse than being on an airplane with an inconsolable, crying baby is when that baby is yours!!

If you book seats in 2 rows (rather than all next to each other in 1 row,) then Daddy can entertain baby and Mommy can hide (literally!) until it's time to nurse. Nursing families KNOW that babies can last a whole lot longer if they don't see Mommy!

The same advice holds true with bottle-fed babies and toddlers as well. Hide the bottle and try to stall your child as long as possible so that you can give it right when they'll need it, as the plane is climbing in altitude. If you can save some for the landing, all the better!

And older kids' ears get achy too when they fly. Bring gum or water bottles (especially sport-tops that require a little sucking) and prepare them ahead of time. Remind them of the last time they flew (if this isn't their first) and how their ears hurt for a little while, but got better quickly… If you're not feeling brave about gum (or don't want to find it all over sister's hair,) hard or chewy candies can work as well.

If your child has allergies or a cold, ask your Pediatrician about using an antihistamine about 30 minutes before take-off (if you can predict that!)

If your kids are old enough, you might be able to teach them how to help the ear popping process along a little. It CAN be difficult to walk them through these steps, especially when they're a little panicky from pain, so it might be a good exercise to practice while still on the ground. Make a game of it (Maybe you can call it "The Blowfish Game" or something else fun):

  • Have your child hold his/her nose (tight enough for no air to come or go through the nostrils).
  • Tell them to take a big breath in and then close their lips tight.
  • Then, with their nose and mouth closed tight, have them blow and see if they can hear the air come out their ears.

Sleep is NOT a plan!

Inexperienced kid-toting travelers, especially when flying with kids late at night, might assume that a terrific plan for air travel with kids is to get them to sleep through the flight. While it's absolutely magical when this happens, it's NOT a valid plan. If you board an airplane with sleepy children (of just about ANY age,) they're FAR more likely to whine and fuss through the flight than actually sleep! Flying is just SO exciting for kids, that it's difficult to relax and feel cozy. Some kids might be the exception to this rule, but I wouldn't try it. Actually, I DID try it… once! Never again!!

Eat, Drink, and be Merry!

Bring enough snacks and drinks for the entire flight… and then some! Of course, you'll need to check airport and airline rules on what you're allowed to bring from home and what you must purchase IN the airport.

You never know if you'll get stuck waiting for the plane to be de-iced or some problem fixed. If you try not to count on the airline to provide any snacks at all, then their little bags of pretzels will be "gravy" if/when you get them. Either way, count on the snack coming FAR later than you need it. There's something about flying that makes people hungry and, especially, thirsty.

If you're on a flight long enough for a meal, plan ahead and you may even need or want to order special food for your family.

Movies:

Movies on long flights can be a godsend or a nightmare when flying with kids. They're frequently NOT child-appropriate but they're SO tempting for kids to watch! Ask at the counter before you board the plane what movies will be shown (if any) and whether the screens are mounted on the seat backs or up high in the aisles. If they're mounted in the seat backs, you can generally avoid you child seeing anything inappropriate (as long as you monitor their own use!). The ones in the aisles might be more of a problem. Ask the flight attendant for ideas.

Exploring the Plane:

If you're flying with kids on a long flight, plan on letting toddlers or active children explore the aisles once you're safely up in the air. It's about the most fun they could imagine AND the other passengers generally don't mind and often enjoy watching (as long as you're supervising.)

We hope you enjoyed these tips and tricks for safe and enjoyable air travel with kids in tow!

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