Air travel with children is challenging. Busy airports with long lines, cranky travelers, and unfamiliar environments are a recipe for cranky kids. But you CAN travel gracefully with careful planning, sound organization, and a strong dose of patience. Follow the tips below and you’ll end up with happy kids and arrive at your destination intact.
For Infants and Toddlers
Be mindful of pressure changes. Babies and younger children don’t know how to equalize the pressure difference on their ears. Giving an infant a bottle on take-off and descent can help open their Eustachian tubes to allow the air pressure to equalize. Younger kids can chew gummy candy or gum as appropriate. Teaching younger kids to yawn on purpose can help as well.
Dress in layers. The temperature gradient can vary wildly from your departure point, the airport, the aircraft, and your destination. Dress your children in layers that can be easily put on and removed over the course of your journey to stay comfortable.
Go ahead and check your luggage. Normally we advocate a carry-on only approach, but in the case of children who are too young to carry their own bags, you’re better off having as many free hands as possible. Check your larger luggage and focus on the items necessary for a successful flight with your little one.
Suck it up and buy their seat. Our general rule for having a child in your lap is as follows: Only if the child is less than 6 months and the flight is less than 2 hours. Anything more than that, and you are better off buying the seat for your child. Consider it the cost of traveling with kids.
Buy, borrow, or rent and FAA-approved carseat. (https://faa.gov/travelers/fly_children/) There are a variety of good reasons for this:
- Children are accustomed to being in carseats, they know that they’ll be restrained, and they may even fall asleep in them
- Car seats are safer than a single lap belt in the event of turbulence or rough landings
- Bringing a carseat on-board ensures that it doesn’t get damaged in the cargo hold and is immediately available to you at your destination
- Consider rolling carseats or add-ons that allow you to roll the carseat through the airport like you would a roller bag, thus freeing up a hand to take care of your child.
You can bring baby formula, breast milk, and juice for your child through TSA security. They may want to test it, but TSA officers will allow these items in “reasonable quantities.” Packaged single-serving powdered formula is particularly useful for air travel.
Bring an empty water bottle. Fill this at a water fountain after security in case you’re on a bumpy flight and the attendants can’t get up to bring you water. Fill one for your own hydration as well. Also the water reservoirs on most aircraft are not cleaned regularly, so fountain water from the gate area is a safer bet anyway.
Manage your child’s blood sugar, hydration, and sleep schedule. You know your child best and can tell when they need food, water, and when they’re tired. Remember that everyone dehydrates faster at altitude, so your child will need to drink more frequently than on the ground. Likewise, bring familiar snacks that your child likes to ensure that their blood sugar doesn’t bottom out. Travel can be stressful on kids. Encourage naps before they’ve reached the point of meltdown.
Set expectations well in advance. Start talking about the trip in the days and weeks leading up to your journey. Talk with your child about what it’s like to be on an airplane and what the expectations for their behavior are. We repeated the chant: “No yelling, no fussing, and stay in your seat” numerous times before our first few trips. Even make-believe sessions beforehand can help children prepare for the excitement and uncertainty of air travel.
Be prepared to entertain, comfort, and manage your child. We hate that we even have to say this, but we’ve observed numerous occasions where the parent simply “checked out” and left the care of their child to the flight attendants or other passengers on the aircraft. This is not the job of a flight attendant and certainly not the responsibility of the other passengers. Sure, it takes a village to raise a child, but this isn’t your village. Step up, and be prepared to care for your child’s needs and to protect the sanity of your seat mates to the best of your ability. They’ll appreciate your efforts regardless of the outcome.
Celebrate their independence. Make a big deal about them having their own seat. Help your child make a list of fun activities and games they can do while in their aircraft seat. Remind them that while their seat is their own, the seat in front of them belongs to someone else (so no kicking!)
Bring along their favorite snacks. Sometimes airplane food is weird, so make sure to bring along plenty of yummy snacks that your child enjoys. Healthy choices are great, but some fun stuff is good too. Avoid products containing peanuts out of respect for other passengers who may have nut allergies/sensitivities.
Bring a great bag of tricks. You know what will keep your child engaged. Bring a few favorites, but also spend a few bucks at the dollar store for some new things that are fun, but won’t break the bank if lost while traveling. Here are some winners:
- Coloring books and crayons
- Watercolor coloring books
- Small toys
- Word games
- Jelly stickers
Prepare for the occasional mess. Drinks will spill, snacks will scatter, and occasionally children will get airsick. Bring an extra set of clothes for your little one just in case. Ginger chews can help settle a nervous tummy and we swear by Sea-Bands for motion sickness.
For Grade Schoolers
Same concepts, different entertainment options. As your child grows, their entertainment and distraction options will change. Now you can introduce screens (e.g., iPads, Kindles, etc.) but don’t forget about good old-fashioned books, kid-friendly podcasts, and music players. Look for headphones designed for smaller heads and tender ears. Don’t forget all the requisite cables, chargers, and an extra battery pack. Time on an aircraft is perfect for homework too.
Help them understand the restrooms. Lavatories on planes can be tricky. They’re small, you’re only allowed to use them at certain times, and the toilets are loud. Your goal here is to reach bathroom independence as soon as possible, because attending to a child in an aircraft lavatory can be a comedy of errors.
Be a good neighbor. A little empathy can go a long way. Engage your seat mates early as they’re getting settled in for the flight. Introduce yourself and your child. Let them know how experienced or inexperienced your child is with air travel. Assure them that you’ll be managing your child closely to help them be the best air traveler they can be. By establishing this rapport early on, you can gain an ally (and maybe even a helping hand) during your flight. After all, we were all kids at some point.
You can do this! Traveling on planes with kids is not that far removed from traveling in a car. A little planning and preparation will go a long way toward making your next air journey much more enjoyable for you and your child.
Safe travels! –A&K