First, let me put you at ease: flying is fun and kids love it! It may not always be the case for the parents or fellow passengers though. Just kidding! Flying with young children is ok. Really.
We have quite some experience when it comes to flying with kids. Here are some statistics: 3 children (5, 5, and 7 years old as we speak), 6+ years and 39 flights traveling with the family.
We’ve taken the kids on so many flights that it’s inevitable that sometimes things went differently than expected and we had to deal with delays or cancelled flights, endless taxiing at the airport, etc. Of course we were anxious to fly with young kids in the beginning. Especially the first time we flew with all three our children together, or when we travelled to Australia and had 3 connecting flights with over 28hrs of total travel time…
We never actually had a very bad experience and we find flying with kids the easy part of the trip (driving with kids can be much more stressful). First of all, you don’t have to drive and stay alert so you can keep the kids entertained. Kids need attention and will usually behave perfectly well if they get enough positive attention. Don’t board the plane expecting to watch two movies, read a book, or to sleep. If you are lucky, you might find the time for all of the above, but you will be much less frustrated if you keep your expectations low.
If there is one thing that I learned during the years, is that you have to learn to go with the flow and adapt to the situation. You can never be prepared for everything, so you have to make the best of it. However, good preparation is essential when flying with kids and especially when flying with a baby.
All you need to know about flying with young kids
1. Before you book a flightPreparation starts before you book a flight. Some things to consider:
Book direct flights and minimize stopovers
Some people will advise you to book stopovers for long-haul flights so that the kids can move at the airport, but I would never agree with that. When it comes to flying, less is more. One long flight means you get a good chance to sleep and before you know it it’s over. Spare yourself the nightmare of layovers, possible delays, lost luggage, multiple takeoffs and landings; you will be grateful you did!
Fly at night or in the middle of the dayFor long-haul flights I would advise to always fly at night, for the shorter ones – in the middle of the day. We always try to avoid flights leaving early in the morning or arriving late in the evening. Not only the children will be tired, but you will be exhausted as well. The disadvantage of flying in the middle of the day, however, is that you loose a day of your vacation.
Reserve your seats on the plane and children meals in advanceTry to always reserve your seats in advance if possible – that way you not only make sure the whole family sits together, but also have more choice as to where you sit.
Children’s meal on the plane is not always a big success with our kids. Yet there is one big advantage when reserving a special meal which makes it worthwhile trying – ‘special’ food gets served much earlier than the rest. That way you can help the kids with their meal before your own food gets served and you can eat quieter afterwards.
2. Explain to your children what to expect at the airport and during the flight
If the children are old enough, tell them what they can expect during the trip and how to behave at the airport, security check, takeoff and landing. Some procedures may seem obvious to you, but the kids will obey the rules better if they know what they are.
3. Tire the kids before boarding the plane
If you want your children to be quiet on a plane, give them a chance to get rid of their energy before you board. Airport play areas are perfect for this, so stay there as long as you can. Don’t despair if the airport is less child-friendly; there are plenty of other opportunities to move around before you board. Just don’t try to keep the kids quiet in a chair at the gate or board the plane as soon as the gate opens. On the contrary – encourage the kids to move around until the very last boarding call.
4. What to pack when flying with infants
Here are some items you really don’t want to forget when flying with infants: diapers, wet napkins, milk, pacifier, a baby bib, any special food, and a set of extra clothes. Foresee enough diapers and milk to get you through at least two-three times the duration of the planned flight (think delays, little accidents). If travelling with an infant, remember that the best time to nurse a baby is during takeoff or landing – sucking will help them deal with the changing pressure and will keep them quiet in their seat.
5. Travel light
Don’t take too much hand luggage and keep your hands as free as possible. Backpack is great. Stroller for an infant is just indispensable (normally you can take it all the way up to the door of the airplane). Pick one that is sturdy, compact, and easy to fold (from personal experience I can highly recommend Maclaren strollers).
We hardly ever take any toys with us on a plane. Usually we only pack one teddy per child (the one they sleep with). In our experience, children quickly get bored with the toys they know AND you can travel much lighter if you don’t pack like The Santa. On top of that, it’s very easy to loose a toy on a plane and you will often need your best athletic skills trying to find it back. Your child will be upset, you will get frustrated, and your friendly co-passengers will get irritated after having to pick up the toy for the third time in five minutes.
Consider this: an infant will be more interested in a paper cup or a spoon than in a teddy bear which takes half of your carry-on luggage space. Toddlers or preschoolers can keep themselves busy for hours with just a sheet of paper and a pen. Older children can read a book, watch a movie, or listen to the music.
Most airlines also foresee some giveaways for the children, so be sure to ask for those – no matter how trivial a ‘present’ might be, kids usually love anything that’s new.
If you are still not convinced and feel that you just have to take some toys for your peace of mind, go ahead and pack some. Just consider your fellow passengers and leave all the noisy toys at home.
6. What not to forget when flying with young children
There are two things that we always carry with us on any trip, and that’s twistable crayons and paper. Drawing has proven to be the best way to keep our kids busy and quiet not only at the airport or on a plane, but also at the restaurants or in a hotel room.
Update: I am packing for our trip tonight and just realised that there is something I forgot to mention. Take thick socks for your kids (and yourself) to wear on the plane for longer flights. That way you can take off your shoes and forget about them for the rest of the flight – it will be so much more comfortable, your feet will be warm, and you can walk around without getting the good socks dirty.
Here you can read more about what to pack for kids on the plane.
7. Gadgets and sweets – for any age
There are two more things that we usually take on a plane: digital tablet and snacks.
On longer flights you will have inflight entertainment, but the magic of a tablet will save you not only on a plane, but on many other occasions as well (e.g. at the airport or at a restaurant). So keep it charged and in your hand luggage – just in case.
As for snacks, we usually take some to use as ‘rewards’ to get the kids through the most difficult phases of the trip. For example, they can eat an apple after the airport security check, and would get a candy when the plane takes off. We would often promise them a lollipop as a reward for good behaviour towards the end of the flight as well. Lollipops have several advantages: it’s a good incentive for the kids to look forward to, they are hard and won’t get crushed in your baggage, and sucking will help to minimize the effects of the changing air pressure on kids’ ears during landing.
Don’t be too strict on what kids may or may not eat or drink on a plane, – you can deal with that at home. Loosen up and the kids will do too.
Always have a painkiller and nasal spray with you when traveling. Nose drops can be used to reduce the pressure on the ears and a painkiller will help to deal with sudden fever. If traveling through multiple time zones, consider melatonin pills; not only for yourself but for the children as well. We used those on our trip to Australia and it did wonders. As far as I know, it’s the most efficient way to quickly adjust to a new time zone, and ideally you start with it on a plane when it’s nighttime at your destination. As always, check with your doctor first.
9. Don’t forget the bathroom stops
Be proactive when it comes to using a bathroom so that you don’t have to deal with ‘I really need to go NOW’ during takeoff or landing.
10. Relax and enjoy the flight
Be considerate to other people, but mostly to your children. Play with your kids when they ask for it, leave them alone if they don’t need your attention, try to sleep when they sleep. Before you know it, the flight will be over and forgotten and you will have a blast of a time at your destination. Relax and have a good trip!
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