Sweating and swearing, I balanced my howling baby son on my lap in the airplane seat, trying to contain the horrifying mess from his diaper blowout. As my husband took the role of surgeon’s assistant, grimly handing me one necessary item at a time, I attempted the near impossible: changing my baby’s diaper on my lap in my cramped seat.
I cringed at the sight and stench we were subjecting our fellow passengers to, but what was our alternative? Clean him up on the lid of the airplane bathroom’s toilet, where there was no changing table? When we finally landed, we were an extremely disheveled, exhausted, shell-shocked family.
And yet, even after torturous experiences like this, I kept flying with my kids. Between our desire to visit far-flung relatives, the siren song of Disneyland, and the lure of all the other wonderful places to visit in this world, it’s always been worth the pain. It helps that parental amnesia sets in after our flight, aided by a stiff drink and a good night’s sleep at our destination.
It’s gotten a bit easier over the years. My kids have gotten older, other parents have given me their savvy tips, and with hindsight and a sense of humor, some of our worst moments have become our funniest stories. Learn from my mistakes and experience, and you just may enjoy a less taxing flight than we had on that early trip with our son.
1.) Choosing your flight and seats
Booking a flight at quieter travel times – early mornings Tuesday through Thursday – means the airport will be less overwhelming for your kids, and check-in and security lines shorter. If feasible, fly nonstop, or at least direct. Secondary airports (such as Midway for Chicago, and Long Beach for Los Angeles) are easier to navigate and usually less crowded.
Although children under 2 can fly free on your lap, it’s awkward and uncomfortable for both baby and parent. If you can afford it, pay for a seat for your baby. Use your baby’s car seat, which offers safer positioning and familiar surroundings.
As for airline choices, we suggest Southwest for U.S. trips. With no penalty for cancelling or changing your flight, you won’t have to jump through hoops to change your plans if illness strikes. If you’re flying internationally, foreign airlines often have more perks for kids – bulkhead bassinets, special meals and games for kids, free diapers and wipes – than U.S.-based airlines do.
Check out more tips for traveling internationally with your kids, here.
2.) Checking bags versus carrying on
With older kids, it’s best to pack light and all pull your own wheeled bags on board. It saves time in airports, and saves money when flying with airlines that charge for checked luggage.
When you’re traveling with infants, however, it’s worth the expense and the wait at baggage claim. Checking bags is a small price to pay to avoid having to juggle babies, bags, car seats, and suitcases. As for your stroller, consider gate checking it at the end of the Jetway so you can use it to get to and from the gate, but don’t have to deal with it on the plane.
3.) Getting through security
Bring your children’s birth certificates when flying within the U.S.. The one time I forgot to bring my son’s for a flight to the Midwest, a ticket agent insisted on calling Swedish Hospital to confirm his birth! Traveling internationally, bring your childrens’ passports as well as their birth certificates (even babies need them).
If you’re divorced or separated, play it safe by bringing a notarized letter of consent from the other parent. Likewise, if you’re bringing a nonrelated child (with older kids and teens, it can add to the fun to bring a friend), bring written consent to fly with their child and to get medical care if they need it.
Long security line? If you’re traveling with another adult, one of you can wait in line while the other keeps the kids entertained nearby, then dashes to join the place-holding parent at the last minute. Warn your children that everything, including their beloved blankie or teddy, will have to go through the x-ray machine, but happily, kids ages 12 and under no longer have to take off their shoes.
Research your potential airline’s policy about preboarding for families (United recently did away with this perk), and take advantage if it is offered – you get on early, get your seat and get settled before the aisles start to fill. With babies and toddlers, and especially when travelling as the solo adult, it can be a big stress saver to board before the hordes. With two parents and multiple kids, one parent and the mellower kid can preboard, while the other parent and more active kids board later. Why spend longer than necessary forcing a high-energy kid to sit?
5.) Staying sane on board
Having a well-stocked day bag with you is crucial, and even toddlers can carry their own. Be prepared for potential delays by packing lots of snacks. We always support families trying to conserve packaging and eat healthfully, but on flights it can be helpful to adopt a more, “anything goes if it keeps the kids happy,” approach. Individual packets of fruit leather and gummies, trail mix, chips, cookies, mini crackers, and cheese are a fun treat and easy to clean up.
You’re allowed to bring formula or breast milk, but other drinks won’t make it through security. Instead, bring empty sippy cups or water bottles you can fill up later. Even when nursing, it can be helpful to use bottles instead on flights; it can be difficult to get into a comfortable nursing position while preserving any modicum of modesty in a cramped airplane seat.
To avoid painful ear pressure during takeoff and landing, get infants to nurse, drink a bottle, or suck on a pacifier. For older children, offer a snack, drink, candy, or a fun flavor of gum, so they’ll be chewing or swallowing, which helps equalize the pressure in their eustachian tubes. If your child will tolerate them, we recommend EarPlanes, which are soft plastic, pressure-equalizing earplugs. And if you’re not averse to medication and your child is prone to ear problems, you can give preventive oral decongestants and/or nose sprays an hour before the flight. Make sure to test out any medications at home first, to avoid any surprise reactions.
6.) Entertainment is vital
Always bring a stash of new books, small games, and toys (mini Play-Doh, toy cars, card games, bubbles, word search books, Mad Libs) to present, one at a time, every half hour or so.
Load new movies and games onto an iPad or laptop – two movies buys you three hours of peace! Earmuff-style headphones can block airplane noise better, and may be more comfy than earbuds, especially when the kids are wearing them for hours. On many international flights, individual back of seat screens allow each kid to choose their own game or show so that you don’t have to worry about bringing your own.
Remember to collect all the goodies when you deplane. You’ve still gotta get home.
If you’re interested in more helpful advice about traveling with children, check out this list of our favorite family travel blogs!
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March of 2014.