10 Tips For Stress-Free Flying With Little Kids

We’ve taken quite a flew flights with Tiny Traveler and haven’t had a meltdown (yet). We have had a lot of squirming and inappropriate climbing, scrambling in our pockets and bags for amusements, forbidden foods and badly timed naps. That’s OK. When you’re trapped in a confined space with a child for several hours, anything that avoids passengers staring while the child melts down or glaring while she sobs endlessly is entirely OK. Here are some tips for arriving at your destination relaxed and ready for fun rather than ready for a nap yourself. (Have you read our blog on Airport VIP services?  Or our 5 Tips for Traveling Alone With a Toddler?)

10 Tips For Hassle-free Flying With Toddlers

1. Pick the right flight: Fly direct whenever your itinerary, schedule and budget allow. I try to time flights so we’re on the plane when naptime hits and there’s a chance TT will conk out (she usually does…eventually). If that’s not doable I opt for early morning flights. She’s better at sitting in her seat and engaging in quiet activities at the start of the day when she’s well rested.

CARES harness2. Beg, borrow, rent (but don’t schlep): Focus on what you can get away with not carrying rather than on piling on anything you might possibly need (because you’ll still have plenty to carry). If you’re visiting friends or family have them ask friends and neighbors for loaner car seats, playards, toys and even strollers. Hotels have cribs; we’ve never had a problem with them. Car rental and taxi companies often have car seats (an AAA membership gets you a free car seat with Hertz). If you travel at least once a year, a CARES harness can be a portable and surprisingly cost effective alternative to a car seat. If all else fails, rent what you need.(Compare car rental rates at * or *CheapOAir.)

Note: Check with your airline to see whether they charge fees for checking gear like travel cribs. Be careful of statements like “you can check this free as your first piece of luggage,” which means you’ll pay to check your actual luggage.

3. A carrier is handy: The one piece of extra gear worth bringing. It packs easily and can be handy if your little one decides to nap as you’re landing (take it from someone who has lugged a sleeping child through customs and immigration more than once). But keep it stashed in a bag until you’re through the security check to avoid the hassle of slipping it off and back on.

folded quinny4. The right stroller is handier: Even with a kid I dread being the person holding things up at the security gate, so I’m a gear minimalist. But strollers are handy for ferrying children and/or bags down endless terminals. For traveling I bought a stroller I can open and fold with one hand while holding a passport, ticket and child in the other. I can carry it and a kid up and down a flight of stairs. And it’s cheap enough that if it’s damaged in the cargo hold, I won’t care. Find your own ideal travel stroller and both your back and the people behind you at the security check will thank you.

Note: Look or ask for the family lanes at the security check. I was skeptical about them. But they are often shorter than the regular lines and faster.

5. Gate check! This is every parent’s best weapon. If you do bring a stroller or car seat, carry them to the gate and check them there. You often bypass the fees for checking extra stuff at the ticket counter. And you have the stroller to carry your child—or you carry-on bags—down those long airport corridors to and from the gate. (Check out our tips for London Heathrow and Toronto Pearson and Quebec Jean Lesange airports.)

6. Plan your taxi rides: Find phone numbers for local taxi companies with car seats on both ends of the flight (check out our Taxi Tips for suggestions) and call ahead to have a car waiting when you land. It takes some planning, but it’s worth it, especially if that taxi ride is the only reason you would need your car seat.

7. Dress kids for convenience: Whenever I can, I take TT to the airport in foot pajamas. They’re perfect for the air-conditioned terminal and plane and I don’t have to fuss with her shoes at security. And I don’t care what she spills on them because I’ll change her into clean, climate-appropriate clothes before we land. If your kids are too old to wear PJs in public, try to steer them toward shoes they can slip on and off and encourage them to layer so they aren’t too cold or too warm.

8. Wheels up, junk food rules away: Whatever snack the flight attendant has is going to be way better than the one you brought; it’s novel and probably junkier. Go with it, especially if it’s some kind of snack mix. Emptying a bag on pretzels, crackers and puffs onto the tray table, sorting, counting and sampling them and deciding what to eat first, second and third will kill a lot of time. And always bring lollypops. Just when you run out of toys and your child is tired of being cooped up on a plane, you’ll have to buckle him in for landing. A lollypop will get him to sit still that important tiny bit longer.

9. Pack strategically: The first time we flew my backpack was bursting with toddler toys and books. TT played with the tray table, the overhead knobs, the flashlight Rich keeps in his pocket and snacks from the flight attendant. Now I pack just 3 or 4 small items such as a travel-size white board and crayons, a new sticker book, a magna doodle, a pack of Colorforms, 1 or 2 small cars, a doll, a very interactive book. For a long flight I might put a movie on my phone. She actually plays with these things for extended periods—and I have room in my backpack for my stuff. Now she’s old enough to carry her own backpack with toys and snacks that she chooses. So on the next flight I plan to have my pack all to myself (we’ll see…).

Note: Do some research on the airport before you leave (most airports have websites).  Many airports have playgrounds, but information desk people don’t always know about them. It also helps to know who runs the various for-fee airport lounges to see if one of your credit cards or loyalty programs will gain you free or discounted entry.

10. Have the right expectations: Children are active, curious, cranky and irrational. They don’t stop being children when you check in at the airline counter. Have the right mind set (you won’t read your magazine; you will spend an hour reading The Hungry Caterpillar repeatedly). Prepare even little kids for what’s coming (we’re going to have sit for a looooong time, but we’ll have snacks and I have new sticker book for you!). And have as much empathy and patience as you can. It doesn’t make the flight shorter but it improves the odds of getting to point B with everyone happy.


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