12 Strategies For Stress-Free Air Travel With Children

Experienced flight attendants share their secrets for young, flying families
traveling with kids

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My friend Pam, a super-organized operations director and mom of three, is one cool customer. She's calm, composed, and doesn't rattle easily--except when it comes to flying. Her boys suffer from extreme sensitivity to air pressure and at times fellow passengers have been less than sympathetic.

"On one flight, Aidan was emitting these nonstop piercing screams, and a woman stood up and hollered that someone needed to shut him up since he was disturbing the whole plane," Pam recalls. "On another flight, a man started in immediately when my kids started crying -- but this time, a flight attendant came over immediately and told us to let her know if the man was bothering us. She could see we were doing our best."

Flight attendants have seen it all when it comes to families in flight, and with the busy holiday travel season upon us, who better to turn to for advice? Here are a dozen, stress-reducing strategies for flying with kids, all from flight attendants (all preferred to be anonymous for our story), several of whom are mothers as well.

Next: Flight Plans

Flight Plans

1. Fly as Early as Possible
It's your best chance to avoid delays at takeoff and landing, a flight attendant named Patrick explains. "These flights are usually less crowded, too," he says, "and everyone is basically tired and just wants to nap -- kids especially."

2. Do Layers, Skip Laces
Be ready for drastically changing temperatures when flying. Wendy, a flight attendant and mom, suggests that you dress your kids in comfortable layers--preferably without buttons, zippers, or anything that could prevent them from getting to the bathroom in time. The same principle applies to shoes: Avoid laces and opt for slip-ons. "There's the added benefit of getting through airport screening that much faster," she says.

3. Switch Strollers
When you can, minimize. Getting through an airport without a stroller is unthinkable for some parents, so consider switching out your regular-size stroller for an umbrella stroller. If you've got more than one little traveler with you, consider a kid harness (leash), Wendy suggests. "I was so against them until I saw a woman with three young boys using them in baggage claim. It made so much sense," she says, "with the exit doors to outside right there. Look, flying is stressful enough. Do what you need to do to protect your kids and your sanity."

4. Seat Kids Away From the Aisle
It can be dangerous for them. As the food and beverage cart passes by, little hands are in treacherous reach of hot coffee or water.

5. By All Means, Use Pull-Ups
Your toddler may have moved beyond Pull-Ups, but they are a great resource when flying. "I use them on my 6-year old," says Wendy, who adds that it's much less stressful than having to race to the bathroom or deal with an in-seat accident.

6. Beware of Germs
Wipe down everything and above all else, do not send your kids to the bathroom without shoes. "The floor is a Petri dish," a flight attendant confides. "You're in the air, things jostle. That's not just water on the bathroom floor."

7. Bring Surprises
A wrapped new plaything has two advantages: Kids love to unwrap stuff, and a new toy has more attention-grabbing pull.

8. Keep Your Composure
There's not much we can do to assuage that passenger who complains the moment your child sneezes or giggles. Here's what you need to remember: As long as you're trying (and what parent isn't?), you've got almost everyone on your side. "An adult having an issue with a screaming child is acting like a child as well," offers a flight attendant and mother named Patience. "Don't engage. Just worry about your own child." Keep in mind, too, that you don't know who you could be dealing with. As Lynn, a flight service manager told me, he's seen many planes reroute when these arguments got physical. Disengage the crazy so you can disembark as intended.

9. Save Your Mileage Upgrades for Toddler-Free Travel
Traveling in first class with kids can be more stress than it's worth. Mom Joanna recounts the story of traveling with her loud, lively toddler and incurring the very vocal wrath of her first-class seatmates for the entirety of the flight. "It's not fair, but you're just going to get more empathy and support with kids in economy," says a flight attendant.

10. Prepare for Air Pressure
After passing through security, be sure to stock up on enough water for everyone to get through a possible delay and have enough left for the descent--the most bothersome time for ear pressure discomfort. Have them drink some right after takeoff and then make sure they start drinking again during the last 30 to 45 minutes of the descent. The swallowing helps with the pressure and gives the added hydrating benefit.

11. A Little Appreciation Goes a Long Way
My biggest parenting struggle is waitressing for two demanding, often rude customers (who, by the way, always neglect to tip). The same job challenge holds true for flight attendants, who love to receive a certain gratuity that most toddlers also appreciate. "Any kind of chocolate found in an airport, handed over at boarding, does wonders," says Patrick. Of course, it will have zero effect on the random bad-tempered, unprofessional cabin crew member. But it's a nice gesture nonetheless, particularly when flying around the holidays, when most flight attendants will be working and away from their families. "It will be so appreciated," he says. "And we will remember you and look out for you. And not only that, you'll probably score a free drink out of it."

12. Pack Just Enough
Flight attendants urge parents to pack enough essentials for the flight. "Unfortunately, you can expect there to be zero food on a plane that would interest a kid," says Lynn. "And we are so limited in what we can offer in terms of comfort items as well." On the flip side, parents will struggle if they zealously overpack. "Usually, when it's one parent traveling with one or more kids, they'll bring way too much stuff in an attempt to keep their kids happy," Wendy says. "They forget they have to carry all that stuff off the plane with them, along with their kids."

FAA Packing List

- 1 Comfort item -- If it's a pacifier, be sure to bring more than one, lest it get flung down the aisle or on the floor
- Sanitizer, wipes, Pull-ups, and diapers. One diaper per hour of travel is recommended
- Smartphones and tablets -- Loaded with your kids' favorite movies or shows. Let them share a device with a headphone splitter.
- Kid-Size headphones
- Art supplies -- Crayons (small box) and blank paper
- Plastic bags for trash
- Water
- Low-sugar snacks: Cheerios, pretzels, crackers, nuts, string cheese, and granola bars are good options

Lauren Barbagallo is a freelance writer based in Jersey City, NJ, where she lives with her husband and two young daughters.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings, and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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