14 Strategies for Stress-Free Air Travel With Children
Experienced flight attendants share their secrets for flying with young kids.
Flight attendants have seen it all when it comes to plane travel, so who better to turn to for advice on flying with kids? Here are a dozen stress-reducing strategies, all from flight attendants (all preferred to be anonymous for our story), several of whom are mothers as well.
Before Your Flight
1. Book an early morning departure.
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."
- RELATED: How to Fly with Baby
2. 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.
3. Talk about what to expect.
"My experience is kids do so much better when they know what to expect," says Shireen, a mom of three from Australia who's traveled to the U.S. several times with her kids. She recommends watching this Let's Go Play video on YouTube, which goes over the entire flight experience, from baggage check-in and ticketing to onboard etiquette and safety.
4. Do layers, skip laces.
Be ready for drastically changing temperatures when flying. Wendy, a flight attendant and mom, suggests 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.
5. Bring surprises.
A wrapped new plaything has two advantages: Kids love to unwrap stuff, and a new toy has more attention-grabbing pull.
6. Switch strollers.
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."
7. 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."
- 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
- Low-sugar snacks: Cheerios, pretzels, crackers, nuts, string cheese, and granola bars are good options.
At the Airport
8. Be ready for security.
Pack so that items that need to be removed during security are easily reached. "If you are traveling with water or liquids—usually allowed for kids under 3—have it in an accessible place for the TSA agent," says Rachel Pitzel, a travel blogger and mom of two. Keep in mind that traveling with snacks will mean extra scrutiny during the screening.
9. 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.
10. 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.
In the Air
11. Show some appreciation.
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. 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.
13. 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."
14. 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.