Expert travelers whose kids thrive in the sky share tried and true strategies to help make traveling with your little ones less stressful.

My wife is one of those people who will start packing three weeks before a trip, who wants to leave for the airport five hours before a flight, and wants to line up to board before the gate agent has even arrived. I used to fight all of these behaviors, but then we had a baby. Suddenly, her points were valid, and there I was, first on the plane, boob out, tiny lips suckling as passengers elbowed their way up the narrow aisle.

Flying was a breeze for the first year of our son's life, when his sleeping schedule was non-existent, and my breasts provided in-flight meals and entertainment. But as he got older, he got louder, busier, and incapable of sitting still for very long. When a 12-hour flight approached shortly after he turned 2, we prepared by chatting with expert travelers whose kids are frequent fliers. Here are 5 tips we gleaned.

1. Plan ahead for the chaos of the airport

Rachel Pitzel, a travel blogger and mom of two, is an expert on navigating the airport with kids in tow. "Kids love airports! They are so fun, and they love to see what everyone is doing," she says. Still, she recommends coming prepared for the stress of the security line. "Have your suitcase packed so you can easily remove items. If you are traveling with water or liquids—usually allowed for kids under 3—have it in an accessible place for the TSA agent." Traveling with snacks means extra scrutiny in the security line, and staying organized can help you avoid a high-stress situation. One more thing Pitzel recommends, "Always buy water at the airport or bring a refillable bottle." Dehydration is a quick way to ruin a flight.

2. Don't stress about your fellow passengers

There's something about flying that makes perfectly reasonable adults totally frantic. Anxiety levels spike, crowds storm the gate before their zone is called, and grown men are reduced to tantrumming toddlers as they jockey for overhead bin space. "We were all children once," says Regina Lluch, a flight attendant for more than 40 years, and a mom herself. She adds to not let looks or comments from fellow passengers add to your stress of traveling. "It's important to follow your motherly instincts," she says. And if other passengers give you any trouble, defend yourself with manners. "Tell them 'hey, we're working on it,'" she adds. If a situation escalates, ask a flight attendant for assistance.

3. Bring new toys and snacks

I laughed when my wife packed an entire carry-on suitcase of snacks and toys for our flight, but it turned out to be a genius move. Samantha Gutstadt, comedian and mother of two boys, agrees that special items are a must-have for long flights: "Each kiddo gets their own mini backpack filled with snacks, earphones, and an iPad." When her sons were younger, she packed tiny Tupperware with Cheerios and puffs, "so they could open and close to their heart's delight." Just don't let your kids see these goodies before the flight, especially if you packed their favorite treats. Let each item be a surprise once they're comfortable on the plane.

4. Screen time will buy you time

Social worker Leanne Wilkofsky occasionally flies alone on long flights with her two boys, and while she prefers toys to engage their imagination, a tablet can help keep the boys seated. Even if you don't typically allow screen time at home, the airplane is the perfect place to permit this special treat since airplane mode will prevent them from straying from preferred apps and games. "Tablets are helpful because you can download their favorite shows and games ahead of time," she says. There are plenty of kid-friendly options to choose from, in a variety of price points, which means finding one that suits your kid and your budget shouldn't be difficult.

5. Get ahead of the jet lag

Even if you feel ready to dive headfirst into your regular routine when you come home from a trip, there's a pretty good chance your kids won't have the same ability to conquer jet lag. Gutstadt tries to schedule flight times that will encourage her children to sleep, like flying overnight from the time zone in which they departed. She also prefers an essential oil or special stuffed animal to prompt a bedtime routine, over sleep-inducing meds. "Then on arrival, I try to keep my boys up until their usual bedtime so they can adjust as quickly as possible," she says.

Once you've arrived home aim to give yourself and your kids a little time to adjust back to your normal routine. "Plan to spend a few mellow days," says Pitzel. "I try to return home on Sunday morning so we have the day to rest and relax, if possible, before a new week starts." When extra help is needed, children's melatonin can help get them back into their sleep-wake cycle.

Laura Leigh Abby son on airplane
The author's son on the airplane to Hawaii. 
| Credit: Laura Leigh Abby

6. Communicate expectations before, during, and after the trip

The most important thing you can do when traveling with children is to communicate. Even if you don't think they're old enough to fully understand, tell them that you'll be flying on an airplane, and prepare them for what that entails. Like adults, kids want to know what to expect when they arrive somewhere new and what the plan is once they get there.

"And don't stress," says Rachel Pitzel. "Don't go into a flight thinking everyone will be annoyed and looking at you. Kids can detect stress and anxiety, and they respond accordingly." Leanne Wilkofsky agrees. "I always remind myself that while I want my kids to behave and be respectful of others, children are a part of this world too, and they might cry or raise their voices, but you'll get through it, and once you reach your destination it's worth it."