Flying with Young Kids? A Mom Reveals Her Top 23 Survival Tips

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Deal Expert, Chicago
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Flying with kids gets a bad rap. The prospect of going through security and then keeping them seated, quiet and happy for hours on end can be terrifying, but if you can take a couple deep breaths, focus on the destination and try not to sweat the small stuff (more on that later), you’ll make it … and maybe even enjoy it.

From one mom to another parent – I’m going to give it to you straight. We also asked 5 top bloggers for their top tips. But, here’s what I’ve learned along the way:

Things to do before the flight

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1. Long-haul flight? Here are two pieces of life-saving advice, if you can swing them. 1) Book early and grab the bulkhead seats. More than the extra legroom, there’s enough room for small kids to sit on the floor and play, without the worries of blocking the aisle. It’s also an inescapable truth that any kid left in the aisle will immediately sprint for the other end of the plane. 2) Pre-order kids meals. Every airline is different, but I can’t say enough good things about the kids meals on KLM. Even if you’re in the last row of the plane, the kids meals come out first (no waiting!) and include food kids will likely eat (think chicken nuggets, mac n’ cheese, soft veggies) and are served with little activity bags. Many airlines offer this service, and I’m not going to lie, I wanted some but my 2 year old wouldn’t share.

2. Passports: They’re required even for the youngest of travelers. Getting your baby to sit for a passport photo is another story!

3. Borrow or buy a car seat bag: When I first heard of these, I must admit, I scoffed a bit. Really, I now have to buy a bag for my car seat? It was some of the smartest money I’ve spent. Not only will your car seat stay nice and clean, but you can check it for free, AND stuff that bag full of diapers, shoes, sand toys and then dirty clothes on the way back home. Travelzoo Tip from another traveling mom: a trusty dry-cleaning/laundry bag also works like a charm. That said, we’ve recently found that many airlines are more thoroughly inspecting car seat bags at check-in, so rather than “stuffing them full,” we’ve found that a few lightweight, overflow items might be all you’ll be able to add in with the car seat.

4. Stock up on baggies (Ziplock, reusable, whatever): Keep your carry-on organized. Food, electronics, clothes, toys; you name it, there’s a baggie or pouch out there to keep whatever it is clean and protected.

5. Baby carrier: If you don’t buy a seat for your baby in a car seat (which is money I can’t bring myself to spend until I absolutely have to), a baby carrier or sling is a great way to keep your hands free and keep your baby nice and snuggly.

6. Blankets: Muslin swaddle blankets are lightweight, easy to pack and easy to wash in a sink. They’re perfect for snuggling, covering an airplane seat and can double as an impromptu picnic blanket at your destination.

At the airport

7. Consider curb side check-in: If you’re going to take car seats, strollers, or a pack-n-play, using the check-in outside the airport and walking into the airport virtually baggage free can help save time and eliminate some stress.

8. Use the airport as a gym: Parents and experts seem to be divided on this one. Some say, “run children, run. Run free. Pretty please, for the love of everything in this world, exert as much energy as possible before boarding the plane.” While others feel that because exercise releases so many endorphins and adrenaline, too much exertion before having to sit for an extended period of time will keep them too wired and unable to relax when on the flight. For my family, the “use the airport as a gym tactic” works, but it’s worth noting the other side. If you are looking to run wild, some airports even have indoor playgrounds.

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9. Give yourself plenty of time: You’re already sweating, carrying way too much stuff and stressed about the whole experience in general … the last thing you need to do is be rushed or (gasp!) miss your flight (indefinite airport time = tears). If you gave yourself 1.5 hours from your door to board before kids, give yourself three to four hours with them.

10. Security isn’t that scary: When you’re with your kids you can bring baby food, formula, breast milk, nursery water, etc… just about everything you need. It will get tested and inspected, but you shouldn’t have a problem. Kids can keep their shoes on, but everything, including lovies, have to go through the x-ray, so it’s a good thing to discuss that ahead of time if attachment issues are a concern. If you’re TSA Pre✓™ Eligible, so are your children and if there’s a family line, use it!

11. Early boarding: Do it! We’ve debated this a few times. Do we really want to spend extra minutes on the actual plane? Yes. You are doing yourself a favor and other passengers. Take the time to get settled, organize your stuff, wipe down the arm rests and make friends with the flight attendants.

12. If you notice the flight isn’t full: Ask if there are available seats or open rows and if your family might be able to take advantage. We did this and were able to secure an extra seat for our very, very active 8 month old, which meant I could take him on the flight with his car seat instead of holding him on my lap. Window seat + car seat + bottle on takeoff = 2.5 hour nap and one happy mama. If you’re honest, polite and ask nicely for what you need, people are usually more than happy to help if they can. *Best chance of this happening is if you fly on off days and times.

Takeoff

13. Don’t make the rookie takeoff mistake: Do not, let me repeat; do not start nursing, mix the bottle or the fill the sippy cup until the plane is actually barreling down the runway. We’ve all done it. You pull away from the gate, think you’re about to taxi and start with whatever will help your child’s ears during takeoff, only to discover you’re actually 8th in line and another 30 minutes from actually moving anywhere. Doh.

14. Lollipops: A great option if your kid is old enough. I never knew how many varieties of lollipops existed until I started researching: organic, sugar-free, sugar loaded, even Vitamin C. Whatever your choice, pack a few and use them to help your kids ears during takeoff and landing.

In flight

15. Gadgets are good: We know – your child doesn’t read enough and is obsessed by that computer screen. But just briefly, relax your rules on iPad use. Plug in and take a deep breath. They’ll still grow into functioning adults despite the extra hour of mid-air Fruit Ninja or if you’re about to hit triple digits of “Frozen” viewings. It will be the most peaceful flight you ever had.

16. Headphones: If your child is old enough to wear them longer than five minutes without ripping them off their head, these are a LIFE. SAVER. If you decide to plug your kids in, please use headphones. I guarantee no one else on the flight wants to hear the Fiesta Trio from Dora sing, “we did it” one more time.

17. Be prepared to sweat: Even if the plane is freezing (which many of them are), by the time you pack, manage to leave the house with all your bags and kids, check-in, get through security, make it to the gate, change diapers and do bathroom routines before boarding, board, find your way to your seat and sit down, you will be drenched. I always pack deodorant in my carry-on. Hey, I like to be prepared.

18. Get creative with toys: Sometimes the stuff that occupies your kids the most is the stuff you would never think about playing with at home. Case in point: my son can play with scotch tape forever. He wraps it around his finger. Makes tape balls. He’ll decorate an entire seat back tray with it and it doesn’t leave a mess. A brilliant friend of mine packs a Ziplock with all sorts of regular household items and they collect things while they’re packing and as they go through the airport. Straws, stirrers, spoons, forks, mini post-its, cotton balls, Q-tips, etc. Then her children spend the flight creating robots and other flying inventions. Your child may not be into scotch tape or building robots, but there’s often something unusual that will occupy them for hours…or at least 15 glorious plane minutes.

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19. Do the bedtime routine: This is especially important on overnight flights, but also works if you’re flying anywhere around bedtime. PJs, stuffed animal, milk, a favorite story … whatever the routine, try it in-flight to help the little one relax and bring a sense of normalcy in new surroundings.

20. Diaper changing: Most planes have at least one bathroom with a changing table. They’re small and it ain’t pretty, no matter how hard you try. Disposable changing pads are great for airplane bathrooms (and to have on you while traveling in case you’re changing the diaper on the floor or what we like to call the ‘silly stand up diaper change,’ which is for another post). In the rare occasion when a plane doesn’t have a changing table and the only other option is to lay the baby across the toilet, you can line that sucker with disposable pads. Another great tip is to have your kids fly in nighttime diapers for a little extra protection.

21. Wipes: If your kid is in diapers, you already have hundreds packed. Even when your kid is out of diapers, wipes are lifesavers in so many situations. I’m not a germ-a-phobe by any means, but I do breathe a bit easier as soon as I wipe down the arm rests and tray tables on a flight.

22. Dress in layers and pack extra clothes in your carry-on: Puke happens. I didn’t think it really did, until it happened to me. When you get puked on during landing, it’s really awesome to have another shirt immediately available. Actually, it’s good insurance to bring an extra change of clothes for everyone on board. That way, no matter who gets thrown up on, spit up on, pooped on or spilled on, there’s a backup plan for that.

From start to finish

23. Feed off their enthusiasm: When we landed on an overnight flight to Spain, my son exclaimed, “That was amazing!!!” You know what son, it was. Channel your inner Louis C.K. and remember that “… you are sitting in a chair … in the sky! You’re like a Greek myth right now.” Sometimes it takes a toddler to remind us how incredible that is.

We all dread the judging glares of fellow passengers. Especially when your 2 year old just puked or your 9-month-old won’t stop crying. But, most folks don’t actually mind a crying baby — they mind parents who aren’t trying to do something about it. So, take a deep breath and walk those aisles like you own them. Be polite, but don’t feel the need to constantly apologize. Everyone will appreciate your efforts, even if not your results. Remember, you did your best and you are taking your child(ren) to see the world and that makes you one bad*ss parent.

P.S. It also helps to remember there are bloody marys at the airport, on the flight and on the other side. That usually helps me a lot.

A photo posted by @megmitch1 on

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Show 4 Comments
  • Lisa

    Please note Tip #3 could be a very costly mistake for folks, as I found out. American Airlines ticket agent charged me $100. Her reasoning, backed by three levels of “customer service” conversations
    Is once I put anything other than a car seat in that bag it becomes OVERSIZE BAGGAGE and the airline is no longer required to ship it free of charge. For the record I had a crib pillow and a pair of toddler slippers in with the car seat. I must add this was the first time in at least 16 flights with my 1 1/2 year old I have been charged this fee.

  • dorislt

    No, you aren’t one bad*ss parent just because you take a very young or ill-behaved young child on an airplane. Infringing on the rights of others to have a peaceful flight is not character-enhancing for you. Do not walk near me with your crying baby. There’s no need to punish the entire planeload of people. It’s bad enough that those around your seats are miserable. If you need a bloody Mary when you get to your destination, so do your fellow passengers and you should buy for each one of them because your kid was the reason for their (and your) distress. If your kids can’t behave on the plane, drive. Or give them Benadryl or something similar to help with a nap.

    • Sonia

      Just because you are inpatient and obviously not a parent doesn’t mean that no one with kids should ever fly. I tend to have well behaved kids but sometimes kids have an off day… Maybe it would be best if you take a bottle of benadryl and a bottle of vodka so you can sleep through the whole flight. That is a better option of banishing some unpleasant children off planes….

    • Charles Rogen

      You are a lower form of human. Yep.