Flying with kids - Air travel tips with children

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Kids in the cockpit - August, 2000Flying with Kids

by Laurel Smith (Road Trip Mom)

Lately it seems that when I'm traveling with my kids, I fly as much as I drive. Our family's grandparents are spread all over the country, and it makes sense to fly if we want to maximize vacation time around busy school schedules.  My children all have their own frequent flyer numbers and have started to accumulate miles. When I travel alone with my three children, people often comment that they "Don't know how I do it," or they look upon me with pity and say, "I'm glad it's you and not me." 

The truth is that my kids love to fly. They've been doing it for years. When they were much younger, I prepared them in advance so they would know what to expect every step along the way. Preparing them means that I always remind them that much of flying involves standing in lines or sitting around waiting. It's not much different from sitting around in the car on a long trip, but there are differing aspects to consider regarding family travel via airplane. 

Here are some tips that I can share with you that will decrease some of the turbulence you might experience when we travel by air with your kids:

Kids Carry their own Bags
My kids each carry their own small backpack with their chosen goodies to keep them busy in the terminal and on the plane. The smaller the kid, the smaller the pack, but everyone carries their own. I encourage them to pack light and if I say it's too heavy, they have to take some stuff out and leave it at home. As toddlers, I had them practice at home putting the bag into a pretend x-ray scanner and "giving" it to the security people knowing  they would get it right back. Only once did my daughter get teary-eyed as her favorite doll had to have an extra screening. If the kids are carrying their own stuff they get to feel grown-up, it's less for you to carry and more hands free to direct them safely onto trains, moving walkways, etc.

Pre-Board and In-flight Entertainment
I highly recommend looking at the other areas of this website for activities that the kids can bring to keep them occupied such as Games for Kids and Games for Toddlers. Although these are recommendations for car travel, many of them will work in an airport terminal or aboard the plane.  A favorite activity for airports for my three kids is a regular deck of cards.  I printed the rules to Old Maid and Crazy 8s and taught them all how to play, now they whip out the cards every time we arrive at our gate early to await boarding. Another favorite is Mad Libs. And don't forget their travel journals and colored pencils (in a baggie), and some drawing paper. I don't recommend anything that has many small pieces or you will spend the entire flight asking other people to search under their seats for you.

For some impromptu in-flight entertainment, an air sickness bag makes a great puppet (unused of course!). All you need is a crayon. Turn the bag over and draw a face on the bottom. Slip your hand in and the folded part acts like a mouth.  Use it to talk to your kids to tell them to quit playing with the in-flight phone or to stop kicking the seat in front of them.   And speaking of air-sickness bags, be sure to check out these treatments for motion sickness.

Ground Transportation - Bring a stroller and gate check it
I highly recommend an inexpensive umbrella type stroller for use in airports with toddlers. Toddlers tend to get really tired with all the walking that is often required. They may want to walk anyway, in which case you can use it to hold your carry on bags. It's easy to fold up and bring through security. They are not expensive, so if it gets broken, it's not a huge loss. Of course, if your kids can can handle walking a long distance and you can get by without a stroller, then that's one less thing to haul around.

The escalators take some practice and I always hold hands with the little ones, or we take the elevator if we have a stroller with us. There are almost always elevators near the escalators which will be easier to use with toddlers in hand anyway.  Many toddlers freak out at escalators, so sometimes it's just better to avoid them if possible. Besides, pushing elevator buttons is fun! Whatever you do, do not bring a stroller onto an escalator.

Toddler Tether / Child leash
If you've got an escape artist or a run-away child, do yourself a huge favor and get a toddler harness like this one. It's also called a "Toddler Tether" or a "Security Harness".  Sometimes you can find them at department stores that sell child safety items. I found a really cute one online that also doubles as a small back-pack for your child and is fun to wear. It's called the Harness Buddy. They have several different ones -monkey, puppy, etc. I suggest letting them wear it around the house a little to get used to it and to have fun with the "tail", or keep it "special" and only allow it on trips and then your child will look forward to it.

The body harness works much better than the wrist variety tether since it lets your toddler have both hands free. I have used one of these for years in crowded airports. At one time or another every one of my children went through a phase where it was a huge battle to get them to hold my hand. This harness is a win-win for both you and your toddler.  Here's another one that is a simple Backpack harness.

Trust me, no one looks at you strangely or accuses you of treating your child like a dog. The only comments I ever got were from people telling me what a great invention it was and asking where could they get one. It's also fantastic if you have to go to the bathroom in a crowded airport terminal. You can put the leash on your wrist and keep your little escape artist from crawling under the stalls while you are indisposed.

ID for Kids
Child ID BraceletAnother great safety item for parents in crowded airports is a child's ID bracelet with your cell phone number on it. The personal information is written on the INSIDE of the bracelet for privacy. You can get a reusable one such as this one, or there are also disposable ID bracelets available. 

Herding children through security isn't as hard as it might seem. If you have more than one adult to manage them, then it's no problem at all. You just send the children through one at a time to the other adult who has gone through first. 

If you are the only adult traveling with more than one child it's another story, but you can do it. Send the kids through first so they don't follow too closely behind you and you are forced to do the whole walk-through dance over again. Keep your wild-child on the leash and have him walk ahead of you. Depending on how big they are, you can usually carry an infant or younger toddler through, but then you and the child may have to be re-scanned  with the hand wand.

Older children should be able to put their own carry-on through the x-ray. Remind them that they are in charge of their own bag. 

Also, try to make sure that your kids are wearing shoes that are easy to remove and put on in case you are asked to remove your shoes. 

Above all, just explain to the kids how the security check works  before you get there and remind them again while you are standing in the line. Knowing what to expect will make it go much smoother.

Car Seat on Board
It's always safer to buy a ticket for your child and use an FAA approved carseat on board.  However, most airlines still allow you to carry children under two years old on your lap without buying a them a separate ticket. If you go that route, you can always bring your car-seat just in case the flight isn't full and there is a seat next to you  available, or then gate check it if it isn't. Save yourself some hassle and ask about the possibility of an open seat when you are checking in for your flight before carrying it through the airport.

Be sure you check first to make sure your carseat is compatible with the airlines seats, otherwise you'll have to check it anyway.

CARES - Child Aviation REstraint  SystemThere is a great new product I came across recently that is MUCH easier than dragging a car seat through airports and on board. It's called a CARES (“child aviation restraint system”). It is the first and only FAA approved harness type child safety device.

It limits the amount of stuff you have to carry on board and helps keep your child secure at the same time. It's a perfect solution for flying with small children (who are big enough to no longer need a rear-facing infant seat). 

My current recommendation is to use a CARES restraint on board the plane and check the carseat through to your destination.  If you check your carseat with your luggage, ask that they put it into one of the huge plastic bags that are available at the airport (usually no charge). Without it, your carseat will be returned to you smelling like jet fuel and covered in who knows what when they drop it on the tarmac. Some people like to rent a carseat at their destination, but it usually costs as much to rent as to buy a new one. 

Ditch the Diaper Bag - Use a backpack instead
If you use a back pack as your diaper bag instead of the traditional shoulder diaper bag, you will hit far fewer people in the head as you board the plane, and you'll have two hands free to hold onto your kids.

built in cooler back packI personally have a nifty back pack that has a small section on the bottom that acts as a cooler. I keep snacks in it. Be sure to put ice into a ziplock bag or use a blue-ice pack, unless you enjoy the feeling of cold water running down your pants when you bend over.   The one I have is very similar to this cooler/backpack found at Amazon. I love it!  I have also gotten a LOT of great feedback about this line of Dads Gear diaper packpacks for traveling with kids. 

Devra Renner (parenting expert and co-author of the book Mommy Guilt), has never owned a diaper bag and has always used backpacks. Using a backpack on an airplane (instead of a shoulder diaper bag) meant that she didn't whack other people accidentally or have the bag slide down her arm and hit her own child in the head. There are other advantages for a backpack over a traditional diaper bag, one being that her husband could carry it.  She says, "This way I was not stuck being the only one carrying the diaper bag all the time. I cannot tell you how many fathers we knew who would not touch The Bunny Bag." 

Thoughts on Early Boarding
For short trips, Don't do it.  I know that airlines almost always let people with small children board the plane first. Forget it.  All that does is add an extra 30 minutes to sitting in that cramped seat, when the air conditioner has not been turned on yet!! 

For short flights, we almost always wait until "last call" and board the plane last. That way, we get on and buckle up and then the plane takes off and the air conditioning turns on. It saves a lot of headache with fidgety kids. 

The exception to this advice is if you do not have assigned seats. For example, if you are flying on an airline with an open seating policy, such as Southwest, you will definitely want to board first or you will not be able to sit with your children! (Hmmm, wouldn't it be fun to put your two-year old in a seat and hand the diaper bag to the unsuspecting victim next to him while you head off for an empty seat several rows back!)

Other exceptions are if you are traveling on a very long flight, or if you are bringing car seats on board -  it's definitely a good idea to do early boarding in those cases. Children will probably need to use the bathrooms before a long flight and get settled, and you'll have room and time to get the car seats installed and the kids settled into them.

It's important not to be carrying too much on board, so that your diaper bag (aka diaper-backpack!) will fit underneath the seat in front of you where you'll have access to it during the flight, and not in the overhead bin (which is not as easily accessible during flight).

My friend Devra recommends a tag team approach with regard to early boarding when they travel as a family and have more than one adult, "Sometimes we will 'tag team' meaning one of us boards early with all of the carry on items, and the the other entertains the kids until 'last call' in the waiting area.  This way we aren't knocking other passengers over the head with our bags while trying to get the kids on the  plane."

Figure out what will work best for your family and for your fellow passengers and airline employees.

Forget trying to carry juice with you -- it will just leak! And now days the airlines do not let you carry more than 3 ounces of liquid through security. Just bring an empty sippy cup and they'll fill it up with juice on the plane for you. If you must carry a drink, make it water (after you've gone through security of course).  Definitely bring something to eat. Many young children will not like what the airline has to offer, and most airlines do not serve food anymore anyway except for a bag of peanuts or pretzels if you're lucky. Kid friendly snacks that will vacuum easily are a must, and if you live in a warm climate, don't bring anything that will melt together such as fruit snacks.

Two Shirts are Better than One
Be sure to carry an extra T-shirt for you and your child in that backpack - just in case!  Airsickness is common for kids and spit  happens. When you land, you might not have immediate access to your luggage to change clothes if you get vomit all over you.

One mom, Azah, writes, "I second the spare clothes!  When I travel to Malaysia I always bring 2 sets of extra clothes (for vomit and unscheduled delays).  Once we were traveling from Ohio to California and I was thinking it would have been an easy flight.  Well, we ended up being stuck overnight in Denver due to fog and I didn't even have extra." 

"I also dress my kids in clothes that have lots of patterns, so stains will not be an eye sore for me."

The extra shirt for the grownups is just as important. My mother likes to tell me the story of how she was helping my 2 year old little sister go potty in the terminal once, and she some how managed to spray pee all over her shirt. My mom had nothing else to wear since her clothes were checked, so she got to smell like pee on the entire flight.

Plastic Zipper Bags
Stash a couple in your diaper backpack to store dirty diapers that you had to change on the plane (the flight attendants are not always able to take that type of waste, so you have to carry it out). You can also use zipper bags to store your baby wipes which take up less room than those hard plastic wipe containers, and you can use them for snacks, small toys and countless other things.

Electronic Devices
Be sure to warn your video-gamers that that during certain times in the flight a Gameboy or a radio with headphones is not allowed to be used. Explain why -- that it might interfere with the Captain's instruments and that he will ask passengers to turn them off. As you are boarding the plane, the cockpit door is often open and you can see all the instruments that the pilots are using to fly the plane. I always make sure to point this out to my kids as we are walking by. It's fun to look at and it helps remove all doubts when they are asked to turn off the devices. 

And of course, please give consideration to other passengers on board. The noise from cute little electronic games may not bother you, but it may really annoy a grumpy stranger near you on an airplane.  Turn off the volume or leave the noisier devices at home.

Ear Pain
If your child is prone to ear pain in flight, there are several things you can try. Kids often have trouble with their ears during takeoff and especially during the decent. It helps to have them keep swallowing during this time. For an infant, you should try feeding them during this time either a bottle or breastfeeding, or you can try a pacifier.  Older children can try sucking on a lollipop or chewing gum. A product called Queasy Pops is great for this and it also helps curb motion sickness at the same time.  There is also an ear product that you can try called Ear planes that helps to regulate the pressure during flight. 

Dirty looks from Unfriendly passengers
Whenever I have boarded a plane with an infant, I always jokingly apologized in advance to all the people around me for what they are about to endure. Here are some ways other moms warm up to fellow passengers : 

What I used to do when I got to our row on the plane, and was greeted by the "Oh crapola, we've got the baby in our aisle" expression, was announce loudly, "Oh you are the lucky ones who get to sit with us!" --Devra
I like to say to the baby, "Gee, I hope you're done with that projectile vomiting for now. It was pretty nasty this morning." Then I turn to our nearest passenger, holding the baby out, and tell the baby "Say hi to the nice lady."  --Becky

Not all of these tips are guaranteed to work for your posse of young passengers, but they have worked well on many trips with my kids and those of my friends.  So give them a whirl for your next airplane adventure. You might find that you, your kids, and your fellow travelers will enjoy a new cruising altitude together. 

Happy Travels everyone! 

~ ..· ´¨¨))   -:¦:- 
        ¸.·´  .·´¨¨)) 
      ((¸¸.·´  ..·´   Road Trip Mom -:¦:- 
     -:¦:-    ((¸¸.·´* 

Many thanks to my friends  Devra, Jennifer, Azah and Becky for their contributions to this article.

Laurel Smith is a former schoolteacher and mother of three who has logged thousands of road trip miles both as a kid and a mom.  Visit her website for more than 101 travel games and activities for kids at

This article is copyright ©2005  (updated ©2008, 2010), and may not be republished in whole or in part on other websites or print media without permission. If you would like an article to use on your website, please see the articles available for reprint here.


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