I was just talking with one of my mom friends about my best tips for flying with kids and thought it might make an interesting discussion over here. So ladies, what are your best tips for flying with kids? Have you found that different things worked when they were babies, then toddlers, then kindergartners and beyond? You may want to check out previous tips for using AirBnB with kids, as well as pumping while flying.
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Tips for Flying with Kids: Pack Snacks that Suck
Pack snacks that suck. OK, here is my top tip: You need to pack snacks that kids can suck on to help alleviate ear pressure. Applesauce pouches, Thermos/Zoli cups (not straw Take & Toss), lollipops for bigger kids, bottles/binkies/Mom for littler kids. (I always nursed on the plane… it tended to make them sleepy, too, which we always welcomed.)
Another big tip: Warn your kids their ears are going to hurt, once before the trip happens and again, loudly, once when you’re on the plane and it’s starting to make its ascent/descent. This accomplishes two things, the first of which is that hopefully your kid won’t freak out when they feel pressure building. Even when the boys were infants I would explain this to them, because who knows what they understand and don’t — you can pull at your ear and their ear more if they’re littler.
The second thing this accomplishes is giving your seatmates a heads-up. I think for new parents, particularly, it can be stressful flying with kids because you remember being that single adult on the plane who hated whenever kids cried. Before I had kids it never occurred to me it’s because they’re freaked out that they feel like their heads might explode… so consider it a subtle, informal education for your seatmates. We also bring a lot of other snacks, an empty plastic bag for all our little wrappers and other trash, and as many napkins as we can steal from the airport Au Bon Pain or wherever.
Above: some of our favorite items to make flying with kids easier: Applesauce / Stroller for car seat / Gate check bag for strollers / kiddie headphones / large, lightweight, durable nylon bag for carrying on / Thermos bottle — also check out some of our favorite bags with travel sleeves!
Prepare for Security
A note on security lines. I don’t think it’s a formal policy, and it varies by airline, airport, and TSA agent, but I have had very good luck politely asking TSA agents if there’s a special line for families. We are often waved into the business class line.
The Mommy Pat Down. After almost 5 years of being pregnant, nursing, or knowing that we’d be TTCing soon, I only just started going through the new airport scanners — they’re apparently not that dangerous, but it was always easy enough for me to just ask for a pat down and go through the metal detector. So I’m pretty well acquainted with the TSA pat down — it’s not that bad. (I’ve always thought that of all the indignities of motherhood, the TSA pat down is a pretty minor one.)
Prepare to have any open containers of milk or juice inspected by the TSA agents.
Some TSA agents will enforce the “baby” rule — you’re only supposed to be bringing liquids on for the baby — but some have let us go through with multiple containers even after J was obviously no longer a baby. (You can always just pack an empty Zoli or Thermos and fill it up with water/juice/milk you buy after you get through security.)
Tips for Flying with Kids: Strollers, Carryons, and More
Strollers at the gate. You can usually take your stroller with you to the gate and check it there — we always use a gate check bag for our stroller and anything else we’re gate checking, like their car seats. Sometimes my husband will shove his winter coat in the gate check bag as well, but we’ve had the closures on multiple bags break on us, so I wouldn’t recommend this.
I mostly see families in the airports with umbrella strollers, but we prefer to use our universal stroller with the infant carseat or convertible carseat, and to check our umbrella stroller if we’re bringing it. (Check out my favorite strollers here.)
Checking vs. carrying on. Ah, the days we could carry on everything we needed and avoid baggage claim. Once we became a family of four, though, we made the executive decision to pack one big bag, check it at the counter before security, and then be relatively unburdened during our waiting time at the airport. (We’ve loved every bag we’ve gotten from TravelPro over the years, especially the MaxLite line!)
Stuff we always carry on, no matter what (usually in my beloved, lightweight Le Sportsac Weekender):
- J’s favorite stuffed animal and the blanket he can’t sleep without. (Try squishing the stuffed animal into a Ziploc bag so you can flatten it without air if you need more room.)
- A clean shirt for everyone (if I had a penny for every time I’ve been puked on on the plane…) and a plastic bag for anything that gets dirty.
- Clean undies / night clothes for everyone / full change of clothes for the boys
- Any chargers we might need
- I always bring my makeup bag, too, on the theory that it would be expensive (and a PITA) to run around and try to duplicate the contents if I were to lose it.
Where to Sit on the Plane
To the back, to the back. If you can, choose the seats at the back of the plane. Odds are very good you’re going to be waiting for stuff you gate checked anyway, so you may as well wait in comfort. Other pros to this system: close access to the bathroom. (If it’s all four of us traveling together I often find it easier to go to the bathroom on the plane than abandon my husband with the boys in the airport or try to drag one of them into a family bathroom with me and convince my eldest of my revolutionary rule of “We don’t open the door until Mommy’s pulled her pants up.”)
Plus: If your kids go crazy on the flight, you’re only annoying the back of the plane. Ah yes, another bonus: If you happen to change a pee-filled diaper on your husband’s lap instead of in the bathroom, you get less side-eye. (But really, if you can put your kiddo on the plane with a clean diaper and/or empty bladder, it’s going to be much smoother sailing for everyone.)
Travel Time = Screen Time
Special screen time (aka, plane entertainment). There are normal screen time limits, and then there are Travel Day Screen Time Limits. We’ve brought books and toys as well — I know of one mom who buys new toys to wrap up and give to her child during long flights — but once J hit 2, the $50 portable DVD player we bought, plus kiddie headphones, has won the day, along with snacks. We originally bought him a DVD player because many airlines would make you put away your phones and iPads during takeoff and landing, but they would almost always let us leave our DVD player out. This rule has changed significantly — I think most will let you use your phone as long as it’s in airplane mode — but J still loves his little DVD player, plus it means we get to use our phones ourselves (and keep whatever charge they have).
Safety Tips While Flying with Kids
Safety thoughts, harnesses, babywearing, and more. I have yet to pull the trigger on an airplane harness (a special seatbelt-type system) for either of the boys, but I saw a video once that forever changed the way I travel with my kids. (I sadly cannot find it now; if it sounds familiar to you please let me know.) In the video, a cartoon mom sat reading a book while her baby also sat in her lap. (Placidly, like you do.) Cartoon Mom is so immersed in her book that she doesn’t notice turbulence is happening, and because her arms aren’t actively gripping baby, baby goes flying during the turbulence — whacking his little head on the roof of the plane.
My takeaway from the video: Small things can go flying if the plane hits turbulence, and that can include your baby, your iPhone, or anything else — so try to keep a tight grip on any lap infant, and try to keep your other stuff (toys, iPhones, whatever) relatively secured throughout the flight. (We bought one of these back-of-the-seat organizers but honestly, we always forget it, so it hasn’t been that helpful.) I don’t know what current FAA or airline regulations are regarding babywearing on airplanes — but note that previous rules required you to take your kiddo out of the baby carrier for takeoff and landing, which may kill any plans you had to let your baby sleep in the Ergobaby the entire trip. (Here’s an old Babycenter post on point.)
Your Airport May Have a Playground
Finally: A lot of airports have playgrounds or play areas for kids. They’re not always convenient to your gate/terminal, but it’s worth looking into if you’re unexpectedly delayed or are choosing a layover city. This article from Family Vacation Critic rounds up the ten best airport playgrounds.