All travelers, even those without children of their own, have horror stories to tell from flying with children. Perhaps especially those without children. And they are right. It can be horrifying.
Every blog has a collection of pages and stories about tricks for flying. Bloggers with children will have tips and stories about flying with children. The Internet abounds in them, but there is no definite collection, because there can never be one. Every trip is different and every child is an individual, so you will always get new stories about flying with children. Here are a few of the things which have worked for us. And some which did not work. And maybe a couple of horror stories.
One of the biggest fears of any traveling parent is what will happen when your kids get on board the airplane and it takes off. Will they scream all the way? Will they sit quietly and enjoy it? Will they fall asleep? All of the above and then do something with the inflight meal that makes the strewardesses so mad you will never get on that airline again?
The answer is probably yes, unless you travel on a low-cost carrier where there are no inflight meals. We have seen all of the above - and children who are quiet like a forest at midnight and charm all their fellow passengers.
The first thing to remember is that even if they complain, there is nothing they can do about it. Except if you do like the lady who traveled with our unfortunately screaming kids from Japan to Thailand (usually a night flight, and not all that long). We had tried everything we could to make our daughter be quiet, but even with dry diapers and stomach full of baby formula she was still crying her heart out.
We tried everything we could until we could not think about anything more we could do. Even though we were new parents we already had quite a bit of experience from traveling, both as a couple and together with the kids. This was actually their third trip to Thailand, after we moved to Japan.
But even though they had slept like, well, babies on the first two trips, this time our daughter was not happy. So unhappy that she had to let the rest of the world know about it. As loudly as possible.
So after apologizing profusely to the other passengers - who were really nice about it, as they realized that we did all we could. But rather irritated from the lack of sleep.
Then this lady stands up, and walks over to us.
"Please let me, I am a mother too" she says (to my wife). She must have been some mother, and I have often wondered how many kids she may have had. Because she started swinging our daughter in a very special way, and suddenly our daughter fell quiet and went to sleep. She handed the child back to us, went back to her seat, and fell asleep herself.
While your kids are so small they can not talk, screaming is the only way they can communicate. And they have no volume control.
The Baby Loud Spot
There is a sweet spot (or maybe I should say a loud spot) between 6 and 12 months, between the age your kid is in a bassinet (they have to be younger than 6 months and not too tall) to the age they talk rather than scream. Those months are where your kids will be the most annoying to other passengers. Unless you count when they are actually physically too big to fit in your lap and still try to sleep there, because they do not have their own seats since you did not pay for them. Other passengers may be equally disturbed by your kids kicking their seats in their sleep as they would by them screaming.
Once the children grow up a bit, they will stop screaming. Although our son, a proud 3.5 years old, was wailing enough to keep the entire airplane awake on our latest trip to Okinawa. The problem is the same as you, a grownup, will experience: your ears pop. You are old enough to swallow or pinch your nose, but small kids do not know how to do that. And if you try to show them when their ears hurt so much they are scared, they will not listen. Bring a sippy cup, the type with a straw, full of water (or juice if you are afraid they will not drink the water). A tetrapak with a straw works too but is harder to get through security control. Lollipops are another possibility. But they do not work if you want something without sugar, or even sugarless. The drinking cup for start and landing works. Even for very small children, who get the same problem but can only complain with their general complaint scream, a sippy cup of water works.
If the child is small enough, she will be happiest in a carrier on mommys stomach. There is some truth in that it reflects the conditions of the womb, and if your kid is used to it, place them in the carrier for the entire flight. Although you may want to do what I did, and put a towel on your chest. The problem is not that the baby sweats, it is that you do. And on a long flight, you will sweat a lot.
Small children do nothing but sleep, eat, poop and pee. And scream. Well, they smile at their parents too. But they do not try to jump in the plane seats, or climb over the partition to business class, pour a cup of juice on the person in the seat in front of them, or hide in the overhead bins. When they start nearing three, they do. Most parents try to stop them but they are as effective as parents usually are in that situation.
The key is being prepared. But not just with appropriate rewards and punishment (usually limited to removing the rewards). You can prepare your children mentally. And physically.
The mental preparation may or may not take, but teaching your children to care about other people is something any parent will try to do. Making them think about other peoples feelings and comfort may or may not carry more weight in their minds than the excitement of flying, although it does tell you that the more your toddlers are experienced flyers the less of a nuisance they will be. Yet another argument for traveling with your children, if you needed it. But as a parent, explaining to them what is appropriate behavior onboard and how important it is not to be disruptive towards other passengers and the stewardesses will most likely have positive effects outside their traveling life as well. Start early, chat over breakfast about the flight and what they can expect, and try to take the edge off it. The more they feel familiar with flying, the less disruptive they will be.
Parents Over A Barrel
Giving your children rewards for good behavior, for instance in the shape of a toy or sweets, works while they are really small but the children do not have to be very far into the toddler age until they realize that when onboard a plane, they have you over a barrel. They just have to scream a little and that reward comes back. You can not actually take it away. Not without creating the exact effect you wanted to prevent in the first place.
Better to find rewards which fascinate them so much that they forget about jumping on the seats and singing on top of their voices. Unfortunately, computers are about the only thing that works, but they can be fascinated by the moving screen for hours. Which was exactly what you wanted. The only problem is that you will need to buy one each, and that you are not allowed to use them during start and landing on many airlines.
Bringing toys help make the experience easier, but there are some toys which have no place on board an airplane. However much your kids may love them, bringing Lego bricks on board an airplane will cause you to enter the most-hated list of the inflight crews, and you will not be high in the ranking of the passengers near your seat who will be stepping on the blocks whenever they try to go to the bathroom. And it is impossible to retrieve all the pieces before you leave, so the Ninjago or Lego City kit will be incomplete, and you will have to buy a new one eventually. They are always more expensive at your destination. Traditional airlines usually give your kids a (very cheap) toy, and our kids have loved their inflatable airplanes literally to death. Low-cost carries, by contrast, skimp on this aspect of their service too. The best among them I have encountered so far was Vanilla Air in Japan, who had two picture books on board. If you are saving on your travel costs, you are better off bringing your own picture books. And coloring books. And other toys. Wrap them in a piece of colored wrapping paper. If you have some left over from Christmas, you can pretend that you are on your way home from Santas workshop (at least on the trip back). This of course means that you either have to carry them in your own hand luggage, or that you have to buy the things at your destination. I would actually recommend against that, as it will distract your child from the experience they had, and focus it on the things they got. You want to teach them to cherish memories and experiences, rather than toys and things.
Packing your childrens toys is one of the most important things of preparation for the travel. We try to make it part of the general preparation for the trip, when we talk about the trip and what it is going to be bad and good.
Forewarned Is Forearmed
Preparation is the most important part of a successful trip with your kids. Not only talking through what the trip will be like, look at Youtube videos from your destination, discuss what you will be seeing (make sure you do not promise them anything you can not deliver though). But the packing and thinking about how to document the trip. Our 3.5 year old triplets discovered the camera function in the mobile phones they usually use to watch childrens videos, and they ran bonkers through the apartment snapping wildly at anything and everything. Next trip, they get to take photos of their own for grandma.
Preparation for and flying with your kids breaks down naturally into six steps: planning before the trip; getting to the airport; in the airport; boarding, seating, and calming down; during the flight (starting, flying, landing); after landing. Let us take a look at each of them, and what they mean for you.
First, the planning before the trip. This actually starts when you decide where to go, but you should not put all the stress on the trip and flying in the beginning, because that will just cause, well, stress. Your kids are a determining factor in the travel planning, and it is they who determine how far you should go, if you can handle a layover, how long it should be, and so on. Everything depends on their ages. You do not want to make a long trip with an infant, and a toddler is also more comfortable if you can slice up the trip in four-hour increments.
Even if you do not tell your kids about the trip until you are closer, not to get them overexcited, you may want to start preparing them by talking about flying. Especially if they have already made one trip. Recalling how it was, what they did to overcome adversities like ear pain and the lack of play space will help them think about how they should handle the next trip. Do not try to make it a drill. You could build airplane seats in your garage and train what happens when the oxygen masks pop down, but I guarantee you, it is not going to feel anything like reality. You are going to be so scared that unless you have trained more than ten thousand times, it will not stick. Better lave the hassle aside, accidents are after all much rarer with airplanes than cars. And you do not train automobile safety that often.
When you get a little closer to the trip, make sure your kids start packing (although not too far in advance). Our kids help with the packing (my son will pack himself into the suitcase), and pack their own backpacks. Of course they want to pack all of their favorite toys and soft animals, but they are only allowed to pack one toy and it has to fit into their backpack. And that is after they put in all the boring stuff mommy and daddy makes them put in, like a change of clothes, extra panties and socks, a towel, medicine if they are taking that now, their pajamas, a warm sweater or jacket since the airplane can be rather cold. We often pack their baby blankets as well, even though they are three and a half now. Having a familiar blanket around you makes it easier to sleep, and those blankets are not sticky, different from most airline blankets. And they take less space in the rucksack than their jackets.
The medicine will include motion sickness medicine for my middle daughter (and her grandma). We discovered the hard way that my daughter is sensitive to arrythmic rocking motions, like starting and stopping, or a boat bumping through the waves. The other passengers in the highway bus are probably still unhappy that we did not find out earlier.
So she needs to carry her own medicine, and take one tablet just before she boards the airplane. We try to be at the airport at least an hour before boarding for domestic flights, longer for international. The reason is not so much that we need to take a lot of time going through security and passport control, but that we want the kids to run around the terminal and play as much as they can. Even though they may be a bit noisy as they do, we know that the other passengers will thank us as they board and our kids fall asleep as soon as they have had a snack. Usually before the plane has taken off. The result if you forget it are very unpleasant, so we usually check an extra time that they are carrying everything they were supposed to carry. Medicine for below five-year-old children is also very hard to find.
Ideally you should do all the packing the day before the trip. But if you send your suitcase in advance, it is not possible. Sending your suitcase in advance is highly recommended, especially in a country like Japan where this is expected. Hotels are prepared to take care of your luggage when it arrives, and the express courier will pick it up at the door. You have to pay of course, but if you are traveling on a low-cost carrier, the cost of sending your luggage ahead is lower than the airline fee for extra checked luggage. The exception when you are traveling abroad. The customs expect you to bring your own luggage so they can check it for contraband. Not that they would find anything more hazardous than baby formula.
There is no actual restriction on how much baby formula you can bring onboard (or frozen breastmilk). The TSA in the US say "a reasonable amount" on their website, which of course depends on your child, the length of the trip, and a lot of factors. Bring as much as you think is reasonable. Security will either smell it, make you drink it, or have a machine that sniffs it to make sure it is what you say it is.
Breaks In Transit
Once the packing is done and your children have been briefed at what it is like in an airplane, and that they will have to stay there for several hours if it is a long trip, you have to go to the airport. I do not recommend flying long distances with toddlers, by the way. Even if it is tempting, since until age 2 they can ride for free in your lap. But once they have started to walk, they become physically too big for sharing an airline seat. They simply can not lie down in your lap without kicking the seatback of the person in front of you. And if you have any experience of being woken up in the middle of the night by a kick in the back, you will appreciate that they do not take kindly to it. On a short flight it is easier.
This means your children can not travel long distances between the ages of about 1.5 and 4, when they are big enough to be able to handle the onboard environment. One reason is simply visiting the toilet. While they are small enough to use diapers, there is no problem (except changing in the airplane). When they grow a bit bigger, they will need to go more often, and they do not have the bladder capacity to wait in line for the toilets. Even if your children are toilet trained, you may want to put them in diapers during the flight. Once they are toilet trained and can manage a little bit of endurance, they will be able to take longer flights without diapers.
Getting to the airport is the next major part of the program. When your children have understood that they are going to travel the next day, there is a big risk that they will be so excited they can not fall asleep. Maintain familiar routines and a familiar environment at home, so they do not feel that something has changed. If you do all your packing the night before the trip, there is a good chance that your children will become too excited to fall asleep, especially if you do not travel that often.
If public transport is available, use it, or use a limousine service or similar. This of course depends on where you live. If your children are used to riding a bus or taking the train, the experience will be familiar, even if they are going to the airport. Just make sure they have visited the toilet before you go (make them count to ten to verify that they are right when they say they do not need to pee). And do not forget to plan for the extra time it will take that they suddenly have to go to the bathroom when you are rushing from the train to the checkin.
Stroller Through Security
If you have a stroller, gate-check it. Especially if kids are too small to walk at all. That means bring it through security for use in the airport. It will be more handy at your destination. Once your children are old enough to walk by themselves, let them do it. Even if it slows you down. You will be surprised by the endurance they can show.
Next stop, and usually the next major hassle, is security control. While your childrens backpacks will probably pass without second glance, they usually have problems with adult luggage, especially if it contains more than the ordinary amount of electronics. Go first in line, so your children do not have to wait. They will (especially since this is a strange environment and they only know how to navigate it by following your directions), but the stress of trying to collect everything you had to spread out on the trays in security check might make you forget something.
There is a special procedure at security control for families with small children. Depending on the alert level (which is based on the intelligence from various spy agencies like CIA and MI5), the search may be more or less throurough. Usually, however, they will search through the stroller and want you to open any bottles of milk or anything else that may contain explosives. The level of testing varies: In Thailand (and the US), the agent sniffed the milk. In Japan, they had a hign-tech gadget where you put the opened bottle, and then it did the sniffing. They may try to fit the stroller in the scanner, but this is useless since it is made from metal. If they do they are not properly trained, it is far easier to examine a stroller by hand. The easiest way to minimize the hassle of stroller search is to put a couple of sleeping children in it.
Passport control comes next. In most countries, your children will need passports to fly, and the checkin agent had to check those before boarding. For international flights passports are mandatory but in some countries, a government-approved photo ID, such as a drivers license, is sufficient to board. When that is true, the checking may be much more relaxed. However, since your children are unlikely to have drivers licenses, getting a passport is the easiest way of getting a photo ID. If you are flying domestically, there are of course no immigration services to worry about.
When you finally get into the terminal, a visit to the toilets is probably overdue. Even if you did not have to wait too long in the line at the security control, at least half an hour to 45 minutes, maybe longer, will have passed since you got off the train. If your children did not have to go when you came, you can be sure they have a pressing need right now. Do it before any excitement starts.
While most airlines recommend you to be at the airport two hours before the plane leaves, one hour is usually sufficient for domestic flights. But remember to figure plenty of stretch into that time. If you have to go back to search for a teddy bear which got left in the security check, that takes at least ten minutes. And since they are almost guaranteed to be ten minutes of unfettered crying, they are ten minutes you want to avoid. But have to plan for.
If everything goes completely smoothly, you will be at the gate long before the boarding starts. Typically, that is 20 minutes before the departure time nowadays. If the margin time went unused, you have as much time to wait. If everything has been going smoothly up to this point, maybe longer.
Make Time For Diaper Changes
After you have changed or put on their diapers, use the time to prepare your kids for sleeping on the plane the most efficient way there is: Physical exhaustion. The more tired they are, the faster they will fall asleep on the plane. If there is a playground in the terminal, let them loose. If there is none, let them run around. Or even race them through the terminal. When it is time to board, they should have had at least 20 minutes of exercise. This is so important that you may even go earlier to the airport to do it.
Planning the time of your flight is one of the most important parts of travel preparation. For long flights, make sure they are night flights, so your children get to sleep on board. Shorter flights, four hours or below, is better to do at daytime and as close to your childrens naptimes as possible. The reason is both that you will be able to let your children sleep during their nap and that you will have a much smoother experience on arrival. A redeye flight is not fun for adults, so imagine what it would be like for children. Especially if they have grown out of using a stroller. You will have to carry them through the airport, and not only that: Their carry-on luggage and yours as well.
Boarding the plane is usually pretty smooth, especially if your children are carrying their own luggage. They will of course not be able to carry their ride-on suitcases, but they should have rucksacks with their own things. Otherwise, you will have to navigate the aisle with an armful of luggage and a curious toddler hopping around everywhere. It is easier when they are small enough to carry.
Getting into your seat is usually not so difficult, especially if the airline allows parents with children to board first. The only people you will bother are those in business class, and while there may be some logic to them being bumped into instead of being able to wait in the comfort of the lounge until the last minute, I could never understand it. But neither do you have to. Just board. Make sure you have the ticket stubs for everyone so you can check which seat you are in.
Some people prepare little gifts for their fellow passengers by way of apology in advance for their kids behavior, but I could never understand the logic in this. Kids are what they are; when they are small, they can not help screaming and crying. When they grow up a bit, they can not help being curious. Realizing that other people have different needs and wants than themselves is part of growing, and you as a parent need to help them understand when they will be interfering with the needs and wants of other passengers. Particularly why they should be quiet when they do not feel sleepy at all. If you apologize, you apologize for being a bad parent. Is that what you wanted to do? If you have to give anyone a gift, give it to the stewardess. She is the one you are putting between a rock and a hard place.
Once your toddlers are safely in their seats (or your lap), they will be bored. You still have another 10 to 20 minutes to the plane leaves the gate, so you need something to keep them entertained. A snack is ideal. Depending on age, there are various things you can feed them. Crackers are probably the easiest to transport, although a bag of cut fruit will not be bad either, and has the advantage of keeping them a bit hydrated. Keep a sippy with water handy (or a feeding bottle if they still have not left the milk-drinking stage), because you will need it during takeoff, to make sure they swallow. This prevents ear pain and makes the ride smoother for yourselves as well as for your kids. Not to speak of the other passengers.
Use The Sleeping Time
You can also look out the window (if you managed to get them a window seat). There is plenty of activity in an airport that toddlers will find fascinating. But if they get bored from watching that, a picture book is probably easiest. You need something non-electronic for takeoff, since the airlines still do not allow electronic devices during takeoff and landing.
Once the plane has taken off, it is time to give them a proper meal, if it is anywhere close to the normal meal time. Never mind the airplane food, it is neither nutritious enough nor very tasty. Even if it is free, it is better that your kids eat a proper meal and then sleep for a while.
If they do not sleep, either because it is too early in the flight, they are leaving the midday nap behind, or because they are too excited, it is time to break out the toys. Wrap them individually (they can draw on the wrapping paper, or wrap the toys again) and give them to your children one by one. The goal is to keep them distracted, so make sure they appreciate the toys as much as possible before getting tired of them and screaming for the next one. At this point, they are probably able to move around a bit, but do not let them run around the cabin. Follow them to the toilet if they have to go, but if they run around they will be a nuisance to the other passengers, and you did not bring enough excuse-me gift packages for the entire plane.
Once asleep, or sitting safely parked in front of one of their favorite shows or movies on their iPads, you can relax and try to get some sleep yourself. You will probably be able to get about an hour, because then it is time to prepare for the landing.
Finish Packing, Fasten Seatbelts
When the captain turns on the fasten seatbelt-sign, you need to be ready with the packing. If you wait, the toys will move around as the plane starts descending, and you might not find them. Or have to wait until everyone gets off and then try to help your crying child to find their lost toy. Better to be prepared and make sure you have collected all your things, and that your children have visited the toilet before the lines start. That is also when you need to ask the stewardess for formula or to refill the sippy cup, so that the child has something to suck on which enables them to swallow. Sugarfree lollipops work well too, but avoid other types of candy. If the airplane makes a sudden jump, a lozenge may slip down the windpipe and then your vacation is ruined already before it started.
And then you land. The plane touches the tarmac and starts to roll. Your children starts asking why you are not there yet. It will still be another twenty or so minutes before you can de-plane. 20 minutes during which your children need to be entertained. The picture books are perfect in this situation, especially if they have started to read themselves. Electronics are allowed, though, so you may use those to keep them entertained.
Once at the gate, you wait until all the other passengers have left. There are two simple reasons for this. One is to avoid your children getting crushed in the rush of people stressing to stand and wait for their suitcase in front of the luggage conveyors. The other is to get your gate-checked stroller, if you have one. Putting your kid in their stroller just outside the airplane door, especially if they are still sleeping, is going to make navigating the airport much easier. You still have to stand and wait for your luggage together with all those businessmen who rushed off the plane before you, and you still have to pass customs and immigration (if this was not a domestic flight). Remember that you have to fill out one landing card per child. But at least there is no security control.
And then, you finally roll out the gate with your belongings and children. This is when the vacation actually starts. Your childrens vacation, not your own. You still have lots of hard parenting work in front of you.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.