Last week, my daughters and I flew out of Atlanta on our way home from their spring break vacation. As we got on the airplane, several passengers gave us The Eyeball. (As in, "please don't sit these people near me.") I don't blame them—I am one adult with one set of hands, and I had three children under the age of 12 with me.
We made our way down the aisle, and I locked eyes with the gentleman with the aisle seat of our row. Dread spread over his face; he was the unlucky fellow to be seated next to a preschooler, behind two school-aged children, and, unfortunately, across the aisle from another mother-and-daughters grouping.
Thankfully, years of air travel, both domestic and international, have helped us hone our commercial flying tactics.
How to Fly with Children
From prep to baggage claim, here are my best air travel tips for flying with kids.
1. Prepare your children for the trip.
Children rely on their parents to teach them about the world. In this case, "the world" means "air travel."
Prepare your children ahead of time by laying down your expectations of their behavior on the plane and answering any questions they have about flying. If you don't know an answer, ask someone.
2. Carry on only what you—and/or they—can safely handle.
We have a rule for carry-on luggage: if you want it, you carry it. This guideline limits what each child can bring based on their individual strength and dexterity.
We still help them put their bags in the overhead bin, of course, but they bear primary responsibility for carting their belongings through the airport.
If you have babies, only pack what is absolutely essential in your diaper bag. With a babe in arms, you don't need the hassle of extra gear.
3. Carry on for comfort.
On a similar note as the previous point, there are some items that will make your life much easier. These include
- Healthy snacks, packed in something like these adorable food storage bags from Blue Avocado
- Hard candy or gum to help relieve ear pressure
- ONE book or gaming device (plus charger)
- A favorite stuffed animal
- One travel game, like a deck of cards or a travel chess/checkers set
Unless your child is still drinking from a bottle or sippy cup, you do not need to bring your own drinking container. It's just one more thing to carry and for which to be responsible.
4. Give yourself plenty of time
Air travel can be a bit stressful, and with children in tow, trying to rush through security and the terminal is more nerve-racking.
For domestic flights, arrive no later than one hour before the flight. For international, two hours.
If you have checked luggage, most airlines stop accepting bags 20 minutes before the flight for domestic flights and 45 minutes for international. In fact, international flights may not even check you in if you arrive less than 45 minutes before take off. (Not that we know this from experience.)
5. Know the TSA guidelines
Traveling with children makes the TSA experience much more pleasant, surprisingly. Children 12 and under may leave their shoes on, and TSA agents rarely make children go through the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machine. As it's also TSA policy to keep parents and children together, you are unlikely to go through the AIT machine.
At TSA check-in, the agent will ask your child for his or her name, age, and with whom they are traveling. Make sure your children know this information.
6. Make way for others
Little legs can make for slow going. In the terminal, walk to the right—leaving the center clear for longer legs and rushed travelers—and use a method of grouping.
We use what we call "duckling": the children line up according to age and follow each other single file. The responsible parent brings up the rear.
7. Go before you board
Visit the restroom before getting on the plane. As current FAA guidelines restrict passengers from using the lavatories within 20-30 minutes of take-off or landing, it's a good precautionary measure.
8. Teach your children to be respectful of those around them
In general, this includes
- Using indoor voices
- Keeping hands and feet to themselves
- Saying "please," "thank you," and "excuse me"
- Using headphones with electronic devices
These are good guidelines for interacting in other public spaces as well; they just happen to be particularly important on airplanes due to the cramped spaces.
9. Take responsibility for your children
f your child is acting up, take appropriate corrective action. Don't ignore his behavior.
Similarly, if your child is in pain or ill, do what you can to alleviate her discomfort. Give him hard candy or gum for ear pressure, water or ginger ale for queasiness, and a sick bag if necessary.
Finally, don't ask another passenger to watch or hold your child. If you need the facilities, ask a flight attendant for help with small children.
10. Make a final visit to the lavs
Again, FAA guidelines prohibit using the lavatories within 20-30 minutes of landing. To avoid embarrassment or undue stress, take your child(ren) to the lavatories near the end of the flight.
11. Follow disembarking protocol
Unless you have a connecting flight (in which case, ask to be seated near the front of the plane upon check-in) or an emergency, allow passengers in front of you to deplane first.
It's helpful to keep your children seated during this process. It reminds them that they're still in a confined space with other people and need to behave as such.
12. Stay away from the baggage claim belt
If possible, avoid baggage claim. Pack everything in a carry-on that you can easily handle.
If that's not possible, keep your children away from the baggage claim belt for their own safety. Most travelers won't look for small children while swinging their bags off the belt.
Of course, kids are still learning and developing, and these tips won't prevent all mishaps. Children seated next to each other may get into an argument, one child may be more sensitive to air travel than expected, your child may not listen when you ask her to sit criss-cross-applesauce. Things happen.
However, good preparation and awareness of your surroundings makes for a much more pleasant experience for everyone.
On a final note, try to avoid dining out following air travel. Your children have exerted so much energy and self-control on the flight, and it's a relief for them to let go and be kids afterwards!