Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Traveling with kids: 5 ways to make air travel go smoother

Air travel is never really easy, at least not if you're flying Economy class. It also means a lot of standing in line, waiting and sitting still, which is not exactly a great fit for most kids. However, there are things you can do to make things go smoother when you're flying with kids. Here are some tips on how to make things easier on you and your kids when you're traveling by air:

1. At the airport: eat, play, and go to the bathroom
Eating, playing and going to the bathroom are activities that are much more difficult to do on board an airplane than at the airport. So while you're waiting for your flight to take off, take your kids for a meal, and let them eat something you know they'll like (for my kids it's usually chicken nuggets and fries, or pasta). Then find a play area or just a larg-ish area where they can run around, watch planes and generally burn off some energy. Well-fed kids who have had a chance to play and run around will do better on a long flight.

And before you board, try your best to get the kids (and yourself) in for a bathroom visit.

2. For the sake of family peace, make seat assignments ahead of time
If you're traveling with two kids (or more), it can definitely be a good idea to decide on seating arrangements before you board. Roll a dice, pick a card, draw straws, or use parental authority to decide who goes where.

Who gets the window seat? (This is usually the one my kids fight over.) Who gets the aisle? (I personally think whoever uses the bathroom the most should get the aisle, but it's sometimes hard to sell that idea to the kids.) No one usually wants the middle seat which is ok with me, because if I'm sitting there the kids can't bug each other as easily and I can more easily help them with their food trays and headphones.

3. Organize the garbage disposal at your seat
When I travel with my kids, garbage seems to accumulate around us pretty quickly making it even more challenging to get comfortable in our seats, or to get in and out of those seats. One solution: as soon as you sit down at your seat, grab a bag, either one of the airline barf bags or a plastic bag from your hand luggage, and use it for garbage disposal.

Empty plastic cups, snack wrappers, chip bags, empty cans, half empty food tray remnants... it all adds up. And it's always in the way. For example, imagine one of your kids wants to go to the bathroom when you have three food trays, and one or more half-empty cups of juice on your tray table. Not good. My solution: pour leftover juice or other kids' drinks into their litterless juice boxes, and grab all those leftover odds and ends and boxes and hand them over to one of the crew. They might not always really appreciate being handed all that stuff, but at least they have a bigger garbage bag to put it all in somewhere. 

4. Get the kids' movies started asap
If you've got those individual TV-screens on your flight, then get those things working as soon as possible for your kids. Mindless TV-watching might not be the best parenting strategy ever, but on a long-haul flight it's a life-saver. So help your kids get their headphones on, and if they need assistance picking a TV-show or movie then get that going as soon as possible.

My kids on the flight after their airport meltdown.
5. Be prepared for potential trouble in airport lineups
Waiting in airport lineups with travel-weary kids can sometimes be the worst part of a plane trip. I sympathize: I just want that lineup to move ahead so we can get to the next flight or the luggage carousel, the check-in counter, or the x-ray machine or whatever it is we're lining up for.

On our latest trip, when my kids had discovered the fun of bugging and punching your sibling as a way to pass the time while standing in line, I ended up trying out different strategies to keep them from driving me and each other crazy. Handing out snacks worked pretty good. Prepping them for what to do at the end of the line also seemed to work alright: for example, getting them ready to take off their shoes for the security screening, or to smile and look at the immigration official.

Just be prepared for the lineups being a potential flash-point for trouble, especially if you've just come off a long flight (or two) and your kids are getting into the exhaustion zone. Do your best to head off potential meltdowns or sibling punch-ups before they happen.

On our recent trip the worst point came after our first two flights (8 + 3 hours in duration), when we were waiting in line to check our luggage for the third and final flight. The kids were so tired and so fed up that there was pretty much nothing I could do but drag them with me. One was crying because she wanted to buy a stuffed reindeer/moose thingie we'd passed in a souvenir shop, and the other was screaming that he wanted to go back home, and punching the hand luggage because the airport was too loud and too crowded for him.

We finally made it to the gate, the kids had some water to drink and a snack and got to watch the planes and sit on my lap for a bit and then it was all better. Travel fatigue is no fun, but it does pass.

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