Friday, March 9, 2012

Flying with kids: it's not as bad as you think (usually)

When I tell people I bring my kids on long-haul flights on a regular basis, some look at me as though they think I must be a sucker for punishment. Of course, it can be tough to bring your kids on a trip that includes a lot of sitting on airplanes, hustling through airports, and standing in lineups for security. But in my own experience it really isn't that bad. Usually.

There are challenges when you fly with kids, but most of them are manageable with some preparation, and no worse than traveling long distances by car: it's just that you'll be doing it in cramped quarters with a few hundred strangers!

Here are some concerns people often raise with me when discussing flying with kids, and my somewhat reassuring responses:

1. My kids will be bored
Yes, if you're on a very long flight your kids will be bored at some point or another. The good news: the personal entertainment screens available on most long-haul flights are a great help. A selection of movies, games, and TV-shows can usually keep kids entertained for a good while.

These days there are so many tech-goodies you can bring along: hand-held games, DVD-players, iPads, Kindles and cell-phones with books, magazines, and fun apps. And of course there are no-tech toys like crayons, paper and sticker books too. Then there's meals to eat, bathroom visits, windows to look out, maybe a new toy or two in the hand-luggage, and eventually (hopefully) your kids will also sleep. As long as you bring a few easy-to-do and easy-to-pack activities, you will overcome the boredom.

If you're traveling with a toddler or baby, boredom might be more of a challenge. At that age my kids just wanted to move around, and that can be tough to do on a plane. However, the upside is that walking your child up and down the aisle gets you out of your seat so you'll avoid blood-clots in your legs...

2. What if my kids won't sleep?
If your flight is really long they probably will, eventually, once the excitement and anxiety of being on board starts to wear off.

It helps if you've brought their favorite comfort items, if they've had something to eat (bring some snacks you know they like), and try to make them as comfortable as possible in their seats. Take off their shoes, get them a blanket and pillow, close the window shade, turn off the lamp, let them snuggle with you, and so on.

Babies usually settle too, as long as the pressure isn't bothering them. If it is, then you might need to give them their soother, feed them (breast or bottle), or, in severe cases, help them out with some pain relievers. Flying with an infant is also infinitely easier if you have a cot for them, so always ask for that when you book your flight.

If your child really will not fall asleep, then your flight will feel a lot longer. All you can do is try to help them settle and get comfortable. This is usually when I start repeating my travel-mantra in my head: "This too shall pass!" Because it will: eventually the plane will land and you and your child and everyone else on board will be fine.

3. My child will have a meltdown
Yes, they might. My kids have had meltdowns on our trips, though I have to say they have not been frequent. With my own kids, meltdowns and tantrums usually happen at airports rather than on board. In all my years of travel, I really haven't seen many kids have serious meltdowns on board. But being tired, bored, and maybe uncomfortable and scared too, can definitely lead to meltdowns and tantrums.

Reduce the risk of meltdowns by making sure your child eats and drinks something regularly, both on board and when you're waiting at airports. Help them settle down and get some sleep whenever possible, and if possible allow time for un-winding activities like staring at airplanes on the tarmac, running around at the airport to burn off energy, and maybe playing in an airport play-area.

For more tips, these posts might be helpful:
Tantrums and meltdowns are very stressful for parents under any circumstances, but they're especially tough when you're stressed out by traveling, and surrounded by strangers. Try to remain as calm as you can anyway. And this is when I use that mantra again: This too shall pass. Even when it doesn't feel like it.

4. Other passengers will hate me
Some passengers probably will. Some passengers pre-judge children as "trouble" whether they're actually causing trouble or not. However, in all my years of air-travel with my kids, I've only had one really bad experience with another passenger. Instead, I've found that many passengers are very understanding of how hard it can be to travel by plane with children. Occasionally I've even had people play and goof around with my kids just because they felt like it.

As a parent, I'm very much into the philosophy that you have to pick your battles: you can't control every aspect of your child's behavior all the time, so you pick the important stuff and try to enforce that. On board, this means I will not allow my kids to
  • kick the seat in front of them, 
  • play with their tray table,
  • tug on the seat in front of them, 
  • bounce up and down on their own seat

These are the things that can really drive other passengers nuts, and as long as my kids will not do these things, I'm prepared to let them be a little messy, eat more junk-food than normal, and take up half my seat.

And I confess: I do use bribes on board, though I don't usually do that at other times. But yes, a supply of lollipops has helped us through a few difficult moments. 

My main tip: Try not to get stressed out about other people possibly judging you or your child. Flying with kids can be a real test of your parenting skills, and if your kids are acting out, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're a bad parent: your child might just be too tired or scared or uncomfortable to control themselves. The same child who acted like an angel on one flight, might be a terror on the next flight. That's just life. As a parent, all you can do is focus on your child, come prepared, and do your best.

5. My bags will be too heavy!
This is not as challenging as it might seem. If your child pays for a ticket, they are allowed to bring luggage after all, so you've got a whole extra suitcase you can fill. Yes, you might have to really think about what to pack, and what you can rent, buy or borrow at your destination, but that's a good policy anyway.

As for your hand-luggage, plan carefully what you bring, and let your children share the burden as soon as they're old enough to pull or carry a backpack. Yes, your carry-on will probably be a lot heavier than it was before you traveled with kids, but as long as you get a backpack with comfortable straps, or a nice wheeled bag, it won't be so bad.

More tips can be found here:
In conclusion
Flying with kids is not exactly relaxing, but if you prepare yourself and your children just a little bit, it will be easier. Also, travel isn't just stressful and trying, it is also exciting and fun and an adventure to experience with your kids!


  1. CARES - the Child Aviation Restraint System can be just what the flight attendant ordered. It is safer and helps younsters feel more secure than the seatbelt alone. Check it out on the Kids Fly Safe website -

  2. I really like the looks of that system. Wish I had known about it when the kids were younger!

  3. Great summary of my exact thoughts Maria!
    6. What happens if my kid get sick? What a nightmare!

  4. Yeah, if they get sick you're in trouble! Do bring the decongestant, fever reliever and something like Gravol, just to cover your bases! And of course, they probably won't get sick on the plane... more likely to happen when you arrive at your destination! In my experience...


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