Flying with kids can be a real adventure, and that adventure can be a lot of fun and very exciting, but also somewhat (or even extremely) stressful. Over the years, I've discovered some things that are likely to cause a lot of parental stress (and stress for your kids as well) when you're traveling by plane, and here are my tips and strategies to avoid, or at least minimize, the potential problems.
This can be pretty terrible. My own kids don't take kindly to being rushed at the best of times, and if you really, really have to get to that other gate in less than 20 minutes, and if that involves traversing a huge airport with kids who don't want to go anywhere, who are hungry, and need to go to the bathroom... well, that's just not a lot of fun.
Solution: Sometimes, you will be rushing from gate to gate, because of flight delays out of your control. However, if you choose connecting flights with a decent amount of time between them (two hours is my preferred minimum), then you reduce the risk of this happening to your family.
2. Hungry kids who can find nothing to eat
Hungry kids are usually grumpy, whiny kids - not fun any time, anywhere, but even less so if you're on a flight. Both of my children have had a picky eater phase (the youngest is still in hers...), and that can make things rather challenging when you're traveling.
Solution: Check ahead of time if your airline offers kids' meals with more "kid friendly" foods, and order those meals. This is not a fail-safe solution for picky eaters however. Also bring some snacks and foods with you in your hand luggage, that you know for sure your child will eat. Nothing too sticky or messy, and remember that liquid snacks (like yogourt) will be treated as other liquids at security.
3. The airline's headphones don't fit, meaning your child can't enjoy the on-board entertainment
I've experienced this problem with my kids, though it does get easier as they grow up and their heads get bigger. For young children, it can be a real problem however, with the headphones slipping off a lot.
Solution: Bring some child-sized headphones of your own on your trip.
4. Spills and soiled clothes make you and your kids seriously uncomfortable
All it takes is that one child dumps one glass of juice when that first drink is offered on board, and then it's all downhill from there: been there, done that. If you're traveling with a baby, your baby might have a diaper malfunction, or might spitup on you... making you both less than comfy on board.
Solution: Bring a change of clothes for your kids, and also (especially if you're traveling with an infant) a change of clothes (at least a shirt) for yourself. Also bring spill-free cups or bottles to transfer your kids' drinks into. This will make it a lot easier for them to enjoy those drinks on board.
5. You are so stressed out at check-in that you feel like you've forgotten everything
Check-in is the first step to get out of the way at the airport, and it can be stressful to maybe stand in line, make sure you have all your travel documents, and that all your luggage is in order (closed, locked, not over-weight).
Solution: Arrive in good time at the airport so that you do not have to start out your travels by stressing yourself and your kids. Put luggage tags with your contact information on the luggage before you leave for the airport, and if you can, bring an adult along to help you entertain the kids and wrangle the luggage. If you're traveling with a second adult, that's great, but even if you're traveling solo with your kids it is a great idea to have a friend or family member stay with you until check-in is complete and you are at least rid of your luggage and have gotten your boarding passes sorted out.
6. You run out of hands while trying to transport your kids, your own carry-on, and your kids carry-ons
If you're traveling as a solo parent with one or more kids, this is a common occurrence. It's great for children to have their own hand luggage, but there are times when younger ones will just refuse to handle their own bag and you don't have the time to really deal with it and make them do it themselves.
Solution: My own solution to this is to use a backpack as my own carry-on, and supply my children with wheeled backpacks or bags as their hand-luggage. They just seem more likely to actually handle their own stuff if it has wheels. If you can get a set of luggage that makes it possible to stack bags on top of a wheeled bag so they can all be handled together, that might also really make things easier. When I traveled with my kids when they were infants, I usually used a baby carrier (a Baby Bjorn, and later a Deuter back-carrier). A stroller works too, but you will usually have to check it, either at the check-in counter or at the gate.
7. Your children need the bathroom right now, exactly when you can't get to the bathroom
My kids often need to go to the bathroom when we're waiting at the airport in a really, really long lineup at security or immigration, or just when everyone has stood up in the aisle of the airplane and are waiting for the doors to open. Not ideal for getting to a bathroom.
Solution: Parental harassment. Yes, when we are traveling, I do harass my kids to get them to use the bathroom when it is convenient. If you see a bathroom, especially a roomy one where you can easily follow your kids inside, and bring more than one kid, then take the opportunity. On the plane, I try to seriously encourage the kids to use the bathroom about one hour before landing, and any time I notice there's not a long lineup for the washrooms.
8. Electronic gadgets are not charged and can't be used leading to problems, meltdowns and boredom
There are so many gadgets you can bring along on a flight these days, and my main solution to this problem has usually been to bring as few power-hungry gadgets as possible. However, a phone and my e-reader always come along, and on our next trip, I believe the kids will be bringing their tablets as well.
Solution: Charge everything up before you leave home. Also, bring the cables and devices needed to recharge them while you're traveling. Many airports and airplanes do have outlets for this purpose these days. If you're traveling abroad, remember that you may need a converter in order to charge your gadgets. There are some travel-chargers that can come in very handy too.
9. On a long flight, kids are suddenly so bored that they can barely stay in their own skin
This will happen on long flights, unless you are lucky enough that your kids fall asleep and sleep through the boredom phase. In their boredom (usually exacerbated by the children also being tired and/or anxious and hungry as well), even the best of kids can get a little crazy.
Solution: Several possibilities here. Try to find a movie they haven't watched yet on the on-board entertainment system, or an app or game they haven't yet played with on board. Go for a little walk around the cabin (not a lot of space, but it might still help). Also keep one or two activities like activity books, a new book to read, or some kind of travel-sized game in your carry-on to pop out as a surprise as a last resort. Finally, bring some treats to soothe them with and hope the boredom passes: my daughter reacts well to lollipops for example.
10. Your child is so anxious and frightened that they're melting down on the plane or at the airport
I personally believe that anxiety (and being tired on long flights) causes a lot of the problematic behaviour people often complain about from kids on flights. And I believe this based on my own experiences with my children, especially my son who was very scared of flying until he was about 5 or 6 years old. Anxious adults sometimes numb themselves with medication or alcohol, while kids can show their fear by becoming unruly, loud, obnoxious, throwing tantrums, and so on.
Solution: Talk to your kids about the trip in some detail ahead of time. Talk about what will happen on the airport and on the plane. Read about planes, learn about planes and airports, and talk about it with your child a lot. It has been invaluable for my son to get a handle on his own fears and be able to cope with them. Try to get them to tell you what is bothering them (strange sounds? seat-belt too tight? tired? thirsty? hungry?) to defuse tension and fear a little sooner. Be comforting and reassuring. It is sometimes quite amazing what a child will imagine is going on when a wing changes shape, or when they hear the thud of the wheels going down before landing. Try to understand what's causing their fear and anxiety and you will be better equipped to help.