Safe, happy airplane travel with kids
Whoever said “Getting there is half the fun” never flew cross-country with a needy newborn, a boisterous toddler or a moody tween, not to mention a purse full of wrinkled airline tickets and coloring books, snacks for every member of the family, and a caravan of luggage.
At best, airplane travel with children can be educational and exciting. At worst, it’s an all-out nightmare. Here’s how to plan for a memorable (in a good way) trip that starts before you land.
BABY/TODDER YEARS 0-4
Air travel with tots in tow takes planning, patience and more planning. Celebrity travel expert and mom Amy Graff recommends using a packing list (you can find one at BabyCenter.com). “You might not find the right kind of diapers or that exact baby food your little one loves at your destination. This is the time when you don’t want to forget anything.” Prep for a smooth takeoff and landing by planning to feed baby — by breast or bottle — during the plane’s ascent and descent; the sucking motion helps equalize pressure inside their tiny ears to minimize painful popping (and the resulting screams). Remember to pack a few more diapers than you think you’ll need on your flight, and a change of clothes — or several. And don’t forget to pack extra clothes for a toddler or preschooler in your carry-on. On a long flight from California to North Carolina, Raleigh native Christen Pope remembered to pack plenty of clothes for 7-month-old Sydney but forgot a change for her newly potty-trained 3-year-old, Jaden. Guess who needed fresh pants shortly after takeoff? She can bet she’ll never forget again.
SCHOOL YEARS 5-12
Elementary-age children usually love plane travel but can be notoriously slow to get through airports. Yelling “Let’s GO!” at the top of your lungs may turn some heads, but it won’t make your poky pre-teen move any faster. Instead, make the most of kids’ pre-vacation excitement by treating the airport as a fun destination. Start by turning the dreaded security screen into a race; have kids try to get their shoes off and unload their luggage onto the conveyer belt as fast as they possibly can, says Graff. “It’s a game of speed and it can be a lot of fun.” School-age kids respond well to delegation, so assign each child a responsibility pre-takeoff and in-flight, like carrying the family’s flight snacks or watching carry-ons as they go through the security conveyor. Grade-schoolers are also old enough to take responsibility for their personal belongings, both in the airport and in-flight; before boarding and deplaning, gently remind your child to gather her things — but don’t do it for her (you undoubtedly have your hands full).
TEEN YEARS 13-18
A long flight layover with bickering teen siblings is a recipe for vacation disaster. Quell squabbles by allowing each sibling to take charge of a family decision (one can pick a lunch locale at the airport, while another gets to select dinner at the destination). Bring a deck of cards, teen-friendly snacks, and an extra set of batteries and AC adapters to keep electronics charged while you wait. On the trip, avoid the “teen tuneout” during travel by creating a connection to your destination before you leave. Did your family’s ancestors hail from the region? Do you have childhood stories about the area? Any major historical happenings? Young teens may get a kick out of an on-flight scavenger hunt with landmarks to watch for during takeoff and landing. Appointing a teen “trip historian” with responsibility for journaling and documenting the trip with photos ensures that you’ll have plenty of memorabilia — and gives you a chance to view the trip through your teen’s eyes.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is “Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.”