Air Travel, Not Scare Travel: Navigating the Not-So-Friendly Skies with your Kids

By Kelly

I knew we’d get the looks. Anyone traveling by plane with three kids, as we did last week, is bound to be on the receiving end of a few “please don’t sit by me” glances. And when we walked up to security, it’s amazing to watch the gait of our fellow travelers quicken, as they try to get ahead of us in line.

But they need not worry. Our family travels a lot, and at this stage, the kids are experts at navigating the complex world of air travel.

My husband and I have gotten more savvy too. When we first started flying with our children, we carefully read all the travel tips for parents on the web. (Some good lists here, here and here.) And we gleaned a lot of ideas from those tip-sheets.

But we’ve also compiled a few less-obvious tactics of our own. Which I’m sharing with you today, for free. I know. My generosity is astounding.

If possible, fly at naptime.
The best time of day for families to fly is a debated topic among experts. Some recommend that families fly as early as possible, to avoid the inevitable delays that snowball throughout the day. Some recommend traveling late at night, the better to score empty seats on the plane.

But we’ve found the early and late flights are almost always occupied by business people, who are the least friendly when it comes to children. So if possible, we try to fly around lunchtime, which gives us the best chance that one of the kids will fall asleep for part of the flight. Plus, the mid-day flights tend to be filled with fellow families and traveling grandparents, which makes for a friendlier group.

Pack healthy snacks and empty sippy cups.
I think everyone knows the airlines no longer serve meals mid-flight. A few still pass out complimentary bags of pretzels and peanuts. (Warning: If your child has a peanut allergy, be sure to call ahead and ask.) A few others sell small snack boxes for $5 or so, which are filled with processed, high-fat, high-sodium junk food. Naturally, my kids love the snack boxes, and to be honest, we’ve bought them on many a trip. The kids will spend 30-45 minutes investigating the contents of that tiny box.

But most of the time, I want my family to eat healthier than processed cheese spread and sausage sticks. So I pack a bag of baby carrots, sliced apples, sugar snap peas and raisins to snack on during the flight.

Best tip: I also pack disposable sippy cups – even for the older kids – and I ask the flight attendants to pour the complimentary beverages right in. That way, I don’t have to worry about a lapful of icy cold apple juice. And yes, I learned this one the hard way.

Don’t bring a stroller unless you have to.
Obviously, if you have a newborn, bring a stroller. Not only is it impossible to carry those newborn carseats without making your knees look like you sustained a Mafia attack, the stroller comes in handy for carrying the extra gear you need for a newborn.

But once your baby is a toddler, and loathe to ride in a seat when he or she could walk, ditch the stroller. You have to fold it down to take it through security, go on elevators instead of escalators at key junctures through the airport, and it makes it harder to maneuver in a crowd.

We went stroller-less on our trip to Colorado last week and we pleasantly surprised at how freeing it was. There were times when we needed to carry our toddler, just to keep up the pace. But overall, it made the trip much easier.

Do look for airport playgrounds.
Airport playgrounds are a fairly new idea, but what an idea, especially since it’s wise for families to arrive at the airport extra early for their flight. Almost half the major U.S. airports have playgrounds these days. It might not be near your gate, but if you have time, letting the kids get their wiggles out by running around a miniature air control tower is the perfect pre-boarding activity.

Don’t overpack toys.
I used to pack a huge bag of toys for each of my children. After all, we had four hours of time to fill between Minneapolis and California. What if they weren’t properly occupied?

Then I found that they were more interested in investigating the contents of the seatback pocket than the coloring books that I brought from home. And each time they wanted something new, I had to bend down and pull out the bag from under the seat in front of me and hold my breath while I scrounged around for the requested plaything.

These days, I let the older kids back a small bag of toys themselves. (My son uses his school lunchbox. That’s the perfect size.) And for the baby, I pack some books, a Color Wonder coloring book and that’s all. It works just fine.

Look for creative play opportunities on the plane.
The seatbelts alone have occupied my kids for 15 minutes. Push in. Click. Pull up. Click. What if I turn it around? What if I try the one on the seat next to me? What if I swing it around my head and hit my sibling in the mouth?

They are also amused by the flight safety pamphlets (all those colors and comic book pictures) and the Sky Mall catalog (we use it to play I Spy). They love to look out the window and talk about what they see on the ground. Even the teeny, tiny bathrooms offer tons of diversions.

Never underestimate a child’s smile to light the way.
A couple of years ago, I flew by myself with my two oldest kids (at the time, 5 and 3) to visit my family in San Jose. I was nervous about flying solo, and the fact that I was flying in the busy post-Christmas rush didn’t help.

As we waited in the long security line, one of the most dour TSA officers I’ve ever seen sat near the front and shouted out instructions. “Have your boarding passes and picture IDs out and accessible! Do not try to bring on liquid of more than 3 ounces! This includes water, coffee, hair spray shampoo and the jam your Grandma gave you as a gift!”

She didn’t sound friendly. My kids were in awe of her fierce manner. I figured she would be the type to look sternly at my ID and then frown at the children before barking at us to move ahead.

But lo and behold, when she saw the kids, her whole demeanor changed. Her voice softened and her face broke into something like a smile and she leaned over and said, “And where are you two traveling today?” My five-year-old, emboldened by the new tone, immediately started sharing our plans of time with Grammie and Papa and the new baby cousin that was soon to be born and a possible trip to Disneyland to see Mickey and Minnie.

The TSA agent listened attentively, even as she was stamping our boarding passes. Then she smiled at me, winked at the kids and waved us through.

Sometimes, traveling with kids is a blessing in disguise.

When she’s not traveling or defeating the piles of post-vacation laundry, Kelly blogs at her personal blog, Love Well.

9 Responses to Air Travel, Not Scare Travel: Navigating the Not-So-Friendly Skies with your Kids
  1. Emily E.
    September 2, 2009 | 3:35 pm

    I think it’s a good idea to try and get a flight that leaves a little BEFORE nap time. It gives your child a chance to settle down before the nap time hits. What you don’t want is a kid whose is cranky because it’s past their naptime and they haven’t made it to the plane yet. I might have learned that one the hard way. 😉

    Also, most people don’t know this, but you can bring juice, milk, formula, whatever, and such through security- even in quantities greater than 3 ozs. You need to tell the TSA agent and they will do a quick check to make sure it’s not a bomb (they have you open it and then wave a little wand over it- it’s pretty neat, actually). Only what you would use during your flights.

  2. edj
    September 2, 2009 | 4:14 pm

    Great tips! I can tell you’re a seasoned traveler. I, too, have logged plenty of miles with young kids. I have to say that I so much prefer traveling with teens and preteens, who are actually helpful with luggage 🙂 It only gets easier.

  3. Susan (5 Minutes for Mom)
    September 2, 2009 | 5:17 pm

    Great advice!

    I too have taken my little ones on a fair number of plane rides. But our toughest is coming up this week… We’re taking our 23 month and our 4 year old to Italy. I took Julia when she was 2 and I was 5 month pg to Italy, and it was rough. I expect this trip to be even tougher.

    We’re actually flying during the night from Vancouver to Amsterdam, so it’ll be interesting to see if the girls sleep the whole time. Here’s hoping!


  4. Sandy (
    September 4, 2009 | 1:00 am

    What a great and unique list of tips! I especially like your observation about the mid-day flight companions being friendlier — it really rings true.

    It does take planning to ensure a smooth flight with little ones, and when traveling with our kids I’ve worked hard to keep them happily occupied and physically comfortable. At de-boarding time, I’ve been grateful for the kids’ cooperation and good behavior, and oh so tired – ready for a break!

  5. Carrie
    September 4, 2009 | 1:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing these great tips! I haven’t flown yet with my son, who’s now 21 months old, but I’m sure I will someday. 🙂 Also, I’ve never seen a playground at an airport, but I have seen special ‘kids gates’ where there are toys & an open area for kids to run around.

  6. Stephanie
    September 9, 2009 | 3:15 pm

    Thank you for the excellent tips. We will be traveling by plane with our two girls at the end of the month so it’s great to hear feedback from a “pro.” I especially like the “empty sippy cup” idea – that is BRILLIANT!

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