blogspot stats

Monday, November 24, 2008

Airline Traveling with Kids: Flying without Fear

Before we had kids, we saw those pathetic families in airports with mountains of luggage, screaming kids and bags not only streaming behind them, but dragging down their eyelids. Yes, we felt a little sorry for them. But mostly we hoped they weren’t sitting near us.

And now we’re them. Follow these steps, and any passenger will be happy as your seat mate.

The best flights. This is a no-brainer. Fly direct if at all possible. Do it even if it costs you more. A lot more. Child time on airplanes is like dog time. Each hour feels like seven.

Checking the carseat. Let’s say you’ll need a carseat at your destination. Do you check it as luggage or bring it on board? It depends.

If you paid for a seat, bring it on board and strap it in. Aside from safety, the advantage is that your child might actually fall asleep on the plane. And that makes it easier for you to use the restroom and eat the delicious airline peanuts.

For older kids, it’s a toss up. My 3 year old is just as happy sitting in the seat with the safety belt, and it’s one less thing to lug through the airport. The airlines usually put the seats in clear plastic bags, so they arrive clean.

To get through screening easily, wear shoes with no laces. Don’t wear a belt – too much time. Count your carry-ons (or at least the number of bins you use) before sending them through the x-ray machine so you know how many you need at the end. I almost left a leather coat at the exit after failing to do this.

Contrary to popular belief, not all airlines let you board early. Southwest Airlines lets you on between the A and B groups (unless you already have A boarding passes) if your child is 5 or younger. But American? You, your carseats, backpacks, and 50 pounds of “must have” carry-on luggage boards with everyone else.

But boarding early is overrated. Do you really want to feel trapped for another 30 minutes? Sure you can be the first to stuff that overhead bin with your winter coat and the carry-on luggage you're too cheap to pay to check. But if your child is mobile, that extra time on the plane is no fun for you or junior. My advice? Board LAST. Let junior get out some energy on that clean, hygienic airport carpet. Limit your carry-ons and use the space underneath the seat in front of you.

Lap child or extra seat?Purchasing seats for kids under two is not required by the airlines. For these kids, you’ll pay half the cost of your ticket on most airlines (but your baby can earn full frequent flyer miles). Over age two, you’ll pay full fare.

In the olden days (pre-9/11 and before airlines were all going bankrupt and cutting flights), families could easily snag an empty seat for their child. It might not be next to you, but surely some kind passenger with grandkids would sacrifice by moving so your screaming bundle could have a seat to call her own. These days, the plane will be full. If there’s a spare seat, buy a lottery ticket when exiting the plane. It’s your lucky day.

Purchasing a seat does not guarantee your child will sit in it. But you’ll have a place for toys, food and sweaters, and your child has one less person to poke and prod during the flight (of course the people in front of and behind you are still fair game).

Internationally, you’ll pay fees for your child if you don’t buy a seat. A friend took her baby to England and it cost her $100 for her lap child. And she suffered the entire trip, swearing she’d buy a seat for her baby on her next overseas flight.

Some airlines require you to show a birth certificate for your lap child, to ensure he is under age two. Make a copy and put it with your flight information, so you won’t be forced to buy a last-minute ticket for him if the check-in agent can’t tell a three month old from a three year old.

Entertaining Junior
While the standard goody bag of toys is helpful, parents ignore the hidden treasures already on the plane: barf bags, laminated airline safety cards, in-flight shopping magazines (with pictures of kids and toys), in-flight snack packets (at least the free ones on Southwest). They have texture, noise and don’t hurt if thrown. And play with plastic cups from the beverage cart and headphones too.

Bring along crayons and stickers to transform the barf bag into a puppet. Blow bubbles in the aisle – other kids will appreciate it too (mini bottles are under 3 ounces). Use the airline magazine photos to make up stories. The headphones are fun as-is, and many airlines have kids’ music as a selection. Bring or rent a portable DVD player or save movies on your iPad. Yes and Know invisible ink books are awesome. Wikki Stix are great, as long as you don't need to cut them. Older kids can make friendship bracelets (nail clippers work for cutting), and of course there's the Rainbow Loom.

Get creative. On one miserable flight with a screaming two year old (ours) we were so desperate we actually gave her a beer can to play with. We got some strange looks, but it kept her entertained long enough for us to drink the other beer.

Happy Child/Happy Parent
A little bribe goes a long way to make flying easier. Figure out what it would take for your child to behave on a flight – whether it’s stickers, M&Ms or a Hot Wheels car at the end of the flight. And remind Junior when he starts whining that he only gets his special treat if he behaves.

Bring food, even if its being served on the flight (yeah, right!). Your plane could be late. Domestic flights these days (flying coach) usually only sell meals on board – you’re stuck with their overpriced selection. Sandwiches, cheese sticks, goldfish, carrots - we bring it all.

I know some of you are going to shake your heads at this, but some parents give their kids Benedryl to help them sleep during the flight. I’m not taking a stand (though it hasn’t worked for me). If you consider doing this, ask your doctor the correct dose for your child. Try it out ahead of time. Some children have the opposite reaction, becoming hyperactive, not sedated, with Benedryl’s use.

I highly recommend a carrying device like a Bjorn Bjorn or sling for the flight, if your child is under one year, or is lightweight. The Bjorn (and other front-carriers) cannot be worn during take off and landing (we’ve been caught numerous times, but it is an FAA regulation). All other times are fine. Having your child quiet is invaluable. Having your hands free during that time is golden.

What to bring
Bring a lightweight stroller, preferably one with a basket. Even if your child won’t ride in it, it doubles as a luggage cart in the airport. Check the stroller at the gate, and you’ll have it waiting for you at your destination gate.

Bring extra diapers, extra clothes (for parents and kids) and extra plastic bags. My daughter was talented enough to poop in her pants while sitting, avoiding the diaper altogether. She can leak through her shorts onto Dad’s khakis. And she can spill six ounces of apple juice in my lap 20 minutes into the flight. Did I mention you should bring extra clothes?

If all else fails, bring correct change for drinks in the cabin (most airlines now only accept credit cards) – and order them for yourselves and everyone around you. Happy trails!


  1. Oh, Debbie,

    This is somewhat funny. And it also exhausted me to read how much parents must do when flying with young children.

    I was just talking about the car seat issue with a group of concierges in Sedona this past week. They were telling me how unprepared some parents are if they don't bring car seats with them, expecting that hotels will have them on site. Not always true, I learned, because of liability issues involved. If hotels do have them on hand, hotel employees cannot put them in the car or strap the child in with them. The parents have to do that. Again, the liability issue.

    So maybe that's another tip to share with your readers. It's best to call ahead and find out whether car seats are available at your final destination, rather than to risk the unknown. I'd hate to have to lug the thing around, but I'd rather do that than face what to do if you don't have one. Our parents sure didn't have to deal with this issue.

    Jackie Dishner

  2. "Child time on airplanes is like dog time. Each hour feels like seven."

    I disagree!

    My kid loves airplane routines so much he turned everything with wheels on it into a drinks cart for years. When he got old enough to pretend flying airplanes that crashed, the severity of the crash always was told, among other things, by where the drinks cart was and whether it was strapped in.

    But it wasn't just the cart. It was all the routines and rituals--little ones tend to be into those things, you know. He studies the safety card, really watches the demo and longs to touch the oxygen mask. He doesn't beg for meals, because he sees the order of the cart, and knows all the steps involved in serving and cleaning up a meal on a plane (I don't).

    He used to get huge smiles at security when he'd pull the toiletries baggie out of his own wheelie (the suitcase looks like Thomas), and he loves to watch things come out of the xray machine.

    Of course, we fly prepared, with snacks, a variety of toys, etc.

    We say hi and introduce ourselves to people around us. At the end of flights, he is often complimented by name for his good behavior.

  3. Hi everyone,
    " Suzie Goes On An Aeroplane " is now available in paperback., take a look if you have five minutes.

  4. I have been flying internationally since I was an infant. I had my son 4 years ago, and i just booked his first flight. It’s only a 3 hour flight from Toronto to Florida, but boy am I nervous! These are great tips!