Air Travel with Kids

Whether you love flying or you hate it, you’re sure to be a little daunted by the prospect of air travel with kids. Air ports are busy, crowded, chaotic places which are challenging for adults to maneuver through on their own. Having one or more children in tow can significantly increase the challenge.

Our family has had a lot of experience flying, most of it cross-continental. I am a firm believer that the more you can do to prepare yourself and your kids for air travel, the better your trip is likely to be. Here are a few suggestions for traveling by air with kids.

Prepare Kids in Advance

Air travel is exciting, especially for children. It can also be intimidating and overwhelming, especially if they don’t know what to expect.

Prepare your children by talking to them about the entire process from beginning to end. Talk about waiting in line to check bags, leaving your luggage to be loaded on the airplane, going through security, waiting at the gate and seeing the airplanes take off and land. Talk about getting on the airplane, finding your seat and what it feels like to go up into the air. 

Be prepared to repeat your explanations multiple times as children may have many questions. It’s possible too that they may just want to hear it again because talking about it makes it less intimidating. 

In addition to explaining what will happen on the trip, talk about expectations regarding behavior. Let children know, for instance, that you will need them to stay close to you while you are in the airport and explain why.

One great way to help children prepare for a new experience is to read about it. There are a number picture books available on the topic of air travel. I recommend one or more of the books shown below*.

*affiliate links

Label Young Children

Write your mobile number on your child’s arm so others can easily contact you if (heaven forbid) you get separated from your child.

Allow Extra Time

As I’m sure you know, it is not uncommon to spend an hour or more standing in line waiting to check in for a flight, to clear customs or to pass through security. These are stressful situations when you have all the time in the world. If you are pressed for time, they can be downright unbearable. Save yourself a lot of stress by allowing plenty of extra time for checking in and getting where you need to be.

Early arrival will not only reduce stress in the airport, it will also greatly increase the likelihood that your family will be able to sit together on the airplane. It’s no fun having your spouse on the other end of the airplane while you deal with the kids entirely on your own, and it’s even more disconcerting to have a child separated from the rest of the family by several rows (this has  happened to me when I was traveling alone with the kids).

Encourage Movement and Exploration

Once through security, have fun exploring the airport with your children. Encourage them to move about and expend energy. They will soon be cooped up for a few, or perhaps many hours with little opportunity to stretch and roam.

At age ten my youngest son entertained himself for a half an hour or more riding the moving walkway back and forth over and over again. Before allowing him to do so we made sure he understood that he needed to keep to one side, stay out of people’s way and not nudge past other people. Then we sat nearby where we could keep a close eye on him.

Look for Opportunities to Move

I recommend talking with a steward/stewardess once you’re on board. Ask for his/her advice about moving about the cabin during flight. Find out when is the best time to get up and stretch, and where you can allow your child to walk without disturbing others.

Moving about during air travel is important for adults as well as children, especially on long flights. Remaining seated for long periods of time can cause blood clots to form. This happened to my husband once after back to back 14 hour flights. The doctor told us that on an average flight 2-3 people will develop blood clots; it’s a very common occurrence.

Ask for What You Need

While you’re speaking with an airline employee, don’t be shy about asking for what you might need to keep your child happy during flight. For instance, you don’t have to wait for drinks to be served. So long as the seatbelt light is off you can always go and ask a stewardess for a drink for your child. Just because something isn’t openly offered during air travel, that doesn’t mean it isn’t available.

Recommended Reading

Check out this article for more information: Whoa! 10 Things You Didn't Know You Could Ask for on a Plane.

Pack for Comfort

Air travel can be uncomfortable, especially for small children. Changes in cabin pressure can cause ear pain and headaches. For older children, chewing gum is an option. With younger children you might try a pacifier (if you use them) or a sucker to help regulate pressure in their ears.

Airlines seem to be offering fewer and fewer amenities, particularly on domestic flights. Blankets and pillows may not be available on your flight. When it comes to clothing, layers are recommended even in summer. It may be 95 degrees outside, but it’s likely to be chilly on the aircraft once all the air vents start blowing. If your child is young, pack their favorite comfort item as well.

It’s also a good idea to pack a change of clothes for both you and your child. If a drink gets spilled (and they often do with young children on flights) or some other accident occurs, you’ll be ready with what you need to remain comfortable.

In addition to clothing be sure to pack plenty of snacks. Even if your flight provides a meal, there’s a good chance your child might not be willing to eat much, if any, of it. Airline food isn’t the best and young palates tend to get more finicky in unfamiliar surroundings.

Check for Contraband

You’d be surprised what a child might innocently stuff in their backpack, blissfully ignorant of the rigorous restrictions associated with air travel. My ten year old once stuck the pocket knife his grandfather had given him during the trip in his carry-on. Surprisingly it made it through multiple security points in different airports before being discovered and confiscated in Germany. The discovery of a blacklisted item can greatly delay your progress through the airport.

On another occasion in Jordan we were forced to remove a toy airplane from my 6-year-old’s backpack. Fortunately, we had not yet checked our bags so we didn’t have to give it up. The Jordanian security officer felt that the toy plane (which was only about 4 inches long) presented a potential danger because it was a fighter plane and the tip of the nose was pointed. He proved his point to us by holding the pointed end of the toy plane up to his own throat and making a jabbing motion to emphasize that it could be used to hurt someone. We complied, but we had a good laugh over that one.

Use Backpacks as Carry-ons

Backpacks are ideal for air travel. They hold a lot of stuff. They come in different sizes to fit every kid (including toddlers). Because they are meant to be worn on the back, they allow you to move with greater ease through the airport. This is true for parents as well as kids. There is a lot to say for having your hands free when you are traveling with kids.

Many backpacks are compartmentalized making it easy to keep stuff separate so you can find what you’re looking for without having to dig through the whole thing. Having a backpack for each child will help limit bickering among children over who gets to use what. It will also allow you to bring more stuff. The downside, of course, is that it will require you to keep track of more stuff…

Pack Old Favorites and New Surprises

Allow children to choose a couple of their favorite things to bring on the airplane to keep them entertained. Children are not inclined to consider such things as weight, space limitations or consideration for other passengers when selecting toys and activities for travel, so be sure to approve each item before the trip.

I also recommend packing a few surprises for your children to be unveiled at various points along the journey. Introducing a new book, game or small toy intermittently can keep children occupied and happy longer.

You might also consider bringing a tablet or other electronic device loaded with games and videos to entertain your children. It will be particularly effective if the programs and games are new to the children.

When selecting toys for air travel avoid items with lots of small parts or pieces.  Airplane seating is full of small spaces where Barbie shoes and Legos and other toy parts can easily disappear. Seating is also extremely compact, making it difficult to retrieve stray items once dropped.

Make the Most of It

Air travel is an adventure. It’s truly an amazing feat of technology, and it opens up a world of possibilities that would otherwise be beyond the reach of most people. Try to embrace the wonder of it all from your child’s perspective. Make it a learning experience. Talk about the things you see on the ground. Talk about cloud formations and land formations and air currents and anything else that your child shows an interest in.  Enjoy learning together.

Wherever you’re going, be it near of far, I hope the flight will be an enjoyable part of the journey for both you and your children. 

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