Flying with Kids

flying with kids

The fairly-standard flight from Honolulu to LA departs at about 8:30 pm, and arrives the next morning at about 5:30 am. One of the most stressful, flop-sweat covered moments of parenting happened to me when we were trying to get onto that flight. We were finishing up a pretty great trip, and it seemed like things were going to match up well – the flight should have dovetailed nicely with naptime. But flying with kids isn’t quite that easy.

The flight was delayed.

So by the time we finally got on, we and our friends were both carrying on crabby, over-tired one-year-olds. Right around the time the doors closed, our daughter started screaming. Not crying. Screaming. My wife and I deployed every trick in our arsenal. Try a bottle! Try a pacifier! Try a toy! What about rocking?!? Should we start apologizing to the people sitting around us now or just wait until they try to murder us?

To our seat neighbors’ credit, they didn’t say anything to us, though I was keeping up a pretty steady narrative of what they were probably thinking in my head. It was the beginning of a long, late, and already-delayed flight. The screaming did not bode well.

To our deep relief, after 45 minutes or so of screaming (which felt like 45 hours), Belle fell asleep. And she stayed asleep until we touched down in LA.

As the parent of a young child, it can be pretty easy to just write off air travel altogether. Almost all of us have listened to a screaming kid on a plane. Now that we have kids, we don’t want to be that parent with the screaming kid. But unless you live near all or most of your relatives, it can be necessary. And even if flying isn’t necessary to see family, it can be necessary for your own sanity. The trip we took to Hawaii with our friends and their one-year-old involved renting a minivan for the first time and spending quite a bit of time at the house we rented, since we needed to schedule activities around competing naptimes for the sake of everyone’s sanity. But it was still a great trip, and a great way of demonstrating to ourselves that air travel was doable with a small kid, with the right planning. Fast forward a few years, and thanks to the locations of distant grandparents, Belle has been on over a dozen flights, and my wife has even traveled with both girls on her own. It’s been worth it, though certainly stressful at times.

Also, as lap children, kids under 2 fly free on most domestic flights. Pack your bags.

Advice for Flying with Kids

Here are some things that made air travel with kiddos a little easier:

  • Talk up the flight. Toddlers, in particular, like patterns. Change can be jarring. So while you can just toss your six-month-old in her carseat and drive to the airport, a three-year-old is going to need a bit of a warmup before her first flight. Books about airports can be a good start, and talking about how much fun they’re going to have at grandma’s or wherever.
  • Give yourself plenty of time. Fortunately, my wife and I are both early-at-the-airport people. On most airlines, flying with an infant means bringing a birth certificate (speaking of: bring a birth certificate) and check-in in-person. That, plus changing the occasional diaper blowout and otherwise schlepping things through the airport, all take time. Give yourself plenty of time.
  • Take direct flights. Connections double your odds of losing baggage or missing a flight. In the past, I’ve always been of the mindset of “yeah sure, I’ll connect through Charlotte; I’ll save $40!” That way lies madness when flying with kids. Spend a little extra money and go straight through. It also makes sense to pay a little more for a non-ludicrous flight schedule. You and your kid will both be less crabby if you’re not arriving at 11:30pm or slogging through rush hour.
  • Pack smart. This means paying a lot of attention to the frequent flier/backpacker mantra of taking exactly what you need, and no more.
    • Things you need: Snacks. Way more snacks than you think you need. Snacks for you, snacks for the kid. “But they sell snacks!” Not if you’re running late; not if the plane is taxiing; and likely not the kind of snacks your kid usually eats. Bring snacks. Also bring whatever your kid is entertained by at the moment. Bring the kid’s favorite toy. Bring a carrier to carry the kid around in; things go smoother if you have both hands free for luggage and the like. We’ve had good luck packing cars eats in big huge bags (along these lines), along with clothes and the like. But note that car seats and strollers won’t count against your luggage restrictions, so bring them if you need them. Bring a water bottle for you and a bottle or two for the kid, along with spare formula/breastmilk (and also have fun with your additional screening coming through security). And bring a birth certificate for your kid if they’re going to be a lap child. Not all airlines require them, but better safe than sorry.
    • Things you don’t need: You need some extra clothes for you and the kid, but not all the extra clothes. Your destination has ways to wash clothes, even if it’s just a sink and a towel rack. Leave the big dead-tree books at home, though loading something to read on your phone or kindle isn’t a bad idea (a little plug for kindles here; their backlights come in handy when you’re trying to read with a kid strapped to you).
  • Don’t stress about screen time. Even if you’re otherwise militant about restricting screen time, air travel is an unusual enough event that you can use it as an excuse for something special. And if watching Octonauts is going to keep your kid happy for a three-hour flight, it’s not the hill to die on.
  • Consider some new toys. Think dollar store, not Barbie Dream House. Squirrel them away and break them out when you need reinforcements. We’ve had good luck with these water coloring books, since they’re re-usable and don’t make a mess. Stickers can work too.
  • Don’t take the kid off going through security. So you’re using a kid carrier. Your kid is sleeping. You get to the front of the security line. Don’t take the kid off! As of this writing, current TSA policies allow you to walk through a metal detector with the kid still attached; they’ll just subject you to an additional hand-wipe test. Totally worth it to not wake the kid up.
  • Bring baby wipes. Even if your kid is out of diapers, there will be something sticky that needs to be cleaned up at some point.
  • Mind your own stress levels. Kids often pick up on more than we give them credit for, and they’re often very sensitive to their parents’ moods. You’re anxious? They’re anxious. The more you relax and accept that sure, the flight’s delayed, but you’re going to get there at some point, the more your kid will allow herself to relax and take in this new experience.
  • Accept help. Pooping in an airplane bathroom is difficult. It’s more difficult if you’re trying to hold a baby at the same time. If a flight attendant or fellow passenger offers to hold the baby for a few minutes while you fetch a bag or hit the head, say yes. It’s not like they can kidnap the kid at 30,000 feet.

Flying with kids is tougher than flying alone. But it’s hard to replace the benefits of spending time with relatives or exposing your kids to new places. Time to get moving.