Sucks. This is something that parents can pretty much universally agree upon. Even if parents are blathering on about how raising kids is invariably blissful, or how birth is a miraculous and infinitely wondrous event (you can read my thoughts on that here), get talking about flying with their kids and they will admit, ahem, that yes, that can be somewhat trying. A wee bit stressful. Something of a strain at times. Give them another glass of Merlot and they’ll begin spilling their horror stories. Projectile vomit. Running out of diapers with a baby with the runs. Flight attendants with near-psychotic pedophobia. Fellow passengers with the same. Delays, missed flights, meltdowns while you’re trying to maneuver intractable luggage.
Some airlines don’t make it any easier. In fact, some seem to have decided to wage war on child travel. United has recently announced that it will no longer offer pre-boarding for families with small children. This really comes as no surprise, since United is the airline that mistreated my friend and her new baby so badly that she, in tears, turned to the flight attendant who was bullying her and asked, “Why are you treating me like this?” The answer, and I quote: “United is not a child friendly airline.” Really? Is that their new advertising slogan? ‘United:We’re NOT Child Friendly.’ Or, ‘Let’s Fly Together! (But Leave Your Revolting Brats at Home)’. US carriers are generally much worse than their European counterparts – we fly Lufthansa a lot and they are great with kids, welcoming them on board with toys, games, and plush toys. No, really, they do.
There are things you can do to make the flight more enjoyable – that is, less of a nightmare.
- If your child is under about 14 months and will fit in a bassinet, get one. Period. Bassinet rows are immediately behind the bulkheads, with the baby bed hanging on the wall in front of you. While that limits your space significantly, the bulkhead rows offer more leg room than others, so you do have more room to stretch out. Our first son slept blissfully in airplane bassinets – our younger son less so, but reasonably well – and it eliminates the horror of having a baby on your lap for countless airplane hours. You need to reserve a bassinet row when you book your flights, and even then some airlines won’t guarantee them – remind them at the check-in counter and perhaps again at the gate.
- These little plastic motorcycles from Supermopi are great toys for ages around 15 months to three years, but we’ve found them particularly indispensable in airports. The children are entertained by tooling around on them and riding the moving sidewalks, and it frees up your hands to pull carry-ons. Your kids can ride them right to the plane, and they fit nicely in the overhead compartment.
- It goes without saying, but have entertainment. For older kids that’s easy – they can watch the inflight movies, or bring your laptop or a portable DVD player, even if under normal circumstances you’d never let your kids watch films for six straight hours. These aren’t normal circumstances – let them veg as long as they want. Younger kids can spend some time coloring – just print up some pages from the web and bring a pack of crayons. Small magnetic drawing boards can be wiped away again and again, and the pencil is attached to the board, so unlike with crayons you won’t be continually rummaging around under the seats for dropped items. Cheerios double as a snack and a necklace-making kit. Just bring some thread or string and a Ziploc bag of Cheerios and you’re in business. Cloth activity books with things like buttons, snaps, and zippers can keep a kid busy for a surprisingly long time. Favorite board books and toys are great, but new ones are even better. Wrap them up ahead of time and let your kid unwrap them on the plane – it eats up precious minutes and makes the item seem special.
- Feed the beast. That is, bring snacks, lots of snacks. A hungry child is an angry child, and eating both entertains and mollifies. Just avoid sugary things – the last thing you need is a toddler all hopped up on goof balls. Also take along an empty water bottle for each kid and fill it on the plane – it’s better than having to ask for water all the time, and an open cup on one of those airplane trays is an invitation to a wet lap. In fact, I think we’ve taken very few flights in which one or both of our kids haven’t spilled a drink. When those plastic cups aren’t being spilled they’re in danger of being so, so water bottles keep everyone dry and reduce the tension convention. They can also be shaken, something which young kids seem to find bizarrely entertaining.
- Come up with a figure for as many diapers as you think you’ll need for the flight, then double it. We’ve run out of diapers on flights. It’s not pretty.
- Layer. Flights can range from miserably hot to uncomfortably chilly, often within a short span of time. Many flights no longer offer blankets (or pillows), so bring along a sweatshirt in case it gets cold. If you plan to have your kids sleep on the plane, you might want to carry on a pair of pajamas. Not only are they more comfortable, but the simple act of changing into them signals to the child that it’s time to sleep.
- One of my brothers swears by Benadryl, but we’ve never sedated our kids for flights. The risks and possible side effects probably outweigh the benefits, so it’s not recommended. If you do decide to medicate, give it a trial run ahead of time. Some kids react to antihistamines like Benadryl by becoming intensely hyperactive. You don’t want that.
- Car seat or no car seat? Well, we’ve had mixed results. Lugging the damn things around the airport is a pain, as is getting them, along with your carry-ons and your kids, down the airplane aisle, but if your kid is used to sleeping in the car then a seat may be advantageous. You need to check in advance if your car seat is airline approved, and know that even if it is you’re likely to get some flak from flight attendants. Ignore them. If you’re going to need them at your destination anyway it’s probably worthwhile – a week’s car seat rental will cost you about the same as buying a new one.
- Relax. It’s not that bad, even when it is, and if you’re overwrought and barking at your kids then they’re going to be overwrought too. Remember that for some children airports and airplane travel can be really stressful – fear of separation and abandonment not the least of their anxieties – so give yourselves plenty of time and when things go pear-shaped take a deep breath, force a smile, and remember that this too is part of your holiday. Just not the best part.