Flying with Young Children

Summer is here, which often means…vacation! However, if you are the parent of several young children, you may have realized that vacation doesn’t necessarily mean a break. Traveling with young children can be stressful and a lot of work. One aspect of traveling that can be the most stressful is flying. We recently returned from my parent’s house in California, and while it is definitely worth it to spend time with family and friends, flying alone with two kids age 2 and 4 while 7 months pregnant is not exactly my idea of a good time.

I often feel envious watching passengers on a plane as they sleep, read, play on their phone, etc., while I am busy spending every ounce of energy I have to keep my children happy and occupied so we aren’t “that family” on the plane. However, flying with young children doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative experience, and with the right preparation, can actually be enjoyable (although still a lot of work!). Since my son was born 4 years ago, we have flown several times each year, mostly on my own, so I feel like I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way. I have been fortunate enough to have not had more than a 3 hour flight with kids, so please keep that in mind as you read these suggestions, but hopefully you will find these tips helpful as you prepare for your summer “vacations”:

Before you fly

Consider timing – There is no “right” time to fly with young children, but it is definitely important to take into consideration your own family’s needs and schedules before booking your tickets. It might not always be possible, depending on cost and availability, but whenever you can, think through flight times carefully. Sometimes it might even be worth it to pay a little extra for an ideal flight time! Do you have a young baby or a child who sleeps well on the go? Consider timing flights during nap or bedtimes. Alternatively, like me, do you have a child who absolutely will not sleep on a flight? You’ll want to time flights to overlap normal sleep schedules as little as possible to avoid an overtired and cranky child. Make sure to take into account how much time you will need getting to, and in, the airport as well. There might not be a perfect flight time for you, but you can at least minimize issues by thinking it through.

Pack thoughtfully – Packing with young children is not as simple as throwing a few things in a suitcase and heading out. You’ll not only want to think about what you pack, but how you pack it. As frustrating as it is to have to pay baggage fees, hauling an extra carry on suitcase through the airport along with your kids may just not be an option. Will you need a car seat at your destination? You will have to decide between baggage checking, gate checking, or bringing it on the plane. A stroller can be very helpful for getting through the airport, but make sure you have a plan for it once you reach your destination. Will you have help getting everything to and from the airport? Look for creative solutions for hauling luggage, especially if you will be alone, such as tying items together. If you have a chance, practice with your luggage beforehand. Experiment with different arrangements until you find what will work best for you. You’ll want to carefully think through your carry on bags as well. You want to make sure you are prepared with young children, but also keep items to a minimum so you aren’t overloaded.

Getting through the airport

Timing is everything – Deciding when to get the airport can be tricky to find just the right balance. You want enough time to not feel rushed, but you also don’t want to be sitting for an hour or more with young children waiting to get on the plane. For me, an hour to an hour 15 min has always worked really well, but I know others feel more comfortable with at least 1.5 hours. Make sure to factor in whether you are checking luggage, whether it’s a holiday or weekend, etc.

Have a plan – Getting through security with young children can be one of the most daunting tasks of flying. It can actually be done quite efficiently with the right preparation. First, make sure you utilize the family lane! Not all airports have them, but Phoenix Sky Harbor does, so you should be able to use it at least one way. This allows you to bypass the long line and avoid starting off your trip with bored, tired kids. Next, think through how you will get everything, and everyone, through security. This may sound like overkill, but decide which items will go together in buckets, which you will place on the conveyor belt first, etc. I like to leave my kids in the stroller as long as possible so I can put everything on without worrying about where they are, and then take them out last minute. If you are bringing formula, milk, or water bottles for the kids, take them out of your bag and place them in the bucket separately, because then they will only need to test those, not search your whole bag. Be conscious of what you wear also. Luckily kids do not need to remove their shoes, but you will, so keep your attire as simple as possible. Tying your shoes or putting on a belt or jewelry after security on your own may not be a big deal, but when you’re juggling several kids, it’s best to avoid all together.

Keep them busy – Hopefully if you timed it well, once you get through security you will not have to rush to your gate, but you will also not find yourself with a ton of time to kill. If you do find that you have a lot of extra time, you will want to use it wisely. First, take care of necessities. Use the potty, change diapers, get food or water, etc. That way you won’t feel rushed once it’s time to board. After all that is taken care of, find activities to stay busy. If I can, I try to find a spot near a window, because looking at the planes can keep children happy for quite some time. I try not to use up any of the activities we packed for the plane, but if you know you will have a lot of time in the airport, then pack one or two extra. Sometimes I bring a light-weight blanket and have my kids sit on that in the airport to provide boundaries and avoid them running off. If you don’t have too much luggage or you have an extra person, going for a walk can be a great option, just don’t go too far. The airport is a great place for people watching and guessing games as well.

Getting on the plane – Most airlines still do pre-boarding for families with young children, but policies can vary. I personally prefer to wait until as late as possible to board, because that means less sitting on the plane. However, if you think it will take you some time to get settled on the plane, board as soon as you can. Just like going through security, make sure you have a plan for getting on the plane. Will you be gate checking a stroller or car seat? Make sure to be very specific with your children on where to stand while you are folding up strollers or gate checking items. If you are bringing a car seat on the plane, you can have them sit in it while you gate check your other items.

Use help – Don’t be afraid to use people around you for help! During traveling I have been both appalled at how few people offer to help, as well as impressed with how helpful others can be. My pride often gets in the way and I find that I usually decline when people offer to help, only to wonder why later. Sure, maybe I “can” do it on my own, but why not utilize help when offered! Allow people to put your suitcase on the security belt, unfold your stroller, carry your car seat on, even hold your baby if necessary. If you know you will need a lot of help in the airport, I’ve heard that you can get passes for friends or family to assist you to the gate. It’s ok to not be supermom!