Caring for young children at home with all their toys and plenty of space, that’s one thing. It’s another entirely to get your kids onto a plane. No one enjoys airports, so the other passengers are grumpy, just waiting for your kids to make a peep. And they will. You can’t calm your kids down with a change of scenery. No grandma or babysitter is there to hold the baby while you regroup. Just a plane full of side-eye.
Here’s Happy Traveler’s parent-tested advice.
Some children sleep on planes, but many won’t. You won’t know until you try, so make sure your first flight is scheduled during your toddler’s longest, best wakeful time. Maybe 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. is your happy kid window. If sleepiness hits, great. If not, at least you’re not hauling around a kid who is missing a nap on top of everything else.
Unless you have a super easygoing child, you might not want to try for international travel. Flights at four hours or less are much better than long flights. If you must take a longer flight, consider flying direct so that the overall travel day is shorter. Or, put off longer trips until your child is old enough to enjoy the luxury of unlimited screen time.
No matter how short your flights, your child will be cranky afterwards, and so will you, most likely. Make simple plans for the day of your travel: a dip in the pool, dinner nearby, on time to bed.
Young children often get upset or uncomfortable during takeoff and landing. Nursing or snacking distracts them, as well as helping to clear their ears.
At least double what you’d bring for a typical outing. Don’t bring anything that makes a huge mess: cheese, fruit, food pouches, cut up vegetables, and pretzels are good choices. Maybe bring one indulgent treat, which can dry up tears instantly when you need to head off a tantrum.
The FAA allows children under 2 to sit on your lap for free, but new walkers are notoriously reluctant to sit still. If you can afford to buy your child a seat, it will give you a bit of extra room. Bonus points if you ask for a two-seat row, which are perfect for single parents traveling with one child.
You will all be happier if your child can turn around, pound or bang on her seat, bounce up and down, and take a few steps back and forth. It will improve her behavior over the duration of the trip.
Make it your mission to ask which bathroom has the changing table as soon as you set foot on the plane. Not every bathroom has one. Otherwise, you may find yourself waiting for the bathroom or attempting to change your child in your lap. Not fun.
This is a job for the dollar store! New toys or gadgets are your secret weapon. Go to any dollar store and stock up on toys your child will like: measuring spoons, board books, pinwheels, blocks.
Don’t throw open the dollar-store bag and let your child have at it, however. Introduce each new item slowly. When your child is getting tired of playing with one toy, have the next one ready. If you individually wrap each item in a zip-top bag (or even gift wrap) it will add interest and specialness, as well as slowing down the progress through the toy hoard.
If you plan carefully and pack a special bag full of the items that will keep your child happily entertained, traveling with your child can even be fun. Of course, as every parent knows: it’s easier to prevent a tantrum than to stop one once it’s started.