Flying With Children
Let’s face it. Flying with young children will never be a time to catch up on sleep, lounge in the terminal with a cup of Starbucks, or speed through a book. Traveling with children takes forethought and attention to detail, but it can be navigated without a loss of sanity. No promises for your dignity though!
I’m not a travel expert; so far things have gone mostly routine for us. We’ve never been forced to spend the night in the airport while waiting out a blizzard, experienced turbulence so great that the bag of peanuts flew off our tray tables, or been on a plane that had to make an emergency landing. But I’ve learned a few things on our international trips from our current home in Belize to our former home in the States.
When flying from Belize to the States, we always have far less luggage than the other way around. I stuff duffel bags in the bottom of our suitcases so we only have to pay for those bags one way.
Save weight guesswork by buying a luggage scale (we use one like this). For $8-10, you can purchase a hand-held luggage scale that can easily be tucked into your bags and is far more accurate than trying to balance your suitcases on a bathroom scale.
To save weight, we take travel-sized cosmetics and about two-days worth of diapers, then purchase what we need when we arrive at our destination.
Rolling up dresses and pants is the most efficient way to pack. Tuck underwear into shoes. Plan to wear your heaviest pair of shoes. Put shampoo and body wash or any other liquids in a plastic bag since they tend to leak due to the pressure changes.
My diaper back pack is probably the most important piece of luggage, and I put a lot of thought into its contents. In the bottom I put diapers—two more than I think I’ll need for the day. Extras go in the carry-on suitcase. On top of that, a light blanket to use as a nursing cover or for warmth on the plane. For the baby, I pack a toy or two, a finger snack such as Cheerios, an extra set of clothes, and a lollipop. (No, I don’t usually feed my babies lollipops, but I need a back-up plan if I can’t get my baby to stop crying.) I keep an extra pair of panties for each child who is potty trained, a comb and travel-sized hair spray, a few hair bands, a pen for filling out customs forms, and night time cold medicine--just in case one of our children is too wired to sleep, and a water bottle, kept empty until through security. When I had a toddler, I also had a bib, some powdered milk, and their favorite sippy cup.
Snacks are essential when traveling. Airport food is often overpriced and sometimes layovers are too tight to have time to buy something, plus eating is a great way to keep little people occupied. I like to choose some healthy snacks like trail mix, string cheese, fruits, and vegetables. (Fruits and vegetables cannot be taken across country borders, so make sure to eat them or throw them away before going through immigration.)
I also make sure there is gum or something chewy in my bag to eat during take-off and landing. If little mouths are kept chewing and swallowing, there is less chance of their ears bothering them.
The best preparation is to make sure your children will obey promptly and sweetly. In the weeks ahead of a trip, I spend some time playing the obedience game. I tell them to do something such as sing Jesus Loves Me, pat their head, or run around the vehicle three times and they say “OK, Mom” and dash off to do it.
Before our latest trip, I spent a lot of time telling our older girls each detail of the trip like how we would give our suitcases to the agent at the counter, go through security where Mom and Dad would take their shoes off (children under 12 don’t have to), get on the airplane where we use our “people voices,” sit for a long time, go through customs where we’d have to stand nicely in line for a long time, etc. We practiced saying, “I’d like some orange juice, please” to the flight attendant and keeping our hands to ourselves while standing in security lines. This worked very well, especially for our oldest daughter who likes to know what is happening. She’d say, “Mom, is this customs?” and only needed a little reminder here or there about standing nicely in line, staying right with mommy and daddy, or talking quietly. Being able to anticipate what was happening next helped her to handle it well.
Download the airline’s app, if they have one. It will give you up-to-date information on delays, gate changes, and seat assignments. On domestic flights, you only need to show your phone when boarding rather than having a printed boarding pass. The Mobile Passport app can help you get through immigration much more quickly, although it only works with major airports.
Twenty-four hours before your flight is scheduled to leave, check in on-line, print boarding passes, and pay for any baggage. This will save you valuable time at the airport.
Car seats? Strollers? To take or not to take? Car seats can be checked at the ticket counter for free. We don’t usually take them on our international flights, but I definitely would if flying within the US again. Once we had to rent a car seat when we got to our destination, and it was far too big for our 3 month old baby and had no support for her head. Strollers can be checked free at the ticket counter or at the gate. I’ve found it’s by far easier to carry my baby in my arms or a wrap than to use a stroller—and faster since you often have to wait on the jet bridge for airline employees to bring the strollers up. However, it’s very nice to have a stroller for toddlers who can’t walk quickly and are too heavy to carry long distances.
Choose a stroller that’s light and can be folded easily with one hand. I took a jogging stroller once and they allowed me to take it to the gate, although we had to pop all the wheels off while going through security so that it could fit through the x-ray machine. Not very convenient. It was worth its bother though since my older girls are used to keeping one hand on the stroller when we walk on the street, so it helped to keep them with us while we navigated the airport.
If possible, go through the family line at security. Computers can stay in bags and shoes can stay on—so convenient when your hands are full of children and luggage. Our small airport in Belize doesn’t have this option, but many of the major airports do.
Resist the temptation to take more carry-on bags than you can comfortably handle. This past time we flew, we had paid for four tickets, so we would have been able to take four carry-on suitcases and four personal bags free. But with three children ages 4, 2, and 7 months, it would not have been a good idea. We took one carry-on for some extra changes of clothing, jackets, and diapers, plus my husband and I and our oldest child had a bag. That amount of luggage worked well for us. We weren’t overloaded and it made traveling much easier.
Choose one secure spot for passports and boarding passes. International travel requires pulling out your passport many times. Always putting them in the same spot ensures you’ll be able to find them quickly and easily.
Family bathrooms at the airport are a great asset. They are roomy, have a changing table, a seat to strap a baby, and sometimes a child-size toilet. After an early morning flight, I like to pull suitcases and children into the bathroom to change out of nighties and comb hair.
Most of the time, families are given the option to board first. Decide if that’s right for you. When our oldest daughter, very active and headstrong, was two, the thought of sitting an extra half hour in a confined space while everyone else boarded made me tremble, so we waited until last to board.
The most recent time we flew, we took advantage of pre-boarding and loved it. It takes a little bit to get three children situated, and we could be relaxed and take our time. There were no other suitcases in the overhead bins yet, ensuring there was room for ours right above the seat. We had not been able to book seats together, so my husband asked the traveler who was to sit beside him if she’d mind switching when she arrived. We’ve found that once people are already settled, they’re often unwilling to move even so a toddler can sit with their parent, but if they haven’t sat down yet they’re usually willing to sit somewhere else.
If you need to switch seats, try to offer the more attractive seat—a few rows closer to the front and never a middle seat.
We bought a backpack for our oldest daughter Tasha (4) to take along on our last trip. We wanted it to be light enough that she could carry it, so we chose carefully what would go in it. I put together an activity folder for her and Zoe (2). Tasha’s had name-tracing sheets, number worksheets, color-by-number pages, coloring sheets, blank sheets for drawing, and sheets of stickers. Zoe’s had coloring sheets, blank pages, and sheets of stickers. Inside the front cover of both folders, I glued a baggie and put new crayons inside. These folders occupied most of their spare time.
I downloaded free children’s books on my phone to read to the girls rather than taking paper books since we were trying to travel light. We also let them look at pictures on our phones, a rare treat that occupies them for large amounts of time. The rest of the time they slept or looked out the window.
And finally, relax and (try to) enjoy the flight. The first time I flew with a child—our three-month-old baby—I nearly had panic attacks thinking about it ahead of time. She ate and slept most of the flight, and I had nothing to worry about. My greatest fear is that my baby will cry, I won’t be able to get them stopped, and people will be annoyed at us. My third baby was my fussiest. We had a few tense moments when I couldn’t get her to stop crying, but I tried to reassure myself that I’m only with these people a few hours and I’ll probably never see them again. Stay calm.
I’ve read how travelers can get annoyed with children on the flight and how moms have been asked to take their crying babies off the plane. As a traveling mom, these stories can stress me out. But I’ve found that the majority people seem to enjoy our children. Seatmates play peak-a-boo with my baby, ask how old she is, and tell me about their grandchildren. One pilot had us come into the cockpit for a picture. Flight attendants seem to enjoy talking to the children, giving them wings to pin on their clothes or a snack. My 4 and 2-year-olds, dressed alike and holding hands, got “awww”s and smiles from fellow travelers.
Flying with children will never make the top of my favorites list, but Lord willing we will do it again. And again. And live to tell the tale.
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Note: I've linked this post to Velvet Ashes, a site full of encouragement for women serving overseas.