Setting up a smooth flight

We are furiously busy with preparations for our trip to the UK.  There’s lots to do — our travel arrangements still aren’t done, plus there’s laundry, packing, and getting the house ready.  Things are starting to come together (which is good, since we’re running out of time) and I’m currently in the midst of the familiar process of planning which things will be packed in our checked suitcases and which will come in our carry-ons.

There’s definitely an art to this process.  We want to be prepared, but not overburdened.  We want to have enough toys and activities to keep the kids entertained without overwhelming them or packing so much that we lose track of what we have and end up leaving something important behind on the plane.  We want to make sure to pack the right things so that the trip goes smoothly and we don’t end up annoyed or exasperated by the very items we hoped would bring us some peace.

I’ve been reading advice, various places around the internet, about how to pack and plan for a successful air journey with little kids.  By and large, I’m left to assume that these authors have only a passing acquaintance with what a child looks like, let alone what it is actually like to travel with one.  In all seriousness, I find some of the suggestions ludicrous at best and dangerous at worst.  I think that many of these ideas were hatched in the comfort of a living room and never actually tested on actual children and actual planes.  Perhaps these writers travelled only with older children, and are extrapolating and imagining what it would be like to fly with infants, toddlers and preschoolers, or maybe they’ve only done short, 2-3 hour jaunts to Grandma’s house — and maybe only once.  (For us, this upcoming trip is a short one — less than 3 hours — but my advice is hard-won on much longer trips.)

To counteract some of the crazy that’s out there, I’m going to share what we do.  Our strategies have changed and evolved, but we’ve got 5 trans-atlantic journeys under our belts (not to mention nearly a dozen shorter trips).  We flew to Europe when Liam was only 6 months old, and we’ve traveled with Benjamin as a 4 year old.  I can’t speak to what works for outside of that age range, but I can tell you what’s worked for us so far.

First, talk to your kids about what to expect on the flight.  Preschoolers will be reassured by knowing what is going to happen, and toddlers understand more than we tend to expect.  (And “explaining” the process to an infant may help you, as the parent, think through the process and get your own thoughts in order.)  Explain about arriving at the airport, waiting patiently in the lines, what the security check will be like, how you’ll have to check some of your luggage, how the bags will go through the x-ray and you’ll all get to walk through the metal detector, too.  Explain about boarding the plane, finding your seats, whether you’ll get to eat meals, watch tv, sleep/nap, how long the flight is (even if they don’t understand time yet), that they’ll be able to have their diaper changed/use the potty.  Explain that there will be lines, they’ll have to be patient, but that it’ll also be fun to sit in the big airplane seat, have a snack and get to look out the window.  Focus on how great the destination will be, too — thinking about fun in the sun gets grown ups through grueling flight experiences, and it’ll help the kids, too.

I actually wrote a little book for Benjamin before our move to Austria.  I wanted him to understand how it was going to work, get some sense of the length of the flight (“We’re going to watch tv, eat dinner, and even sleep on the plane!”) and I didn’t want him to worry about our dog, who was travelling with us, or our luggage once we checked it.  Having it written down was helpful, because the story went exactly the same way each time, and the repetition of it, in the weeks leading up to our trip, seemed to reassure him.  Now that we’ve flown a lot with the kids, I don’t spend weeks preparing them — we start preparing them for the flight a few days ahead of time (when we say we’re taking a trip, they have a pretty good sense of what it means).  I try to play up the fun parts (movies and tv, snacks, visiting family or new sights once we arrive) and only briefly mention the length of the journey or the fact that we have a connecting flight, if we do (but I *do* mention it, because I don’t want them getting off the first plane and thinking that we’re done, only to be plopped back into another one — that seems like setting them up for disastrous tantrums).

As parents, we should do our best to be prepared ourselves.  We’ve found flight attendants to be generally very helpful with the kids and anything special we might need, but don’t expect to be able to monopolize their attention during boarding.  Boarding time is busy for them, so don’t send them back to the galley for water or milk (if the plane is even carrying milk — we’ve found they often only have cream) as soon as you’re settled.  Try to be prepared with the things you need for at least the first part of the flight.  Bring milk, water, crackers, etc. to get you through the first little bit.  (I know that technically, liquids aren’t allowed through security.  But, you can definitely fill up water bottles in the bathroom or at a water fountain before boarding.  And, we have been able to get milk, and even chocolate milk, through security EVERY TIME we’ve tried.  Explain that it’s important for the kids and that you need it for the flight.  Be willing to wait extra time for it to be specially screened.  Flying within Europe, we actually get MORE resistance to this than we do when we take off from the US, which is surprising to me.  Back when I was nursing and we’d take bottled breast milk through security, I was always ready to freak out and throw a fit if I needed to, but I never had to.)  If it’s a long flight and you need to have something refrigerated, just ask a flight attendant once you’re on board — they can usually find a place to put it — but remember to ask for it sometime other than when they’re in the middle of drink or dinner service.

Bring extra clothes for the kids and for yourself.  If you’re willing to overlook a little bit of spilled juice or dinner, you’ll probably never need them, but in case of illness or bathroom accident, you’ll be really glad you had them with you.  If you’re taking an overnight flight, bring pajamas for the kids, and change them into their sleeping clothes right after dinner.  It helps get them in the “this is sleep time” mode (even though their bodies tell them differently).  Keeping other routines as familiar as possible — obviously, bath time is out, but reading stories is a great idea — will help get them in the mood for a snooze, too.  I also think it’s a good idea to bring a light sweatshirt or jacket for the flight, just in case, although I find it’s more often too warm than too cold.

Of course, bring enough diapers and wipes for the flight (or extra underwear, pants and socks for those working on potty training).  In fact, bring twice as many as you think you’ll need.  Also bring small ziploc plastic bags for poopy diapers (usually wet ones can just go in the bathroom trash, but we’ve been asked to seal up poopy diapers and give them to the flight attendants so they can dispose of them elsewhere) and larger, gallon sized bags for icky, soiled clothes (that way, the rest of your carry on doesn’t have to suffer too badly).  Most airplane bathrooms have changing tables, although some are awkward to use, and none look very comfortable.  Bring a changing pad or a small towel you can put down on top of the surface.

I’ve read some weird advice on what to pack as carry-ons to keep the kids busy, too.  Wrap the toys in tin foil?  Bring puzzles or magnet toys?  The thought behind the tin foil is apparently for it to take the kid some time to unwrap the toy.  Well, maybe, but if it were me, and I was already tried and frustrated and cranky, and someone gave me something cool, but I had to struggle to get to it, I’d just be pissed.  Not to mention, I can imagine my kids eating or throwing the foil, and I *know* we’d all end up with little pieces in our clothes.  I don’t think anything with small pieces is a good idea — so puzzle and magnet toys are out.  Not only can they be a choking hazard, but even for older kids, it’s just asking for small pieces to get lost between the seats or down the seatback pockets (do YOU want to go digging down in there?) causing yet another opportunity for frustration from everyone.

We pack a few (2-3) toys for each child for each flight, plus 1-2 books each.  (We let the kids pick the toys they bring — anything that fits in their carry-on is allowed.)  Sometimes that includes 1 new thing that’s a surprise that they’ve never seen before.  Keep in mind that the nicer airlines will also usually give out toys to kids, but that they are NOT always age-appropriate, so try, if you can, to intercept them so you don’t have to take it away from your child if it isn’t safe.  (I love Austrian Airlines, but they insist on giving my toddler sharpened pencils on every flight and it’s a miracle no one has been hurt yet.)  We find that nothing is as popular as small electronics — we pack our iPods, phones and iPad with videos and games that are age appropriate for the kids.

And, at the end of the day, do what you can to be prepared for a good flight, but don’t worry too much about it.  If you travel with your kids, you will eventually end up as “those” parents with the screaming, inconsolable child.  Remember that however badly it goes, you’ll never see these people again, and you’re at least giving them a good story about what they went through to get where they’re going.  And a lot of them are parents, so they probably are more empathetic than judgemental.  In truth, most people are a lot more understanding and patient of a miserable child and their desparate parents than you’d expect.  (Not everyone, though.  Some people are awful.)

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