Infants: 0-2 • Little Kids: 3-6 • Big Kids: 7-9

Air Travel 101: Kids on a Plane

See recent posts by Lisa Milbrand

Kids are almost as unwelcome as snakes on a plane; no one wants to sit anywhere near them (and that might even include you, too). Still, you can make your next flight a lot more enjoyable for everyone with these simple tips:

Choose Your Flights Wisely
For long hauls, look for overnight flights, especially if you think your kids might be able to zonk out on the plane. But even for shorter flights, try to pick a flight at a time when your kids are used to winding down. Some parents swear by layovers and connecting flights to give their kids a little breather and a chance to run free halfway through the trip, while others just grit their teeth and fly on. Base your decision on your own expert knowledge of your kids’ tolerance levels for staying seated.

Pack Extra Clothes
Odds are, someone is going to need to slip into something more comfortable (or less messy): Your daughter will spill grape juice all over herself, your baby could have a diaper blowout on your lap, or your airline may end up losing your checked bags en route.

Tire the Kids Out
If you aren’t too busy packing, spend a few hours playing hard at the local playground pre-flight. And since you’ll likely have a few hours to kill at the airport, wander through the shops, run laps around an empty gate, or have an impromptu pre-boarding dance party. That’ll help them minimize the squirming (and perhaps even catch some sleep) once the flight starts.

Don’t Pack Light
There is a time in your life when you can take a week’s vacation with a single carry on. That time is not now. “Everyone is always going on about traveling light, and with carry-on restrictions and baggage fees, you definitely need to find ways to pare down your belongings,” says Corinne McDermott, founder of “But when flying with kids, you don’t want to be caught needing something and not having access to it at 30,000 feet, so bring what you think you will need and make no apologies for it.”

Stock Up on Snacks
Lollipops (which are also good for ear pain), ultra-crunchy granola and salt-water taffy all take plenty of time to chew — which means enjoying these treats will help eat up some time on your flight. Snacks are absolutely essential in this era of scaled-back food and drink service on most flights. You do not want to let yourself and your kiddos get hungry in the air. “I bring food that can also be a toy, like Goldfish crackers that you can make ‘talk’ to the kids,” says Jessica Hartshorn, a mom of two in Brooklyn, N.Y. Food that’s also entertaining? That’s a must. And don’t forget to bring your own sippy cup (even if your kid’s beyond the preschool years). You may not be able to go through TSA checkpoints with it filled, but a flight attendant will be able to fill it up with a little apple juice for your child — and those spill-proof caps can help keep mess to a minimum.

Be Ready to Stroll
For toddlers and babies, expect that you’ll be spending plenty of time in the aisles. “If your child is getting restless, you have to engage him or her and distract [them]. In the plane, I used to take my toddler up and down the alley, chatting with other passengers along the way,” says Lydie Thomas, a travel writer who has traveled extensively with her two daughters. “I spent almost an entire flight from San Francisco to Paris walking up and down the aisle with a fussy 18-month-old baby.”

Relax Your Rules
Your kids may have limits on screen time and sugar consumption at home, but anything goes when you’re thousands of feet in the air. Let’s face it — a few brain rotting cartoons (or a few pieces of bubble gum) is a small price to pay for quiet and happy kids. “You’re basically stuck on the plane for so many hours, so you might as well just let them watch TV, especially if it enables you to relax,” says Erika Christ, a mom of two and owner of Viva Europa Travel Consulting in Washington, DC.

Make Friends
Encourage peace and harmony in your part of the plane by greeting your neighbors — even if they give you dirty looks. Consider bringing a little snack to share with your fellow passengers (good chocolates never hurt), or buying a round of drinks for those in your immediate vicinity to help at least dull their senses.

Don’t Be Above Bribery
“Promise the children that once they arrive at destination, they will get something to reward them for their good behavior in the plane,” says Thomas. “I used to take my children to Disneyland Paris when I was going to France alone with them in the summer. That would be the treat for good behavior in the plane. It worked like a charm.”

Buy the Extra Seat
Yeah, it’s expensive. Yeah, your one year old can technically still sit on your lap. But keeping your youngster occupied on your lap for several hours will be a nightmare, and having the extra space to spread out will be worth every penny.

Consider Your Seating Wisely
Choose the aisles if you have a toddler in tow, as it makes those frequent trips to the restroom (or strolls down the aisle) a bit easier to manage. “I would try to get the bulkhead seating, because either you could set the baby carrier on the floor, or they could crawl around when it’s not turbulent,” Christ says. Window seats are better for preschoolers and up, when kids may just be enthralled with the view outside their porthole.

Talk Softly
The background hum of the plane engines probably will drown out everything but a full-on tantrum, but encourage your kids to keep their voices low by talking to them in a stage whisper.

Get Help
It helps if you have an extra pair of hands — especially if you’ve got a baby that still needs to be carried. “I just traveled solo with two young kids, and phew!” says Kimberly Kayiwa, a mom in Chicago. “The hardest part is carrying all the gear and stuff. I had to ask for help, which I hate to do.” Don’t be afraid to call for that little electric cart to help you tote your crew and your bags through the airport.

Let Kids Pack Their Own Bags
Have them pick play-perfect travel toys that’ll provide maximum entertainment. “Choose a small toy that’s not easily lost, and that doesn’t have little pieces that can disappear, like a puzzle,” Christ says. “And don’t forget their favorite stuffed animal to comfort them when they’re trying to sleep.”

Hand Over Your Gadgets
You know how well the iPhone keeps your interest, so consider using one to enthrall your littlest one. Spend a few minutes in the App store right before your trip to stock up on some new games and maybe a kid-friendly movie or two. That should buy you a little free time and let’s face it — you can’t play Words With Friends on the plane anyway. If you’re on a marathon flight to Asia, make sure to charge your batteries before you leave, or bring along an airplane compatible charger so you aren’t caught short by a dead battery.

Wrap Up a Few Surprises
Stash a few new toys in your bag that you can give out whenever the natives are getting restless. “A new toy will keep their attention for a while,” says Christ. “They get so excited about getting a new thing.” Wrapping the new toys in wrapping paper buys you a few extra minutes of intrigue, and makes it feel even more special. “For the plane, I stuff a carry on with workbooks, travel games, arts and crafts — those thumbprint art books and the Melissa & Doug create-a-face books; anything that’s small enough to fit on the tray and isn’t messy,” says Karissa O’Reilly, a mother of two in Pound Ridge, N.Y.

It’s hard not to get stressed over every flight etiquette infraction your kids commit. But the more stressed you are, the more stressed they’ll be — and you could be inciting a major meltdown. All but the most cold-hearted passengers will overlook a tantrum if they see that you’re trying hard to keep your kids entertained.

More from Family Vacation Critic:
12 Tips for Managing Jet Lag with Kids
12 Travel Apps Every Family Must Have

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