As a parent, you’ve done your best to prepare your kids for your flight: their carry-ons are packed with books, toys, electronics and snacks for the trip ahead, and you’ve said a little prayer to the gods of travel for a smooth journey.
Until it’s not a smooth journey. At. All.
The words no traveler likes to hear strike a particular kind of anxiety for parents traveling with small children: “Ladies and gentlemen … ” followed by information about weather or mechanical issues or a delayed arriving flight, leading to a delay of an indeterminate amount of time.
It has happened to my family more times than I can count (on two occasions, our flights have been delayed until the next day), and I’m sure it will happen to yours if you travel frequently enough.
How do you deal with it and not lose your cool while keeping your kids sane, too? We asked a few travel pros for their best family flight delay game plans.
1. Expect Delays
Delays are the last thing you want, but unfortunately, they are a reality for most travelers. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, approximately one out of five flights was delayed in April 2018 — either for weather, an aircraft arriving late, or any other carrier-related problem.
One way to minimize the hassle of delays is to try to book direct flights when possible, ensuring that one delay won’t lead to another when you miss a connecting flight.
Another way to take the sting out of delays is to build the possibility into your vacation itinerary. “My family has experienced this with three of our last four trips, two of which resulted in an overnight at our connecting cities,” says family travel writer, Lori LeRoy of Indianapolis, who travels with her 8- and 10-year-old sons. “I have even started building an extra day into trips just because we seem to face this more and more, and that way we don’t have to worry about it cutting into the activities that we want to do if we face an extraordinary delay,” she says.
2. Keep Calm
The first thing that happens during a delayed flight situation — particularly one that causes people to miss their connections or make alternate arrangements for the rest of the day — is that people become angry. Exhibit A: that red-faced guy who is reading the riot act to the poor gate agent (pro-tip: this strategy will never help you get your way). Of course, it’s normal to feel upset that your plans are getting disrupted — and even more so when you’re traveling with kids. But that’s another reason it’s imperative to remain calm.
“Parent mantra: ‘If I am calm, my kids will be calm,'” says Dr. Nadia Sabri, a pediatrician and parenting expert in Austin, Texas. “And: ‘It’s part of the adventure.’ Kids are sponges and absorb the energy around them. No matter what is happening around, as long as the parent remembers to stay calm and collected, the kids will react similarly.” Take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Count to 10 if you need to. And then get to work on your alternative plan.
3. Find your Plan B
Plan B will depend on various factors: primarily, how long is your flight delay (if you know); when and where is your next flight, and what options do you have in terms of booking alternative travel arrangements?
Pro tip: Calling the airline, rather than waiting in a long queue of passengers for a gate agent, can save you from dealing with an antsy kid hanging on your leg.
While you make these arrangements, busy your kids with whatever you have available in their carry-ons – toys, snacks, even a candy bar from the airport convenience store. It’s helpful if you are traveling with someone else that can divide up kid-duty and logistical planning, but if you’re solo, that’s OK.
The next thing I always do is find food — being hangry never helped anyone, and somehow food always takes the sting out of a stressful situation. Treat yourself to a sit-down airport meal — this calls for a margarita for parents (if that sounds good), and a hot fudge sundae for the kids.
4. Find Distractions at the Airport
The more I travel (and encounter delays), the more creative I have become when entertaining my kids in airports. Here are a few tactics from both myself and other family travel writers:
- Let them run! Just find that empty patch of airport with very few people and bags, and let your kids burn off some energy. It’s a natural stress release for them.
- Play the day away. Does the airport have a kids’ play area, or other family-friendly amenities? Even better.
- Go on a scavenger hunt. LeRoy comes up with an impromptu list of things her kids can find in an airport: “A flight to San Francisco, a pilot, a purple suitcase, a souvenir keychain … walk around to find them and check them off. You can incentivize with a small prize from the gift shop,” she says. Brilliant.
- Ride the train. If the airport has a tram, moving sidewalk or shuttle, young kids can literally spend hours just riding back and forth on these and having a perfectly grand time.
- Give them the screen. Sure, you might have rules on using tablets on an average day, but this is not an average day. “If you are ever going to be lax on your screen time rules, travel days are the days to do it,” says Melissa Mayer, a family travel blogger from Sacramento, California. “My kids actually look forward to long trips so they can havenfettered access.”
- Get out of the airport. Calculate whether your delay might allow you to get out of the airport and explore the city. LeRoy was recently delayed for 22 hours in Detroit while trying to fly to Amsterdam. “We got a hotel to spend the night, and went to the Detroit Institute of the Arts the next day,” she says.
In the case of an extreme delay of more than four hours, ask the gate attendant (politely) if the airline is offering hotel vouchers — “even if you’re not spending the night,” says LeRoy. “It’s good to leave the airport and have a place to relax and nap, particularly if you have infants or toddlers. Many airports have hotels attached to them.”