11 Tips for Surviving Air Travel with Kids

I wrote this article last year for Family Times magazine when we lived in Central New York. You might also like 10 Tips for Planning Plane Trips with Kids.

Enrico holding Luke after an all-night flight to Europe

I have been flying with my four children since before they sprouted teeth. Because my parents live in Ohio and my husband’s in Italy, long trips are a part of life. We usually fly as a family, but when my husband has had to work, I’ve flown solo with the munchkins—and I’m not sure if I say this laughing or crying—while super-pregnant, during whirling Northeasters, and when I was so sick I was green.

Most of the time, though, things go just fine. If you can handle taking your children to a three-course meal in a sit-down restaurant, then you can handle a cross-country flight. Sure, it takes longer, but instead of a bill, it ends with a vacation.

For the smoothest possible soar through the skies, here is what I prescribe.

1.  From Head to Toe

Wear slip-on shoes and nothing too metallic—you’ll be thankful when you get to security. Simple clothing is best, especially if you have to use the bathroom while holding a baby. We always bring sweaters since airplanes tend to be freezing cold.

2.  Hands-Free Navigation

Ideal carry-ons for Mom and Dad are backpacks or across-the-body bags. And don’t forget the baby carrier. Children over three years old can carry their own backpacks filled with toys, snacks or pillows.

3.  Get the Wiggles Out

Waiting for the first leg of our international voyage last year

Airports are getting better about providing play areas for kids. If you find one in the main terminal and you’ve got a chunk of time before your flight leaves, delay going through security and let the kids go wild on the jungle gym. Otherwise just let them run up and down the terminal, climb on all the chairs, test out the moving sidewalks, and roll down the ramps. After this ordeal, sitting down for hours will be a relief.

4.  In Case of Emergency

Stuff happens. Your most fastidious child will spill a glass of orange juice on herself. Someone will get airsick. Or just plain sick. That’s why we always bring a change of clothing stored in plastic bags (to contain any eventual mess). Even if everyone is well, a big package of wipes always comes in handy.

5.  Solving the Liquids Problem

Virginia feeding Mark in the Cordoba, Argentina airport

The good news is that you can bring on board reasonable quantities of formula, breast milk, baby food or medications. You can also bring empty water bottles and sippy cups, and fill them up later. (Since milk goes bad and juice is sticky, I find water is the best beverage.)

If you want to bring contact lens solution, moisturizer or toothpaste, make sure each container is less than 3.4 ounces and that all of them fit in a quart-size zip-top bag.

And speaking of medications, I’ve tried the whole Benadryl thing to help kids sleep, and I didn’t notice much of a difference. So now I spare myself the mess and hassle.

6. Please Play with Your Food

Food can be a great boredom-buster—especially if you bring something you wouldn’t normally let your kids eat. If the snacks come in various colors and shapes, they can be organized, traded, sorted and counted.

To avoid painful ear pressure during takeoff and landing, offer chewing gum or gummy vitamins to children (babies can be nursed or bottle-fed).

7. Where the Best Seats Are

Sofia, who was born in Italy, rode to the U.S. at 6 months in a bassinet

The ideal spot for me and my loud crew is the last row of the plane, where we bother fewer people. However, if I am taking a long flight with a baby, I always request bulkhead seats and a bassinet, a folding crib that attaches to the front wall. (Take advantage of this free amenity while you can, because babies grow out of them once they’re over 20 pounds.)

8.  Car Seat or Not?

You can rent car seats on the other end or check them for free with your luggage. But there is an argument for bringing car seats on board a long flight: Kids are used to sleeping in them. However, if you have to transfer, I have found lugging them on and off planes and through sprawling airports to be a nightmare, even if my preschoolers did sleep like a dream.

9. Wheels Ride Free

One piece of equipment that always makes the short list is the stroller. You’ll have to fold it to go through security, but at least you can bring it all the way up to the gate. Strollers are also great for resting the carry-ons while the kids burn off some energy.

10.  In-Flight Entertainment

Luke kept us hopping on our last international flight

The key, especially with small children, is novelty. We keep certain toys just for travel to avoid buying new stuff each time. Consider doling out a toy every hour or so, or wrapping them like presents. We like travel-friendly activities such as magnetic Bingo and drawing boards, finger puppets, non-messy art supplies, card games, small stuffed animals, Play-Doh or other modeling clay, and calculators.

11.  What Not to Bring

Relaxing entertainment for yourself such as any magazine, book, computer game or hobby. If you don’t expect to do anything but take care of your children, then you won’t be disappointed. (There’s always the in-flight magazine if you get lucky.)

It’s funny but the best piece of advice I’ve gotten about traveling with kids has nothing to do with what to pack. It’s about frame of mind. If you can think of the trip as an adventure, rather than a hardship, everything will be easier.

I know there are some globe-trotting mamas out there. Let us know one of your tricks in the comments!

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35 comments

  • Evs mom April 19, 2014, 4:03 am

    Thank you for your advice on state of mind, after searching and searching on tips etc. You’ve given peace of mind.

    Reply
    • Amy April 23, 2014, 10:23 am

      Thanks, Evs mom. I think it really is the most powerful aspect!

      Bon voyage!
      Amy

      Reply
  • Kate February 9, 2014, 3:49 pm

    Hi Amy,
    This is a very informative post! Thank you so much. I am traveling to Italy with my 4 year old and 18month old. I am more worried about the car seat situation when we get to Italy. Do you bring your car seat with you and install it in the rental car? Do they even use car seats in Italy? I really want my kids in car seats because we will be traveling from Rome to Tuscany and Its over a 2 hour drive and I want them to be safe! Please help!! I am never anxious but this trip has me a little crazy!

    Reply
    • Amy February 10, 2014, 10:52 am

      Hi Kate,

      Good question. Car seats are used in Italy, and I would suggest renting them with your rental car. Since we used to live in Italy and we still have family there, they would just pick us up in a car that had our car seats installed in it. If this wasn’t the case, I would either bring our own car seats (in-flight if no transfers) or check them as luggage. Or I would see if I could rent them along with the car.

      Hope this helps — I can understand why you are anxious. It’s a big trip with kids! But I’m sure it will be a fun adventure.

      Amy

      Reply
  • Tanya July 19, 2013, 3:40 pm

    Hi Amy-

    I just stumbled across your article as we plan our first trip with a very active three year old. While our family has traveled with our older children (15, 12, 11, 9) none of them were as active/curious as our three year old. We’ve been dreading our first flight with her! I’ve always been organized and well packed for every road trip we’ve ever taken with our youngest so I haven’t been so concerned about what to pack but was searching for alternative ideas. It was so refreshing to read your last paragraph about making the trip about the adventure and not the hardship was a breath of fresh air! Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Amy July 19, 2013, 3:49 pm

      Hi Tanya,

      I’m so glad that this article could provide that little shot in the arm of confidence that you needed. Having traveling with four kids, you are clearly courageous and experienced, and I know you will do great.

      Thanks so much for leaving a note,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Happy Home Fairy June 25, 2013, 12:05 am

    Girl, I just got back from taking my 2 boys on their first airplane ride. This post was such a great help to me!!! It answered so many of my questions and helped me to really prepare for the ‘adventure’. Thank you for posting it!!!

    Reply
    • Amy June 25, 2013, 8:20 pm

      Hey there, I’m so glad I could be of help! It sounds like the trip went great — yay!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Jelli May 30, 2013, 10:47 pm

    Great tips! My little girl flew to and from Italy in that bassinet too, but our airline only let her stay in if it was zipped and zero turbulence, which sadly meant she didn’t get much sleep. Will be sharing a link for this article in an upcoming post.
    Jelli´s last post ..Renter Friendly Kids Growth Chart // MBM

    Reply
    • Amy May 31, 2013, 9:27 am

      Hi Jelli,

      Yes, I know, sometimes the flight attendants can be really strict about the zipper (which is like a seatbelt for the baby). I’m sorry your daughter (and you!) didn’t get much sleep. But it is nice to not have a place to put her sometimes without having to pay for an extra seat, isn’t it?

      Amy

      Reply
  • Alison September 8, 2012, 10:53 pm

    Hi Amy,

    Hubby and I are traveling to England when our daughter will be 13 months. My debate is the more comfy yet bulky travel system stroller or the compact umbrella. Both recline. We will be renting a car (yes, this scares me!) Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Amy September 8, 2012, 11:00 pm

      Hi Alison,

      Good question. I guess it depends on how much time you imagine walking. If not so much, maybe the umbrella stroller with a rental car seat. If you plan to walk a lot and will therefore need to carry gear with you, the travel system would be more helpful. You might even be able to bring the car seat part on the plane, which could make sleeping easier (if you don’t get a bassinet).

      Unless you imagine having to fold the stroller a lot for buses, boats, or trains, I would suggest the bulkier but more comfortable for everyone stroller.

      Hope this helps!
      Amy

      Reply
      • Alison September 8, 2012, 11:28 pm

        Thanks for the quick reply! I was leaning to the bigger one. We are lucky that we have seats with a bassinet, here’s hoping she’ll sleep in it.

        Reply
    • Leecy September 8, 2012, 11:16 pm

      Hi Alison,
      We have trvelled to england (from australia) twice once when my first child was 18months and again when my second child was 8months, therefore requiring a stroller both times. We purchase the ‘quicksmart easy fold’ stroller and i can’t speak highly enough! It was perfect it folds down nice and compact is light weight yet still comfy for bubba and it also semi reclines which is great for sleep times! It came with a rain cover and i also purchased the footmuff because the first time we went in winter and it kept him toasty warm :)
      It also comes with a bag which helps for airline travel (and also for carrying if need be) however on the first trip the bag did break so i made a stronger bag for our second trip.
      Hope this helps, happy travelling :)
      Leecy

      Reply
      • Alison September 8, 2012, 11:31 pm

        Rain cover!! Thank you for the reminder! No one is happy when baby is soggy.

        Reply
  • nopinkhere June 26, 2012, 2:49 pm

    I have a new tip based on a trip we just took: If you are well-endowed and wear an underwire bra, you may regret it. I ended up setting off the metal detectors both times and needing to be security screened by hand. The underwire was the only metal on my body. My kids were not happy to have me separated off, but thankfully I was travelling with my husband so he could snag our stuff and our kids. I need to go bra shopping now (even my sports bras have underwires)!

    Reply
    • Amy June 26, 2012, 10:49 pm

      Hey there,

      Oh my goodness, who would have thunk? I’m so sorry for this unpredicted snafu at the airport. Thank goodness, as you say, your husband was there to help smooth things over. What a pain traveling has become!

      I hope the rest of your trip was fun,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Joan June 4, 2012, 3:04 pm

    With regard to tips #8 and #9, the Traveling Toddler strap is a great way to get your car seat through the airport and eliminate the stroller – http://www.travelingtoddler.com/index.html

    Reply
  • Francesca May 31, 2012, 4:06 pm

    Thank you for the great tips, we just moved to the States from Italy (I’m Italian and my husband is American) and I see a lot of travelling back and forth in our future!! I’ve done it 3 times so far and it is definitely a learning process! And yes, it is an adventure and it is fun! Some of these tips are smart and super useful!! Thank you Amy and Shayna

    Reply
    • Amy June 1, 2012, 10:27 am

      Ciao Francesca!

      Grazie per il tuo commento sul blog. Benvenuto agli Stati Uniti — dove vi siete trasferiti?

      I hope you’ll stop by again,
      Amy

      Reply
      • Francesca June 5, 2012, 11:23 am

        Ciao Amy!
        Viviamo a Lusby, Maryland. Mio marito e’ nella DC Air National Guard presso la Base di Andrews. Lui si e’ trasferito qui a gennaio 2011, mentre io ho dovuto aspettare di riottenere la Green Card.
        Io e nostra figlia Emma, 5 anni, siamo arrivate a meta’ febbraio. Sono trascorsi pochi mesi da quando sono negli States e ancora mi sento un po’ “fuori posto”… mi ci vorra’ del tempo per abituarmi, il salto dall’Italia a qui e’ grande!
        One question about the travelling? I haven’t understood yet if I can bring with me on the plane some snacks/food… Emma never likes the meal they serve on the plane.
        I really like your blog, it’s well made and very useful, expecially for me being new in the States! I thought Italy was more expensive than the States… but I am now kind of reconsidering this…

        Grazie mille peri preziosi consigli,
        Francesca

        Reply
        • Amy June 6, 2012, 2:30 pm

          Cara Francesca,

          I can totally understand the feeling of being out of place. I felt that way too when I moved to Milan. Totally normal, and temporary!

          Yes, you can bring food with you on the plane. Yogurt is a problem but anything that is not liquid-y should be fine!

          Take care,
          Amy

          Reply
  • Shayna May 31, 2012, 3:24 pm

    I saw your article in the Wash. Post today — we have rather similar lives (my husband is from Spain and we have three kids). I wanted to add a few travel tips to your excellent list:
    1. Try to pack as light as possible for the whole family. We only take one checked suitcase for all 5 of us so that we can move quickly through the airports, train stations, etc. With two adults that means one can handle the suitcase and have a hand for a child and the other can push the stroller. We buy diapers and toiletries in country so that we don’t have to carry any more than is necessary for the trip. Carry small size of infant tylenol and a thermometer with you. Pack scented dryer sheets between layers of clothes in the suitcase. This can help garments be worn longer between washing. Try to bring darker clothing that will hold up to spills. Try to pack clothes that can be easily mixed and matched.
    2. Train older children to hold onto the sides of the stroller at all times so that you don’t get separated. On travel days I try to dress them similarly so that they are easy to keep track of and would be easy to remember what they are wearing.
    3. Plan out logistics with your spouse or traveling companion before each step. i.e. who will hold the baby while the other person folds stroller and loads luggage, who will carry passports and documents, how will you board the train (kids first? stroller first? etc) It helped us a lot to talk through these things right beforehand to cut down on stress.
    4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Flight attendants are often willing to hold a baby while you use the restroom, passport officials can sometimes accommodate a family in a separate area, taxi drivers can load luggage while you get kids settled, etc.
    5. We always ask for the bulkhead (even once babies outgrew bassinet) because the kids can have some floor area to get down and play. You don’t always get it, but worth asking.
    6. lolipops are great for take-off and landing
    7. Consider putting a recently potty-trained child in a pull-up for travel and transit. We had to bribe our 2 y.o. to let us do this, but it was so worth it to not have to lose our place in a long passport or security line, worry about the restrictions for no restroom use during take-off and landing, etc. I believe we used Skittles or something along those lines that could be doled out a little at a time.

    I like your comment about thinking of it is an adventure — it is! Traveling with kids is fun if you try it make it so…. so many people told us what a pain traveling with kids is. It’s not a pain, it just requires lots of patience and some extra planning and a good old fashioned sense of humor.

    Reply
    • Amy June 1, 2012, 10:37 am

      Hi Shayna,

      This list is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing your expertise.
      I am totally bowled over that you can get away with one suitcase for 5 people — now that is packing light!

      I also like how you plan out a lot of things — even simple things like who is going to do what — ahead of time. It’s true that people can get flustered in the heat of the moment.

      Thanks again for taking the time to share your wisdom and tips, Shayna — this will be helpful to a lot of people!

      Amy

      Reply
      • Shayna June 1, 2012, 2:13 pm

        Hi Amy,
        You’re welcome :) I really like the topics that you’ve chosen for your blog. We are able to take one suitcase because we stay with family and have access to a washing machine. We invested in a high-quality samsonite that has a hard shell, but is very light weight and has 4 wheels. Even so, when we do weekend and road trips I try to pack really light. I feel much more free and unencumbered!
        S

        Reply
    • Leecy June 1, 2012, 6:05 pm

      omg one suitcase…wow!

      Reply
  • Leecy May 26, 2012, 11:19 pm

    Thanks Amy. I a bit new to all this blogging so if you want to pop over and check your happy with the link please do http://www.babygypsies.com/2012/05/surviving-air-travel-with-kids.html
    Cheers
    Leecy

    Reply
    • Amy May 27, 2012, 8:13 am

      Looks great, Leecy! Thanks for checking in, and for sharing my post with your readers. Take care,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Leecy May 25, 2012, 10:46 pm

    This is a great post and very well written, and sounds very much like my own travel experiences! I would like to share it on my Blog if thats ok???

    Reply
    • Amy May 26, 2012, 8:36 am

      Hi Leecy,

      I’m glad you like it! I see you travel a lot too — that’s amazing. I’m honored that you would like to share this post with your readers. As long as you simply mention the original blogger and link to the post (not copy and paste), you are free to share!

      Thank you for checking in, Leecy,
      Amy

      Reply

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