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
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
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
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
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.