How to Survive a Flight with Your Children

You’ve decided to travel across the continent or world with your children. No doubt you are excited about the place you are visiting, but you may also be nervous about getting on an airplane for so many hours with your kids, and wondering if you can pull the whole thing off. Here are some useful tips that experienced traveling parents are willing to share to make your flight a success.


Don’t Expect to Relax

Remember those pre-child flights where you alternated between dozing, reading a good book and watching the movie? Please realize before you get on the plane that this isn’t going to happen. Your vacation will start when you reach your destination, in the meantime you’ll be working. How hard you’ll be working depends on the age of your kids, how many you have, and whether you are traveling by yourself or with another adult.

If you’re traveling by yourself with smaller kids you’ll be on entertainment duty the entire trip. You can expect to sing songs, play patty-cake, read picture books and take walks up and down the aisle the entire flight. If you are traveling with another adult things will be easier. If you have only one child you can trade off. If you have more than one child, trade the easier kid back and forth (why is there always one that seems easier?). My daughter is high energy, just like my husband. Early in our travel days we discovered it was better for him to sit with her. He invented a game he called "The Brain Game" (basically trivia questions) that they would play for hours. When he needed a break we’d switch kids for awhile. Even when you are traveling with older kids you’ll still experience interruptions, although fewer, so leave that book you were hoping to lose yourself in at home or packed away in your suitcase.

>>read about The New Parent’s Guide to Travel with an Infant

Their Carry-on Bag

The first time we went to Europe with our kids we bought small, colorful, inexpensive rolling bags for them to pull through the airport. I wanted to pack a lot of entertainment options, and small back packs that they could comfortably carry just didn’t seem big enough. You want them to carry (or pull) their own bags, because you will have your own back pack to manage along with the kids themselves.

If your child is little, take them to the store and let them pick out their bag. It’s ok if the bag has My Little Pony on it (or Batman.) The bag doesn’t need to be super-durable because you aren’t checking it. Fill their bag as full as you can with any small items that may entertain them or they want to bring – small toys (maybe Pony or Batman figures to match their bag?), favorite books, an iPod, portable CD player, audio books, crayons & paper, and small games. Remember their favorite stuffed animal, although if it’s too big to fit in the bag they can carry it on. (To my knowledge, airport personnel have never forced a child to check through a stuffed animal because they already had one carry-on.)

If your kids are older, let them pack their carry-on bag themselves. I started this when my kids were five years old. And yes, the first time they did it I was nervous. My son only put a few items in his back pack. I kept asking, "Are you sure you have enough? Don’t you want to take more?" As insurance, I packed a few extra toys in my own back pack. But guess what? He didn’t need or want them. Now, at 10-years old, my kids are old pros at packing their own plane entertainment.

>>read the Tips for Buying Kids Luggage

Your Carry-On Bag

You may think it’s your bag, but really it’s an extension of their bag. How old your kids are will determine the size of your bag and how much you have in it. You may prefer using a back pack so you have your arms free to carry them, or your hands free to hold their little hands in busy airports. You’ll be carrying any essentials you need for their age. For babies this may include diapers, changes of clothing, zip-lock bags for soiled clothing, bottles, baby food, rattles, medicines, pacifiers and blankets. Take whatever you use in your life for the period of time you’ll be in airports and flying, plus extra just in case you experience a delay.

Kids older than babies will be carrying most of their own stuff, but you’ll still need to allow space in your back pack for a few things. At some point mid-flight boredom is going to set in and you may want to surprise them with new toys, books, games, cards, favorite snacks, anything that will give them something new to do and help them forget that they are feeling antsy. I also carry medicines, wipes, hand sanitizer, and until they were about seven years old I brought a clean shirt (for them and me) and a zip-lock bag. I have heard too many stories of kids who throw up on the plane (in fact, my own son has thrown up on the plane). With all this essential stuff there’s not a lot of room for your things. I usually bring my iPod and a few magazines. Remember, you’re working, so you don’t really need that much.

>>read about the 20 Gear Gift Ideas for Traveling Parents


I am not a big proponent of electronics for small kids, so when our kids were little we never traveled with electronics for them and we always did fine. But, if your child is used to spending a lot of time playing with their Nintendo DS or Game Boy then by all means bring it along to pass the time. Just be aware that you still need to bring the other things I’ve mentioned. They will get tired of computer games and need some other distractions. I recently traveled to Beijing with my 10-year-olds and they each chose to bring their iPod and Nintendo DS. I even downloaded new music for them and bought them a couple of new "surprise" games for the plane. Out of the 13 hours spent on the plane, they only spent a couple of hours using their electronic toys. The rest of the time they read, played cards, wrote in their journals, talked, ate and watched a movie. They did not sleep.

Make Sleep Conducive

Speaking of sleep… It doesn’t always happen, but there are a few things you can do to make the chances higher. For small children, bring their pajamas, favorite blanket and/or stuffed animal, and eye covers. After dinner on the plane, have them change into their PJ’s and brush their teeth. Then practice your normal bedtime routine on the plane – read, talk, tell stories, sing lullabies – whatever is normal in your house. Afterwards, have them put on their eye covers, tuck their blankets around them and kiss them good night. Your child will probably sleep. If your child’s temperament is a little more high-strung, you may want to talk to your pediatrician about alternative ideas. Some parents use a low dose of Melatonin or Benadryl to help their kids slumber. Just be aware that if your doctor says it’s ok to use Benadryl, and you are comfortable with the idea, you’ll want to test it prior to getting on the airplane. Depending on the child it can either make them sleepy or hype them up. A friend of mine (and the other passengers) once spent a very long, stressful night on a red-eye flight because she didn’t pre-test her toddler.

If You Need Help, Ask For It

This is such a simple thing to do, but so many of us are too embarrassed or proud to do it. If you need help – ask someone. Ask the flight attendant. I have a friend who is a flight attendant and she always feels badly when parents are having a hard time. She genuinely wants to help. Ask other women. Some of them probably have children and may have been in a similar situation before. Ask male business travelers. My husband has helped many women by carrying their gear to the next gate or down to baggage claim while they handle their kids. It makes most people feel important to be asked for help and it can lend a human element to a tense situation. Use your common sense and trust your gut instincts when you’re asking for help, but remember most people are ok and sometimes a little help is all you need to survive the flight with your kids.

About the Author
Deanna Hyland lives in Portland, OR with her husband and 10-year-old twins. She has successfully survived many flights with her children including a single-parent flight to Beijing, China with a migraine headache, and a flight from Mexico with a vomiting, feverish child.

Read more about:

Photo credits: Baby in airplane , Luggage , Sleeping with daddy