Who’s afraid of the big bad plane? Lots of people—especially parents who are flying for the first time with their kids.
The idea of boarding a flight with a baby or toddler can be nerve-wracking. Parents wonder what to pack, how to act, and most of all, how to avoid hours of stink-eye from fellow passengers while their little ones wail unceasingly.
We decided to talk to professionals about how to have a great flight with your kids. We’re talking sleep coaches, nannies, pilots, travel agents and even food experts. Almost all of them are parents themselves, and some have taken dozens of flights with their children.
To their advice about what snacks to bring, how to time your flights and how to make airport time easier, I’ll add two of my own tips. First, bring a change of clothes for each member of the family, as well as several extra diapers. Second, know that every flight will eventually come to an end. Your wanderlust doesn’t have to end with it.
Time your flight to your child’s sleep habits. If your child is good at sleeping “on the go,” try to book a flight that departs at least 30 minutes before their normal nap time, says sleep consultant Nicole Johnson of Baby Sleep Site. “You want time for them to look around, absorb the activity around them and different scenery, and then take their nap,” she says. If your child doesn’t nap on the go, plan to leave after their first nap of the day, so they’re well-rested.
Avoid bulkhead seats. If your child might want to sleep in your lap, it’s going to be very uncomfortable.“Usually that row has armrests that don’t move,” says travel advisor Kaleigh Kirkpatrick of The Shameless Tourist.
Book private car transfers. “Not having to worry about lugging my luggage and the children from the parking lot to the terminal is worth the extra money,” Kirkpatrick says. If it’s in your budget, it’s far easier to have a car waiting for you, than you waiting for an Uber.
Pack familiar gear. When traveling with toddlers, it helps to keep things as familiar as possible, says Katie Provinziano, managing director of Westside Nannies, which places nannies with celebrities and high-profile families. “This means sacrificing some room in your luggage for their favorite props from home, like a lovey or a blanket,” she says. “These small changes make a huge difference for the child.”
Think happy thoughts. “Your mindset is super important,” says psychotherapist and life coach Kierstan Streber. Many parents assume that a long flight with a child is going to be hell. If you are stressed, anxious or overly apologetic, your kid will feel it—and you will remember the flight as stressful, whether it was or not. Instead, be open to your kid surprising you and being awesome. “The flight is part of the adventure, not a necessarily evil,” she says.
Pack Cheerios and cucumbers. “Cheerios take a long time to eat as a snack, since they’re little,” says Lauren Shockey, author of Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. Cucumber slices or mini cukes are healthy, easy to eat, and hydrating.
Fill a pill box. Molly Adams, digital food director of the cooking site FeedFeed recommends filling a multi-compartment pill box with a variety of small foods—like blueberries, chocolate chips, raisins and those Cheerios. “All those little doors that open and close keep little hands busy!” she says.
Carry a few lollipops. They can be very handy in a an “emergency,” advises Amy Palanjian, creator of yummytoddlerfood.com. “This is one day—nutrition does not need to be perfect!”
Let kids explore. The airport can be an overwhelming, exciting place for children,” says Brett Manders, an international airline pilot, author of Behind the Flight Deck Door – Insider Knowledge About Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Ask a Pilot,” and dad to a 10-year-old frequent flyer. “Let them explore (within reason) and burn off some excess energy.”
Get lounge access. “Private airport lounges are wonderful, especially with layovers,” says Kirkpatrick. The offer complimentary snacks, comfortable seats and in some cases, rooms designated for kids. If you’re not flying business or first-class, the easiest way to get access is with a credit card that offers lounge access as a perk, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or American Express Platinum.
Buy a ride-on suitcase. It makes walking through the airport easier—and even fun. Nanny expert Provinziano suggests the Luggage Eazy from Micro Kickboard. “Toddlers get to enjoy the ride and parents get to avoid tears from tired little feet,” she says.
Watch the safety briefing. (Don’t you always?) Pilot Brett Manders advises encouraging kids to listen and follow along on the safety card—even if they can’t read, since here are lots of pictures to look at. “You will be surprised at the questions you will be asked,” he says.
Ration snacks and activities. “It could be snacks, a new toy, coloring books or a digital device,” Manders says. Give them to kids over time, rather than all at once, to keep them occupied and encourage good behavior.
Take a stroll. It’s OK to walk kids around the cabin after meal or drinks services, Manders says: “Most cabin crew will understand what you are doing.” If they’re not busy, they may even have a few tricks for keeping kids occupied.
Look at it as quality time. Don’t expect to get through your magazine or your book, says Streber, the psychotherapist. Think of it as together time. But if you’re traveling with a partner, take turns being parent-in-charge so each of you gets to relax.