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Smooth Travels - Flying with Kids

As a family of five, we don’t fly if we can drive. However, with extended family on the other side of the country and three boys close in age, I can’t deny that we’ve been the parents on the plane with the shrieking, crying children; the ones that quickly become everyone else’s nightmare. Through trial and error, we discovered that there are a few things you can do to make everyone’s trip a lot more cheerful, while minimizing the stress of a long plane ride.

Take-off and landing

Ascending and descending tend to make children’s ears ‘pop’, which can be a frightening and uncomfortable feeling. For infants and toddlers, a bottle or a pacifier to suck on can relieve the pressure. For older children, any type of gum will usually do the trick. Bubblegum can be especially entertaining, but be sure to dispose of it properly when they’re done or you will have a sticky mess!

You can also request the bulkhead seats (more room) or a window seat (better view). These types of seating have the added benefit of allowing you to form a human blockade against any young escapees. Kids will need to be buckled in for both take-off and landings, whether they want to or not, so keep reading for ideas that will distract them from their captivity.

What’s in your carry-on?

Toys are worth putting a little time and thought into, especially when space is limited. For the youngest children, toys they can manipulate, take things in and out of or organize in some way are great. Older kids like Lego or Playmobil sets with action figures they can assemble, contained interactive toys like Polly Pockets, or puzzles like Rubik’s cubes. Don’t forget to pack cards, either a traditional deck, or a game like Uno. Try to avoid noisy electronic games, although an iPod or MP3 player with children’s music on it, when used sparingly, can give everyone a much-needed break.

Books you can read aloud or with plenty of pictures to engage children are a must. Take advantage of the fact that older kids are often thrilled to be enlisted to read to younger siblings. Children who read independently will enjoy getting a new chapter book for the flight. Younger kids will be thrilled to have you read their old favorites, yet again. Or get books or travel guides that have pictures and descriptions of the area you’ll be vacationing in. For example, if you’re going to Disney World, stories about Mickey, Goofy and other characters you’re sure to see there will hit the spot. If all else fails, have an emergency joke book on hand. Though it may drive you up the wall, kids are guaranteed to laugh hysterically, especially at the riddles with bathroom humor! There are also a number of children’s magazines available in airport newsstands, with plenty of games or activities in them, as well as stories.

Hand sanitizer or diaper wipes, along with some type of diaper pad to change your infant or small child on, is a must. Trust me, airplane bathrooms were not designed to be family-friendly; they are tiny! And we all know how dirty kids’ hands can get…

Don’t forget ‘loveys’, your child’s favorite blanket, pillow or stuffed animal. Not only are these really comforting when small children become tired and cranky, they’re also reassuring in a time when children’s normal routine isn’t being followed. If the flight is long enough that your child is likely to fall asleep during part of it, dress them in soft or fleecy clothes, rather than a stiff or scratchy outfit that will make dozing difficult.

Other activities

Coloring books and crayons never get old. If your child prefers to free-draw, bring a sketchbook. Markers may be tempting, but they tend to get all over everything or dry out. Have the kids draw pictures of all the fun things they want to do on their trip, make a book, then on the flight back you can read it and talk about how things were the same or different than what each family member was expecting. Or try using these art supplies to encourage kids to make cards for upcoming birthdays or holidays, which you can mail when you arrive at your destination.

Jewelry-making, boondoggle or other simple crafts that don’t involve any sharp tools, which won’t get past security or small pieces that are easy to lose, are also good ways to spend time.  Or try playing ‘beauty shop’ on each other, experimenting with different hair accessories and a brush or comb!

Snacks! Airlines still provide drinks, but that’s about all you can expect from them these days. My vote is for a mix of healthy foods, combined with special treats. Preparing snack bags for each child, or buying snacks that are individually packaged, will prevent any squabbling as everyone will have their own bag(s). My experience has been that it’s better to dole them out at regular intervals than to distribute them all at once. Popular travel foods include Cheerios, apples, trail mix, raisins or craisins, cookies and pretzels. If you include candy, choose something like chocolate, which is easier to clean up after. Avoid foods that are overly sticky or too salty or you may be sorry!

Final advice

Take regular bathroom breaks. This will prevent accidents, along with giving you all a much needed chance to stretch out.

Absolutely no roughhousing allowed! Separate any potential brawlers immediately.

If one child is particularly frustrating to you or your partner, switch seats. A change of pace and place can often be the best solution.

Traveling with kids can be difficult, but it’s also a fantastic time to get to know each other better and to spend some quality time together - free of the many distractions you’ll find at home. Resist the temptation to simply plug your kids and yourself into your phones or laptops and get busy creating some new family memories!

Sue is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to family magazines. Contact her at

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