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Guest Blog Post: Tips for Flying With Toddlers

May 31, 2011
12 min read
Guest Blog Post: Tips for Flying With Toddlers
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Today's guest blog post is from my sister-in-law Danielle, who also happens to be The Points Guy membership liaison or as her occupation is listed on Facebook, "TPG Gal Friday." Danielle is the mother to my beautiful goddaughter Keira and nephew Conor and the kids flew for the first time last weekend, so this post is all about her experience and tips for success. Even though I'm not a parent, I still found the story entertaining and hope you do too! Feel free to share your comments or tips for traveling with toddlers in the comments section.

A Practical Guide to Air Travel with Not So Predictable Passengers

This week Brian mentioned that he was recently in St. Augustine, Florida for his sister's destination wedding. Well, since I'm married to his older brother Mike, I was also in that sunny locale for the nuptials and I’d like to share my experience getting there and back from southern New Jersey. Warning: my lengthy story differs drastically from The Points Guy’s typical travel tales in that my carry-ons included my two very adorable, but also very rambunctious and opinionated toddlers; Keira and her younger brother Conor. As this was our first big trip as a family I was determined to do it right. Or as right as possible when it comes to a two and three year old. So I studied, I researched, and I strategized, because seriously, who wants to deal with a cranky child (or two) in an airport and on an airplane? No one – not even their own mother ;) However, I also saw this as an opportunity to expose my little ones to a very different setting and experience, one that could be fun and exciting, instead of frightening and anxiety-ridden. With these thoughts in mind I went about planning a way to make our trip to Florida as entertaining, stress-free, and smooth as possible - for everyone involved. Family, flight attendants, and the traveling public included. Here were the results:

TSA? TLC: Make use of the family line when getting through security. The line will be a shorter and the TSA agents manning it will be used to unique passengers and extraneous carry-ons (strollers, wheelchairs, etc). Coming and going we were able to zip through security using these pathways. Remember, the youngsters will have to walk through the metal detector and will need to remove their shoes along with everyone else so lace-ups should be banned. Keira and Conor loved being asked to take their shoes off and we made a game of putting them in the bins and watching them go through the x-ray machine. You are allowed to bring food and drink through security if it is for feeding your child, but try to keep any liquids larger than 3 oz in unopened containers (i.e. juice boxes or water bottles for formula) so you can avoid additional checks and be prepared to declare the liquids to security. I opted to just bring empty sippy cups and bottles through and purchase juice/milk to fill them with once on the other side.

Another personal tale about security - it was our experience that the TSA agents seemed willing to expedite the process of getting our family moving. After Keira, Conor, and I were through the line I loudly exclaimed, "Ok guys, now you just have to be good while we wait for Daddy!" An agent approached us and asked where daddy was. My husband was actually behind two extremely elderly passengers in wheelchairs getting full pat downs waiting his turn for the search (backstory: Mike has a metal rod in his leg which always sets off the metal detectors - how did he get it? Well, this one time his younger brother Brian ... jk) Immediately the agent identified my husband, took him over to an unused security block and conducted the scan. I told Keira and Conor that Daddy was in time-out, everyone had a laugh, and we were on our way.

Dress for Success: The airport is busy – make sure your kids are dressed even busier. Bright colors, distinctive patterns, and overall loud attire is best. You need to be able to keep your eyes on your offspring. And if someone wanders off, it can only help to be able to provide a specific and unique description of your lost little one to security. Also, kids get hot and cold in record time making layers a must. Strip off the long sleeve while they’re cooking on the tarmac and then have a blanket for them to snuggle in-flight. By all means; cut out the tags ahead of time and avoid scratchy fabrics or anything with uncomfortable buckles or beading. And always, always, bring a change of clothes for your kids in your diaper bag or carry-on. Keira and Conor have found ways of getting themselves dirty that still amaze me. On the flight home Conor dumped a full yogurt parfait on Gigi (unfortunately grandma lost on that meal gamble). Maybe parents and caregivers should have a change of clothes at the ready too??

Under Wraps: My main concern was keeping my ants in their pants children occupied during the 2+ hour flight from Philadelphia to Jacksonville (and back). I decided bribery was my best bet. A trip to a local Target yielded a variety of toys that I knew were winners and more importantly; small and noiseless. One of the best finds was a pair of coloring books with “magic” markers that only work on the provided paper (you can guess why these would be ideal). Books and stuffed animals are also a good idea. I put each item in wrapping paper so every so often Keira and Conor could quickly be given a surprise present to distract when they decided they wanted to start kicking or slamming the airplane window. Note: to avoid ticking off the flight attendants make sure to bring your own small garbagebag so you can easily clean up after each gift and you aren’t leaving wrapping paper and other litter behind.

In-Flight Entertainment: Fortunately we purchased a MacBook right before the trip to Florida, so I was able to slip this lovely piece of machinery into my carry-on (Samsonite backpack with a laptop sleeve) and pull it out when the flight became a bit tedious. My son delighted in the novelty of watching a brand-new DVD in such a unique environment, and it easily bought me 28 minutes with my magazines. Note: Caillou has a great episode under their "traveling series" for preparing your kids for flight (check youtube) - it features takeoff, traytables, sitting still, etc. I highly recommend preparing your munchkins with a cartoon or movie so you can remind them that, “Caillou had to wear a seatbelt!!”

Tantrum on the Tarmac: Speaking of which, I made a egregious error with the seatbelt. My two year old Conor is by far the more “excitable” of my two children and so I let him stand on his seat and "play" while everyone else was boarding (families are allowed on first = awesome!). This was all fine and dandy until I had to wrestle him into a sitting position and strap a seatbelt on him when the captain gave the take-off go ahead. That's when it got messy. He had a full-blown tantrum and screaming/flailing fit for the two hours (ok, so maybe it was only 10-15 minutes) it took until we had taxied onto the runway and taken off. Had I simply sat him down and made a game of the buckle the second we were at our seats there would not have been a battle of wills later on. This also taught us another lesson...

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Seating Strategy: We had the luxury of flying with multiple family members so for the ride home we made sure to sit one of them in front of Conor so at least it was family catching the brunt of Conor’s indignant fury. Note: airplane seats are designed to accommodate a carseat (provided your child isn't flying as a lap baby - and from what I hear some airlines have bassinets that attach to certain seats for the littlest of passengers) so feel free to bring yours onboard to strap your infant or toddler into it if you think there is no chance they will be able to sit still. Just check the label to make sure your brand is FAA ”aircraft" approved. We made the personal decision that two seats were too much to carry through the airport so we added toddler seats to our Alamo rental car reservation for about $10 per seat per day. Well worth the $80 for this special weekend and the carseats were safe and very clean.

The Quick and the Dirty: So apparently there was a changing table in the front bathroom of the airplane. I was lucky enough not to ever see it. We used the family restrooms located near the terminals to swiftly change both kids immediately before and after the flights and put them in one size larger diapers for extra absorbency just in case we were stuck on the plane a bit longer than we had anticipated. Just make sure the larger diapers are secured properly to prevent gaps. Note: under almost all circumstances is it unacceptable to use your tray-table as a changing table. Bring extra wipes, an extra changing pad, an extra garbagebag, an extra pair of clothes, and extra diapers (sensing a theme?). The airport is not the place to run out of pull-ups. It’s also not the most ideal place for dirty diaper - so maybe avoid foods that you know will make them go before and during your airport/airplane adventure. Obviously mother nature can’t be predicted or controlled, but at least give yourself a fighting chance!

Southwest Performed North of Our Expectations: This wouldn't be a true TPG post if I didn't mention and quickly review the airline we flew; Southwest. Overall, I was very happy with our flying experience. Everything went smoothly, we took off on-time, and the crew was very friendly. There were actually quite a few little passengers onboard so I think the Southwest staff was well-versed in family travel. For example, when I asked for apple juice the flight attendant presented me with a plastic cup with a lid and straw - perfect for Conor - and slipped me (with a smile) a seemingly unlimited supply of pretzels and pita chips. I also didn't get a single dirty look when handing over my personal garbagebag of snack packaging and the aforementioned wrapping paper. Since there were 8 of us flying, we opted to pay (thanks, Pop!) for an "upgrade" to A seating so that everyone in our travel party could board first and choose seats together (see seating strategy) and near the front. I also made extreme use of the fact that Southwest allows you to check two bags per passenger for free - checking 6 bags in total (my fellow travelers are probably cringing while they read this - it was quite the sight at the airport). And to start Keira and Conor off right, I've signed both up for their very own Rapid Rewards account so they could each receive the 250 point bonus, just like Uncle Points Guy wrote about here!

Final Tidbits:

1) Avoid earaches by bringing a lollipop, pacifier, bottle or some sticky/chewy food item that requires your child to swallow and flex his or her jaw to help pop their ears during take-off and landing.

2) Keep it as simple as possible. I know I went on about extras, but make sure to stay organized and focused. You don’t want to be dropping burping cloths and binkies all over the place. I used a lot of gallon ziplock baggies for everything from the empty sippy cups to Keira and Conor’s change of clothes.

3) Practice the Mommy Stare. You can’t blow your top and yell at your kids on an airplane when they throw their shoe at another passenger, no matter how much you want to. So you may want to start practicing that “fear of God” stare you know you are capable of now so that you can break it out when silence is the best reprimand – the flight attendants won’t take him or her to the cockpit for timeout – I tried!

4) Tire them out! I put my husband in charge of this. Get those wiggles out of your toddler's limbs before take-off. A quick trip to the park in the morning, jumping jacks at the gate … anything to expel that extra energy. Word of caution: this is a slippery slope - be careful not to OVERtire them.

5) Snack Attack: don't count on the airline to have something for Thing 1 and Thing 2 (and Thing 3) to eat - especially on short domestic flights. Check online to see what restaurants and convenience stores are located in the airport in order to find something that suits their palate. Just save yourself the aggravation and stay away from foodstuffs that leak, drip, or smell ...

Overall, watching Keira and Conor's faces as we took to the air and sailed through the clouds was pure magic, and well worth any mishaps along the way. I would and will absolutely fly with them again - and next time it will be with a little less fear and much more excitement and anticipation. How could I have ever worried when they are related to The Points Guy?

Please feel free to add on to my list - I'm sure everyone would love to hear more ideas and experiences.

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