Your guide to flying with kids of every age
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Your passport to an enjoyable flight with your kids is a little advance planning and packing a bag of travel treats to manage in-flight restlessness. Between cramped seats, questionable food and fees for checked bags, flying can be stressful for families whether taking the first flight with a baby, dealing with cranky toddlers or moody teens. Here’s how to survive a flight.
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General tips for flying with kids
Regardless of your child’s age, here are some tips to make your family travel adventure a lot less stressful:
Bring the right documentation
Remember to carry identification for your child(ren). You may not always be asked for it when flying domestically (except when flying with a lap infant), but with international destinations, you’ll need a passport for each family member, regardless of age. If you think you may travel internationally after your baby is born and you have a birth certificate, it’s time to get your child a passport. Having a passport is much easier than using other forms of documentation. Children’s passports are good for five years.
Even if your kids don’t need identity documentation at your final destination, it’s good to have at least a copy of the birth certificate at the ready. TPG reader Anna Flowers shared her experience when Delta refused to issue her a boarding pass without proof that her son was hers. She hadn’t brought identification for her son, but luckily, her husband was able to send a scanned copy of her son’s birth certificate to show to the Delta agent.
Choose the right airline
The airline you choose can have a significant impact on the quality of your trip, especially when it comes to traveling with kids. For example, some airlines charge more for lap infant tickets, others offer more spacious seating and better schedules and routes out of your home airport. Certain airlines are more family-friendly, so it pays to consider these factors when booking a trip for your crew.
Pack extra necessities but don’t go overboard
Don’t get stuck without the necessities if your luggage is lost or delayed. Pack a carry-on with a few belongings for the kids and yourself to get you through around 24 hours. Don’t overpack because the extra weight will end up being more of a hassle than it’s worth, but you do want to make sure you have the basics covered. It’s likely you’ll be able to find (almost) anything you’d need at your destination.
Get Global Entry
When parents have Global Entry, the whole family also has access to the TSA PreCheck program, since children under 12 can use the PreCheck line when accompanied by an eligible adult. This makes a huge difference when clearing security with your kids. Drop all your gear on the belt of the x-ray machine, walk through the metal detector, grab your kids and go.
If you travel internationally at least once a year, it makes sense to sign your kids up as well, because every person must have Global Entry when using the expedited immigration lines.
You could also sign up for CLEAR that offers expedited security checks at airports and public venues like stadiums. The bonus there is that children under 18 can use it with you for free.
Flying with a baby
Babies spend most of their days eating and sleeping, and even when awake, they’re not mobile like toddlers. So you have a few things working to your advantage.
But there’s a lot you need to know, like how to fly with breast milk in the U.S. and these tips for award travel with a lap child. If you’re planning travel with your baby, check out TPG‘s guide to flying with a lap infant.
Flying with toddlers
Unlike infants, who want to be held all the time, toddlers want to move. That creates another set of issues for parents. A survey by Emirates found that 70% of travelers say kids under the age of two get antsy during the first two hours of the flight. Here are ways to channel that extra energy and avoid tantrums:
Strategically plan your toys
Don’t show the kiddos everything you brought for them all at once. Make sure you have toys planned to keep them busy for the duration of the flight and bring them out one at a time as needed. In addition to tech solutions, it’s smart to pack activities such as travel games/cards or a good coloring book to keep them entertained.
Pack snacks galore
Toys are a great distraction but food can be even better. Have different snacks set aside for different points of the flight to ensure your kids stay busy and full. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the cabin crew to help warm up food or a bottle, though it may not always be possible.
Go for walks
You don’t like sitting in an airplane seat for hours, so why would your rambunctious toddler? A brief stroll down the aisle will help break up the time doing activities in their seats and may ward off a meltdown if your toddler gets restless.
The same study mentioned above by Emirates found that electronic devices are the most effective way to keep kids occupied during a long flight. For children under 5 years old, 57% of parents said that movies, TV shows or videos are the most helpful in keeping children occupied, followed by devices to play games. Don’t forget your charger (and adapter, if needed). But if that isn’t for you, take a look at this advice from a mom who keeps her kids busy on long-haul flights without tablets.
Flying with school-aged kids
Luckily, children who are in kindergarten through elementary school have longer attention spans and fewer tantrums. But, it can still be a challenge to keep a young child happy during a flight. Here’s what can help:
Make it a special occasion
Whether it’s going to a birthday party or getting ice cream after school, kids love when they get to do something out of the ordinary. Use that same approach for a flight by making it a fun event and packing a special bag. Items like crayons, small toys and a few pieces of their favorite candy work wonders. (Think: the blind bag trend all over YouTube.) Extend the idea of a special occasion by letting them choose a movie or TV show they wouldn’t usually get to watch or having a snack not allowed at home.
Introduce seat-back games
It can be a lot to pack games that will keep a child entertained for hours, so don’t depend solely on what you brought. Let your child explore the seatback-entertainment system if there is one. Many offer games that are meant to keep people distracted for hours. They can even play against other people on the plane, just show them how to start and they’ll be set for hours.
Bring a book about the destination
Children in elementary school are all about learning. Use that to your advantage. If you’re headed someplace new, bring a book about that destination. Letting them help plan the activities you’ll do, once you arrive, will keep them entertained during the flight and get them excited for the vacation.
Flying with teens
The biggest problem parents have on board is staving off restlessness and boredom, both of which lead to children (er, little adults) acting out in a variety of ways. In the case of teenagers, their “angsty” side might come out after a while. Help make it the bonding experience you dream of by trying the tactics below:
Have a meal as a family
A flight is a perfect time for family members to switch seats with each other so everyone has a chance sit next to a different family member. It’s a good time to eat and chat with one another without watching TV or checking cell phones.
Start a conversation
Being stuck on a plane together can be a great opportunity to interact with your kids. Imagine their undivided (OK, partially divided) attention for hours on end. Strike up a conversation with questions like what they’re most looking forward to during the trip. Don’t push — teens need space, even when sitting right next to you.
Book a flight with Wi-Fi
Of course, we know teenagers need to stay connected with their friends, even at 35,000 feet in the air, so take advantage of onboard Wi-Fi when you can. Choosing the right airline, or the right credit card can even make Wi-Fi a free treat.
No matter the age of your children, keeping them happy, comfortable and entertained while in flight takes some effort. But, it’s worth it in order to enjoy a new and exciting experience with those you love. Your demeanor rubs off on your kids. Keeping a positive attitude can go a long way in making the trip more enjoyable for everyone. Plan for what you can but otherwise, just roll with it. It’s all about making the time spent getting to and from your destination part of the fun.
What are your tips for flying with children of different ages?
Here are some other resources to help you confidently fly with your family:
- Most family-friendly international air carriers
- How to survive long-haul flights with kids
- Traveling with children who have special needs
- How old should your child be before taking an international vacation?
- 4 things to know about U.S. passports for children
Feature photo by Bonfanti Diego/Getty Images.