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Between cramped seats, bland food and expensive fees for checked bags, flying can easily be one of the most stressful forms of travel, if you aren’t strategic about your choices and the planning process. Add kids to the mix, and you’ve got a potential headache in the making. From the first flights with a baby to toddler crankiness and full-blown meltdowns, flying with children is no picnic. But, don’t let that deter you from jet setting with the kiddos. We tapped three family travel experts to get their top tips on minimizing the chances of an incident at 35,000 feet. Here’s how to survive a flight with a child at every age.

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Flying With a Baby

These little ones are new to the world, so traveling can be rough on them and their parents. On the plus side, they are also potentially a bit sleepier and less mobile than 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 US. Try these pro tricks on your next flight with a baby to make things a bit easier on everyone.

Time Flights With Your Baby’s Sleep Patterns: As you probably know by now, babies sleep a lot (just not always when you want them to). Take advantage of that and book flights coinciding with their sleep schedules. “First and foremost, for parents flying with babies, we recommend choosing a flight that is as close as possible to their bedtime,” says Emirates cabin crew member, Maria Dontsidou. “This will allow them to sleep for a large part of the flight.” For shorter day flights, try to time when your baby is naturally napping. Here are tips to flying with kids on a red eye.

Image by Dangubic / Getty Images
Image by Dangubic / Getty Images

Change Diapers Before Boarding: We all know how cramped airplane bathrooms can be and sometimes you can get delayed on the tarmac for quite a while. Both are reasons you should opt for a pre-plane diaper change before boarding the plane. “For newborns, try changing their diaper prior to boarding to reduce the number of changes during the flight,” says Tom Barber, co-founder of Original Travel, a luxury travel company that curates tailor-made itineraries.

Feed on Takeoff and Landing: Know how your ears pop on the plane, and you yawn or chew to make the sensation go away? Well, this can be particularly uncomfortable for babies causing them to cry. “Make sure you have a bottle of milk for babies to suck on during takeoff or descent,” says Dontsidou. “Babies may have difficulty equalizing their ear pressure and feel uncomfortable.”My first, but far from last, time nursing on a plane

Pack Extra Earplugs: Sometimes no matter what you do, a baby will cry on a plane. But, you can help make it a little less painful for those around you by bringing extra earplugs … if you want to. “Extra earplugs will come in handy to give out to nearby passengers if your baby is crying,” says Beth O’Donnell, the general manager of Thomson Family Adventures. “You can even make up some small baggies and pack them with earplugs, and maybe some other treats such as mints, candy, an eye mask, etc. Get creative! If you think ahead and have something to give your fellow travelers, they’re likely to be a lot more patient and understanding.” However, do not feel required to do this, it is just an option if it makes you less anxious about the trip.

Pack a Day’s Worth of Items: It’s terrible when the airline loses your luggage. It’s even worse if it’s filled with diapers, wipes and clothes for your baby. Don’t get stuck without the necessities, so pack a carry-on not only for the duration of the flight, but for a full 24 hours if you can manage. “Pack a cohesive carry-on, inclusive of wipes, a change of clothing, formula and as many toys as you can fit,” says Barber.

Figure Out Seating Arrangements Beforehand: Before you board, it’s important to plan ahead and figure out the most comfortable way for your baby to sit. “Parents are welcome to have the baby on their laps if they’re under 2 or use an infant car seat,” says Dontsidou. “But they will need to book a child’s fare for the extra seat. Either way, it truly comes down to the preference of the parent and child.”

Westin in his car seat on the plane
Image by Stephen Thomas

Flying With Toddlers

Unlike infants who want to be held all the time, toddlers want to move, and that creates a whole new set of issues for parents to deal with. In fact, a survey by Emirates’ found that 70% of travelers say kids under the age of 2 get antsy in the first two hours of the flight. Here are four ways to avoid that extra energy and tantrums.

Strategically Plan Your Toys: Don’t give your tot everything to keep them busy up front. Make sure you have toys planned for the duration of the flight. “What we recommend for keeping your child entertained is having a new toy set aside to give them mid-flight,” says Dontsidou. “This will ensure there are a variety of fun items that will keep them occupied for a longer period of time.” And pack items that have longevity to them such as travel games/cards and a good coloring book.

Image by Karen Akpan

Pack Snacks Galore: Toys are a great distraction, but so is food. “Snacks are crucial in case your kids don’t like the in-flight meals, or your airplane gets stuck on the tarmac,” says O’Donnell. You can have different snacks set aside for different points of the flight to ensure your toddler stays both busy and full. And don’t be afraid to ask the cabin crew to warm up food or a bottle, though know that will not always be possible.

Go for Walks: You don’t like sitting in an airplane seat for hours, and neither does your rambunctious toddler. So, you need to help dispel that energy. “When your child is awake, take brief strolls when they are already in good moods,” says Dontsidou. “This will help them stretch, break up the time between activities in their seats and prevent a restless-child meltdown.”

Embrace Technology: Emirates found that devices were the most effective way to keep kids occupied during a long flight. For children under 5 years old, 57% of parents say that devices to watch movies, TV shows or videos are by far the most helpful, followed by devices to play games (17%). Just don’t forget a phone charger (and adapter if applicable). “Fully charged electronics will keep kids entertained, which keeps mom and dad more relaxed,” says O’Donnell. (Or, listen to this advice from a mom that keeps her kids busy on long-haul flights without tablets.)

Sometimes kids just need their own space. Image courtesy of Westend61 via Getty Images

Flying With School-Aged Kids

Luckily, children who are in kindergarten through elementary school have a longer attention span 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 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. “Pack your child a plane bag and give it to them as soon as they are settled into their seats or after takeoff,” says O’Donnell. “Fill it with crayons, small toys, coloring book, favorite candy, etc. These work especially well for younger age kids.” You can also extend this idea of a special occasion by letting them choose a movie or TV show they wouldn’t usually watch or having a snack not allowed at home.

Ten Ways To Keep Kids Entertained On Flights Without Tablets
Make flying a special event. (Image by Karen Akpan)

Introduce Seat-Back Games: It can be a lot to pack games that will keep a child entertained for hours. “Don’t depend solely on what you brought,” says Dontsidou. “Let them explore the entertainment system.” Many flights have games built into the seatback display 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: Elementary school-aged children are all about learning. Use that to your advantage. “If you are heading to another country,” says O’Donnell, “bring along a book about that particular destination.” Let them choose what activities they want to do once you get there, which will keep them entertained during the flight and get them excited for the vacation.

Image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy
Image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy

Flying With Teens

The biggest problems families have onboard are restlessness and boredom, both of which lead to children 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: With such busy lives, it can be challenging to have a regularly scheduled family meal. A flight is a perfect time to make up for that. Depending on the length of the flight, you could rotate family members for each meal, so everyone has a chance to eat and chat with one another. Make this a time you don’t watch TV to ensure the time is well spent. Plus, it will eat up an hour or so.

Plane time is the right time for a family meal.
Plane time is the right time for a family meal.

Start a Conversation: This is also a good time to interact with kids. Imagine their undivided attention for hours on end. “Try and set aside a window of time on the flight to ask them what they are most looking forward to (or on the return ask what their favorite part of the trip was),” says O’Donnell. “The answers might surprise you.” Just don’t push too far — teens need space, even when sitting right next to you.

Book a Flight With Wi-Fi: And, of course, we know teenagers need to stay connected with their friends at all times, even at 33,000 feet in the air. “With that, we recommend taking advantages of onboard Wi-Fi,” says Dontsidou. Choosing the right airline, or the right credit card, can even make Wi-Fi a free treat.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Bottom Line

No matter the age of your children, keeping them happy, comfortable and entertained while in flight takes a bit of effort. But, it’s worth it in order to enjoy a bonding vacation experience with those that you love the most. What are your tips for flying with children of different ages?

Here are some other resources to help you confidently fly with your family:

Know before you go.

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