5 Things Flight Attendants Wish Traveling Parents Knew
“I will never stop traveling after I have kids!” I have said this to myself many, many times over the years after hearing stories of regret from parents who sacrificed travel because it seemed too daunting with kids along for the ride. (Perhaps these parents didn't know about the most family-friendly airlines that go out of their way to make the experience on the ground and in the air a good one for families.)
I have been a flight attendant on a US airline for 12 years and now here I am, pregnant with my first two kids on the way (twins!). Now that I am pregnant, I am beginning to wonder how my traveling life will be altered. I know that it’ll be different to be sure, but I stand firmly behind my willingness to keep traveling and share my love of flying with my two baby girls. As a flight attendant, and now a mom-to-be, I want to pass on some things I’ve learned and that flight attendants wish all parents knew about traveling with little ones. Many of these tips experienced traveling parents may already know, but 12 years of flying has taught me not to take anything for granted.
1. Pack a Carry-On With Everything You Need
There are crucial things you can prepare to make your life at 36,000 feet easier before you ever get to the airport. Pack a carry-on bag, no larger than a backpack, for each child coming on the journey. Most airlines allow this without any extra cost.
First things first: Pack food. Bring snacks that your child will eat so that they don’t get hungry on the flight. A hungry child usually equals a grumpy child. It sounds simple, but many people still think that food can’t be brought through security. It can, and you should. The plane will have a limited selection of food onboard, it can be expensive and you may not have time to stop on the way to the plane to pick up anything once you've passed through security.
Bringing food is also very important if your child has special dietary needs. We, as flight attendants, are given very limited information about the ingredients in the food we serve, especially in first class. If the food is prepackaged, as is typical in domestic economy, it will have some of the allergens listed, but I would rather be safe than sorry. Don’t forget to bring snacks that can be eaten without utensils. Some flight attendants may have access to utensils, but they are not stocked on every flight. I’ve seen many passengers try to eat salad or noodles with a plastic knife, and it never ends well.
While you are packing this bag for your child, throw in some form of entertainment like books, crayons and paper, and handheld games. Flight attendants (and the airline, for that matter), cannot guarantee that your flight will be on a plane equipped with Wi-Fi, in-seat entertainment, video monitors or power jacks. Even when the aircraft is equipped with in-flight entertainment, it may be broken. There are many things a flight attendant is trained to do, but technology maintenance is not on that list. The best we can do is to offer some form of compensation for broken equipment, but this will not help to soothe your bored toddler during the flight. (If you're looking for entertainment that doesn't rely on technology, read TPG's list of 10 ways to keep kids entertained on flights without tablets.)
Keep in mind that if you are flying over large bodies of water or through bad weather, services like satellite TV and Wi-Fi might not work. If you are depending on an electronic device, also please make sure it is charged. If your seating area doesn’t have a charger, we cannot charge your electronics for you. It is deemed a liability and possibly a safety issue.
The other key item for your kids’ carry-on bag is an extra pair of clothes for them, and maybe even for you. (If you're traveling with an infant, read TPG's flying with a baby checklist.) If your travel buddy gets sick or is still very young and prone to messes, the extra change of clothes (or two!) is a lifesaver. We do not have diapers, wipes or extra clothes on the plane. Believe it or not, we get asked for them all the time. The best we can do as flight attendants is to provide you with trash bags for the dirty clothes.
We are resourceful and have even been known to make skirts and ponchos out of trash bags for the unfortunate, but this is somewhat limiting and probably not the most fashionable (or comfortable). Also, please do not hand us soiled diapers. There is a trash can in all the lavatories, or we can get you a trash bag for them.
2. Don't Rely on the Airline for Essentials
If you have time in the airport after you've gone through security, grab drinks since they are not allowed pre-security. We have drinks on the plane and under normal circumstances, the flight attendants will do a service or several, depending on flight length. But, as we all know, travel doesn’t always go according to plan. The flight may be too short, be out on the tarmac for a while or the captain may advise all the flight attendants to be seated for the duration of the flight due to turbulence. So, at the very least, grab some water or refill an empty water bottle at the fountain before getting on the plane.
We’d also like parents to know that we cannot heat up food or formula for you or store medicine. We can bring you hot water, and we can make a bag of ice for your medicine, if it needs to be chilled, but we can’t do any of the storing, mixing or heating for you. This is for health code, safety and liability reasons.
3. Gate Agents Are Your Best Line of Defense
This may sound odd, but flight attendants know little of what happens before you board the aircraft. If there is a problem with your seating arrangement, whether you are separated from your kids or everyone is in different rows, the agent standing behind the desk at the gate is your best resource to address those issues. (And, yes, airlines don't always assign families seats together.)
If you notice a problem with your seating assignments at the airport, go to the gate agent right away. If you notice before the day of travel, call your airline or try to change the seats online. Once you get on the plane, it is very difficult for a flight attendant to switch your seats. Our hands are tied as far as making any seat changes before everyone gets comfortably seated, and anything we do will have to be late in the game due to the continual boarding process and narrow aisles.
If you must switch seats once on the aircraft, please note that we can’t make anyone move if they don’t want to. I once had a couple refuse to move so that a woman could be next to her 2 year old. In exasperation, the mom finally exclaimed, “Fine! You keep her!” In the end, I had to find a couple in a separate row to switch, which held up everyone else. This sort of situation can lead to delays, which are the blight of the airline industry, and everyone tries to avoid them like the plague.
Also, always ask for help from a flight attendant in your seating area. If you are seated in the back, ask the flight attendant who is helping in the back aisle. The ones at the front won’t be able to assist you as well, again due to space limitations.
4. We Can't Hold Your Kids
Your hands will likely be full when you board the aircraft, because we all know that little kids come with lots of stuff. While we can potentially help you stow your things, we cannot help you stow your children. We are not allowed to hold them, technically, for health code reasons as well as liability issues. I have had a baby or two thrust into my arms over the years by people traveling alone with their kids and only two hands. I understand that it is frustrating, but don’t be surprised if your flight attendant tells you that he or she can’t help. They aren't trying to be difficult — they are likely just following the rules of their airline. (Note, this may vary airline to airline — especially internationally.)
My recommendation if you have to travel alone with your kids is to ask the help of a nearby passenger who looks sympathetic. Most likely, you will find someone who is more than ready to hold a baby for a few minutes or entertain your toddler while you settle into your seat.
5. You Are the Parent, Even in the Sky
Once the sometimes hectic boarding process is over, flight attendants are often much more able to assist parents as needed. However, we can’t make your child do anything. I have had many parents plea, “Can you make her put on her seat belt? She won’t listen to me!” We can’t make your child do any more than you can. If we were to try, we’d probably end up on YouTube or the evening news, and no doubt, lose our wings. It is an FAA regulation (FAR 121.311) that everyone must be seated, with seat belts fastened, before the plane moves on the ground, takes off or lands. We aren’t making that rule up to torture you or your child and we can't physically make them comply with the rules ourselves.
We understand that flying on a plane is not routine for most kids, and that kids (and parents) may feel scared or out of control and act out. Some flight attendants may look the other way from time to time, but it is our job to keep the plane and the people on it safe. So, yes, we can ask your little one to put on her or his seat belt, stop ringing the call light for fun, sit down and to stop kicking the seat back in front of them. At the end of the day though, you are still the parent and the best thing you can do is lead by example. So, put on your seat belt, show your kids the things you love about flying and don’t be afraid to show them the world! I'll be joining you in the sky with my own little ones any day now.