Your guide to flying with kids of every age
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Your passport to an enjoyable flight with your kids is patience, planning, a bag of travel treats and entertainment to manage in-flight restlessness (and perhaps a little luck). Between cramped seats, questionable food, fees for checked bags, and now mask requirements for children starting when they turn 2 years old, flying can be stressful for families. Whether taking that first flight with a baby, dealing with cranky toddlers or moody teens. Here’s how to survive the flight as painlessly as possible.
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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
Step one is carrying 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 for your child is great documentation as it has their age and photo. Just remember that children’s passports are good for five years (and actually only 4.5 years of true use).
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.
Some LGBTQ+ families have also expressed to TPG that they have been asked to display additional documentation regarding their children at times, so here’s a list of documents that can be handy in those situations compiled by TPG contributor Jon Bailey.
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. Others just have better and more reliable in-flight entertainment and a more generous family boarding time — which matters when you have a baby, stroller, car seat and more to get on and settled.
All in all, 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 or an onboard “accident.” 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.
You’ll likely be able to find (almost) anything you’d need at your destination, but you don’t want to run out of diapers, formula or clean clothes before that happens.
Get Global Entry
When parents have Global Entry, the whole family also has access to the TSA PreCheck program, since children aged 12 and under 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, keep your shoes on, your iPads tucked away and just 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 for Global Entry as well, because (unlike with PreCheck) every person in the family must have their own 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 here is that you can have your identity checked using only your eye scan, and children under 18 can use it with you for free.
Flying with a baby
While it may not feel like it at times, babies spend most of their days eating and sleeping, especially for the first three or four months. Even when they are awake, they’re not mobile like toddlers. So while it may sound intimidating to fly with a baby, you have a few things working to your advantage if you are flying with a true baby, especially before they get wiggly.
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 to travel with your baby, check out TPG’s complete guide to flying with a lap infant.
Flying with toddlers
Unlike infants, who want to be held pretty much all the time, toddlers want to move. And while travel with toddlers is absolutely possible, know that from about nine months old until around 18 to 24 months is often one of the hardest ages to keep little ones still and happy.
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 (hopefully) avoid tantrums:
Wipe everything down
These days, this is really good advice for all ages of travelers, but toddlers especially are guaranteed to be into every square inch of the available space o the plane, so bring some cleaning wipes and make sure your area is clean before turning them loose to touch the tray table and beyond.
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, especially on some domestic flights.
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.
Get them used to masks early
No one knows how long the pandemic will continue and masks will be a required in-flight amenity, even for toddlers. But, if there’s a chance you’ll be flying with your toddler while masks are required onboard for children aged 2 and up, your best plan is to get them used to wearing a mask well in advance of the flight.
Some of our favorite face masks for toddler-aged kids come from Joah Love, Alex + Nova and Disney.
Flying with school-aged kids
Luckily, children who are in kindergarten through elementary school have longer attention spans and fewer tantrums. They are also more likely to be used to wearing masks thanks to school or other activities. But, it can still be a challenge to keep a young child happy during a long flight. Here’s what can help:
Make it a special occasion
Whether it’s going to a birthday party, getting ice cream after school, or swimming at night, 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.
Sit with other kids
Kids have more fun sitting with other kids, so unless the sibling rivalry is too intense, letting the kids sit together (with you nearby) can be an effective strategy, especially as the kids creep into the tween and teen years.
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 to sit next to a different family member, assuming you are all in the same cabin and it won’t be too disruptive to trade. 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 thought — 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.
While in-flight connectivity can cost $20 – $30 per device on some airlines and flights, on JetBlue, WiFi is free and on Southwest Airlines, all-day in-flight Wi-Fi is just $8.
Related: How to save money on in-flight WiFi
No matter the age of your children, keeping them happy, comfortable and entertained while in flight takes some effort and planning on your part. But, it’s worth it to enjoy a new and exciting experience with those you love.
Your demeanor rubs off on your kids. Keeping a positive attitude (even if things go awry) 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
Additional reporting by Summer Hull
Feature photo by Bonfanti Diego/Getty Images.
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