Taking a lap baby on a flight? Request a bassinet from your airline! I’ve gotten free upgrades to Economy Plus simply by asking for a bassinet since they only attach to the bulkhead. There is a 20 lb. limit on the bassinet and usually only one per plane, so this will likely only work on international flights or if you book early. Even if you are assured you will have a bassinet, sometimes the plane doesn’t have one on board so you shouldn’t rely on it.
Pay a bit more for guaranteed seat assignments. Flights WILL be fully booked during the holidays, so protect yourself from being separated from your kids. Need flight advice? The forums at flyertalk.com can be a lifesaver. I once was able to fix seat assignments when they switched to a smaller plane by learning exactly when new seats would open up before a flight. Industry insiders frequent this site and are quite helpful.
Pack toys: some new, some favorites. If your child is old enough to be entertained by an iPad or Kindle Fire, by all means do this! Avoid messy art supplies, toys with small parts or anything that can easily roll 5 rows away under the seat.
Cheap and new can be great – the best toy on a plane trip was once a handful of Dixie cups from the bathroom that could be stacked, unstacked, crumpled and torn. Wikki Sticks are a cheap and easy favorite. They are simple waxed strings that can be bent into different shapes or stuck to a window or the arm of the seat without making a mess. Don’t bring too many toys because “playing with toys” is just one phase of the plane ride and it won’t matter what you still have in your bag once your child decides they are done with toys!
Pack snacks, good ones. My boys are always starving on a flight so real food is a must, but lollipops are a slow-to-eat treat and the ultimate meltdown salve. Your child may vary, but the goal is to bring your “ace in the hole” snack for a long flight.
Pack enough diapers for an extended delay, some Ziploc bags and a change of clothes. My kids never have blowouts at home, but I’ve needed to change clothes a few times on flights. The rules are different in the air, so expect the unexpected.
Pack smart – backpacks are hands-free luggage and should be a staple of your carry-on luggage with children. Kids 3 and up can carry their own small pack loaded with their own toys and treats. The fewer number of items the better, so nest your bags for ease of carrying through the airport and onto the plane.
Arrive early for the holiday lines. Know that getting through the TSA line is the worst part of the trip: you have all your carry-ons, no where to go and a long, slow moving line. If you have and can utilize Global Entry for your WHOLE family (it must be everyone in your party), do it! Otherwise, take advantage of the family-friendly line if there is one.
Don’t worry about being slow when you get there, do things in order, don’t worry about the people behind you (they knew this was coming!) and get your things arranged properly. Prepare for the scanning process!
Put away your phone, keys, electronics, wallet, etc. before you get to the line. You need empty pockets so save yourself the hassle ahead of time. Have your tickets and ID ready for the first check, then put them away securely (you can put them in the right place when you get to the gate). When it’s your turn for the scan, get as many bins as you will need knowing that shoes/jackets go in one bin, laptops go in their own bin, liquids in a quart-size Ziploc bag. Pockets should be empty and everything else should be safely tucked away in luggage.
If you have liquids for a baby or toddler, those are exempt from the liquids rule. That can include bottled water for yourself! Keep those liquids separate for hand-checking or TSA agents will dig through all your bags. If you want to bring pouches for the little ones they may need to be opened for testing, so don’t over-pack pouches in your carry-on.
If you aren’t overloaded or can split up with your partner, let the kids run up and down the terminal. Get “the crazies” out early. Many airports now have a kid play area so definitely take advantage if you can.
As for boarding, you may be tempted to get on early and strap them down, but try to let the kids run around as long as possible. Limited carry-on space may complicate this plan, especially for holidays when most people try to travel light for a short trip. If traveling with your partner, consider having one person board with the carry-ons while the other entertains the kids until boarding. This can be challenging if you have a lot of carry-ons, though.
After everyone is seated, use hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes on the tray and arms of the seat. Nothing is worse that having the kids get sick as soon as you arrive!
For takeoff/landing have milk or juice ready for the little ones and gum or another chewing food (Cheerios can work) to help pop the ears.
To Benadryl or not Benadryl: some parents swear by it, some say it makes things worse. My take: give your child Benadryl at an earlier and safer time to see how they respond to it, then act accordingly.
Give up on watching a movie, getting work done or doing anything besides entertaining your kids. But also have something available if they decide to sleep through the whole flight (a fully-charged phone is usually enough).
The best tool you have is your attitude. Some people mutter or act rude when they see children boarding a flight – that is not your concern. Focus on what you can control and don’t worry about everyone else. Your children will respond to your energy, so use it to make air travel an adventure for you and your family and not a chore. After all, you are going to soar through the sky thousands of feet in the air! Celebrate the experience with your kids and they will look forward to it.
Once on a plane, your child will want to explore their area. They might only have 3 square feet of space, but they want to look behind them, out the window, kick the seat, pull on the chair arm and more. You can’t stop this urge, only redirect it. Let them play with the seat light or air nozzle instead of kicking the seat. Show them the clouds out the window or the ground far below. Walk them down the aisle when you can. Have them wave to the smiling lady two seats away. Think of how teachers cope with long bus rides: songs, games and communication. Keep your kids active and engaged and you can avoid many problems. You are your child’s best entertainment on a flight, so embrace the opportunity.
When the breaking point comes, and it always seems to come, remember that this too shall pass. The crying fit will end, the tantrum will run out of steam and the four hours left (how can there still be four hours?!?) will come and go. Remember, no one is expected to present a perfect angel child to the world. Do your best to meet your child’s needs, be supportive and engaged and use the tools you have available.
Looking for more tips? Here are my top 13 Tips for Flying with Kids and Babies.