|The joys of air travel with children
Over the past ten years, I have had frequent opportunity to travel our nation's airports with my children. Living on the West Coast of the United States and having the bulk of family members on the East Coast has made air travel a necessary and frequent adventure for my family. Over the years, I have learned a few secrets that should be of benefit to any parent traveling with small children.
On my first flight with my daughter, now ten years old, she was an infant of six months. It was Christmas time and we were traveling to Boston. It was just before this trip that I received the one piece of advice that I have found most valuable in traveling with my family.
- DON'T worry about what other people on the flight are thinking, you will not be likely to ever see them again. Instead focus on your children. If they are fussy, focus on making them more comfortable for them, not because they are annoying someone else.
Keeping this thought in mind, I boarded the airplane with my six month old daughter, mounds of gear, a stroller and a car seat. I had been fortunate enough to secure the bulkhead seat, which afforded me more room to spread. Unfortunately, sitting directly across the aisle from me, in the opposite bulkhead was a very senior manager from the company for whom I had recently started working. My attempt to appear inconspicuous was quickly erased by my daughter's screams. Happily the story ends well and the gentlemen leaned over to admire my daughter, who promptly fell asleep for most of the rest of the flight.
We traveled blissfully with my daughter for another two years, until my son was born. His first flight was also at Christmas time, when he was four months old. Traveling with an infant and a toddler presented more challenges than I could have ever imagined. First challenge was the amount of 'stuff' we needed to bring along. Not only did I need a diaper bag full of infant stuff, but I also needed another bag full of toys, diapers and other items to entertain a busy three year old.
- In order to keep my three year old daughter entertained, I packed a carry on full of new toys and books that we pulled out at varying intervals throughout the flight. This kept her happy, while I was able to focus on the baby.
- I also found that for both my toddler and the baby, carrying a comfort item, such as a favorite blanket or stuffed animal was essential (this is a must when traveling anywhere, by any means). This helped comfort them and they were better able to sleep. Another must is if your child takes a pacifier, bring extra. Our worst travel trauma occurred when the only pacifier we had brought along disappeared under the seat and we could not find it until the end of the flight.
- In order to accommodate all the extra 'stuff' we needed to carry, I got my daughter a small backpack, and packed most of her things in this. Having her own backpack and being allowed to carry her own things made her feel very grown up and took some of the burden off me.
- My husband and I like to travel and enjoy doing a lot of walking at our travel destinations, so early on we had invested in a backpack style child carrier. This became a valuable tool for travel through airports.
By putting one of the children in the backpack, I was able to have more free hands. The only challenge came with going through security and having to take the carrier off my back. I generally found the security staff to be friendly and helpful in this regard, particularly if I was holding up the line and slowing things down.
- We learned early on (quite by accident) that flying in and out of smaller regional airports was much easier than larger International airports. Our normal trip from Los Angeles (LAX) to Boston (Login), became a trip from Orange County (John Wayne) to Providence RI (TF Green). The people in the smaller airports are much friendlier and with the reduced crowds, I found it much less stressful. The downside to using smaller regional airports is that you will rarely get a direct flight.
I actually find that having a layover of an hour or two is a good thing. It gives the children a chance to get off the plane and run around a bit, getting the wiggles out. Most airports now have fairly extensive food courts with a wide selection of fast food, giving you a chance to eat something other than airplane food during your stop.
- My advice on layovers is to make sure you have enough time. When you make your reservation, ensure you have at least an hour, preferably two between your flights. Particularly if you are changing planes at one of the larger mid-west airports. We have often found ourselves running from one end of the airport in Detroit to the other, a distance of about half a mile.
This is also a good time to ask for assistance from the airline. If you ask in advance, they will have a cart waiting to drive you to your next gate. You may need to remind them when you get to the gate. Be assertive and persistent in your request.
Potty training and air travel pose a particularly challenge. Since both toddlers and flights are unpredictable, it is not always possible to make that emergency trip to the bathroom when your child has to go 'right now'. We learned this the hard way when we ended up with a soaking wet seat halfway through a five hour flight.
- If you are in the process of potty training, forget it during your flight. Put your toddler in pull ups or diapers for the entire trip. Also, be sure to carry with you a complete change of clothes, because 'accidents happen'.
To this day my daughter, now ten years old, will try to wait until we get to an airport to use the bathroom. Something about the bathrooms on airplanes is just distasteful to her.
Before I had children, whenever I was on a long flight, I would make it a point to spend a few minutes entertaining other peoples kids on the flight. I remember one time I was returning from a trade show and had several toys in my carry on that I had gotten from vendors. A little boy, about four years old, was sitting across the aisle from me and was crying hysterically. His mother was at the end of her rope and didn't know what to do. I pulled a toy car out of my bag, and played with him for about an hour while his mother had a chance to relax.
- Air travel is one of the few places where it is okay to let a stranger help with your child, after all, where can they go. If someone offers to entertain your child for a little while, within your sight, let them.
- Don't hesitate to ask a flight attendant for help. They should be able to heat bottles for you and may even hold the baby if they are not too busy and the flight is smooth.
If I had to do those baby years of flying over again, I have only one thing I would change, I would buy my child his or her own seat. Being a young family, we were on quite a tight budget. In order to save money, we took advantage of the fact that the airlines allowed children under two years old to travel free if they sat on their parent's lap. This was fine on less crowded flights, when we could usually get an extra empty seat, but since we frequently flew at Christmas time, this was rarely an option. I frequently found myself or my husband walking the aisles because a child was asleep in one of our seats.
Just a few days before September 11, we had returned from our annual summer trip to visit the family in Boston, on American Airlines Flight 11. Since then, we have only taken one flight. We skipped our usually Christmas trip to visit the family this year because my daughter was terrified of flying. At spring break, we decided to meet the family at DisneyWorld in Orlando. For the first time in her life, my daughter took a sedative to help her get through the flight. I do not believe in unnecessary medication for my children and had never used anything more than Dramamine when traveling with them, but I felt it was important to get her back on a plane and over her fear of flying.
Since September 11, I have noticed that travelers appear much more stressed and the tension level in airports and on airplanes is much higher. This brings me to my final comment and words of advice.
- Don't take your frustrations and fears out on your children. They are innocent bystanders.
Remember, traveling should be enjoyable. Focus on your destination, not the getting there and you will have a wonderful time.