Flying High with Kids in the Sky

ghogan August 12, 2010 4 Comments

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Airplane travel with kids, especially international flights that clock in over 10 hours, can be a tough ride, particularly with babies and toddlers in tow. It certainly will not be easy!  On the other hand, it can be a memorable experience and open up a whole new world for your tots…literally.

On a recent family trip to Costa Rica to visit my wife Dora’s parents, we had to power through almost six hours in the air from Los Angeles with our four year old, Holly, and our 4 month old baby, Lenore. Now if you think the car trip to San Diego with our girls was a challenge, multiply this times 100 and you’ll know we took on the Olympics of family travel on this jaunt.  We learned quite a few tips and tricks for air travel with kids that we’re very happy to share with you!

Before and After a Flight

Children on FlightsBefore your departure, check your airline’s policies and other information on flying with infants and small children. You’d be surprised how comprehensive their guidelines can be. The airlines even have special sections for domestic and international flights.

On domestic flights, children less than 2 years (24 months) fly free on most airlines when accompanied by an adult as long as they do not occupy a seat.  At 4 months, Lenore certainly qualified. However, for international flights, a ticket is required regardless of age. Also on International flights, infants are required to have proof of age and newborns need a doctor’s permission to travel.

You can use your child safety seats (same one used in your car) on the flight. We used one for Holly.  Car seats can only to be used in window seats on airplanes that have one aisle and both window and middle seats in airplanes with two aisles.  However, the car seat cannot be used in rear-facing seats.

As for Lenore, the airline conveniently provided a bassinet free of charge. Of course, bassinets could not be used during takeoff and landing or when the seatbelt sign was on. Since it was considered an international flight, Lenore had a child safety seat too.  This proved to be a much more comfortable way to travel, especially since she could sleep in her own car seat, but of course it is more costly.

Changing tables are available only on certain lavatories onboard and are usually labeled as such (more on diaper changing later).

All in all, our airline’s website provided us with a good starting point with things to think about before embarking on our trip. We highly recommend you consult your airline’s website too.

On the day of your departure (both legs of your trip), make sure to give yourself plenty of time for just about everything from checking in to transit flights. Even if you are a seasoned international traveler, kids will slow you down!

Children on FlightsFor example, getting through security nowadays can be a nightmare. These advance tips will make it much easier. First, we had Holly wear clothes and shoes that were easy to take off and put on. We also explained to her the night before how security worked at the airport so she wouldn’t be jumpy once we walked through X-ray machines and were asked to remove our jackets and shoes.

For children that are a little older, make sure to discuss with them the importance of being respectful while going through security.  Making jokes like “There’s a bomb in my bag” will cause major problems, so be sure to explain to them the importance of using restraint. 

During boarding, be alert for announcements directed towards families with children.  Those who are travelling with small children can usually board first.  It is easier to be among the first to board the flight when you are with small children and exit the plane last, so that you can get all the assistance you may need from the cabin crew.

Although we don’t usually use it, a harness for Holly came in handy at the airport for her own safety, as my wife Dora was busy with the baby and I was handling our luggage.  With the harness, Dora was able to watch both our girls while I dealt with baggage, immigration, customs, and the airline desk. Speaking of customs, be on the lookout for fast track immigration and customs checkpoints especially for families travelling with infants.

Meal Times during the Flight

Airline food is thankfully served hot. However, for kids like Holly—it may have been a little too hot and she burned her tongue!  Now, Dora always tests the temperature of Holy’s meal before allowing her to eat.  Just as in our long car trips, we make sure to pack some of Holly’s own favorite non-crumbling snacks, such as fruit roll-ups and string cheese.   Drinks and baby food for infants are usually OK, but they will most likely require extra screening.  Liquids exceeding the 3 or 6 ounce limits should be OK for infants, but may be confiscated if they are meant for older children.  Keep in mind that you can usually buy drinks in the airport after passing through security.  Remember that while on your flight, kids have their own hunger and thirst timetables.

We brought along some plastic food containers for Holly’s often half-eaten or totally untouched meals which she would be asking for later – on her own schedule. We even brought her favorite sippy cup to minimize spills and messes during meals.

As for the baby, the galley had their own baby food but not the brand that finicky Lenore prefers. Thankfully, Dora had the foresight to pack Lenore’s favorite baby food along with a bowl and a plastic utensil for the flight. We also brought along disposable bibs for her.

Disposable bottle liners were another great thing to bring along. We made sure to buy bottled water once we were through security.  Instant bottle!  We just asked our flight attendant to warm it for a short time in a bowl of hot water. The flight attendant obliged, but you should remember to ask well ahead of cabin meal service time even if it isn’t your baby’s mealtime yet. There are usually no microwaves in the galley. Therefore, the flight attendant will need to rely on hot water to heat a bottle up for you.

Feeling at Home on a Flight

Much like our previous road trips, we made the kids more at home by bringing along Holly’s favorite stuffed animal and Lenore’s blanket.

We also dressed Holly so she could get in and out of her sweater easily as temperature changed. We even brought along an extra blanket for her in case it got really cold.

While our plane had a fairly good entertainment system with personal monitors, we nonetheless brought a portable DVD player along with Holly’s well-loved DVDs. In exchange, we spent four hours of stress-free flying as she finished a Disney movie marathon with minimal interruptions.

As additional entertainment ammunition, we brought along a backpack full of crayons and coloring books, stickers, and small toys. The backpack fits easily under the seat. We tried to delay the boredom factor by introducing new distractions only when we knew they were at their breaking point.  After all, if it’s going to be a long flight, you can’t give them everything in the first hour and have no more excitement saved for the rest of the flight!

Getting Down and Dirty

 For Lenore, we made sure to pack more diapers than we thought would be needed. Let’s face it, you can buy duty-free perfumes and electronics in the air but not diapers. In Lenore’s bag, we brought diapers, baby wipes (which came in handy for other messes as well), and a scented nappy sack. Dora also packed rash cream—better safe than sorry as the cliché goes.

While some airplanes have larger bathrooms in the rear with larger changing tables, be prepared to work in a small space only.  Some airplanes do not even have a changing table and you will need to improvise by using the toilet seat cover instead.

Among other things, we packed lip balm (lips get dry on flights) and two changes of clothes for Holly and Lenore as well as an extra shirt for each adult. Bad messes will happen and emergency clothing will not take up much space overall. Also bring zip lock bags for your dirty clothes.

Finally, ear pressure problems will happen, usually during take-off and landing, so be prepared. We gave Holly chewing gum (candy will do too) and Lenore sucking her bottle or pacifier seemed to do the job well.

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avatarAbout the Author:

Garrett Hogan lives in Burbank California and is a proud husband and father of two young daughters. He and his family love to travel and explore new places.

Tags: , Tips and Hints
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