With Thanksgiving and the winter holidays just around the corner, it seems like everyone I know is heading out of town. When I talk to parents, the thing that causes the most stress isn’t holiday gifts or basting the turkey, it’s the prospect of a long plane flight or car ride with kids in tow. As a mom of two (ages three-and-a-half and two) who travels a lot with her two kids, I’ve learned and a few tricks that go a long way towards making travel days easier.
1. Save the surprises for Grandma’s house
The turmoil of packing up and getting through the airport can be unnerving for a small child, especially when their parents are stressed. A few days before you leave, tell your child about where you’ll be going and how you’ll be getting there. On the day of the flight, outline exactly what is going to happen. For example – “First we’ll take a taxi to the airport, then we’ll go through security, and then we’ll get on the plane and fly to Grandma’s.”
If you have a very cautious child, consider visiting the airport in advance, or role-playing what will happen at the security checkpoint. Even very young toddlers are comforted by their parents' explanations of how things work (even if they don’t understand all the details).
2. Lighten Up
Each extra ounce weighs heavily when you’re rushing through the airport with a crabby child, a stroller, and you’ve only got a few minutes to get to your airplane. Edit your suitcase, and ask yourself whether there’s a clever way you can do without each item you’ve packed.
For example, would your child do just as well with a straw as a sippy cup? Can you order diapers online to be shipped to your destination? With airlines adding restrictions to carry-on bags and fees for checked bags, it’s worthwhile to check your airline’s website in advance so that there aren’t any unpleasant (and expensive) surprises at the airport.
For more tips on packing light, check out our family packing lists.
3. Get an Early Start
Kids create chaos, and when you’re trying to pack everything and everyone in the car, they have a way of undoing what you’re struggling to get done. If possible, hire a sitter to play with the kids while you pack up. If you’re flying, extra time at the airport will give your kids some time to stretch their legs before they get on the airplane.
4. A Well-Fed Child is a Sleepy Child
Bring some hearty snacks and pack them where they are easy to reach. We love protein-rich eggs and sunbutter sandwiches. Freeze-dried fruits, crackers, cereal and cheese slices also travel well. Remember that any liquids need to be packed separately, so it’s easiest to avoid applesauce or other sauces. Here’s one tip we never forget: high-protein snacks and cow’s milk have a mild sedative effect on young kids. Avoid sugar – candy might keep the kids quiet for a few moments, but it works against you on a long flight.
5. Divide and Conquer
Try to avoid dragging the whole family through the more mundane travel details. One parent should stay with the kids while the other completes tasks like checking baggage, buying snacks, pre-boarding to install car seats, and renting a car. If the airport has a play area, (ask at the information desk or check the airport’s website) those are ideal times for the kids to “get their wiggles out.”
6. Clear their Ears
Takeoff and landing are hard on toddlers because they don’t know how to clear their ears. Bring a sippy cup or a straw so that your child can drink milk or water during takeoff and landing. Not every airline has milk onboard, so buy some in the airport after you have cleared security, or bring some powdered formula from home.
7. Set Your Own Expectations…
I look back longingly at the days when a long plane flight meant time to read, think, and relax. When I’m flying with the kids, I prepare to spend the entire time reading to them, playing with them, and attending to them. Now that we’ve all been on long flights together, the kids know that from the moment they get on the plane they’ll have my complete attention, and as a result, they're well-behaved.
8. A Busy Child is a Happy Child
Most articles about traveling with kids recommend that you pack a busy bag, filled with toys, books, music, and audiobooks, and I’m no different. But don’t break out the toys before you have to – be creative. Make toys out of everything around you. Barf bag puppets, airline magazines, and old-fashioned seat belt buckles are all fascinating to young children. Teach yourself a few new finger rhymes
(e.g. Where is Thumbkin?) and games before you leave home. Need more ideas? Check out our top ten tips for keeping a child busy on a plane and our list of ten great travel toys you already have at home.
9. Bring the Binky
Don’t forget (or check) your child’s comfort object, whatever it might be. Travel is stressful. They’ll need it.
10. Bore Them to Sleep
If your child is sleepy, do everything you can to create a comforting, sleep-inducing environment. Give them a little milk to drink during takeoff. Follow the same sleepytime ritual you do at home, and sing quietly or play some music (using headphones). Here are more tips for helping your baby or child sleep on a plane.
Debbie Dubrow is a mother of two (ages 3 1/2 and 2) living in Seattle.