So you want to take a child (or multiple of them) on a long flight – good for you. You are either very brave, out of choices or really need a vacation. We all know how daunting this task is. The anxiety you feel the night before. The looks as you get on the plane, with each person you pass whispering prayers to the patron saint of quiet flights, “please let them go to the back where they belong.” And you are praying to simply be invisible and have a soundproof seat.
It may seem that this experience is something that every parent must get through; a rite of passage to the truly bravest echelons of parenthood. All you have to do is survive and so that someday you’ll have the bragging rights. We can attest, there is hope. Not only can this experience be pleasant, it can actually be fun for you and your child/children.
It took us a lot of trials, and a lot of errors, to come up with something that seems to work for our little family. We’ve taken our now four-year-old daughter on more than 60 flights; with some trips taking more than hours of traveling (and with multiple connections), including one that was so disastrous that our brains have gone into associative amnesia to protect us from the trauma. But, these days, we look forward to flying with our very precocious young explorer. While we started her off on short flights when she was a baby, we don’t think this is a necessity to get all the benefits of traveling with a child. During our last international flight, we had multiple people stop us after to say how much fun she was to have on the plane and how well behaved she was. Boom. Success! Her easygoing and well-behaved demeanor has even gotten her swag from the crew including bags of cookies, toys and a first class travel pack. We’ve also had multiple flights where the flight attendants asked if they could borrow her to speak to another child elsewhere on the flight.
So, how does this nirvana at 30,000 feet happen? In short, lots of planning.
Before the Flight
Our preparation starts a few days before the flight when we start talking up the trip. Yes, you are going to be locked in a tube with a few hundred people, but there is magic here, especially to a child. Talk to them about the journey, and about their special place on the airplane; their seat. Let them handle their ticket, and treat it like Charlie just unwrapping his ticket to the chocolate factory. They are going on a magical journey with many other people. And, there will be prizes!
These prizes are imperative, so you have to go shopping beforehand. We plan for one prize every hour on the plane. Bribery? Some might see it that way but see them as rewards for good behavior. We pick one for each hour of friendly, polite and happy travel. We don’t go fancy. Typically we pick up these prizes, ranging in cost from $1 to $5, from the grocery store or pharmacy. We do set aside a bigger prize for a triumphant entrance onto the plane which is given out after saying hello to everyone as we enter the plane and once our seatbelts are fastened. Some of our most successful prizes include a coloring book that automatically colors when water is applied (water coloring book), action figures, temporary tattoos, and masks. We recommend throwing in some games or combining surprises into games, like this game of trying to catch dinosaurs (one prize) with “the grabber” (another prize).
Next, let’s talk about getting on the airplane. This part of the flight is imperative, as first impressions are crucial. We send out major prize vibes before the trip and focus her on the goal of the big prize after everyone is on the plane. Here’s the rundown:
- First things first, we have to try using the potty before boarding starts.
- Now that she’s old enough, she has to walk on to the plane by herself and she’s in charge of her ticket, giving it to the gate agent for scanning and carrying it to her seat.
- We started with her early to say hi to everyone she meets on the way to the seat, especially the crew. She was shy at first, but now she is a rock star and loves it. Of course, not everyone is friendly, but most people love it and their faces light up. It’s important to get a smile out of as many neighbors as possible.
- Side note: we know some people who make little gift bags for everyone sitting around them, including ear plugs and treats. While we think this may work for a baby, when you have very little control over their moods, I don’t believe that this sends the right message for sitting next to a child. It’s like saying, “I’m sorry for what’s about to happen, it’s going to be noisy, and you all need bribes.”
- After she makes her way to the seat, we review what all the lights and buttons are, and she continues to say hello to everyone who walks past.
- After everyone is on, she gets her first prize (typically a big prize). It gets her excited about the other prizes, reminds her that there’s more to come if she’s good, and gives her something to focus on during take-off.
We place lots of focus on the seatbelt sign. When this is on, we have to be in our seat, and it is her job to keep checking it. Captain’s orders. When it’s off, she can move around, but not run around the cabin. If she’s in her seat, she has to be belted. Turbulence.
Given her age, we also bring a pull-up just in case there is an emergency. We don’t want her to feel trapped, so we talk about bathroom breaks, that we can go whenever she needs, and we encourage potty breaks whenever the seatbelt light comes off. When she is not playing with her prizes, there are many other things that we do.
We plan a lot of other activities to do when she’s not playing with her prizes.
- We load lots of games, movies, and shows onto multiple devices (and have a few backup batteries available). We typically let her choose what she would like to watch before we leave for our trip.
- She can bring one, maybe two, of her favorite toys (things that can be easily packed).
- Bring crayons; we recommend one of these Etsy Crayon Holder. We use these to color on papers, tickets and the magazines (which we then take with us).
- We typically let her chose a snack off the inflight menu (think chips or crackers of fruit and cheese plate) and let her buy it from the flight attendants when they come around.
- Use the floor. The floor can be a great playspace. Just drop a blanket or something down and let them play on the ground for a bit. It helps them feel like they have a different space for a bit.
We all know how important and challenging sleep can be on a plane, so here are a few tips.
- Bring a pillow and blanket. We typically attach a neck pillow to our bags, and a small blanket hiding somewhere like in a backpack (if you are on an international flight, there is a good chance there’ll be some available).
- Rarely do we use the blanket for the cold. We use it to build “forts” (think headrest to seat bottom)! These forts give her a dark place where she has privacy and quiet.
- After the fort is built, we have her lay down and watch a show. We typically start this “quiet time” (we don’t call it nap time) after all the food and drinks have been delivered. We tell her that the next prize will come after an hour of quiet time.
- After one small TV show, we tell her that we need 10 minutes of quiet, without any shows or talking, and she has to keep her head on the pillow. This usually puts her right to sleep.
- If nap time happens during food/drink time, don’t wake them up. On international trips, the flight attendants will almost always ask if we would like to set something aside and kept warm, and we almost always do. If they don’t, ask them.
A few things as the fight starts to wind down.
- Have the child help clean up everything in your area.
- Make sure they go potty before the final seatbelt light comes on.
- Always thank the flight attendants.
- Say hi and thank you to the pilots as you walk off the plane.
There’s nothing more rewarding than getting off the airplane and into the airport after a successful flight. But, what if you have yet another airplane ride (or two) to go? We’ve had as many as three connections getting to our destination and, so far, have found things to do to work off some energy and keep the trip fresh and exciting. Here are some ideas:
- Research the connecting airport in advance. Most airports provide a play area for kids to run and burn off energy.
- Have some extra time? Our daughter loves to cruise around on the sky trains at some airports. It kills the time, has a rather nice view and is exciting for the kids.
- Shop together for an activity to do on the next flight. Card games, coloring books, snacks, etc. are easily found at most airport stores.
- Some airlines lounges have kids activity rooms. Check with your airline for locations, amenities and admission rates.
A Few Caveats
Obviously, every child is different. There are some children who combust into a fiery ball of energy if you try to sit them down for more than a few minutes. There are times when children are tired and cranky from being in an airport or on other means of travel for too long. These are all just suggestions. Practice them, use them, don’t use them, mock them, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t fear flying with kids. They can learn to love it, and so can you. Who knows, they may grow up to be one of the few people who actually gets excited and smile when they know they are going on a plane.