Flying with Young People

Cian and Aine at the Kota Kinabalu airport in Malaysian Borneo

Cian and Aine at the Kota Kinabalu airport in Malaysian Borneo

As of October 2016, our kids (starting at ages 2 and 4) have taken 49 flights ranging in length from 45 minute puddle jumpers to epic 12½ hour intercontinental trips arduous for even the experienced adult traveler. Flying with any sort of success with kids takes planning, patience, and a certain amount of fortitude.  For children, being folded into a small space just after waiting in line four or five times at the airport is a challenge- their brains are wired to investigate the world around them, their bodies to move whenever they get the chance.  Our son doesn’t stop talking or sitting still from the moment he wakes up until he falls asleep. Our daughter doesn’t put up with a shred of nonsense from her parents or anyone else- all ways are The Dragon’s ways.  Not exactly desired characteristics for airplane travel, but typical behaviors for their age.  Here is a checklist of strategies and reflections from a variety of sources we’ve used for smoother flying.  Many of them are obvious, but here they are in one place.

  • Brace yourself.  Your trip will not be perfect no matter how much you feel prepared or organised.  And that is ok.  If you get to your destination without trying to parachute out of the plane, call it a success.
  • Have your kids eat and sleep well before you go.  On that night before flying when you’re still in your kid’s room pulling clothes from their closets or toys from under the beds, it could start getting late into the evening.  If you’re a “day before packer” like us, pack the kids first, get them to sleep, then worry about the rest.
  • Try to choose flights that work best for your kids when possible, such as just before their nap or bedtime if your child can sleep anywhere.  If they are infinitely inquisitive like Cian, plan the trip to allow a couple hours pre-nap to explore and settle into his seat on the airplane before attempting sleep.
  • If you have even the slightest fear of flying, disguise it in front of the kids.  Be excited, happy, and comfortable, even if inside you aren’t, even if you have to have a few shots of tequila at the airport bar.
  • Bring your kids to an airport a couple times before their first big trip.  Let them see the x-ray machine, the lines, and the bustle.  It won’t be completely foreign to them later.  We brought our kids a few times and they enjoyed watching the planes take off and land.  Now, airport protocol for them is second nature.
  • Choose your luggage carefully.  Big backpacks allow you to carry kids and the toys they have suddenly gotten bored of, but aren’t exactly the most organised when it comes to packing.  There is only so much rolling luggage one person can haul before it looks like a demolition derby behind them.  Different combinations work for different trips.  If you can, go all carry-on and avoid the lines to check in and pick up your luggage.  Don’t expect your kids to be responsible for their own luggage until they’re at least 20.
  • Use your wait time in the airport to let your kids run off some steam.  Find a quiet area in the terminal and let the kids play.  Be on time for the plane, but our experience has been that extended time at an airport is not helpful, especially in the smaller airports with little to keep the monsters preoccupied.
  • You may have rules about the amount of time your children are allowed to watch TV or play with technology.  Break the rules. You are on survival mode now.  Leapsters, iPads, their headphones, and preloaded videos have been our saviors.  Pull these out strategically, because their power is like the ghost pellet in Pacman.  It never lasts long enough.
  • This tip comes from our friend Ravit, whose family makes regular trips to Israel.  Have a stash of small, new toys the kids have never seen before at your disposal.  The local dollar store is a perfect destination for this type of shopping.  Pull out a new toy every once in a while for a new distraction.
  • Be aware of your fellow passengers.  As parents, we all have the super ability to tell who has had kids and understands your dilemma and who doesn’t.  Being prepared is your biggest ally.  Do your best to reign in your kids, but rest assured your kids have just as much of a right to travel as everyone else on the plane.
  • Bring a change of clothes, small toiletries, wipes and snacks you know the kids will eat.  Airplane food can be scarier than turbulence on some flights, or far too exotic on others.  Air Asia, our current favourite budget airline, currently serves, for example, rice with beef in spicy black sauce. Not even a slight possibility for my chicken nugget kids.
  • Even if your airline allows you to hold your child for the duration of the flight, strongly consider getting a seat for each of your children.  Having that extra space has been crucial for our family’s sanity as well as our section of the fuselage.
  • The airplane bathroom may be a scary place.  The toilet is loud, its very small in there, there may be turbulence, and you have to put your butt above strange, blue water.  If they are old enough, explain to them the differences before they fly and have them check it out at your and your stewardess’s earliest convenience.  Make it adventurous.  For awhile, I had to let my son leave the bathroom and flush for him while he waited in the aisle because of the sudden sucking noise coming from the toilet.
  • Jet lag is real.  Kids won’t know what’s happening to them and may not present jet lag as tired.  We find our kids need a longer time to readjust than us.  Other behaviors (anger, cranky, distracted, etc) may indicate they need a little more recovery time.  Same goes for the parents.

Do you have an additional tip for flying with children?  Add it to the comments section below!

Waiting in airport lines is hard for even adults.

Waiting in airport lines is hard, even for adults. Practice creates patience.

1 thought on “Flying with Young People

  1. I was just reviewing this, revolted by the number of grammatical mistakes I needed to change, and remembered another tip. Our kids had white noise makers in their rooms since they were infants. As soon as we took off on our first flight, the kids reacted to the ambient sound in the plane like Pavlov’s dogs. They were asleep before we reached cruising speed.


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