“There are two ways of traveling, first class, or with children.” (Often quoted by my mother!)
As I seated myself on an United flight traveling from Baltimore, Maryland, to California, I settled my carry-on bag under the seat, fixed the blanket on my legs, and opened the book I had planned to enjoy during the 3.5-hour flight. Then I saw something that struck terror to my heart—a family with four lively children settling in the seats in front of me. The children were about ages 5 to 10. “Okay,” I thought, “there goes my quiet, peaceful flight!” Visions of loud voices, arguments over who gets to sit by the window, jumping up and down in the seats, and fights between siblings flashed through my mind. But it turned out I did enjoy the flight, and by the time we arrived in California, I had nothing but profound admiration for the mother who kept complete control of her children the entire trip. How did she do it?
After that I took an interest in observing other families and single parents who traveled with children. Some managed very well while others had challenges during the entire journey. What made the difference between a relatively peaceful flight and a chaotic one?
Traveling with children presents age-specific considerations. Babies and toddlers often require special equipment (strollers, car seats, etc.), clothing, hygiene and feeding supplies, entertainment items, and sometimes special needs including a good supply of patience. Children ages 5 to 12 enter another category of travel planning. Travel planning for the adolescents and teenagers requires yet another field of thought.
When I was a child, my family’s travel involved trips to and from the mission field. In the earlier years we traveled primarily by ship. What a fun way to travel, with interesting things to see and do and new friends to make during the days and nights on board. However, in more recent years—and certainly while our own two children were growing up—travel by air has become very common and is the preferred method to reach a destination quickly and inexpensively. Being confined to a seat for several hours is tiresome enough for adults, but it can become unbearable for active children. Behavioral problems can easily erupt unless some planning strategies are carefully prepared before takeoff.
That Important Pre-Trip Chat
Under normal circumstances, children become excited about an upcoming trip, especially by plane. The anticipation can be even more fun if parents enter into the adventuresome spirit. To begin preparing the way for a smooth trip with your family, go over the events of the journey, especially the flight plan. Find a map and discuss the route of the trip, pointing out states, countries, and significant landmarks the flight will go over. Pre-flight discussions also present an excellent opportunity to remind everyone of airport behavior: how people wait in line at the ticket counter, what is required going through security, what waiting at the flight gate is like, what to do if a restroom is needed, how to be safe, and the appropriate behavior expected of passengers on the plane. Talk about seating on the airplane and plan in advance who will sit by the window. Take time to answer the many questions children will have.
Packing Those Essentials
For children, the novelty of being on an airplane can quickly wear off after take-off. They will need activities to keep them occupied. Children really enjoy having their own carry-on luggage, such as a backpack or a roller bag. Help them pick out just the right carry-on and then carefully pack it together beforehand. They will need a change of clothes (in case of accidental spills, change of weather, etc.); a favorite toy or two; several activities such as coloring books, reading material, games, or puzzle books; and maybe a comfort item such as a small blanket, pillow, or favorite stuffed animal. Not every toy or entertainment gizmo needs to be included. Save some room for one or two new items which may be added during the trip. You could take along a surprise item or two to help relieve boredom later on the journey.
Don’t Forget the Snacks
Also include in their carryon bags several snacks prepared and packaged with the children’s help and input on choices. Even if your flight promises a meal, having some back-up snacks will be good insurance against food incompatibilities or preferences, or those off-hour hunger pangs. Children can help pack an assortment of easy-to-eat snacks such as grapes, apples, crackers, juice boxes, or drinks (to be purchased after going through security), peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, etc., which can be accessed easily during the trip. Also available at select airports are boxed meals for sale which can be brought on board.
Referring back to my flight behind the family with four children, I noticed that at a certain time the mother announced, “Children, it’s time to take out your first snack.” They all eagerly searched their belongings for little plastic bags of food and sat quietly enjoying every bite. A couple of hours later, she again announced that it was time for snack #2. The flight we were on offered no snacks or meals but did provide water and juices.
Stay on Schedule
For most of us our pre-trip routine involves staying up late the night before to pack and take care of last-minute details.
But make sure children get a good night’s sleep before a big trip. Well-rested kids—and adults—make better travelers.
To save some last-minute stresses, check beforehand tickets, passports (or appropriate identification), visas, immunization records, birth certificates (if required), medications, Band-Aids, sanitizing handwipes, Kleenex, etc. Pack these items in your own carry-on luggage in easy-to-access compartments.
Have a back-up plan in mind in case a flight or connection is delayed or even canceled. (Anything is possible these days!)
Dress for Success
Forget about being ultra stylish when choosing traveling clothes—go for a more dressy casual look, focusing especially on comfort and ease of wear with plenty of layers which can be adjusted depending on your travel situation.
At the Airport
When checking in, review your seating plan with the ticket agent. Often on a less-than-full flight, extra space will be given to families.
When traveling with children, it is often easier to fly out of smaller regional airports than large international airports. The staff in smaller airports are often friendlier and more helpful, and with the reduced crowds, travel can be less stressful. However, smaller regional airports often do not accommodate direct flights to desired destinations.
Allow plenty of time at the airport for check-in, and connecting flights. Remember how much longer it takes to achieve anything with children in tow and apply the same formula to your travel plans. Layovers of an hour or two can be a good thing. They give children a chance to get off the plane and walk/run around a bit, getting the wiggles out and giving plenty of time to locate and reach a connecting gate. Many airports have interesting museum-like displays. Play areas for children are also featured at some airports.
Most airlines invite families with children to board the plane before other passengers. This is especially helpful to a single parent as it gives opportunity for the family’s hand-luggage to be stowed ahead of everyone else’s, with time to organize belongings before take-off. Remember to make sure everyone has a bathroom stop before boarding. Often it can be a stretch of time before the seat-belt sign is turned off after take-off, and one can wait quite a while before being allowed to use the restroom.
In most cases it’s advantageous to disembark last as it gives plenty of opportunity to gather up belongings and get organized before leaving the plane. Another advantage is that the family is easy to spot and airline staff can help if assistance is needed. Children may also have the opportunity to meet the pilot when leaving the plane after the other passengers.
In some cases, perhaps during a long flight, parents may want to spell each other in caring for the children. This gives opportunity for each parent to have a period of rest.
During my flight the father of the four children sat one row ahead of his family and appeared to sleep most of the trip. This was puzzling to me until I learned he was a physician and had worked some long hours prior to the flight.
On my flight, I observed that the mother of the four children kept a watchful eye on them. She instructed them initially to take out the first item of entertainment from their carry-on luggage. During the flight she spent some time with each child separately reading to one, playing a game with another, etc. If one child became restless, she was ready with a suggestion of something else to do.
Some flights will show a movie during the trip; however, the movie might not be considered kid-appropriate. Some parents will bring along a portable DVD player and let the child or children watch a family-approved movie en route. It is possible in many airports to rent DVD players, picking them up in one airport and leaving them at another.
Parents may not realize the plane’s in-flight audio system usually includes a kids’ channel. Show children where to plug in the headphones and how to tune in to the channel, and they might stay occupied for some time listening to songs and stories.
Be Prepared to Be Surprised
Not all trips will go smoothly. Family members get sick, flights are delayed, seating arrangements may be less than ideal, surrounding passengers can be annoying, etc., etc. Don’t be overly concerned about what other people on the flight are thinking if your child becomes agitated. You will probably never see those passengers again. Instead, focus on your child. How can you help him or her at that moment? Your attitude of calmness in the face of the unexpected will often be reflected in your children’s reactions and overall view of the situation.
Having prepared as much as possible for the trip, whether a long one or short excursion, don’t be surprised if you find that travel with children can be enjoyable! Seeing the world through a youngster’s eyes can be illuminating, entertaining, and memorable. For instances, look out of an airplane window with your child during a flight and listen to his or her comments on what is seen. One of my favorite moments in another flight was when we were approaching a large city in preparation for landing. Two young girls were seated behind me, eagerly watching the scene out of the window. “See all the little buildings? Aren’t they cute? Look at the tiny cars?” Just at that moment the plane dipped to our side while making a turn. I loved the comment from behind me: “Oh, look, the pilot is tipping the plane so we can see better!” Children have the God-given capacity to keep us young at heart and alive in spirit. And traveling together as a family can provide opportunities for unique experiences, closeness, and fun memories.
So relax, sit back, and enjoy the flight!