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Flying with children need not be a nightmare

This is a guest post by Jade Scully. 

Traveling with children is never easy. Even the best behaved child can’t be trusted to be an angel all the time, and just because you and your child have traveled well before doesn’t mean you can count on it happening again. It’s debatable which is more difficult: flying with children, driving with them, or loading everyone on a bus or train!

At least in a car you can stop and take a time out, and you don’t have to worry about disturbing other passengers. On a plane, bus, or train you’re pretty much stuck until you reach your destination. Planes have the additional disadvantage of being far more restricted space-wise than any of the other options, so you’re limited to the number of distractions you can bring with you.

The first step is to prepare your children for what they can expect. Whether your child is a fearless warrior or of a more cautious nature, boarding a plane for the first time is likely to result in sensory overload.

If children know what to expect, they can properly absorb the experience, avoid becoming overwhelmed by it, and maybe even enjoy it.

Your explanation should also include how they will be expected to behave. Practice community-minded behaviour and respect for others. Remind them that there will be other people on the plane and that they will need to use inside voices and inside physical language.

That doesn’t mean that you have to dose them up on Valium or rescue remedy and have them sleep through the flight. Flying for the first time is exciting and you should be able to indulge your children a little in this regard.

If you can, get them a window seat so that they can see the world go by.

Ask the flight attendant if it would be possible to show your kids around – some airlines are more amenable to such requests than others, but it doesn’t hurt to find out. Many airlines also have special children’s activity packs. These can include anything from coloring-in books and crayons to books and games. You can find out what your airline’s policy is regarding these packs when you make your reservation, but it’s a good idea not to rely on a complimentary pack to keep your kids entertained. Here’s our guide to what to pack (and what NOT to) for family travel.

Pencils and paper may be enough to keep children entertained for hours – but here are some other ideas as well!

Coloring-in and activity books are also a godsend for the traveling parent. Invisible-ink books from Crayola take the fun of coloring up another notch. If your children like to read then your trip almost takes care of itself. Otherwise, quiet toys are perfectly acceptable, such as cars, Etch-a-sketch, Lego, a favorite doll or action figure, and a pack of cards. Look into small magnetic versions of your favorite board game, or seek out magnetic workbooks that feature cars, fashion, cityscapes, and more. Tablet games can be a great way to keep kids occupied – and why not splurge a little on connectivity time, just this once? Be sure to set it to silent so no one else is bothered by all the beeps and boops. A pair of kids’ headphones and a playlist of their favorite tunes or audiobooks is one more way to help keep them quiet and focused.

Want to really score at making flight time fun? Take a few of the ideas above and create a special “airplane goodie bag” for your kids, personalized to their interests. Don’t give out the bag until you’re on the plane or waiting at the terminal. They’ll begin to associate flights with a special treat and you’ll be that much closer to avoiding a meltdown.

Children are notoriously picky eaters and airline food is subpar at the best of times.

Some airlines have a special kids’ meal, but even if they do, you’ll still want to pack some healthy snacks to keep your children happy and fed (and maybe a few special treats in their goodie bags). Make sure you have enough to see you through unexpected delays, extended stopovers, or even the quick run from one gate to the next. This is especially true if you’re traveling with an infant and aren’t breastfeeding.

Here are some of the best foods to pack on the plane:

  • Small packaged gummies
  • Pre-packaged vegetable sticks or fruit – keep in mind that you may not be able to bring vegetables you prepare yourself through security
  • Cheese sticks or Babybel
  • Cheerios
  • Veggie straws
  • Goldfish crackers
  • Rice Krispies treats
  • Popcorn
  • Raisins / craisins
  • Granola bars
  • Fruit leather
  • Mini muffins
  • Hard-boiled eggs (be careful with these, they may smell)
  • Cliff bars
  • Clementines

Don’t bring:

  • Gum. Unless you really, really trust your kids
  • Ultra-soft fruits that may mash into clothes or surfaces
  • Jerky – it smells
  • Yogurt or wet snacks

On Mom’s Minivan, Laurel Smith has written a highly detailed blog on what to do when you have to take your kids on an airplane trip. She believes you should let your children carry their own bags. Help them pack a few small things they want to take with them on the plane. This gives them a sense of responsibility and makes them feel like a part of the whole process.

Getting through security:

You’ll have to explain security procedures to them, so that they know that their bags will have to go through a scanner and that security guards may have to look through them. Kids are very possessive of what’s theirs and may not like it when other people touch or rifle through their things. You’ll also have to explain the general security procedure to them, particularly waiting in line and staying close to parents at all times in the airport. Try making a game out of staying with a certain piece of luggage.

Flying with babies is another game.

When flying with a wee one, you’re bound to be extra nervous, but don’t worry. A little extra prior planning can help to create a simple experience.

  • Try to book a direct flight if at all possible – once and done is easier than changing gates and may allow baby to sleep longer on the plane.
  • Bring a fold-out baby bed for the seat next to you – and buy that extra seat if you can.
  • If possible, try baby-wearing instead of pushing a stroller through security and around the airport.
  • Don’t forget to bring some extra treats for yourself too, whether that’s compression socks or chocolate – you’ve earned it, momma!
  • Request a free upgrade and baby basket. It’s worth the ask!
  • Pack as light as possible. Carrying all the baby gear in the world will only slow you down and exhaust you.
  • Bring bottles – but don’t fill them until after you’re through security. Ask for warm water at any terminal restaurant.
  • Finally, ask other experienced traveling parents for their flight tips.

Other general family travel tips include:

  • Arrange for contiguous seats so the whole family can sit together.
  • Ask for bulkhead seats, which provide a little more playing room and automatically prevent your kids from kicking the seats in front of them (because there are no seats in front of them).
  • Bring gum or chewy snacks for your children to eat during takeoff and landing, this helps with air pressure changes. If you have an infant or small baby a dummy (pacifier) or bottle will do.
  • Pack spare clothes – not just for your kids but for you too. Where small children go, accidents follow.

Finally, try to relax as much as possible – trust that you will make the most of this family travel experience.

Don’t worry – truly nightmare flights are few and far between. Most of the time your fellow passengers will more than likely feel sympathy for you rather than annoyance. At worst you can console yourself with the fact that you’re unlikely to encounter any of them again and once you land, things can only get better.

Jade Scully is a copywriter, blogger and online marketing enthusiast who has published her work on a series of online publications and websites including Africadventure, Entertain SA, Technifrique, The Greenery, Youdidit, Firstpage as well as Leeulekker who provide a range of travel and touring resources for Southern Africa travelers.

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