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Airplane Travel with Children: A Survival Guide

boy looking out airplane window

Spring break is coming! Are you ready to fly with your children? No? No wonder. Packed planes, multiple connections, security lines: These days flying can be a real challenge. Add a child or three to the experience and, well, let's just say that for parents, flying is not exactly relaxing.

But there are things you can do to turn a family airplane travel into a sunnier adventure. 

1. Timing matters.

Facing a long flight? It helps parents, children, and fellow fliers if your little cutie can sleep for an hour or two. Pick a flight that works with your children's current eating and sleeping schedules if you can. To help them get cozy, definitely bring that favorite blanket or stuffed animal.

2. Pack extra clothes (maybe even an extra shirt for you!)

We've learned that even older kids can use a change of clothes when flying.The hectic nature of airplane travel ( and the inevitable bumps of the airplane food tray) makes us all a little spill-prone. Bring along extra change clothes in your carry-on bag in case of accidents.

3. Use your back.

Cute diaper bags have their place. But there is nothing more irksome than an overstuffed bag that keeps falling off your shoulder and whacking other passengers when you've got flights to make and children to usher through crowded terminals. At the airport, you want to move nimbly and hands-free. A backpack does the trick.

4. Embrace the two-hour rule.

Once upon a time, you could arrive at the airport an hour early and be reasonably sure that you'd be in your assigned seats on time. Not anymore. You'll likely have to wait in the ticket line to check a car seat or two, and then you'll have security lines (of unknown length) to contend with. You need patience with children, so you don't want to experience the extra stress of worrying whether you'll miss your flight. Earlier is better.

5. Choose travel-friendly kid equipment.

Use a stroller that is easy to fold, and be ready to collapse it to go through the x-ray machine. You might even consider a cheap stroller that won't break the bank should it get banged up in the cargo hold.

6. Use the family lanes.

In many countries, families with babies get escorted to the front of any airport line automatically. While that wonderful courtesy isn't the norm in America (sigh), many security checkpoints do have a family lane that will allow you to pass long lines or take extra time without worrying about holding up other passengers. Many of these family lanes will have stickers for kids to feel more relaxed and welcome. We love these!

7. Ask for help!

The parent traveling solo with children deserves all the help he can get. TSA agents are there to help passengers. If you’re having trouble corralling the kids and your luggage through security, ask for a hand.

8. Mind the liquids rule.

Medically necessary liquids like baby formula, baby food, juice, and breast milk are not subject to the 3.4-ounce limit: Just be sure to tell the TSA agent you have these liquids in your carry-on bag. You don’t need to have a prescription for these, but make sure you’re carrying enough for the flight, and put any excess liquids and foods you’ll be needing later in your trip in your checked baggage.

9. Pack a fun kit!

Entertaining children is one of the biggest challenges of airplane travel. The fun kit is essential. Be smart about what goes in: To make art supplies travel friendly, pack crayon and markers in a lidded coffee mug. Use lidded Tupperware to corral any small toys. (How many of you have spent your whole flight bending and reaching under fellow passengers' seats to find a little Lego figure?) Even better, invest in an erasable doodle toy with an attached pen for creative fun without worrying about marking up the seats.

10. Snacks are everyone's saviors.

Low blood sugar can turn even the sweetest kids into champion tantrum throwers, so be sure to bring along plenty of healthy treats in case delays push off regular meal times. Plan ahead and make some homemade granola, slice up fresh fruit and veggies, make a few of your child’s favorite sandwiches, or stock up on convenient almond-butter pouches for easy fuel on the go.

11. Address the (ear) pressure.

To help avoid ear pressure, make sure babies have a bottle or pacifier to help “pop” their ears in the pressure shifts of flight. Older kids can try candy or gum.

12. Find the play areas.

Many airports have built play areas for children to help pass the time, but often not every terminal has one. Find it! For us, giving yourself a half-hour break is key before a flight, when you'll have to kick into full-on entertainment mode. Plus, running around and burning off some energy is a very good idea before the flight comes. (P.S. if you need to have a layover, why not schedule your flight to swing through one of the 10 most kid-friendly airports in the world?)

Airport Regulations You Need to Know

According to the TSA, federal rules allow children under the age of 12 to leave their shoes on, so you don’t need to worry about scrambling toddler toes in and out of their boots.

  • If you’re flying within the United States, a child under 18 traveling with an adult usually doesn’t need more identification than a boarding pass. Some carriers, like Southwest Airlines, will require a birth certificate for kids securing a reduced-price rate. Call your airline in advance to see which documents you’ll need to have handy. If your trip is international, your little one will need a passport—even newborns! Child passports must be renewed every five years until they turn 16.
  • If your child is traveling internationally with only one parent, you may need to bring a notarized letter of consent from the child’s other parent or legal guardian.
  • It may be helpful to explain to your child beforehand that, when going through airport screening, their favorite toy or blanket will have to go through the x-ray machine.
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