I started traveling alone when I was seven years old. I guess I wasn’t actually alone alone because I had my four year old sister with me, but we were most certainly learning to fly the friendly skies at very young ages without our parents or any caregivers.
I was always excited to take a plane ride (ever the independent, wandering soul), my sister was always very much the opposite. Our mom would walk us to our gate, make sure our backpacks were properly filled and our paperwork in tact, and say goodbye with tears streaming down all three of our cheeks. Every year for probably ten years we would do this routine: Saying goodbye to our mother in California and hello to our dad and the rest of our family in Ohio. We’d stay with him for a month and then the same scenario would play out: Goodbyes and tears all around until the following summer.
Things were much different then. The year was 1986 when we took our first flight, and I remember it very vividly. I was scared, but I tried to hide that fear from my sister. Without our mom there, it was my job to help make her feel safe. I like to think that she did.
I think they gave us wristbands so that the flight attendants would know that we were traveling alone and to “take care” of us. We almost always were taken care of, too: I have distinct memories of the stewardesses giving us manicures, coloring with us, and holding our hands to the gate to meet our parents. They were always women, and they were always so nice. My mom packed us food for the flight: Special sandwiches and treats accompanied by notes telling us how much she loved us and would miss us. Back then, the airplane food was free so of course because I was so grown up, I always made sure they brought me a meal anyway. My sister always stuck with the food mom packed.
In all those years of flying, I only remember there being an issue once: The time our flight was laid over at Chicago O’Hare and we got sort of majorly lost. For whatever reason, we walked together alone to get a piece of pizza (again asserting my grown-upness) and once I realized that I didn’t know how to get to our gate, we just sat down against a wall. I think the stewardess ended up finding us after calling our names on the loud speaker, but I certainly don’t remember. I do recall being scared that time. Very scared.
I think back to those days and cannot believe they let us travel alone (they being the ones that make the rules). Jack is a year older than my sister was when she started traveling without an adult, and the thought of letting him do that any time soon is completely absurd. Times have changed, but I think kids have to grow up a lot sooner now that cell phones, the internet, and social media are in the hands of kids as young as seven.
As I prepare to take my children on the familiar cross-country flight next week, I can’t help but let the stress and anticipation consume me again. Flying is tough nowadays. Flying with children is very hard, and can even be pretty unpleasant depending on the variables. I trust that we’ll have understanding flight attendants (who are now about half men and half women based on my experiences), there’ll be very little turbulence, and our fellow travelers will be kind and understanding.
Of course, this rarely happens all together, but one can always hope.
I consider myself nearly an expert at flying with children, so I thought I’d prepare a list of things that make the trip easier, things that have helped me in the past.
Tips for Traveling with Children
1. Book a red-eye. Children are wired to sleep at night just like adults, so if you can get them comfortable, sleep can eat up a decent chunk of time on a long flight. I’m constantly shocked at how well the kids sleep piled on top of each other in two airplane seats.
2. Gate Pass. If you’re traveling alone with kids like I do, you’ll want to get a gate pass that will allow one person to help you through security and to your gate without having an actual ticket. Just bring that person and their ID to initial check-in and they’ll set you up.
3. Bring NEW activities, and don’t show them until they board the plane. If you hit up the drug stores or Target, you can usually find some coloring, sticker, or activity books in the dollar bins. My personal favorite: Crayola Magic. The pens won’t color anything but their intended pages. Brilliant.
4. Snacks. Pack an assortment of foods that they haven’t had in a long time. Finger foods like carrots, raisins, GoGo SqueeZ applesauce pouches, dry cereal, and even some treats will buy you some time and fill their bellies. Also, stash some suckers just in case you need to pull out the big-guns. Suckers are melt-down kryptonite-you can find organic ones made with fruit juice at Whole Foods if you feel guilty about giving them sweets.
5. Favorite toys. My daughter usually leaves her Tina doll at home when we venture out into the city, but we always bring her on flights. Sometimes-and especially if they’re sleeping-all they need is their familiar favorites to feel secure.
6. Bring the iPad and/or iTouch. Load it with educational and fun apps and it will keep them entertained and their brain active for about 30-45 minutes at a time. You can also rent a movie for $5 if the flight is especially long. Here are some of our favorite apps:
(The last two are book apps-much lighter than carrying actual books, but we bring a few of those too).
7. Slip-on shoes. Going through security is often the most difficult part for me, so the less time I have to fuss with three pairs of shoes, the better.
8. Travel-Friendly Stroller. My favorite stroller to travel with multiple children is the Maclaren Twin or Single Triumph. It will fit on the security belt nicely, it’s easy to gate check, and it will hold extra cargo to get you through the airport quickly (relatively speaking).
9. No Eye Contact. Do not tempt the natives, you guys. Fellow passengers on an airplane don’t like seeing kids amongst them, especially on long flights. Avoid the negativity, put your head down and take care of you and yours and things will be easier.
10. Go potty before boarding. Planes only allow two persons maximum into the lavatories, no matter how old. This continues to be my most dreaded part about flying alone. Aside from putting all my kids in diapers for flights, we’ve tried everything.
Tips for Traveling with a Baby
1. Bring a baby carrier. It will make your life so much easier getting on and off the plane, and my kids always sleep in them. Bear in mind you are not allowed to baby wear during take-off and landing.
2. Breastfeed, bottles, or Pacifier. During take off and landing, this will help alleviate the pressure in your little one’s ears. It’s always worked for us.
3. Gripe Water. If your baby gets fussy and you’ve tried everything else, try gripe water. Beau cried for a solid hour before I gave him gripe water on the plane, and he was so surprised by it he stopped crying and fell asleep for an hour.
4. Window seat. If you’re traveling with a lap infant, the window will be a great source of entertainment periodically throughout the flight. Plus, you have a little more space.
5. Travel Bed. A huge source of stress for me when traveling with a baby is their sleeping arrangements. Baby Bjorn has an amazing travel crib that you can either check with your bags, stuff into a suitcase (yes really), or tuck in an overhead bin. It’s compact, the base is insulated, it’s super easy to assemble and it’ll be familiar.
6. A Great Breast Pump. If you’re nursing and pumping, you need an awesome pump that will travel well with you. My favorite, hands down, is the Hygeia Enjoye. It comes with a convenient tote and a recording device for when you pumping and your baby isn’t around you.
Travel has always had many emotions tied to it for me, whether it be family related or intertwined with nostalgia and memories, or the joy of new experiences with my young children. Exploring new places or old places with new people are some of my most treasured memories, although getting there isn’t always easy especially if you’re traveling with children.
It certainly feels like air travel with or without children is much more difficult than it used to be (for obvious reasons), but just like anything you can find ways to make it easier for you.
I’d love to hear any tips that you have too! We’re headed back to California next week, my second trip with all three kids. I’m always open to new ideas.
I wasn’t compensated in any way for this post.