I clearly remember the first time I hopped on a plane. I was three, going on vacation with my parents to the south of Spain. I remember holding my white teddy bear, and drinking and orange soda. It must have been a big deal for me, because those are some of the first clear memories of my life.
Many flights came after that, first within Spain, then Europe, and then to the US. But my second “first” flight wouldn’t come until 2007. That July was the first time I traveled with my very own child. My then very little first bundle of joy was all of two months, all wrapped up in footsies and blankets because, you know, planes are cold, even in July. I was absolutely terrified to get on a plane with him for 9 hours. Silly me. Little I knew back then that I would look back at that trip as my last semi comfortable one, with the luxury of having my husband at my side for both the outbound and the inbound flight. Since then I have traveled many times alone with one, then two, and then three kids, ages 0 to 8. As the number of kids increases, so does the difficulty, and the amount of stuff I have to carry around, especially now that airlines seem to be set on making my booking more complicated. Keep in mind that the seemingly perfectly behaved children you will read about below are normally extremely active daredevils. But if I have to choose a couple of days a year for them to behave, those are the days that we are traveling. And they deliver on that.
Even if experience doesn’t make perfect, it makes you smarter, and I have collected a few tips and tricks along the years that I am happy to share with you.
1. If you can, breastfeed. I can credit breastfeeding for being able to fly with infants, and even toddlers without crying. During take off and landing it helps with ear pressure, and most kids are easily soothed at the breast if they get upset. At the same time, for a 9 hour flight I would have had to carry 6 to 7 bottles for a little baby, taking into account the three hours that you have to spend at the airport, luggage pick up, and preparedness for cancellations or delays. I can’t even conceive carrying all those sterilized bottles, finding a place to warm up water, or mixing it while you make sure that your baby doesn’t fly around on the plane, especially when there is milk ready, sterilized and at the perfect temperature at your breast, which doubles up as the comfiest pillow a baby can find on an airliner.
2. Buy a ticket for your baby. Back when I flew with one, and then two kids, I carried whoever was under 2 in my lap. Which was absolutely exhausting. Now that I have three kids, that is a no go. We buy a seat for everyone, and bring along a car seat. Is it expensive? Sure. But the pros of this choice are many: the baby is familiar with the car seat, and soothes himself and falls asleep easier. They are, by far, much safer than in your arms. You have free hands to tend to your other kids and… even yourself. Once, while traveling alone with my oldest, there was pretty bad turbulence during the flight. While I was calling the flight attendants for some calming tea, my then 2 year old fell asleep as we ascended over Chicago, only to wake up after we had landed in Madrid. For that I have to credit his car seat and the bumpy ride.
3. Request a cot. Most airlines will give you a cot for your infant. Although it’s not as safe as a car seat, it is ten times safer than carrying your infant in your arms. And in long hauls, the opportunity to rest your arms is appreciated. They also sleep better in there. Those cots tend to be hanged from the wall of the first row in economy, or the wall that divides the two economy sections. Which means that, as a bonus, you will get some extra legroom, especially useful when you fly with toddlers too, as they have some room to play. In this case, you don’t need to purchase a seat for the baby, you just need to request it.
4. Elevate a prayer to the soul of Steve Jobs. If your plane doesn’t have personalized TVs (common in long hauls), an iPad will immediately turn into your best friend. It will be specially helpful to keep the 8-12 age group busy, since most of the movies played in the plane are either for little kids, or for preteens. If you have a third grader with no interest in becoming a preteen (my case), you better have some options other than the on board entertainment system. We have tried other tablets over the years, but the iPad has exactly 10 hours of battery, which is a bit more than our regular flight to Spain. Oh, and don’t forget to bring comfortable earphones for them. You wouldn’t have very happy neighbors if your kid is playing Angry Birds on full blast.
5. Get them excited about the trip. There are many ways to do this: review the route with them, pick activities to do together when you reach destination, explain the process to them. For example, our kids carry a Flight Log, and we ask the pilots in all the planes we take to fill it up with the details of that particular flight. I still have to see someone say no to that, and the kids get very excited.
6. Flying is full of free entertainment. Use it. From the landing planes you can see from the boarding gate to the plastic coffee cups they use in the cabin, flying can be an adventure, if you help them see it that way. Make a big deal of all the little trucks and vehicles around the airport, about the other planes, talk about what awaits at your destination.
7. Put them to work. Kids who feel useful tend to act up less. They are too busy to! In our case, our 8 year old and our 4 year old carry their own little backpacks and suitcases around the airport. They carry some books, toys and snacks, and extra sets of clothes. They love their Samsonite suitcases, and feel important pulling them around. The older one helps me go through security too.
8. Know your transit areas. Some airports, like the one in Madrid, have a special line for families and people with special needs. We are both, and I am always very happy not to have to explain for the umpteenth time what a Cochlear Implant is while I am wearing a one year old, holding a four year old and making sure their brother doesn’t take other people’s stuff by mistake. Another very cool feature I have found in Madrid’s airport is a family area with a playground, cribs, a changing room and TVs. The kids can burn some energy between flights, and I can sit for five minutes knowing that we are in a safe area.
9. Pack enough and a half. My husband and I argue every single time while we are packing, because he always thinks that I pack too many of everything. But I have been stranded for seven hours at O’Hare airport during a snowstorm, I have shared my diapers with a mom whose baby girl had a bad case of the stomach flu and gave a PJ to another family whose little girl threw up ten minutes into a 9 hour flight. They didn’t carry any spare clothes. Luckily, I did.
10. Be sensible. Forget about yourself, and, honestly, forget about educating your kids on a flight. It’s not the proper place. You are sharing a small closed space with another 200 people. Be mindful of that, and bribe your kids if needed. In our house, screen time is very limited, but on a plane, they can get as much as they want as long as they are not bothering anyone. Pay attention to them, help them, keep them engaged. This optimist always carries a book just in case, but with three kids, I never even open them anymore. And that is fine. Is it exhausting? Sure. But after flying alone with them I always feel like Superwoman for a few days. It’s kind of worth it.
11. Make sure your kids are seated by you. Common sense should dictate that parents and children in the same booking are seated together, for everyone’s sake. But this is not the case with all the airlines. Iberia, for example, charges 50 dollars per person and flight to choose your seats so you are seating with the rest of your family. I found out the hard way, having to beg my fellow passengers to change seats so my four year old didn’t have to spend nine hours five rows behind me. Yep, you read right. And the crew will not request anyone to move for you. So, do the homework beforehand, and confirm your seats, if possible in writing.
And, above all, enjoy the trip through their eyes. Share the adventure with them. You are making memories for a lifetime, and teaching them how to be citizens of the world, how to navigate it. And that is a life skill that no Common Core will teach them.
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