16 Tips for Parents Flying with Their Kids

What’s the secret to keeping kids happy and occupied on a flight? Low sugar snacks, new distractions, and the perfect seat choice all go a long way. Prepare for smooth cruising on your family’s next flight with the following tips.

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1. Buy your child a seat

Children under age 2 can fly for free, but a long trip with a child on your lap is uncomfortable. And if you hit turbulence it can be unsafe. International travel generally requires a ticket (albeit a discounted one) even if the child is occupying a lap, so you might as well buy a seat.

2. Tell the airline if you’re flying with a newborn

Some airlines may require a doctor’s note to fly with a newborn. Some limit travel while pregnant, requiring doctors’ notes during late term, and restrict travel completely for seven days before and after a due date. Check with the individual airline for rules.

3. Bring the car seat

Kids used to sitting in car seats are more likely to sit happily if they’re in them on the plane. Check with individual airlines for information on accepted restraints.

4. Watch your seat selection

Children cannot be seated in emergency-exit rows. Avoid them when booking, or you may have the unpleasant surprise of finding your family split up in flight.

5. Bring food

Once upon a time, airlines used to serve actual in-flight meals. These days you’re most likely to get a bag of pretzels and some water. Pack your child’s favorite snack (or sandwich). A word of warning: skip sugary snacks as there’s nowhere for them to burn off all of that energy!

6. Pack smart

Bring sippy cups to avoid spills. If you’re traveling with a baby, bring a change of clothes (for both of you) and more diapers and wipes than you think you’ll need.

7. Ease the pressure

Be prepared with something to chew or suck on (bottles or pacifiers for little ones) for pressure changes during takeoff and landing.

8. Bring diversions

Crayons, markers, coloring books, paper, pencils, scotch tape and children’s safety scissors are invaluable, as are playing cards, books, music players, and books on tape. Travel games are a bonus, but beware of loud gizmos that rattle the passengers in front of you. Wrap a few inexpensive trinkets to hand out at desperate moments. Gifts don’t have to be elaborate—the act of opening is often entertainment enough.

9. Don’t rely on the movie

Much of the in-flight entertainment, even on those personal seat-back screens, is entirely inappropriate for children.

10. Enlist help

One child increases 100-fold the amount of stuff you’re hauling. Forget machismo and economy and use the skycaps.

11. Time pit stops well

Hit the bathroom before the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign is lit for the last time. The time between initial descent and arrival at the gate can be an eternity if your potty-training toddler has to wait for the bathroom.

12. Skip the red-eye

Flying all night to Paris may seem like a good idea, until your toddler is awake all night, throws up in the cab on the way to the hotel, and remains miserable for the next seven days. You may lose some time traveling by day, but the rest of your vacation will be better for it.

13. Consider snagging the bulkhead

Bulkhead seats (the first row in a section) net extra legroom, and negate the problem of a passenger in front of you to kick. The downside: no under-seat bag storage, meaning you’ll have get up and reach for all necessities from the overhead compartments.

14. Leave plenty of time

Nothing starts a vacation off on the wrong foot like having to sprint to the gate. Reduce pre-flight stress by arriving early enough to calmly navigate security and deal with the inevitable bathroom and food stops on the way to the plane.

15. Keep a tight reign

It’s one thing to take your child for a walk down the aisle, and quite another to let him run loose. Air travelers generally frown on children staring at them while they’re trying to sleep. Beware of seat back kicking and endless games of peek-a-boo.

16. Avoid colored liquids

Don’t consume anything red or purple unless it’s in a sippy cup. This includes tomato juice, red wine, and colas. Your seatmates will thank you.

Photo credit: Istockphoto/ vsurkov