Whoever said “Getting there is half the fun” never flew cross-country with a needy newborn, a boisterous toddler or a moody tween. Not to mention a purse full of wrinkled airline tickets and coloring books, snacks for every member of the family and a caravan of luggage.
At best, flying with children can be educational and exciting. At worst, it’s an all-out nightmare. Here’s how to plan for a memorable (in a good way) trip that starts before you land.
Baby/toddler years 0-4: Plane Plan
Flying with a baby or toddler in tow takes planning, patience and more planning. Celebrity travel expert and mom Amy Graff recommends using a packing list.
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“You might not find the right kind of diapers or that exact baby food your little one loves at your destination. This is the time when you don’t want to forget anything.”
Prep for a smooth takeoff and landing by planning to feed baby – by breast or bottle – during the plane’s ascent and descent; the sucking motion helps equalize pressure inside their tiny ears to minimize painful popping (and the resulting screams).
Remember to pack a few more diapers than you think you’ll need on flight, and a change of clothes – or several. And don’t forget to pack extra clothes in your carry-on for a toddler or preschooler. On a long flight from California to North Carolina, Raleigh native Christen Pope remembered to pack plenty of clothes for 7-month-old Sydney – but forgot a change for her newly potty-trained 3-year-old, Jaden. Guess who needed fresh pants shortly after takeoff? You can bet she’ll never forget again.
School years 5-12: Fun Fare
Elementary-age children usually love plane travel, but can be notoriously slow to get through airports. Yelling “Let’s GO!” at the top of your lungs may turn some heads, but it won’t make your poky ones move any faster. Instead, make the most of kids’ pre-vacation excitement by treating the airport like a fun destination. Start by turning the dreaded security screen into a race; have kids try to get their shoes off and unload their luggage onto the conveyer belt as fast as they possibly can, says Graff. “It’s a game of speed, and it can be a lot of fun.”
School-age kids respond well to delegation, so assign each child a responsibility pre-takeoff and in-flight, like carrying the family’s flight snacks or marshaling carry-ons as they come through the security conveyor. Grade schoolers are also old enough to take responsibility for their personal belongings, both in the airport and in-flight; before boarding and deplaning, gently remind your child to gather her things – but don’t do it for her (you undoubtedly have your own hands full).
Teen years 13-18: Time Travel
A long flight layover with bickering teen siblings is a recipe for vacation disaster; quell squabbles by allowing each sibling to take charge of a family decision (one sib can pick a lunch locale at the airport, while another gets to select dinner fare at the destination). Bring a deck of cards, teen-friendly snacks and an extra set of batteries and AC adapters to keep electronics charged up while you wait.
On the trip, avoid the “teen tuneout” by creating a connection to your destination before you leave. Did your family’s ancestors hail from the region? Do you have any childhood stories about the area? Any major historical happenings? Young teens may get a kick out of an on-flight scavenger hunt with landmarks to watch for during takeoff and landing.
Appointing a teen “trip historian” with responsibility for journaling and documenting the trip with photos ensures that you’ll have plenty of memorabilia – and gives you a chance to view the trip through your teen’s eyes.
Illustration by Mino Watanabe
This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2016.