Let's face it: Air travel kind of sucks.
Airlines run on tight schedules and even tighter seating arrangements. Loitering in the aisles can get you noticed by an air marshal, and it often seems that flight attendants would sooner call for an emergency landing than get you a hot meal. And if you show up in the gate area with one or more little ones in tow? Not everyone is thrilled. One has only to observe the eye-rolling and subtle seat-shifting to realize that when the early-boarding call for "parents with young children and others needing special assistance" goes out, most adult passengers offer up a silent prayer pleading to be seated anywhere, anywhere, except near a crying baby. Yes. That one. Over there, by the podium, in the arms of its mortified parents.
For the parents of children — especially younger ones — flying can be its own unique circle of confined, uncomfortable, and judgmental hell. But that doesn't need to be the case. There are parents, themselves seasoned travelers, who have made the deliberate decision to travel extensively with their small children. These folks have managed quite successfully to fly tens of thousands of miles with their offspring and stay on the good side of their fellow passengers. Please meet:
The Turetts: Rebecca and Chris, and their sons Bryson, almost 3 years, and Camden, 7 months. The Turetts began flying with Bryson just a few months after he was born, and haven't looked back. Bryson crossed the mainland U.S. several times before his first birthday, and has also been to Israel, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hawaii, Taiwan, and Chile. Camden was along for the last three rides. "You definitely want an aisle seat," the Turetts advise.
The Nus: Meeta, Nam, and their 4-year-old son Avinash. As Avinash approached preschool, the Vus realized school could tie them down for the next 15 years or so … and decided to sell their house and circumnavigate the globe, not once but twice. Altogether, the Vus took over 70 flights over the course of 15 months, on planes ranging from luxury commercial airliners to bouncy puddle jumpers over the Maasai Mara in Kenya. "We had to make use of the barf bags in that one," the family admits.
When you book your seats, think about logistics. In addition to making sure you and your child have easy access to the aisle, consider how close your seats are to the bathroom (a must, according to our families) and their proximity to exits. After long hours in the air, children sometimes find it hard to wait the extra 20 to 30 minutes it can take to de-plane from the rear of a large economy class cabin.
Some airlines allow babies and toddlers under the age of two to "fly free" on the lap of a parent. But are you sure you want to save money this way? Unless you are on a very short commuter flight with a smaller infant, both of you will probably be uncomfortable — and neither of you will be as safe as you could or should be.
Whether or not you bring your child's car seat along on a trip is another personal decision.
"We only had car seats where we drove and it was required by law," say the Vus, noting that American customs are not always practical in other parts of the world. "We always observed how local people transported their children." The Vus enjoyed immersing themselves in local cultures through observing local customs, and took their own measures to keep their son safe. "In Kenya, on safari , we rode atop the roof of a jeep. Nam and I leg-locked Avinash and served as his human seatbelts."
The Turetts, on the other hand, always bring their own child seats when they travel. "That way, we know the seats we use are fine, and our sons find it easier to easier to sleep in them."
Bringing car seats onboard on a flight can add to the extra stuff you need to lug around the airport, but if your toddler is used to her seat, and is accustomed to sleep and play in it, it's well worth any hassle. And if your seat attaches to a multi-function stroller unit, you can take advantage of having wheels in the terminal and check the stroller at the gate.
If you do check your car seat(s) in earlier, with the luggage, invest in a good car seat travel bag.
"Our car seat bag is a mess, but the seats themselves are still perfectly fine," say the Turetts.
Both of our globe-trotting families agree: Adequate preparation is the most important factor in a successful journey with children in tow. Dress with comfort in mind. You don't need to be sweatpant-slovenly to achieve this; think a loose fit, breathable (and easily washable) fabric and layers for everyone. An extra cotton blanket is always a good bet.
And pack your carry-ons strategically:
"Bring more than enough diapers on the plane for anyone who needs them, a change of clothes for all children in your party, and extra shirts for the adults. Spit-up and other accidents happen, and it's better to be safe than sorry," says the Turetts.
If your child needs a pillow or special lovey to sleep, check and double check that these have been included in their bag — older children enjoy helping with this part.
Sufficient diapers, loads of wipes, wet paper towels in plastic bags, and (very important!) even more extra bags in which to seal and dispose of your children's biological output will not only make you more comfortable, they will ensure better relations with everyone else within olfactory range. Extra props go to you if you share your spare supplies with an onboard family who might not have had the same foresight. You might even get an ovation in that case.
Then there's technology. Both of our families agree that a laptop or tablet can be your best friend onboard an airplane, especially on longer flights.
"Parents might consider saving something such as special games, apps, and movies just for flying time,' the Vus recommend. "Build up anticipation, so your child looks forward to flying time as time to enjoy something special."
Old-fashioned favorites like picture books, coloring books, and cards are also a good bet. "Variety is the key," say the Turetts. "Mix it up as much as possible."
And don't forget the food and medicine.
"Be prepared with foods your children like, because little ones will get hungry," say the Turetts. And airline fare won't always be to their taste. Drinks are a little trickier for younger children who have moved past the bottle, but aren't yet ready for their own glass of water. "We have yet to find a sippy cup that works under pressure," the Turetts admit. They recommend purchasing boxed water and milk in the airport after going through security, making the point that most planes only carry enough of the latter to satisfy the milk-with-my-coffee types on board.
And as for meds? Take this piece of wisdom from the Vus: "We were a traveling pharmacy, since we didn't always know the access to medicines or quality in the countries we were visiting. We took all the recommended travel vaccines and took prophylactics as necessary."
So it's time to leave for the airport. Don't even think about cutting it close.
Everyone knows children just take longer to do things. Factor the time it will take to juggle all the equipment, pull over for potty breaks (and/or a snacks), and answer lots of curious questions into both your scheduled arrival at the airport and the boarding gate. What would you rather do? Spend some extra nice family time cruising around the terminal, or risk a potential meltdown by running through said terminal, stressed and screaming?
We thought so.
Then there's communication. If your children are old enough to understand, talk to them about the nature of travel, and the need to be thoughtful of and considerate of others. ("If you kick the seat in front of you once we're on the plane, the person in that seat won't feel very nice." Then let your child know that kicking will not be permitted, lest he lose access to the iPad.)
Make your travels sound like a great adventure to your child, and take advantage of early boarding to communicate with the flight crew. "Make a special flight log," the Vus suggest. "Avinash had his signed by every pilot of every flight we took. He was often invited into the cockpits. It makes the beginning of the trip exciting!"
Indeed, if you engage the flight crew positively from the outset, you are setting an important tone for the rest of the flight. Let them know you have come onboard prepared to make the experience as pleasant as possible for your child, your fellow passengers, and the flight attendants themselves. A little gift of chocolates or something else from duty free is always welcome, and could earn you some extra support in case things get rough.
Because that's just what happens sometimes. Infants get earaches and wail. Toddlers realize they are outside their routines, and tantrums ensue. Older children sulk (on the one hand) or talk too much (on the other). No one can stop children from being, well, children. You as parents can do all in your power to ease their way in flight, but the fact remains that little ones can't always be relied upon to behave with perfect gentility.
Adults, on the other hand, can and should be expected to demonstrate courtesy and decorum. If you are doing all in your power to keep things pleasant for your children and everyone else on board, then the other grownups on that airplane owe you some understanding and sympathy. If they do not demonstrate these humane qualities — if they glower at you and mutter unkind remarks about you and your family — it's their problem and not yours. All you need to worry about is arriving at your destination safe and ready to enjoy all that is wonderful and fascinating about viewing the world through the eyes of your child.