We’re now ten weeks into our trip, and more than 50 hours of that time has been spent on a plane. With two children under five. Yet everyone is still (more or less) sane, and nobody has caused an in-flight incident.
The idea of boarding a plane with our kids in tow used to create in me a deep well of anxiety. I felt like I couldn’t get excited about a vacation until after we’d survived the commute there. Thanks to this trip, though, plane flights no longer scare me. And in our children’s hearts, they’re second only to gift-related holidays.
Here’s how we do it:
- Get out the map. A few days before we’re going to fly, we show the kids where we’re headed and talk to them about what we’ll do there. We make sure to map out our layovers, which they see not as inconveniences but as added opportunities to procure snacks.
- Get it in the bag. The children’s “treat bags” are indispensable members of our airborne team. Each child has a zippered tote with plenty of pockets. They aren’t allowed to peek inside until we’re in the air, but once they do, they know they’ll find a few new small toys (Play Doh, stickers, Matchbox cars and the like) and a handful of snacks. Their speculation over the bags’ contents gives our flying days a Christmas-morning feel.
- Watch the clock. Many travelers with young children believe it’s best to fly at night, so the kids will spend their in-flight hours in dreamland. We believe that’s generally true, with a few important footnotes. For starters, if our little angels decide not to drift off, that means we’ll be up all night, too—and unlike them, we’ll need to be coherent once we arrive at our final destination. And if our flight is broken up into medium-sized chunks, the children may not have enough uninterrupted time to catch the Zs they need. We tend to choose nighttime flights only when the middle-of-the-night leg is six hours or longer.
- Do a Disney Detox. We’ll be the first to admit it: Screens are our salvation when we’re up in the air. An iPad stocked with Disney movies can captivate our children like no other, and we want to tap into that power and ride it all the way to our final destination. But we’ve learned that the hypnotic abilities of the iPad wear off with use. To ensure the kids don’t build up an inconvenient tolerance, we cut back on the screens a few days before flying.
- Get the wiggles out. Sitting still for hours on end in a tiny space is hard for most grown-ups. To our two-year-old, it’s akin to torture. We find all the time we can pre-flight to let the kids move around. The day before we take off, we head to a park or a beach or someplace where the kids can run. And we make sure to seek out the indoor playgrounds most airports now have; they’re the perfect cure for last-minute wiggles.
- Bide your time. The expression “time flies” does not apply when we’re, well, flying. In no other situation do hours trudge by so slowly. Most airlines allow families with young children to board early. But this just adds another thirty minutes or so to the hours we’ll spend trying to keep peace on the plane. We wait until the last possible moment to get on the plane—unless we need to ask some kind stranger to switch seats so we can all be together. In that case, we board early and try to look as pathetic and you-do-NOT-want-to-sit-here disruptive as possible.
- Hold the goody bags. We’ve read about families who distribute treats to their seatmates as an apology for their children’s mere presence. We don’t. We do everything we can to keep our kids in check while we’re in the air. But we also remember that, as ticket holders, our kids have as much a right to be there as anyone else. Having children is part of perpetuating the human race. Children who travel usually grow up to be pretty cool adults. Everyone wins in the long run.
- Pack extras. Of everything. Extra snacks. Extra batteries. Extra clothing for the kids—and the adults whom the kids are bound to spill on. We bring it all on board.
- Pain is temporary; memories are forever. Kid-free passengers stuck next to a row of sticky children drew the short straw in the seating lottery, and we all know it. But aside from doing our best to keep the peace, there’s not a lot we can do about it. The woman in front of our two-year-old who has turned around with a sigh of exasperation six times? The guy whose patience with our four-year-old’s crayons rolling into his space is staring to wane? We will never see these people again. When the going gets rough, we repeat these words like a mantra.