Flying with Kids
We’ve flown on over two hundred flights with our three kids – ages 5, 8, and 10. Most have been family trips. Some have been one parent and any combination of 1, 2 or 3 kids. I’m frequently asked for tips on making flying with kids easier. Every family is different, but this is what has worked well for us.
Always, always, always bring snacks for the kids. And bring more than you think you’ll need since you could have unexpected travel delays. Hungry kids are grumpy kids. Our go-to items are zip-lock bags of cereal and Wheat Thins, granola bars, Chex mix, and animal crackers, and sometimes we let the kids choose cookies to bring. If we’re staying at a hotel with mini cereal boxes at the breakfast buffet, we’ll grab several for the flight home.
We also bring a water bottle for each of us and fill them after we’ve gone through security. S’Well bottles are the best. They’re not light, but they’re indestructible and they keep liquids cold (or hot) all day. Using the bottles also means fewer spilled airplane beverage service cups, since flight attendants rarely give kids drinks with lids.
2) Bulkhead – pros and cons
The only time we’ve liked the bulkhead (front row) is when traveling with infants. It’s great for very young kids to be able to crawl around and not worry about them bothering the people in front of you. Beyond that, though, we’ve stayed away from bulkhead seats when flying with kids for two reasons. First, you can’t have your bags there for take-off and landing. Second, the armrests don’t go up. Up until five years old or so, all of our kids fell asleep frequently on planes. It’s a lot easier to make kids comfortable when you can put up the armrest and let them sleep flat across their seat, using your lap as a pillow.
3) Reserving Seats
We have five travelers. A lot of the time we’re flying with kids with a 3-3 seat configuration. I typically reserve three seats on one side and the aisle and window seats on the other side. The middle seats are the last to be ticketed, so more often than not we get an extra, empty seat for free. And when the flights have been full and someone has been assigned that seat, we’ve never had problems convincing him/her to take the window seat instead of the middle. Low risk, high reward. It works for us about 70% of the time.
Another option to sitting across from each other is to book some seats right behind the others (11 A, B, C and 12 A, C for example). When we do this, we place the youngest kids in the further back row. Although they know not to kick the seat or mess with the tray table, if they absentmindedly forget, they only annoy someone in our family.
Also, I use Seat Guru religiously to choose the perfect seats for every flight. I also go back monthly and check our reservations to make sure we still have those seats. When airlines change flight times or flight numbers, I’ve found that they also periodically reset the seating chart. If an airline moves us from five good seats together to five scattered bad seats, which has happened several times, the earlier I find out about it, the easier it is for the airline to fix things.
4) Fly Early
Nothing is worse than missed or canceled flights that make an already long travel day a lot longer. We prefer flying with kids as early in the day as possible. There’s less traffic, and early morning flights are rarely delayed or canceled since it’s likely the planes spent the night at the airport. We put pillows, blankets and travel clothes in the car the night before and warm up the car for a few minutes before we wake up the kids and carry them to the car. They usually sleep on the way to the airport and are in a great mood by the time we head into the terminal. There’s always time to get breakfast at the airport.
And we never book red-eye flights (overnight flights) unless we’re flying with kids to Europe or somewhere where we just can’t avoid it. A 5-hour overnight flight, where the kids only sleep 3-4 hours, kills the first day of a vacation as the kids catch up on sleep.
5) Book Direct Flights
Price is typically my primary factor when selecting flights (as noted in my post on how to make family travel affordable), but there’s sometimes a trade-off between getting the cheapest possible tickets and flying non-stop to our destination. While it can be tempting to save $50/ticket by adding in a connection, it makes for a longer travel day and increases the risk of missed connections and delayed luggage. Figure out where your price difference threshold is and check the alternate airports near you to see if you can fly direct for close to the same price as a connecting flight.
6) Travel Light
I know everyone has their own preference on this one. For us, the less we’re carrying through the airport, the better. We only let one of our kids (the oldest) bring a small rolling backpack, and she is then responsible for taking books, headphones, stuffed animals and paper/crayons for the other two kids. My wife and I both have small backpacks/bags with snacks as well as standard stuff that you would never want to check. If we get into a foreign airport with a long passport line and tired kids, we would rather pick up our kids to help/comfort them than worry about hauling a lot of small bags.
When the kids were younger, we never carried strollers or car seats through an airport – we checked them with everything else. In addition to letting us get through airports easier, the light packing also lets us go through security faster. And it allows us the flexibility to board a flight at any stage of the boarding process since we don’t require any overhead space (see number two – this wouldn’t work if we had bulkhead seats).
7) Be Loyal to One Airline
I fly United every chance that I can. If I can’t fly United, I fly on one of United’s Star Alliance partners. Is United the world’s best airline? No. But it’s the best one for our family. How does loyalty pay off?
- Eight international upgrade certificates a year (based on flying over 150k miles a year)
- Free upgrades on other flights without using certificates
- Free checked baggage (up to 70 pounds each)
- More frequent flier miles earned for every flight
- Increased availability when redeeming frequent flier miles
- Priority check-in lines
- Priority security lines
- Priority boarding
- Priority rebooking if there are issues with our flights
All of these benefits make flying with kids easier and/or cheaper. Long lines = grumpy travelers. No lines = happy travelers.
8) Get Global Entry
Priority status on United (per number 7) lets us avoid most lines. But it doesn’t help with US immigration/customs coming back into the country or the occasional TSA screening line that doesn’t have a priority access lane. That’s where Global Entry comes in. Yes, it costs $100/person and requires an in-person interview at a major airport, but it’s good for five years. In addition to letting us use a kiosk on entry into the US, Global Entry lets us walk past the frequent long lines to exit baggage claim (there’s a lane just for Global Entry) and it lets us go through the TSA Pre-Check line at security most of the time, meaning we don’t have to remove shoes, belts, toiletries, laptops, etc…
9) Book Business Class for Overnight Flights
This is obviously easier said than done and involves paying more or getting upgrades through luck, elite status, or frequent flier miles. If you can make it work, though, it’s worth it. If I’m traveling solo, an upgrade isn’t a big deal. With kids, though, if they’re not sleeping, I’m not sleeping. One way of making this work fairly economically is to mix and match business and economy seats over the course of a trip. If we’re leaving from a small airport heading to Europe, we will likely have three flights – a short flight to a hub airport, a long overnight flight and a short intra-Europe flight.
I only care about business class on the overnight flight. Coming back to the US, if we leave Europe early in the morning, all flights are when the kids would be awake (on European time) anyway, so a nicer seat isn’t necessarily worth paying more for. Basically, in six total flights, I’m only willing to pay for business class on the flight where a flatbed means that the kids can get a full night’s sleep, or close to it.
Given that most internet booking engines don’t let me combine coach and business seats in one booking, this is when I turn to a travel agency like Cranky Concierge. They’ve put together some great itineraries for us, booking business class only on our overnight flights. This sometimes works out to only slightly more than an all-coach ticket would have been, and it makes the trip infinitely more comfortable. Plus they’re experts at getting upgrades, so they can figure out the best path to business class.
I’m a big fan of iPod Touches, iPad Minis, and Kindles when flying with kids. We entertained our kids for hours with simple apps like Peekaboo Barn when they were infants/toddlers. As the kids have gotten older, we’ve obviously downloaded more age-appropriate apps. Minecraft is very popular with my 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter right now (as well as seemingly every other kid) – five-hour flights literally and figuratively fly by.
I’ve also converted most of our DVD movies to mp4 format and loaded them onto the iPods, and downloaded shows that the kids like. When traveling with my 6-year-old to Easter Island and Iguazu Falls, we had roughly 40 hours on planes. He entertained himself the entire time with Minecraft, Stack the States (learning US geography), Stack the Countries (learning world geography), Presidents vs. Aliens (learning US presidents) and Mathmateer (learning multiplication and division), as well as downloaded episodes of Chopped and Mythbusters. Everything was fun and more or less educational, and he never once complained of being bored.
We also travel with paper, colored pencils/crayons and books on Kindle, but the iPods get the most use. And I’m absolutely fine with that – taking the flying out of the equation makes for much more enjoyable trips.
But that’s just us. What works well for you when flying with kids?