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Traveling with kids: Miles of smiles

Traveling with kids always provokes some anxiety, whether it’s your first time or your fiftieth time. Will you be the weary (and despised) parent who can’t get her kid to stop screaming? There are no guarantees, but here are 10 things you can do to stack the odds in your favor.

1. Free your hands. Between airline fees and fears about lost baggage, lots of traveling parents consider going the carry-on luggage route. Don’t do it. The concept of packing light doesn’t apply to kids. Pack only the most essential essentials in a small backpack or other lightweight easy-to-carry bag, then put everything else in a suitcase and check that sucker. You’ll be burdened enough as it is, especially if you’re keeping track of a stroller and a diaper bag. Do yourself a favor and lighten your load.

2. Carry on a change of clothing. For you and your kids. Even if your kids don’t routinely get motion sickness in a car, they can still get sick on a plane. Or, more likely, they’ll manage to spill one of their complimentary beverages all over both of you.

3. Bring toys and activities on board. Even if you have a DVD player or an iPod you’re planning to give your child, you still need to bring some non-electronic diversions to use during take-off and landing. One of my favorite tips for toddlers and preschoolers: gift wrap everything you bring. Even if it isn’t new, the gift wrap will make it seem more exciting, plus unwrapping things becomes an activity in itself.

4. Embrace the screen. An airplane isn’t the place to be worrying about screen time limits and melting brain cells. If you have a DVD player or — even better — an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad, use it. Load it up with music, movies, TV shows and games your kids will enjoy. I did a round-up a while ago of the best iPhone apps for kids – check it out.

5. Bring a pillow. Whether you’re traveling with a nursing newborn or a teenager (or anyone in between), having one or two of those squishy neck pillows in your bag will go a long way towards making sure everyone is comfortable.

6. Consider the ears. Sucking and chewing during takeoff and landing will help relieve pressure in the ears. Bring whatever is age-appropriate for your child – a pacifier, a sippy cup (empty – you’ll fill it on board after security), or some taffy or chewing gum. I also always bring Ear Planes, special ear plugs that help prevent painful pressure.

7. Pack snacks. This is a biggie. Hungry kids are cranky kids. Stuff your carry-on bag with granola bars, raisins, mini-sandwiches, whole fruit, and maybe some string cheese in a little insulated bag.

8. Don’t stress. Keep your sense of humor, no matter what. If the baby won’t stop screaming, snapping at your spouse, whose nose is buried in a book, might make you feel better momentarily, but it won’t really improve the situation. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that this flight will, in all likelihood, be shorter and less painful than labor and delivery, and stay positive.

9. Take turns. If at all possible, try not to travel alone with your kids when they are very young, especially on a long flight. This way, you can switch off with your partner and take a break. If you are alone, try to endear yourself to the flight attendants. I’ve had very good luck getting help from them on the rare occasions I’ve been on my own.

10. Be realistic. Don’t bring a gripping novel on a flight with a toddler. You won’t get to read it, and you’ll feel resentful. Set your expectations low – the flight will probably be hard work, but if you make it fun, you’ll be more likely to come down the jetway with a smile on your face.

What are YOUR best tips for airplane travel with kids? Share them in the comments below.

Sheri’s airplane must-haves

For babies

For toddlers

For preschoolers

For early elementary

For tweens

About Benadryl

Most of the time, when parents ask me for travel tips, they usually waggle an eyebrow and say, “drugs, right?” I personally had a bad experience with Benadryl on a red-eye several years ago, and I haven’t used it since. If you do try it (with your pediatrician’s blessing, of course), my only advice is to wait until you’re actually on the plane before giving it to your kid.

Don’t try this at home

Speaking of traveling with kids. I’m taking my two older kids to Orlando for the weekend, which should be a piece of cake. At 8 and 6 years old, they’ll be very content to spend the flight reading and/or playing with their iPods. But I like a challenge. Shepherding two cooperative kids through an airport would be too easy. So for the return trip, I’ll add a wriggly 8-week-old puppy with very questionable bladder control, and confine him to a bag — it should be interesting. Wish me luck.


  1. Sheri –
    Thanks for the great tips. Can’t wait to hear more about your Disney secrets…we’re heading to Disney over February Vacation (yikes, with everyone else in the world) with 14 people (6 moms/dads, 2 grandparents, and 6 kids ages 2, almost 3, 4, 5, 5.5 and 7.5).
    Please share any tips you have after your trip!
    — Jackie

  2. My 2 year old son has motion sickness issues on flights, amusement park rides and sometimes in the car. For flights his Doctor suggested 1/4-1/2 tablet of Dramamine. It worked like a charm on our vacation this past spring and we will be using it again over Thanksgiving… it made him nap 🙂

  3. This is a good list, but you left off one important thing: preparing your child in advance. A child who has never flown before will have a much easier time if she knows what to expect and what is expected of her. When we took our daughter on her first plane ride at age 2-1/2, we started talking to her about it several weeks before. We explained exactly what would happen that day, including airport lines, security, waiting at the gate, having to keep the seatbelt on, the chance of ear pain and that she should suck on a water bottle if it happens, the layover, etc. We reinforced it by getting her a picture book (“My First Airplane Ride”) and a DVD (“Shea By Air”, which I HIGHLY recommend). When the big day came she was excited but not nervous, and very cooperative. It all went really smoothly.

  4. Along with “don’t stress”……Sometimes no matter how much you prepare, things don’t always go as planned and your child can get upset. It amazes me how many people are negative towards upset children on a flight. I don’t know if people forget about when they had young children, maybe they didn’t ever experience flying with their children, or possibly they never had children. I always have to just brush it off when we are boarding with our three children and are getting looks from the people around us who are not happy to be sitting by us. Come on people!! Families deserve a vacation as well!! We were on a flight once with a dog under a seat in it’s carrier bag and it kept barking like crazy and people were okay with it. But as soon as my son started to get upset (due to motion sickness and using the emergency sick bag) all the eyes started rolling and we could hear comments “under their breathe”, but just loud enough so we could hear. The only thing you can do is not let it bother you….easier to say than do, but it just isn’t worth it. I calmly told one lady that she was on a flight to Orlando, where Disney is….a family destination, and we deserved a vacation, too. She stopped her bickering.

    One thing we have found helpful when booking our flights is if the option is available to select your seats, we always do it!! It is hard for those little legs and feet to stay down because if they are in a car seat, the natural way for their legs to go will leave their feet close to the seat in front of them….add the fact that younger children get antsy on flights and you can have an angry neighbor in front of you! Since we need 5 seats, we always sit in two rows (one in front of the other instead of across the aisle). That way, our younger travelers with shorter legs will sit in the back row with one parent and the other parent and our older daughter sit in front of them. They are just kicking our seat instead of making another passenger anger.

    We always have all the snack and games and whatever else we need but the seat kicking was the one issue!

  5. Some great suggestions except for the gift wrap suggestion – for years airlines have been telling people NOT to gift wrap as they are likely to unwrap it at security. Especially around the holidays. Personally, I don’t want my child to think he will be getting loads of presents every time we get on a plane. I frequently travel solo with my preschooler and getting him ‘psyched’ for the experience is number one. He is out of diapers thankfully and we manage to do just carry-on (and with a booster seat for the car rental) and no hassle of a tired, cranky preschooler throwing themselves on the floor waiting for baggage to come through. I bring the snacks, some card games we can play together and I do not limit screen time on airplanes. Good luck with the puppy!!

  6. My best advice comes from many sources- here’s the summary.

    1. Let them snack as much as they want. Popcorn, grapes, mini oreos. It takes up time and is a real treat. There is no such thing as ruining your appetite on a plane.
    2. A super nanny I know said her secret was once you are buckled, you are buckled. She would never let a child walk around a car unbuckled, why do people let kids walk up and down the aisle on planes? Explaining this to kids before flying is really helpful. When my 3 kids were in diapers (all at the same time) I only got them up if they pooped. Now that they are potty trained, they only get up if they really have to go. If we can drive 4 hours in the car, we can sit 4 hours on a plane. And we do.
    3. I never let them kick the seat in front of them. Again, explaining why (it’s not nice to the people in front of you) is super helpful.
    4. Chicken Socks makes a GREAT book that comes with easy to tear tape. You color in the pictures using the thin colored masking tape. My kids loved it so much on the plane, they used their books all vacation – even sitting in the shade by the pool.
    Also love the “magic marker” books. where the pen color is clear, but after coloring it reveals the color on the page. Ages 3 plus.
    5. Tissue paper and plain tape. Light and the things you can wrap and unwrap are endless. (coins, straws, ice cubes, random small plastic toys)
    6. Agree with the portable DVD player. We only take it out on plane trips – never in the car or house. So it really is special, and we buy a couple of new movies for each trip.
    7. If all else fails, remind yourself that you will never see your fellow passengers again.

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