When I travel for work, I’m used to breezing in and out of airports because I’ve got my whole routine down to a science.
I always go with carry-on luggage. I have memorized my passport number so I don’t need to retrieve it when filling out customs cards. And I have a strong mental picture of every major terminal in North America, so I never get lost.
But this week, I decided to bring my family with me to Florida, since I was broadcasting the Ottawa Senators game down here in Tampa on Tuesday.
So instead of rolling into the airport with one carry-on item, I was overwhelmed with a cart that included multiple pieces of luggage and car seats. I was an unwilling participant in a game called Suitcase Jenga — but you soon realize there is no correct way to balance three suitcases and two car seats.
It can be humiliating, exhausting and frustrating to travel with children on an airplane — and those are the three most positive adjectives I could think of after 40 minutes of trying.
Since I’ve had a lot of experience flying with our children, I thought it would be helpful to pass along some of my most useful tips in this week’s blog. Here are my 10 tips for flying with children:
1. Take advantage of early boarding
“Would any passengers travelling with small children or passengers needing extra assistance please proceed to the gate now.” Those are sweet words to hear over the loudspeaker, because quite frankly, the early boarding privilege is the only known benefit to flying with small children. It’s the airline’s way of saying, “We know you’re going to have a hellish five hours. So why don’t you at least make sure you cram your carry-on luggage into our tiny overhead compartments before everyone else?”
2. Make friends with other parents on the flight
Let’s face it, you’re probably going to need allies on this aircraft. So while you’re in the waiting area, be sure to strike up conversations with any other parents who are getting on your flight. Ask the standard questions like, “How old is your little guy?” and “Do you happen to have any children’s Gravol?” You may not become lifelong friends with these people, but at least you’ll have someone to exchange frustrated glances with when your toddler is having a meltdown at 30,000 feet.
3. Be prepared for a special chat with the flight attendant
If you have a child who is under the age of two—and therefore flying for free—get ready for your special one-on-one conversation with the flight attendant. They usually are less enthusiastic about this chat than they are about talking to passengers seated in the emergency exit row. The flight attendant will instruct you with super-obvious tips on how hold your baby for take-off and landing — just in case you were thinking about stuffing the little bundle of joy in the seat pocket in front of you.
4. Bring activities
Don’t be the person who asks the flight attendant for a pencil and a cocktail napkin out of desperation. Make sure you bring ALL of the following items on board with you: Portable DVD player, iPod, iPad, Kindle, Nintendo DS, LeapPad, colouring books, sticker books, pop-up books, crayons, markers, pencil crayons, stuffed animals, Go Fish playing cards and a series of dry-erase books. (Just don’t forget the dry-erase markers).
5. Bring snacks
No child wants to eat the hand-carved roast beef sandwich that is featured in the airline’s menu. And by the time the snack cart gets to you in the back of the plane — where they banish all of the children — there are no more sandwiches available because all the childless couples have devoured them up front. You are likely stuck with the option of either Cool Ranch-flavoured Bugles or something called Vegan Crisps. So make sure you bring ample snacks on board. A bag of surprise gummy bears when things are really melting down can be a more effective lifesaver than those oxygen masks.
6. Be ready for the walk of shame
When you are at your wits end with a fussy toddler in a public place, what’s the number one solution to the problem? You take them for a walk. But on an airplane, you have a space that is 90 feet long and 18 inches wide to roam free. Oh — and watch out for the drink cart, which will cut your space in half at the exact moment when you need to take that stroll. As you parade up and down the same walkway repeatedly, you end up executing as many half-turns as a runway model in Paris — except that nobody cares to watch your sad little fashion show.
7. Have a “sanity seat”
When my wife and I travel with our two girls, one of us handles the kids and the other person gets to sit in a “sanity seat.” Basically, one person is stuck with the kids, while the other person is in a child-free paradise in another part of the plane, eating sandwiches with those other couples. When things get bad, you simply switch seats with the other parent so that everyone shares in the misery. If I’m sitting in the “sanity seat” and I hear my kids wailing and screaming at the back of the plane, I often turn to the person next to me and say, “Geez, some parents just can’t control their children.”
8. Be prepared for them to complain about their ears
The fear of every parent is flying when their child has a cold, as they inevitably go Poltergeist upon take-off and landing. In those situations, even those parents who you thought were your allies will refuse to make direct eye contact with you. But even if a child doesn’t have a nasty head cold, they still tend to complain about their ears popping during the flight. You can tell them to try yawning or chewing some gum to alleviate the discomfort in their ears. But I find that headphones — for you the parent — are the most effective solution.
9. Always lie to your kids
Towards the end of the flight, your child will become irritable and agitated, as the effects of sitting in a stale environment for three to five hours start to catch up. When they ask you how much longer is left in the flight, always lie to the child to make it seem like the landing is imminent. I usually go with, “Just about 25 minutes to go — hang in there.” Be sure to disable the interactive map feature on the headrest TV, as the child may figure out that you are really 2.5 hours away from your destination.
10. Don’t expect your child to sleep on the plane
Don’t try and trick your kid with the whole, “Just close your eyes and we’ll be there” routine. No person sitting in economy class has ever gotten a restful sleep in the history of commercial aviation and your fussy child is certainly not going to be the first one. So just ride out the storm …and hopefully you can find that new parent friend of yours that has the children’s Gravol.
This article was originally published in February 2012.