Earlier this summer I took my boys, aged 1.75 and 5, to visit my parents in Iowa. My husband had a work trip scheduled for the same week we were planning to be gone so I had to take the kids on two connecting flights each way — for a total of four flights — all by myself.
In general it would be fair to say that I’m a nervous flyer. I’m not the “big tin can oh my God how does it stay in the AIR!!” kind of nervous flyer, thank goodness. (My husband is one of those and I know it’s just awful for him.) Rather, I’m the “what if I get to the airport and discover my license is expired or they detain me at security because they think my lip balm is a bomb or the baby has a blow-out diaper as we’re waiting in line to board the plane” kind of nervous flyer. (All three of those things have actually happened to me, by the way.) I plan and strategize a lot before a trip to keep my worrying under control. When it’s just me flying that works pretty well, but when I’m traveling with my kids they are entirely unpredictable and that just shakes me to the core.
OK, so I’m a generally nervous flyer. Then add in that I had to wrangle my carry-on, the big kid’s carry-on, the diaper bag, the car seat, the stroller and both kids and I was a little scared of this whole process.
And guess what? It was awful! Both kids had more than one tantrum. Augie kicked my tray table with our lunches on it and all the food flew up in the air and landed on my lap. Wyatt ran away from me at O’Hare and I couldn’t find him for five minutes. The lady in front of us on one flight kept huffing and sighing and giving me dirty looks every time my toddler made any noise at all. They changed the location of our gate at O’Hare three times which involved going from one concourse to another and back again with all our crap. Awful!
But it also wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be. No one threw up. There were no diaper blow-outs. Neither kid went hungry. No one planted drugs in the diaper bag when my back was turned. And we all got to our destination safely. Yay! Success!
So what did I learn? Here are my top tips:
Take a million snacks
I packed what I thought was a lot of snacks — a packed to the gills lunchbox — for our flight to Iowa, but we ran out of food 2 hours into our first flight! On the way back I tripled the amount of food I had with me and that worked much better. Toddler starting to scream? Give him a box of raisins to dig into. Everyone’s happy!
Bring toys and activities for the plane
This is a pretty obvious one, but I could have done much better than I did. My big kid’s bag was packed with books, coloring books, a notepad, and markers but he was pretty happy just to play games and watch a rented movie on our iPod Touch.
My toddler was much more difficult. With a two minute attention span we ran through all the books and toys I packed for him very quickly. I discovered that novelty was the way to go. He enjoyed looking for pictures of dogs in the Skymall catalog way more than any of the familiar books I brought with us, and the flashlight the guy in the row behind us lent us killed a good half hour.
Lower your standards
I’m pretty stingy with screen time and junk food normally, but almost every at-home restriction was lifted for these flights. The five year old wants to watch movies and play video games for four hours straight? Sure, buddy — go ahead! Hungry? Hey kids, gorge yourselves on McDonald’s french fries and lemonade. One day of saying “yes” to things you normally say “no” to isn’t going to hurt anyone. In fact, it helps!
Enlist the big one as your “helper”
In the car on the way to the airport I laid the situation out as plainly as I could to my older child and then I asked him if he had any ideas for some things he could do to help make our day go more smoothly. Some ideas he volunteered included: pulling his own bag, being a good listener and singing silly songs to Augie if he got upset. All of which he did and all of which helped.
Accept all help offered (within reason)
I’m not someone who usually accepts help from strangers (“thanks for the offer, but I’ve got it”) but I learned very quickly that many people — especially other parents — want to help you when you’re flying by yourself with your kids and you are a foolish fool not to accept their help. I happily let people entertain my kids with post-it notes and peekaboo, carry the car seat off the plane and –Â in the case of one angel from heaven named Stephanie — roll my carry-on with the bulky car seat hooked over the handle all the way from O’Hare’s C concourse to the B concourse. I did draw the line when someone (who was probably perfectly nice and not a kidnapper) offered to stand with my kids and luggage while I went to the bathroom at the airport. No matter how frazzled you are, you still need to follow basic safety rules.
Ask for help (or insist upon it)
I was a little surprised by how little help I got from airline and airport staff.Â Did you know that United no longer pre-boards families with small children? Neither did I! It’s apparently also their policy to not carry items to a passenger’s seat for them once they’re on board. This was a problem for me because I couldn’t carry my toddler and the car seat down the narrow aisle by myself. Despite several polite requests for his help, one flight attendant actually told me to take Augie to his seat at the back of the plane, leave him there with my 5yo, then come back to the front of the plane to get the car seat. Obviously he doesn’t have children because if he did he wouldn’t be so clueless, but in the moment my response was a frustrated, “Are you NUTS??” At that point I just dug in my heels, fanned out the kids to block all the people behind me and told him that someone needed to help me if anyone else was going to get on the plane.
I also wised up by the last of our four flights and just got in line when they boarded first class. I’m not a rule-breaker by nature so this felt super rebellious to me, but I decided that if they wanted to stop me from getting on the plane early they would.Â But no one did!
Of course it goes without saying that you should always be as polite as you can possibly be with airport and airline staff. No matter how frazzled you are, keep your tone level and drop “pleases” and “thank yous” every chance you get.
Wait as long as possible before agreeing to walk the plane aisle.
Being confined to a car seat for hours on end is often tough for a baby or toddler and walking the aisle of the plane with them can be a really effective distraction technique. That being said, wait as long as you possibly can to do this! In my experience, once you get that kid out of his seat he won’t ever want to get back in it.
Do you have any tips to share for plane trips with small kids (whether you’re making the journey alone or with help)? I’d love it if you shared them in the comments!