“They did great!”
Believe it or not, these are three words I have heard out of the mouths of strangers at the end of every flight I take with my two kids. Every single time. Strangers, who are not obligated to say a word, sing the praises of my children, because they are relieved. They are so glad they didn’t just have to endure screaming, crying, and seat kicking for 4 hours that they speak up. Every time.
So why is this? Is it because I’m a super mom? No way.
Was I simply blessed with the easiest kids known to humanity? Not even close. (Though I do recognize luck as one of the players in this game).
Is it a guarantee for the future that they will always “do great” while traveling by air? Nope. I’m not that naive.
After several episode-free air travel experiences in a row, I started to wonder: aside from luck, what it could be (I mean, It can’t be luck every time, right?) and after some thought, I compiled the following list of factors that I believe contribute to a positive air travel experience with small children. I hope you find it helpful.
- Repeated exposure: Let’s get this one out of the way. I realize this really isn’t all that helpful because not everyone travels that much, but it’s the truth. Repeated exposure makes something familiar to a child, and familiar situations are low-stress for small children. Low stress means less meltdowns. All well and good, but what if you don’t travel as much as I do? Well, onward to number 2.
- Planning and prepping: By planning, I mean: that which you do to get yourself and your kids organized for an upcoming trip, and by prepping, I mean: that which you do to get your children mentally prepared for a trip. If I, for some reason, was only able to do one of these, I would choose prepping. I see prepping my children mentally as even more important than making my packing list. I would never spring a surprise trip on my children. Never. Not even to Disney World. When I know a trip is coming up I make it a point everyday to give my daughter a visual of how it’s going to go down. At least once a day I bring it up and talk to her about what we will do, remind her about what it is like to be on an airplane, in an airport, go through security, etc. I bring up memories from previous trips. I want her mentally ready for what is going to happen. That means I have to prep her consistently so that when the time comes, it’s been at the forefront of her thought for a while. I know, I know. If it’s a fun trip, your kids are likely to bug you. They can’t wait to go and they can’t stop asking about it. Fine with me. I’d rather that than a meltdown at the security checkpoint.
- A Word on Planning: Of course, lists are essential. Everyone has different packing lists and only you know what you absolutely must take with you, but make sure you have an organized list. I use a smartphone app called “TripList” which you can learn more about here. I know there are a million listing apps. Use one of them or a pencil and paper. Whatever works for you. You will not remember it all if you don’t keep a list. Start your list at least a week before your trip and have it with you at all times, so that when something pops in your head in the middle of some other activity, you can quickly add it to your list. This will work so much better than sitting down and trying to write out an entire packing list at one time. Every time I do that, I leave something off the list.
- The “new toy” affect: Remember how I said I would never surprise my kids with a trip? I wouldn’t, but I would surprise them with a new toy on the airplane. A toy they have never seen. A toy I know they would like. Nothing majorly expensive. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be new. This was actually a tip given to me when my daughter was a little tot by my sister-in-law. She told me to go to the dollar store and pick something up to have at just the right time. I have used this tactic every time we travel. The last time was just two days ago. As soon as I saw my daughter starting to get fidgety on the plane I broke out a new little pack of Legos. She was set.
- Familiar toys: One or two tried-and-true wouldn’t hurt either. On this last trip I had our crayon and colored pencil/notebook rolls ready. She loves to color at home, so chances are, she will love to do it on the airplane, too.
- A word about snacks: I over-pack snacks and never regret it. How do you act when you are hungry? I am a total crankpot when I am hungry and so are my kids, so I pack a mix of healthy fruits like apples and bananas as well as special “treat” snacks that we don’t eat every day. Same deal as the new toy – they come out at just the right time, however, not as a bribe for good behavior. My daughter knows we have special snacks and she looks forward to them. It’s a special part of taking our trip.
- Nursing: If you are traveling with a nursing baby and you are nervous about breastfeeding in public, there has never been a better time to conquer that fear. Nursing your baby on the plane is not only comforting and soothing, it helps their ears to deal with the pressure changes on the plane. Nurse your baby on the plane. If your baby is bottle-fed, over pack formula like your snacks, so you can be sure to have enough in the event of delays. There is almost nothing worse than a cranky, hungry baby whose ears hurt on a plane.
- Seat for your baby: If traveling with a baby under two years old, you will have the option of having them travel on your lap. It will be tempting because it will be cheaper. If at all financially possible, I highly suggest you buy a seat for your baby and bring your car seat. Make sure it is airline approved – there will be a sign somewhere on the seat.Having a place to put your baby down and having the extra floor space under your baby’s seat is worth every penny of that ticket. I will skimp on many other things if I have to, but these days when I travel, my baby has a seat. Even if he is not in it that much, he has a seat.
- Don’t be afraid to accept help: This one is so important. Back when I was stupid (yes I said that), strangers would offer me help when they would see me traveling by myself with a baby and I would decline. I don’t know, maybe I was working on my super mom resume. I am so over that. A stranger expressing a desire to help a parent in a stressful situation is a wonderful thing. It’s one of the proofs that there is some good in this crazy world. Be a part of it. Accept their help, and then offer yours the next time it is needed. Just, if they want to help you carry things, hand them bags, not kids.
- When not traveling, read, read, read: The benefits of reading to your kids are not up for debate. The more you read to them the better. So why am I mentioning that in this post? If your kids are used to being read to, and enjoy reading time, this is something you can do on the plane that can occupy their minds in a beneficial way. Time will pass by quickly while you are reading to them. They will be engaged and you will be giving them something they need: Your attention. Which brings me to my next point.
- Tend to them!: Traveling with small children is hard work. You will have to be “on” the entire time. It is not the time to try to get in some light reading on your Kindle or listen to a podcast. It is not the time to do your taxes. If they fall asleep – great! You got some much needed free time (but most likely at least one of them will be on top of you and your movement will be limited). Be attentive and engaged. I began having some great conversations and memories with my daughter (and she is only four) when I started to see being trapped in an airplane with her as a golden opportunity to spend time with her, with no interruptions and no other obligations during that time.
- Take your time, and expect the unexpected: I am constantly reminding myself while traveling that wherever I am, that’s where I am. Sound silly? Maybe a little, but it’s still true. Once you are in a situation, it’s all you’ve got. You do the best you can with the tools and information you have and you keep moving forward. Or you stop and take a break if needed. Whatever you do, stay calm and take your time. Kids can smell fear and they don’t like being rushed. Leave lots of extra time and then take it.
Keep in mind that my children are currently four years old and 11 months old so these points might not all be relevant to you if your kids are older or little bitty infants. I’m sure my list will change as my kids grow and as our traveling habits evolve. For instance, I really dislike being on an airplane. I do it now because my 11 month old could not handle a long road trip at this point. (I have done long car trips with him within the state of Texas, but half way across the country at this point is a no go). I hope when he is older that we will travel by air less and car more. I love road trips and so does my four year old. The little guy will get there. In the meantime, I hope my list has been helpful to someone.
What kinds of tips and tricks do you use when traveling with small kids? Do you prefer taking long trips with them by air or by car?