Flying with kids is about managing the chaos and chances for things to derail (for me, that’s everywhere I look). We live in Portland. Half of our family lives in Tampa. Flying is necessary because we love being with our people. At this point, I have some sky under my belt and a lot of opinions. Here’s my advice based on our national and international family flying experiences. (Additional travel tips from me and guest writers can be found on my Travel with Kids page.)
Use this post to think about what works for you, and leave your own tips in the comments. (You might be like, “I would NEVER fly carry-on only. And that’s 100% awesome if it works for you.) Our last cross-country flight was with our 3, 7, and 9-year-olds — this list is based on those ages.
1. Avoid an extra flight however you can.
- Is nonstop an option? Take it. With connecting flights, there’s so much room for delayed flights, storms, mechanical failures, or other chaos to derail your trip. I think of the catastrophic family implosion (adults included) that would occur as we tried to find an airport hotel in Minneapolis because of snow or a missed connection. In that moment, I would surely have paid extra to fly direct.
- Get creative. To get to Tampa, we fly direct to Orlando, rent a car, and drive the rest of the way – about 90 minutes. (There are no direct flights to Tampa from Portland.) It’s great to have the second leg of our trip in a private, sound-contained vehicle where we can have our meltdowns in peace.
2. Baggage: Travel carry-on. Make sure every bag has wheels.
- At the end of your flight, find food, bathrooms, and get out of there as quickly as possible. When we arrive at our final destination, we’re exhausted, emotionally disregulated, and also elated in that jittery way. We’re soaked in travel kerosene and any spark will send it up. Searching out the baggage claim and having one adult watch the kids while the other plays whack-a-mole with bags on a conveyor belt for an extra 30-45 minutes is my idea of hell. I can’t risk lost baggage. I’ve had bags lost, and so have friends. Dealing with the logistics of three young kids traveling is enough without managing calls from the airlines and missing clothes.
- Every bag we have has wheels, except the parent backpacks and preschooler backpack.
3. Car seats: add wheels and use bungee cords
- We splurged on one of those attachable roller things for car seats. It’s been amazing. Basically turns our giant car seat into a stroller.
- We then use bungee cords and other ties to keep all the car seats and baggage together so everything rolls. Did I mention carabiners? I love them.
4. Stop right away in the destination airport to eat and go to the bathroom.
- When we arrive, we eat and do potty breaks right away. There’s a McDonald’s in Orlando. Everyone gets Happy Meals. This is not the time to think about the words “sustainable” or “obesity epidemic” or other boujee earth-saving vocabulary. While the herd grazes, one adult can ferry people to the bathroom and refill water bottles for the car.
5. Speaking of food, pack tons of snacks, and split them up into each person’s bag so they’re within reach.
6. Use as much screen time as you need at any moment and pre-load the devices you travel with with games that work without wi-fi.
- Every couple years when we upgrade phones, we keep the old ones. Over the past 10 years, that’s given us a nice little pile. You may have iPads or Kindles…whatever you have, load them with things that don’t need wi-fi. We found that the inflight entertainment can be limited and not your kids’ favorite. My kids don’t love Disney movies because they’re kind of traumatic—the parents are always dying. Alaska doesn’t have a great selection of in-flight entertainment, anyhow, and wi-fi on the flight costs over $20 per device.
7. Let your kids choose a small number of books and small toys or art supplies to pack in their own carry-ons. Our kids often want too many things, but other than that they are good about choosing the things they’ll most enjoy. Pokémon cards, stuffies, etc.
8. Organize your under-seat carry-ons efficiently.
- I buy gallon-size Ziploc bags before we go. It really helps to keep things somewhat compartmentalized because all the stuff goes everywhere once we’re onboard and people are passing things back and forth. We have:
- A technology bag that includes lots of chargers, headphone adapters, headphone splitters, and adult earbuds. (Kids carry their own headphones in their carry-ons.)
- A bag with an extra change of clothes for the three-year-old, plus wipes, and a diaper. She’s potty-trained, but has many accidents. Often, we’ll have her wear a diaper for the trip. It’s just easier to change in case she has to pee during take off or landing.
- Pack a ton of extra plastic bags that you can use for trash bags, soiled clothes, or whatever comes up.
9. Pack a meal for the flight or buy it the airport – don’t rely on inflight service.
- If we haven’t packed a meal (which is cheapest, but hard to have the space for), once we’re past security, we grab food. After security, you don’t have to worry about the issue of space.
- Sometimes they run out of inflight food by the time they get to us, so I like to be sure we have a meal and we can eat it whenever we want.
10. Use Benadryl, melatonin, Dramamine, or whatever works for you and your kids to help them nap.
- I’ve flown with babies a lot. At the end of most flights, people will say, “Your baby was soooo good!” That’s because I use a combo of all the sleep-inducing tools I have. I am not a doctor, so do what you need, but don’t go too crazy. Give your chosen sleep-aid(s) right before you board or right after you sit down. I usually take something for me, too, because traveling with kids can make me very jittery.
11. Choose your seats wisely. We sit three in one row, and two directly behind.
- After non-stop flights, and sleep-inducing chewables, this is the most important thing. We place our Preschool Queen of Seat-back Kicking right behind another member of our family. One time I had a real a**hole swear at us and practically start an in-flight Lucha Libre session after sitting in front of our then-18-months-old appendage-flailing champion. We do everything we can to make sure our kids don’t jostle other passengers, but under age 5, we’re not going to win that battle. Sitting for 3-6 hours in a confined space without moving is not developmentally appropriate. Arms and legs gonna fly.