Flying the Kid-Friendly Skies

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I love suitcases. An odd fixation, I admit, but, when I was growing up, travel was an integral part of my family life. Whether it was exotic trips to India or Thailand or weekend jaunts to quiet secluded spots in West Virginia, my parents and I were always on the go. Perhaps, from a financial point of view, travel was easier on my parents since I was an only child, but they both possess wanderlust in great dollops, and they certainly passed this wonderful trait onto me. Even in their sixties, my folks recently returned from a month-long adventure to Scotland, Germany, and many countries in Eastern Europe.

After I got married, I convinced my husband that the world is our oyster. Growing up in a much larger family, he had far fewer opportunities to travel. Although he had grown up in India, I discovered that I had seen more of that country than he ever had. I was fortunate that he willingly switched to my worldview (no pun intended) and agreed to spend our hard-earned money on priceless vacations.

Since infancy, both our youngsters have been whisked off to places grand and tiny, exotic and tame, glamorous and poor. When our kids see me poring over the computer, planning our next outing, they both begin to clamor for a “plane trip” because they know the drill so well. Our family of four has converted plane travel into a well-oiled process that works for us.

After losing our bags on two recent vacations, we are now a carry-on family. Each of us has our own color-coded carryon suitcase which we wheel through airports everywhere. Giving the children responsibility for themselves and their personal belongings is a great lesson. I provide guidelines on how many sets of clothes and shoes should be packed as well as toiletries, but they are responsible for bringing all of their items to me for packing. I have shown both children how to optimize the space in a tiny carry-on and how to be more concerned about comfort and the wonderful sights we will see than what they are wearing.

I have created a standard list of clothes for packing. Whether the destination is warm or cold, we are prepared because clothing that can be layered is the way to go. We have learned the “be prepared” lesson the hard way. During a trip to Scotland in August, temperatures dipped below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and we were only equipped with lightweight summer clothes and a single pair of long pants each. We ended up having to spend money on buying heavier clothes—not a pleasant thing to do when you are converting dollars to pounds. Similarly, a trip to Puerto Vallarta taught us that the days might be quite warm, but the cool night air off the ocean can make an evening walk in shorts quite uncomfortable.

Although this point seems obvious, pack clothes that are easily washable and not prone to wrinkles. Plan what family members will wear each of the trip and prepare for swings in temperature. Investing in comfortable shoes will improve the quality of your vacation immeasurably. Don’t wear new shoes on a vacation—make sure they have already served you well and don’t have unknown pressure points that can cause blisters. You should always plan for rain. I know the weather forecast for the next ten days shows a happy, bright sun, but, trust me, throw in a couple of umbrellas or rain ponchos and some plastic bags to put the wet things in.

Depending on the ages of your children, pack a variety of fun activities in their individual backpacks. Our kids learned early on that stuffing their backpacks with too many toys, games, and books would result in achy backs because try to make a connecting flight sometimes results in great bursts of family sprinting. Our twelve-year-old usually brings a book, an electronic game like a Nintendo DS, and his iPod. Our eight-year-old likes to bring her crayons and coloring book, a small stuffed animal, and a book. We usually bring along a deck of cards or a magnetic chess board as well. The primary reason for the toys and books is to occupy time on the plane. The days that we are traveling are full of activities—no toys required other than the souvenirs that they are permitted to buy.

Speaking of souvenirs, prevent gift shop crises, whining, and tears, by setting a monetary limit on how much spending money your kids will get while on the vacation. It is an excellent way for them to learn how to budget, and, if you travel overseas, they learn all about currency conversion and how much their dollar buys them in a different country. Encourage your children to buy items “native” to the area in which they are traveling instead of picking up yet another plastic yo-yo in Paris or a Webkinz in Yellowstone. Our children’s rooms are decorated with items such as the coqui frog that my daughter bought in Puerto Rico and the tram car replica that my son bought in Glasgow.

Final item for packing is snacks. Kids tend to get hungry in inopportune places such as the base of Devil’s Tower or in the immigration line in the Bahamas. I have found that a variety of granola bars, packages of “100 calorie” snacks, and snack boxes of cereal are lifesavers and have often staved off the hunger pangs of the whole family when a restaurant was not readily available. I use gallon size zip lock bags to prepackage a combination of items for every day of our trip. The more you plan before you leave, the less stress you will have upon arrival.

If your children have never flown before, ensure that you tell them about the process that you will go through at the airport. Our kids learned a number of lessons quite early on in our travels. For example, the Security area is not the place to punch each other or make jokes such as, “Dude, you look like a terrorist!” since these remarks cause their parents to glare at them menacingly and inform them that the TSA will take them away forever. This rulealso applies to Customs and Immigration (just substitute C & I for TSA). Additional rules that we enforce:

  1. Pushing your sister through the security screener results in the loss of your Nintendo DS for the entire plane ride.
  2. Collect your own shoes, jacket, backpack, and suitcase. Taking your brother’s shoes and pretending the machine ate them will force Mom to give you a lecture that will cause you to have a headache.
  3. If you insist on wearing shoes that are tied with laces, you will be compelled to tie them as you are walking to the gate or transit train/bus. I told you to wear slip-ons.

The kids recite these rules, much like the Pledge of Allegiance, in the cab on the way to the airport. It does not mean that the rules are not broken; however, it prevents the parents from having to devise punishments at six in the morning when they are busy trying to figure out who has the passports and why the euros are falling out of the travel wallet.

The area where the gates are located is wonderful for the children to explore. If we have time, we use this opportunity to stretch our legs, get some exercise by walking up and down the terminal, and grab some snacks before we are forced to assume yoga postures within the dreaded Economy section of the plane. My daughter and I like to window shop at the duty-free stores, and we both come back smelling quite exotic after trying out all the expensive perfumes (we call it exotic; my son often asks “Eww, what died?!”). The first boarding announcement is everyone’s indicator to put away crayons, books, etc and start shuffling towards the gate. The kids like to hand the boarding passes to the attendant so that they know where they will sit on the plane. They scramble into their seats, fasten their seat belts, and push their backpacks under the seat in front of them. Now the adventure begins!


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