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Up in the Air: Flying with Children

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Many times, our travel decisions have to be based on practical factors like cost and scheduling rather than convenience. When we do have choices, traveling with children can be a pleasant adventure. The key is to put yourself in your child’s shoes when planning the trip.

Before You Go
What time should you fly? It may be easier to bring children to the airport when they are wide awake. For younger travelers, a naptime or bedtime flight may be easiest. Thinking about how your children deal with change may help you make this decision.


When booking the flight, state your seating preference: near the bathroom, by the window, or in the bulkhead area. Be persistent about being assigned advance seating, making advanced calls rather than waiting for airport check in. You can check out the configuration of airline seating by visiting seatguru.com.


On most airlines, if you’re traveling with a child under two, you do not have to purchase a ticket. However, you will have to hold the baby on your lap if there is no seat available, rather than have the child belted in. You can try to find out which flights are least likely to be full (a rare event in holiday travel nowadays), and you can call the airline or go online as it gets closer to your travel day to see if seats are still available. If it looks like it’s going to be a full house on a long flight, you may want to purchase the extra ticket, keeping in mind that prices change as you approach a fourteen-day or seven-day advance window. Some airlines may offer a discounted rate for travelers under two years old.


If you make your flight reservations well in advance, you may not be able to receive seat assignments at that time. Find out when you can get the seat assignments and call the airline closer to your travel day to make sure you are seated together.


Do you need a car seat? There is no legislation or airline policies requiring the use of car seats, so it is up to you. Most people don’t bother because air emergencies are so rare. Both the airlines and the Air Transport Association say car seats are a good idea for kids up to 40 pounds. Car seats prevent and reduce the severity of injuries suffered by small children during turbulence, rough landings, and other situations. In most air emergencies, there is little chance even the strongest adults will be able to hold on to a child.


Should you get a direct flight? If a direct flight is available and is not cost prohibitive, most parents would say “yes” because connecting flights usually mean more waiting time and increase the possibility of delays. On the other hand, flights with connections may be cheaper and children might enjoy exploring an airport in another city.


If family or friends are meeting you at your destination, be sure that everyone knows the meeting place and exchanges cell phone numbers. Airlines don’t allow anyone but travelers at the gate, so choosing an unmistakable meeting place will eliminate confusion. If you are renting a car, be sure to get the right size for travelers and luggage as well as appropriate car seats.


If you are sending a school-age child alone, check the airline (and airport) policies for escorted or unescorted travelers. You will have to pay extra for the child escort and even then, try to avoid connections. Most airports will allow parents to get a pass to go through security, but allow extra time to navigate the process.


Getting Ready
What will you and your children wear? While dressing up for the prospect of seeing grandma might be fun, consider comfort as well. Children traveling at night might be most comfortable in pajamas, and may have an easier transition when they reach the final destination. If your children are still in diapers, think about what clothes will be easiest for diaper changes in your seat. For little ones who can use the airplane bathroom, remember that they will have to go through their routine in a very small space.


Plan what your child will eat during your trip. Airlines have cut back on almost all meal service, and when food is served, there are usually no choices. Bring along snacks, treats or even a full meal to eliminate guesswork and make for a fun “airport picnic.” For infants, don’t underestimate the amount of formula and baby food you may need. Flights can be delayed for all sorts of reasons, and storms thousands of miles away can result in delays or cancellations. Frequent fliers have had the experience of sitting in one sunny location preparing to fly to another sunny location only to find that a storm somewhere in the middle has inserted a couple of hours of waiting time. Baby food is not an amenity commonly found in airports, so be prepared. If you can, time a bottle for take off and landing, or be prepared with a pacifier. The sucking will relieve the pressure on your infant’s ears. (Crying has the same effect but is a more problematic solution.)


Think about what your children will do at the airport and on the plane and bring a fun pack. Child-size backpacks and rolling suitcases are now available, and one look at the proud face of a preschooler toting one is a strong indicator of their popularity.


If age appropriate, talk about the trip with your children. Who will they see? How far are they traveling from home? Can they find their destination on the map? Have they read a story about that place or about pilots or aircrafts? Anticipation is part of the excitement of travel and the world of airports can be as much of a learning experience as the actual destination.


Involve school-age children in planning the trip.


Bring medical records, phone numbers, and medicines. For long trips and overseas, ask your doctor or health service for a pediatrician referral. If your child is on medication, be sure you have enough for the trip, including delays. Keep medicine with you in your carry-on and also have a prescription handy just in case.


Always carry the phone number of the airline you are traveling on. Rebooking a cancelled flight by phone may be quicker than waiting in line.


Travel Day
In the terminal, squirmy toddlers may just need some supervised running in the long terminal hall—some movement to precede what will be a long stretch of sitting. And if you’ve got a small blanket or mat, your infant may appreciate some time out of the car seat or stroller—a stretch on the floor next to you.


Remember that some school groups actually take field trips to the airport. This is your chance to have a family field trip now in a very interesting place. Explore the terminal; watch what people do on the tarmac and how many people it takes to keep an airport going.


Talk with children about how things work. How do our suitcases get to the plane? Why are some airplanes towed to the runway? How many places could we fly to from this terminal?


Children often gravitate to one another. Allow children to share their supplies. If you’ve got crayons and paper, you’ve got an impromptu air art show.


Keep your expectations reasonable. Sitting and waiting are usually not in a young child’s repertoire, so take walks, look out the airport window, read stories, play games, and have fun. When was the last time we had this much uninterrupted time with our children? With a little luck, everyone will soon take a nap on the plane and you’ll be on your way.


On the Plane
Walking a toddler up and down the aisle is completely acceptable—if the seat belt sign is off, the attendants are not trying to serve, and you don’t let go of the child.


Infants will often cry during takeoff and landing—that’s the only way they can tell us that the pressure in their ears is no fun. Always have a pacifier, bottle, or finger to suck on to give them another coping mechanism


Infants may cry, even after you’ve tried all the usual responses—bottle, diaper change, burping, patting, singing—and your fellow travelers will have varying responses to this situation. Just do your best and know that the tears will ultimately turn to smiles or a good nap. If you see a few scowls, remember that the scowlers were once infants, and they are probably outnumbered by empathetic parents feeling bad for you and your infant.


Our children will probably be the most traveled generation ever. Maybe they will even be grateful for all that we went through to make that possible. For more tips on flying with children, visit Flying with Kids, a Web site that provides tips for travelling with small children.

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