From the Trenches: A Survival Guide to Air Travel With Small Children

by | Feb 26, 2013 | Parenting, Travel, You Ask, Kendra Answers | 3 comments

Thanks to a reader question from my dear sister-in-law (Hi Brie!), today’s post is on flying with kids.

Ah yes, that’s it.  Safety first.
Although this way is also fun.
And this.

I have done A LOT of traveling with kids.  From a trip to Hawaii with the husband and our six week old only, to our upcoming parents, grandparents, and six kids to Rome in April (to meet ANOTHER Pope!?) and about a bazillion trips to see family and friends from San Diego to Boston.  It’s not our first time to the rodeo.

Here’s what I do to make air travel with kids survivable, and occasionally even fun.

1. If I’m flying internationally, I always try to fly on a European carrier.  Swiss is our favorite.  They have kids meals (if you request them in advance), and snacks and drinks are available for the entire flight at little help-yourself stations.  My kids love to help themselves.  The flight attendants come by before takeoff with baskets full of toys and games for the kids to choose from.  On our first flight on Swiss I never even opened the bag I brought of snacks and toys for the flight.  Each seat back has an individual screen (even in coach) and there was a decent selection of kids’ programming from movies to cartoons to nature shows.  And if you fly through Zurich they have the most amazing family lounge ever.  It has a little room with cribs and toddler beds, like something right out of Annie, plus books and video games and changing tables and art tables and microwaves. 

2. Domestically, we prefer Southwest. Because they are usually the most affordable, but also because they have snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. However, with their new boarding policy, families with small children board between the As and Bs, instead of first thing. We have sometimes found it hard to find two rows together at that point, so it’s worth it to try to check in online early enough to get an A boarding pass if you have a big family.

3. Once we’re on the plane, I commit to being engaged with my kids for the duration of the journey. I can relax when I get there. It’s not very often that I am a captive audience for my kids. For once there’s really not anything else more productive I ought to be doing. I try to use that time. I bring a book and a Rosary on the off chance they all fall asleep at the same time, but that’s usually it.

4. Less is more. I carry on one bag for me. The kids get one backpack (maybe one for the boys and one for the girls). They can help pack it, but then they must prove that they will be able to carry it through the airport by wearing it around the house for at least 15 minutes without complaining. Any more stuff than that is more trouble than it’s worth. I also forgo strollers in the airport, and I check car seats for any flight when I don’t absolutely need it for sleeping. Without the car seat I have more options for switching kids around, and I can use the seat back tray. In the car seat my kid is virtually guaranteed to spend most of the flight kicking the seat in front of him.

5. Two words: barf bag puppets.

6. More words . . . there are plenty of things to do with stuff that’s already on the plane. I bring paper and blunt nose scissors and glue sticks and we cut up the Skymall catalog and make collages (automatic dog waterer, statue of a lady with a lamp for a head, popcorn cart, Harry Potter wand, backyard Sasquatch . . . ). I get giant self-adhesive googly eyes and sticky-back felt squares and decorate the barf bags. If I get tired of arts and crafts we see who can hold an ice cube the longest, or play ice cube hockey on the tray with coffee stirrers. Sometimes we have races to see who can find particular items first in the Skymall catalog. I really cannot emphasize enough how long you can entertain your kids with in-flight magazines. Two hours, sometimes more — they are a real goldmine of distraction.

7. Basically the goal is to waste the most time, with items that take up the least amount of room. Especially if I’m not flying on Southwest (since they have snacks) I like to bring some clean shoelaces and a bag of fruit loop-type cereal. I tie a knot at the end, then the kids have to string the cereal onto the shoelace without eating any until it’s full. THEN they get to take each piece off and eat it. It takes forever on both ends.

8. Other great plane toys that don’t take up a lot of room are:

Coloring Books and Crayons are a perennial favorite.  Two pages means two kids can color at once.  Or if they start getting bored with that, they like getting to tell me how to color a page.

Colorforms or Reusable Stickers (Airport or Melissa & Doug) usually come with a bulky binder or pad or carrying case, but you can just put the pieces in a ziploc bag and kids can stick them to the seat back tray or the windows of the plane.

Travel AquaDoodle will keep kids occupied on the plane or during long car rides, just make sure to have a bottle of water, and store the pen in a ziploc bag.  A cheaper and even more portable (store it in a paper towel tube) option is this Painting and Calligraphy Mat, some paint brushes, and a cup of water from the flight attendant.

Really, how can you go wrong with Play-Doh?  We bring a couple of army men to charge a hill and a monster truck or two to squish unsuspecting snowmen.  Another favorite is trying to guess what Dad is making before he finishes.  I usually make my own using this easy recipe (try the Koolaid option for great color and smell, but considerably less nature).

Any tiny toys are great on the plane, but I especially like Squinkies because they’re rubbery so they don’t easily fall off of the tray.  My babies haven’t tended to put a lot of stuff in their mouths, so I don’t mind having these around.  But they do come in cute little choking-hazard balls.

Aaaaannnndddd . . . a screen of some sort does come in handy on long plane rides.  We used to have a DVD Player but now we just use the iPad.  A Headphone Splitter allows everyone who can fit in the seat to hear.  I like screens on LONG plane rides for the same reason I don’t like them at home.  They turn my rambunctious, energetic kids into slack-jawed, zombie-children for hours on end.  We don’t usually use screens on flights less than four hours.

All tuckered out from all that fun. 

So that’s how I keep my two-and-ups entertained.  But what about babies?  C’mon back by on Thursday to find out.  

  * Full disclosure on the Amazon links: clicking on a product from any of my posts will take you to Amazon, if you buy that item (or anything else) after clicking through my blog I get a (very small) percentage.  Awesome!


  1. Emily

    This is so great!!! Bookmarking it for future traveling. Thank you!

  2. Nanacamille

    From all my years as a Flt. Att for AA I have found that there are more "bad parents" on the airplane than there are "bad children". You have to plan for your type of trip and be willing to give the children your time. Most flt. atts are willing to help you with whatever they have on board but these days it's not very much. When I was able to take Kendra or Kara on a work trip with me I had them passing out peanuts (gone now) and picking up trash which they enjoyed doing. It kept them busy and the other psgra really enjoyed it. I used to enlist other willing kids to help and the parents enjoyed the free time.

  3. Christina Pyman

    Next time you come to Boston, we need to meet!!! I just love this blog! I look forward to every entry and always catch up when I miss one! Thank you so much for writing it!

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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