After 14 years of working for an airline and 3 kids, I have learned a lot about traveling as a family. Don’t do it. You’re welcome.
Oh, you still want to do it? Fine, I will share the wisdom I have learned from all the mistakes I have made. This is a brief overview of the easiest things you can do to have a great travel experience. In the future, I will go into more depth because I could (and maybe should?!) write a book about this.
Show up Early
I can not stress this enough. Do not – DO NOT – show up less than 2 hours before your flight departs, and more for international flights especially if you have to preclear customs. If I had a dollar for every family I’ve seen running in a total panic through the airport, I would be a very rich lady.
On one trip you may breeze through the whole process fast and sit at the gate for an hour so you decide to show up later the next time. That will be the experience when your parking shuttle doesn’t show up, there is a 45-minute wait at check-in, security flags you for extra searches and your gate changes at the last minute. Just leave early and save yourself multiple heart attacks from the pressure of trying not to miss a very expensive flight to your only family vacation in 5 years.
I’m gonna let you in on an insider airline secret: they will not hold the plane for you because you are running late. Doesn’t matter that Aunt Susan is getting married tomorrow or your Mother-in-Law will kill you if she finds out you slept in.
Book Seats in Advance
Contrary to popular belief, most airlines do not afford families “special seating arrangements”. Children under a certain age must travel beside an adult however, this is not done in advance because we don’t know the age of the children flying. If you show up to a sold out flight without preassigned seats you will likely be seated in whatever is left. Then once on board, you and the flight crew will have to displace other passengers (much to their dismay) to get children with adults. It is a very stressful process for everyone involved. Just pre-book seats. Trust me.
If you have small children you probably don’t leave the house without food already. Flying with kids is no different. Except, pack more and avoid really messy snacks like popcorn (please?! We beg you on hands and knees – don’t give your toddler popcorn on the flight…).
If you have multiple children, pack their snacks separately in baggies or containers to pass out when it is time to eat. Save so much trouble. I prefer to bring a thermos for drinks because there is very little room to balance tiny airplane cups and you can bet my 4-year-old has dumped a few filled with apple juice.
Travel with Less
I know this is super cliche travel advice but it is for a reason. In the beginning, I opted to pack everything I thought I could possibly need in a 24 hours period and it was a disaster. I could never find what I really needed, felt weighed down, and used only a fraction of what I packed.
Make a list of your child’s important needs. It will look something like: food, water, sleep, comfort, and entertainment – then fill those needs with exactly what you need. Snacks, drink cup/bottle, lovey/stuffie, blanket, change of clothes, diapers, and game/toy/tablet. Don’t bring 7 of everything (except maybe diapers…).
Also, don’t always expect a tonne of help. We do our best and really love to help but there isn’t an assigned porter to everyone traveling with a baby so expect you are going solo. You need to be able to balance your kid(s) with what you have packed to carry on. If you can’t lift it, don’t bring it!
Don’t Have Expectations
Don’t book a redeye and expect your 2-year-old to sleep through it. Don’t plan a morning flight because that is your infant’s best time of day and expect it to stay that way. Don’t expect the worst because they might surprise you.
Also, do not expect the flight to be on-time, your baggage to always arrive with you, and the in-flight entertainment to work. Sometimes these things just happen and having expectations sets you up for disappointment. Just try to roll with it and you might get through unscathed, with all of your hair, and the desire to travel again.
Above all (this is for the Mommas out there): if you can manage childbirth, you get through a few hours on the airplane. I promise it will be over soon.