We’ve all been stuck on an airplane and had to endure a crying baby or a toddler kicking the back of your seat for what seemed like a twenty-hour flight. The scarier role to be playing in that scenario is the parent of the crying baby or kicking toddler. There is no way to guarantee that you won’t be that pitied/detested/exhausted parent, but there are a few travel-tested ways to make a positive, and maybe even enjoyable, plane journey more likely.
Preparation is Key
A well-planned trip takes the stress out of the travels, and the first part of the plan needs to be forward-thinking packing that saves money, involves the kids, and provides the oft-forgotten necessities.
If you’re trying to travel on a budget and have a few kids, you might find yourself flying on a budget airline which will charge you extra for every possible perk, from choosing a seat or drinking an in-flight water to bringing a carry-on or using the bathroom in-flight (maybe they haven’t started charging for that yet, but it’s probably next). Short of paying for it, there is no way to guarantee that you won't be stuck in the last row of the plane in seats that don't recline. Will that be unpleasant? Sure it will, but nothing worth worrying about, and you may even get a cute video out of it.
Fortunately, if you pack with intention, all of the nickel-and-diming for the carry-ons and the checked bags can be avoided.
Rule number one of packing: everyone brings a backpack. This includes both the two-year old and the fifteen-year old. What we find inside of the backpacks may differ. In general, though, every one of those backpacks should have the following items:
· A toiletry bag – the quart-sized bag constraints might not be enough for the parents, so steal space from the kids’ allotment.
· Individual activities – books, paper, markers, electronics, headphones, dolls, cars, etc.
· Clothes – not necessarily just their own...these packs become community packs to most efficiently condense the entire family’s packed belongings
Convincing a three-year old to haul around their siblings clothes is easy if you sell it right. They are proud to be helping and to be a real traveler. Convincing a twelve-year old to haul around their siblings clothes is more challenging and may involve empty threats of not coming with and/or bribery.
Give the Kids Ownership
Having a well-constructed packing plan helps make the travel efficient and cost-effective, but can miss out on an easily overlooked key component to the travel experience: engagement of the kids in the process. It can be tempting to take total control over packing, but involving the younger travelers in the trip preparation can build their excitement and help them anticipate what the trip will entail.
Enter here the delicate balance. If you let your kids pack without any guidance, you will need to add to your itinerary time for shopping for socks, underwear, and other necessities that were left at home in favor of stuffed animals and less essential goodies.
The solution is to devote 30 minutes per child to help pack for the trip. This time includes sharing the expected daily activities and weather with the child and letting them make (guided) choices on how to best prepare for the trip. Make a plan of what the kid will be doing while on the plane, and pack accordingly. Once all of the essentials are packed, let them decide on a few less critical items they’d like to bring based on the extra space that may (or may not) be available. Ideally this experience happens a few days prior to departure so that dirty clothes that are wanted for the trip can be cleaned and Amazon orders of the other travel needs can arrive in time.
For the time-crunched parent with older children, a list for each child can work but you should expect a reasonable deviation from any list that’s provided, with a few pieces missing. A quick, pre-departure rummage through their packed bags can hopefully identify missing essentials before it ends up too late and you’re stuck looking for the nearest Target store of your destination.
Accept the Reality
If there was to be only one rule that could salvage most any travel experience with kids, it would be to not give a crap.
Accept the reality that you are going to be disruptingly slow in the airport security line. And that’s okay.
Accept the reality that your kid will lose their boarding pass. And that’s okay.
Accept the reality that despite all of the attention paid to packing that somebody will forget their swimsuit (and that it’ll probably be you). And that’s okay.
Accept the reality that you will need to ask for help along the way. More importantly, realize that you are not the first and certainly not the worst family that the check-in personnel or the TSA agents or the gate attendants or the flight attendants or any other customer service employee has come across.
No trip is going to go flawlessly, and you shouldn’t expect or even want it to. The most memorable trip adventures are normally not found on the itinerary. Your child will remember (fondly) running through the airport trying to catch a flight that you’re running late for as much as they remember the destination, and that’s okay too.