Kids on a Plane: How to Entertain Children Without Losing Your Sanity

Family travel experts offer clever tips for avoiding a midair meltdown.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterMarch 13, 2017
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterMarch 13, 2017, at 2:36 p.m.
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Customer service representative helping family with tickets at airport check-in counter.
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Make the journey less chaotic with these pro hacks.

When you're traveling solo, it's easy to navigate common air-travel snafus with time-tested tactics and essential items such as electronic devices, chargers and snacks. But when you're planning a trip with youngsters in tow, coping with agitations – from tantrums to the never-ending "Are we there yet?" chorus – can bring frustrations to a boil. "When you become a parent, across the board, in almost every category, spontaneity is the devil," says Chicago-based family travel expert Amy Tara Koch. Preparation is paramount, she says. With that in mind, U.S. News tapped industry pros who offer these strategies for reducing headaches and maximizing enjoyment on your next family trip.
Family with children at the airport
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Pack smart.

A common mistake families make is waiting until the last minute to pack, which typically translates to overpacking, Koch says. The last thing you want to do is haul cumbersome luggage through crowded terminals. Instead, about five days ahead of your trip, strategically decide which essentials to bring. Medicine and snacks are a given, but it's also important to pack plenty of in-flight activities to beat fatigue and boredom, as well as wet wipes to clean dirty surfaces such as trays and armrests, she explains. And until your kids can pop their ears during takeoff and landing, bring a sippy cup or chewing gum for the 3-and-older set, suggests Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, a family vacations expert at About.com.
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Make the journey less chaotic with these pro hacks.

When you're traveling solo, it's easy to navigate common air-travel snafus with time-tested tactics and essential items such as electronic devices, chargers and snacks. But when you're planning a trip with youngsters in tow, coping with agitations – from tantrums to the never-ending "Are we there yet?" chorus – can bring frustrations to a boil. "When you become a parent, across the board, in almost every category, spontaneity is the devil," says Chicago-based family travel expert Amy Tara Koch. Preparation is paramount, she says. With that in mind, U.S. News tapped industry pros who offer these strategies for reducing headaches and maximizing enjoyment on your next family trip.

Pack smart.

A common mistake families make is waiting until the last minute to pack, which typically translates to overpacking, Koch says. The last thing you want to do is haul cumbersome luggage through crowded terminals. Instead, about five days ahead of your trip, strategically decide which essentials to bring. Medicine and snacks are a given, but it's also important to pack plenty of in-flight activities to beat fatigue and boredom, as well as wet wipes to clean dirty surfaces such as trays and armrests, she explains. And until your kids can pop their ears during takeoff and landing, bring a sippy cup or chewing gum for the 3-and-older set, suggests Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, a family vacations expert at About.com.

Prepare for boredom.

When traveling with kids, you must account for in-flight restlessness, and "you have to have a strategy," Koch says. Pack coloring books, puzzles, tablets with predownloaded educational games and more diversions to help ensure the kids stay busy throughout the journey. "Mom and dad have to go armed with food and entertainment," she emphases, highlighting LeapFrog educational games, crafty supplies for tweens and model-building kits or toy cars for boys as top items to bring. Kelleher also recommends bringing books on a preloaded tablet with movies and headphones; if you're traveling with a toddler, pack "several surprise activities or toys from the dollar store," she says.

Dangle prizes to reward good behavior.

"You want to have bribery material," Koch says, pointing to forbidden foods such as gummy bears, candy or gum, or a small toy as must-have treats. By carrying a few things kids love, you can prevent (or defuse) a tantrum and encourage good behavior, she explains. Unless you have a kid who's feeling under the weather, bribery typically works, she adds. As a last resort, you can use a negotiation tactic as positive reinforcement to give the kids something they want (think: two desserts on vacation) as a reward if they agree to practice good behavior for the remainder of the flight.

Get the kids involved.

Encourage your kids to be a part of the trip-planning process, Saglie advises. He suggests giving your kids their own carry-on luggage (or backpack) starting at a young age and asking them to fill it themselves with toys, books, snacks and games to urge them to take ownership and responsibility for their baggage. And allowing your kids to fly at an early age can teach lifelong lessons, he adds. "Not only does it instill a love for travel early on, it also teaches them about the inevitable mechanics that are part and parcel to today's flying experience, from going through security to waiting to keeping busy while in flight," he explains.

Pick the right seats.

"Kids really love the window," Koch says. Aside from keeping your kids satisfied, your fellow passengers will appreciate if you take the middle seat to serve as a buffer. In addition to choosing the right seat, avoid getting the side-eye from fellow passengers by exercising appropriate etiquette and doing everything you can to keep kids entertained. "Everybody hates the parent that does not bring activities for their kid," she cautions. "If your kid is screaming or crying and you do nothing, it's just unfair to everyone else," she adds. In this situation, the best way to defuse the situation is to acknowledge the behavior and apologize, she adds.

Factor in delays.

"Always plan for delays," Koch says. If you don't have TSA PreCheck status, she recommends arriving at the airport an hour early or two-and-a-half hours in advance for international flights, and ensuring that you stock up on items that are easy to transport, such as carrot sticks and grapes. If you have time to spare, let kids burn off any pent-up energy in play areas. At top hubs across the country, you'll find a variety of kid-friendly amenities. For example, at San Francisco International Airport, youngsters can enjoy hands-on play stations in designated "Kids' Spots," and at Philadelphia International Airport, little ones can explore an aviation-themed play area.

Know the rules and consider TSA PreCheck.

Familiarizing yourself with the current security guidelines can be highly valuable, says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo. If you understand the 3-1-1 liquid rule, for example, which prohibits bringing more than 3.4 ounces of liquids, aerosol, creams, pastes or gels in your carry-on (items must be in travel-sized containers within a quart-sized bag), it will go a long way for a smoother security screening. Also keep in mind, "if your kids are under age 12, they don't need to take their shoes off at security," Saglie says. TSA PreCheck can be another sanity saver, Saglie says. If you've enrolled, "the kids can tag along with you. Like you, they can keep their liquids baggie and laptops in their carry-on, and they don't have to take off jackets, a major, major timesaver for all," he says.

Consider gate-checking items.

If you're lugging car seats and strollers, consider gate-checking these items, Saglie says. Many domestic airlines offer families the opportunity to check car seats and strollers for no additional fee right before you board. Most airlines will allow families to gate-check other items, including booster seats and backpack carriers. "On board, consider bulkhead seats, especially for longer flights and even if there's an extra cost," Saglie advises, emphasizing that particularly for youngsters, having the wiggle room and floor space to play on can make a major difference on your trip experience and comfort level.

Stay charged up.

It's advantageous to "make a conscious decision to have all electronic tablets and toys fully charged before you leave for the airport," Saglie says. "You can't always depend on available outlets at the airport or in flight," he says, pointing out that staying charged up is key to keeping kids happy and distracted from point A to point B. Koch also recommends carrying an external power source in the event there's no connectivity on your flight. She recommends carrying one charger per child to stay prepared.
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Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

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