I'm in Ontario right now visiting my mom for the first time in two years. Since moving to Vancouver 21 years ago, I have made dozens of trips back and a lot of them on my own with my kids. Right from when they were babies, I have never hesitated to pack them up and jump on a plane. Years of experience have taught me allllll the tips for air travel with kids, even as a single parent.
Here are my very best tips to help make your airplane trips as painless as possible (and dare I say, enjoyable even?!).
1. Trust me, you want a rolling carry on. Like the type with four wheels. When traveling with kids there are many occasions when you either quickly need a free hand, or you need one of your kids to help with the luggage. The four wheel rollers are infinitely easier to manage.
2. Pack enough but not too much for the plane. If you have kids that can carry their own stuff, do yourself a favour and get them each a rolling bag of their own. If you have kids that are too young to be responsible for their own bag (for me this age was 4), then you want to limit yourself to the one rolling bag and one other like a diaper bag that can carry food and necessities. Unless your kids are older, don't let them carry anything that doesn't fit in their roller. You will regret having more than this, trust me. In particular it makes getting off the plane a disaster because remember anything you bring on has to be reassembled to get off. By the end of the plane trip, balancing a million bags + kids + navigating the narrow walkway of the plane will feel like a cruel form of torture. So put as much as you can in your checked luggage.
3. If you have 2+ kids that are under the age of 10, bring a fold up wagon. You know the type...like the ones that sell out every year from Costco. This is obviously if you're not already bringing a stroller. in either case, you want to gate check them, NOT check them with your luggage. Inevitably you will have the gate that is the further away from check in and by the time you get there, you will be carrying the majority of the stuff, so anything you can put in a wagon or stroller will make like so much easier for you (and then you may still be able to hold a Starbucks in your other hand, too). My kids are 12, 9, and 6 and the folding wagon has been a game changer for me. No longer am I a sweating mess of a disaster when I get to the gate.
4. Bring screens and just be ok with it. I learned a long time ago that keeping my kids occupied with other activities just wasn't worth it, even on a five hour trip. Now the day before we travel, I set up all the screens with the app for the airline we're flying on, being sure to check if there is anything else I need to know or download before the airport to access their entertainment system, as well as downloading shows from Netflix, audiobooks from Audible, books from Epic, and a plethora of games that don't require internet to play. I have headsets for the kids that I've checked both the sizing and comfort levels of prior to leaving, plus I always pack one or two extra (because you just know one will stop working on the plane).
***About headsets: Kids headsets have volume control on them that makes so they can't hear anything on the plane because of the background noise. You will want headsets without volume control for the plane (unless you're springing for fancy noise cancelling ones). Just be ok with this, too.
5. Pack snacks but consider the mess factor. Don't pack anything that requires utensils (they will drop and lose them anyways), food that is runny (it will end up on you) unless it's a squeeze pack, or stuff that they will drop EVERYWHERE (like fishy crackers). This recent trip I brought washed/cut strawberries, turkey jerky, squeeze packs, Made Good bars, a thermos of precooked hotdogs, rice crackers, and hazelnuts. Bring a container of Wet Wipes. Not only is this necessary for wiping down all the surfaces before everyone sits down, you will need them before, during and after snacks. Paper towels just don't cut it; their hands will get sticky from their food no matter what it is. Avoid anything that needs to be kept cold (they won't eat it all and then you'll need to throw it out), anything that can be squished (really, you don't need the bananas), or too much sugar. Bring your own water bottles (empty) and fill them up at the water stations before you get on the plane. Ideally you'll bring water bottles with straws because this is helpful ascending and descending to help little ears equalize. Anything that can be broken if squished you should pack in disposable containers, not ziplocks. Everything will be ruined by the time you get on the plane otherwise and your kids will just want to eat the crumbs and then it will make a huge mess. I always carry one collapsable bag with all the food and water bottles in it, that way it can fit under a seat so it's always within reach and it can be made more compact and hopefully added to one of the rollers for deplaning.
Traveling with kids will always have a level of stress associated with it, but it does get easier the more you do it. I wish I had had someone to share their tips with me before I started doing it, but I hope at least my experience can help someone else have an easier time. My kids are amazing travellers now, and I always get comments from both airline staff and other travellers how good my kids do, which makes me feel super proud. I'm at the point where I can watch a whole movie on the plane (not yet uninterrupted, of course), and you will get there, too. For now consider it a win if you're not a blubbering mess deplaning.
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