5 tips for holiday air travel with kids

Keeping little ones happy and occupied during holiday flights

For many parents, flying with kids at this time of year is something to avoid at all costs. They think it’s stressful, unpleasant, and often interminable. And it can be. But it doesn’t have to be.

My wife and I have learned these lessons firsthand; we have two daughters under the age of seven, and a new baby (another girl!) on the way.

Especially if you plan ahead, you can equip yourself—and the rest of your family—to roll with the punches of holiday family air travel and weather just about any snafus. Here, then—in no particular order—are five of my battle-tested tips for managing the next holiday flight as a family traveler. Hopefully some of these suggestions can work for you.

Tip 1: Eliminate uncertainty. A life coach once told me that expectations lead to disappointment. For young kids, however, the opposite is true—the more they know about a situation, the more comfortable they’ll be.

Put differently, the more your kids expect the flight experience to go a certain way, the less trouble they’ll have when things go off script. This means it’s critical to give them a sense of what the flight experience will be like.

We talk about the long and boring security lines. We game-plan about how to handle the inevitable mayhem (and angry passengers) at the boarding gate. We help the girls understand that airplane food is horrendous. We reiterate that they aren’t going to have much space to move around back in economy class. We also note that sometimes planes are delayed and we have to wait.

On some occasions, we even reinforce the lessons in real time, noting, “I told you these lines were going to be long,” as a way to remind them that they knew what they were getting into before it all started.

Over the years, my wife and I have found that this information helps the girls feel more comfortable with the madness of traveling. During the holidays, when that madness is amplified tenfold, the insider knowledge works wonders toward helping us manage stress.

Tip 2: Bring extra stuff. Particularly with young kids, distractions are the best way to endure a long (and potentially stressful) flight. This means that in order to survive, you need lots of ammunition. Then you need more than that.

I usually limit myself to one carry-on. In it, I pack nothing but distractions for the kids. Often this list includes physical books (as opposed to the kind on my Kindle), physical travel-sized games (as opposed to the ones on my Samsung Galaxy tablet), art projects, and oodles of snacks. Of this bunch, the art projects are the ones I like to stretch as far as possible. At holiday time, I bring construction paper and tape and have the girls fashion it into holiday chains that we usually give to the flight attendants.

(In case you’re wondering, I fold the paper into rectangular strips and the girls use the tape to create loops. We take this approach because you can’t bring scissors or staplers on board.)

I also often bag snacks chronologically—creating one tiny bag for every hour. This gives the kids something to look forward to. It also helps me keep track of who’s eating what (and when).

Viewfinder Tip: Let kids pack their own bags for holiday trips. This will cultivate a sense of responsibility. It also should inspire them to carry their own stuff.

Tip 3: Make holidays come early. Sure, holidays are all about seeing family. But they’re also about presents, especially when you’re a little kid. To celebrate this fact, we often bring some extra-special gifts for the girls along with us, and we encourage the kids to open them as soon as the plane takes off.

This ritual works for two reasons. First, the kids have something to look forward to—and something to behave well for—during the often drawn-out process of checking in, going through security, and boarding the plane. Second, after they open their presents, the girls usually are focused on playing with it for at least 30 minutes. For us grown-ups, those 30 minutes are a nice time to relax and get ourselves ready for the rest of the flight.

It’s worth noting here that the onboard gifts don’t have to be expensive. Fellow Expedia Viewfinder Anne Taylor Hartzell has told me she usually gets in-flight gifts for her kids from the dollar rack at Target.

Bottom line: Simply having a gift for the kids in midair will help you control their behavior on a flight.

Tip 4: Relax the rules. It’s natural as parents to want to clamp down on rules for kids when you’re flying in close quarters with 200 other passengers. For a change, try loosening the usual protocols. The additional leeway and freedoms will inspire your kids to loosen up a bit, and perhaps chill out. What’s more, bending restrictions will enable you to relax as well.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you let your kids run rampant around the plane. I’m not suggesting you become an “inattentive parent.” Instead, I’m saying it’s in everyone’s best interest to relax family policies on issues such as screen time, snack size, and rules of this nature.

Running out flight delays

Looser rules mean more relaxed travelers. That reality benefits everybody involved—fellow passengers, flight attendants, your kids, and you.

Tip 5: Reward good choices. Parenting in the modern era is all about choices—we reward kids for making “good choices” and express disappointment when they make “bad choices.” While traveling, especially around holiday time, it’s a good idea to celebrate good choices with contextually appropriate rewards.

For us, this has translated into extra movies or TV shows for grown-up behavior on a long-haul flight, an additional handful of M&M’s® when the girls eat their entire lunches, or a special magazine or toy at the nearest newsstand during a layover. It likely could turn into other rewards, too—so long as the girls are making “good choices,” anything is possible.

This approach works best when it operates independently of the aforementioned gifting strategy. Gifts come out no matter what; these rewards are administered only in the event of good behavior.

It’s really hard for anyone to behave perfectly on an airplane. When you’re traveling with kids, it helps to acknowledge when they’re doing a great job along the way.

What are your suggestions for making it easier to fly with kids during holidays?

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Matt Villano

In more than 20 years as a professional journalist, Matt Villano has had articles published in outlets including TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Entrepreneur, to name a few. He currently blogs about family travel at WanderingPod.com, and occasionally covers family travel for Family Fun and Scholastic Parent & Child magazines. Villano also wrote the family travel blog for Parenting magazine, and an adventure travel blog for SeeAmerica.com (a one-time website of Brand USA). In addition to travel, Villano’s areas of expertise are business, technology and gambling. When he’s not working at his stand-up desk, Villano is chasing after his three daughters, both of whom are future New York Yankees fans. His favorite destination on Earth is his (adopted) hometown of Healdsburg, California. No. 2 on the list: Vancouver Island, British Columbia (specifically Tofino). For more about Villano, visit Whalehead.com.

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