THE good news about flying with children is that it's possible. The bad news is that it's not always easy. Making your trip enjoyable requires planning and flexibility. These days, you have to be prepared to fend for yourself and expect little help from the airlines. Planes are late, connections are missed, flights are crowded, and flight attendants are overworked. Here are some travel tips that can help make your trip more pleasant:
The cost of your child's ticket will depend on what type of reservation you make. ``Super Saver'' adult fares are sometimes cheaper than children's fares. Your travel agent can give you current prices.
The airlines all allow children less than two years old to travel free - on your lap. It can be worth the expense to pay for a seat for your infant, however. The extra space may be used as a bed, as a place for you to stretch out, and as a place for your child's car seat.
There are advantages to taking along an infant or child's car seat. Your child will be safer in a seat designed to hold him securely. Children are used to sleeping in their car seats, and are often calmer in that familiar setting. And since you will need to arrange for a seat at your destination, anyway (all 50 states have child restraint laws), why not bring your own?
In order to use your car seat, you must pay for a seat for your child or infant. All seats manufactured after Jan. 1, 1981 (except vest or harness types) are approved by the FAA. But FAA approval does not guarantee airline approval. If you have questions about FAA approval, call (800) 322-7873. If you have a question about your airline's policy, call its their customer relations office.
Where you will want to sit on the plane is largely a matter of personal preference. There are no really quiet locations. Some airlines will not allow a car seat in an aisle seat, but will allow it in a middle or window seat. If you expect to get up often - and you will with a toddler - reserve the aisle seat for yourself and the middle seat for your child. Bulkhead seating offers more leg and play room, but the arms between the seats do not fold down.
If you are traveling with an infant and do not want to pay for an extra seat, you may request a bassinet on Delta, Continental, Pan American, TWA, and United flights. These measure 8 by 14 by 28 inches and will hold a small one-year-old. They fit either onto the bulkhead wall or on the floor in front of the row. Your infant must be held in your arms during takeoff and landing. Reserve the bassinet when you make seat reservations.
Delta, Pan Am, and United offer baby menus, which consist of Pablum, jars of baby food, oatmeal, etc. Children's menus are offered by all the airlines and are of the burger, fries, and dessert variety. Ask a reservations operator to read you a sample menu. We have found vegetarian menus to be appetizing and generally less sweet. Request all special meals several days before your flight.
Several weeks before you leave, begin buying or borrowing a few books as surprises for the flight.
Choose some books that are primarily picture books so your child can make up his or her own story.
Buy books in paperback rather than hardback form. They are lighter.
A few days before your flight, purchase snack items and drinks to take with you. I take my child's plastic spout-top thermos filled with water. I don't need a special cup, she can drink from it fairly neatly, it can be refilled on the plane, and it won't spill in my carry-on bag. Small juice cartons with straws are also handy.
Arrive at the airport an hour early to confirm your seats. Consider putting a name tag on an older child. Give your child instructions on finding help if he gets separated from you in the airport.
Give an active child plenty of time to get rid of energy - and take him to the restroom - before boarding the plane. Although parents can be among the first to board, you may want to wait until the last few minutes to allow your child even more freedom.
Give items that need refrigeration to the flight attendant and watch where he puts them. You can help yourself later. Find blankets and pillows and get out your child's bottle for takeoff. Drinking or nursing may help prevent pressure discomfort.
If you will be changing diapers on the plane, ask a flight attendant to help you find a secluded spot before you need it. Most airlines recommend using your seat, the floor, or the bathroom.
I don't think it is fair to ask other passengers to put up with diaper changing in the next seat. The restroom on American and Pan Am flights have foldout tables. Generally, the restrooms are very small, with minimal counter and floor space.
I have used newspapers on the floor beside the front passenger door. There wasn't much traffic there, and few people were aware of what I was doing. Put soiled diapers into a plastic bag immediately, and use scented wipes or soapy paper towels to cover the odor. Dispose of diapers in the restroom receptacle.
If you have ordered a special meal, you may be served last. So help yourself to your refrigerated items.
Everybody will be a lot happier if you watch your children carefully. Don't take it for granted that other passengers find them charming, even if others appear to. If a problem arises or a child becomes a disturbance, fellow passengers will be more tolerant and helpful if they see that you're really trying to do your best - and not ignoring or even aggravating the problem. So it's a good idea to check that a child isn't hanging backward over a seat or running up and down the aisles (even though you may think he needs the exercise).
Activities for infants
A musical soft toy, mirror, doll, board books, games like ``This little piggy'' and ``Round and round the house,'' listening to your wristwatch, singing songs.
Activities for toddlers
Block crayons and paper can be used for drawing.
Beeswax is a lovely modeling material which warms in one's hands. It is not sticky or odorous and is pleasant to work with. Toddlers enjoy rolling it, squeezing it, pressing it, and smelling it.
Bring dolls or finger puppets and help your child act out stories he or she creates. You might use stories from some favorite books or use real events that have happened. After you've helped make up a story, have your child make up the next one alone.
Activities for school-age children
String and a book of string games (remember doing this in grade school?). ``Cat's Cradle, Owl's eyes'' is available from Hearthsong catalog (it is in Sebastopol, Calif., at  829-1550).
Children 6 and older can learn to knit with needles, their fingers, or with spoons. Knitting is a soothing and rewarding pastime.
Give your child a list for a ``treasure hunt.'' These items must be spotted from his seat: a triangle, a square, a circle, someone wearing a sweater, someone wearing glasses, something plaid, something purple, etc.
Take along a birthday candle to light at mealtime. Celebrate a special journey together; make a wish and blow it out.
In his travel diary, your child could collect names and autographs of people he meets on his trip. Encourage him to write in it every day and make the trip more personal by writing notes about the people he meets.
Take along photos of family, friends, pets, etc., for your child to show to new friends he meets on the trip.
Your plane trip will be what you make it. Having your children along will force you to talk, interact with others, and experience the flight. Help your child to make it a special part of your vacation, rather than a large block of time to be dreaded.
This article is pertinent to travel within the United States. For intercontinental travel, helpful guides are ``Baby Travel'' (Hippocrene Books, $11.95) or ``Travel with Children'' by Maureen Wheller (Lonely Planet, $4.95). Traveling with Children in Berkeley, Calif., (415) 848-0929, and Travel with Your Children In New York City at (212) 206-0688 are two consulting companies whose specialty is family travel.