Travel with toddlers: Six tips for avoiding airplane meltdowns

Travel with toddlers, especially on an airplane, can be a disconcerting experience for parents. There are no foolproof plans for avoiding meltdowns, but here are six tips for getting toddlers through a long (or short) flight.

Chris Carlson/AP
In this June 9 photo, travelers tour the new Terminal 3 at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

There has been quite the kerfuffle this month about airline seating policies “discriminating” against families – or at least making tickets a good bit more expensive for flying parents who want (or need) to sit with their children.

At issue is the growing trend of many airlines to charge more for advanced seating, as well as for desirable window and aisle seats. At least one politician – Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York – has called on the US Department of Transportation to intervene and protect the rights of flying families.

All of which is interesting. But perhaps also a bit tangential to the real hassles of family flights. At least when there are toddlers involved.

Because, if you’re booking a flight from – just to throw out something totally random here, of course – Manchester, N.H., to Chicago, and you happen to be traveling with your 16-month-old daughter, you’re going to make sure you sit together. And once you’re on that plane, in your extra expensive row, the fun has only started.

Now you have to amuse this little creature, who has the attention span of a flea, for a good two hours. Or more.

So, as a public service, I figured I’d share some of the tips Husband and I have learned after more than a dozen flights with 16-month-old Baby M, which have ranged in sky time from one hour (manageable) to 19 hours plus layover (insane).

(And I’ll admit that we have not had to suffer the extra window fees yet. Our daughter is still in that double-edged-sword category of the “lap child,” which means you don’t have to pay for her ticket, but she also doesn’t get her own seat. Which was fine at 6 months. Really it was. But now that she is a squirmy, crawling, toddling lap eel? Horrific. But cheap.)

1. Arm thyself. You need toys. Books. Stuffed animals. Pieces of trash that you can pretend are toys. Collect these items (some traveling parents suggest wrapping them as individual presents to dispense as needed) into a big bag and have them at your ready. And be prepared for the toddler to get bored with all of them in about 15 minutes.

2. Improvise. Always accept the bag of peanuts and the narsty pretzel snacks. They make excellent shakers. A cup of ice once got us from over New York all the way into Baltimore-Washington. Straws are awesome. Remember, you’re dealing in minutes here – anything that can amuse the child for even one minute brings you a minute closer to victory.

3. Prepare. This is not the time to try to save money on your flight at the expense of convenience. As tempting as it might be to shave money of your fare by flying at a strange time of day, or by stopping in Dallas on your way to Chicago, these days you don’t want to do it. Trust me. Eat ramen noodles at your destination instead. Seriously. 

4. Bring rations. Sure, the flight schedule said your plane was going to land by Toddler’s afternoon snack time. But what if there’s a delay? And what if Child gets hungry and wants food now? Follow this tip and you won’t have the inevitable meltdown. Cut up some fruit and cheese and throw it in your bag. Or, if you’re like us, running late and relatively frantic, grab a bagel at one of the airport vendors. This is not the time to be picky about nutrition.

5. This is similar to No. 4. Bring extra diapers. More is better. The reasoning should be obvious.

6. Remember that most people on the plane have earphones. What sounds like high pitched screeching or crying to you might sound like a distant din to them. Besides, most people – horror stories aside – are very nice about traveling children, and especially when they see parents making an effort.

Happy travels.

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