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Tips for Air Travel with Mini Time Bombs

By Natalie

Now that we can see Summer Holiday’s coming you might be considering where you’re family is heading off to. If you are anything like most parents, you’re dreaming of your vacation, but dreading the flight with kids. For some, the flight alone is a deterrent.

Personally, I love to travel. I crave adventure, new scenery and most of all, a change in the everyday routine. We have been lucky to have travelled quite a bit with our children. Since we don’t have the luxury of grandparents close by, leaving our girls behind is out of the question- plus, we kind of like them;)

We’ve voyaged to Hawaii, Cuba, Cayman Islands, Los Angeles and all over Scotland and Ireland with children under the age of 5. Admittedly, the flight is always my biggest stressor, but thankfully I have found being well-prepared and doing my research has turned flying into a fun, albeit chaotic adventure. Here are some tips that we have learned along the way to avoid catastrophic meltdowns.

Choose your flights carefully

It is worth every cent to find a convenient route with less stopovers rather than opt for the cheapest flights. Consider breaking your journey up with a break. When going transAtlantic, a stop over for the night in Toronto has saved us a few times! Also, choosing a red-eye allowed us to have the littles sleep for most of the flight. When travelling through time zones, it’s also important to take into account the jet lag when we return home, so for the working parent, you need to ensure you have a day off on the end of your trip to have a babysitter or relative watch the kids while you sleep and readjust.

It’s all about the seating…

Swallow the cost and pay for seat choice. You hear horror stories of families that were separated, even cases of small children having to sit alone. If you pay and choose your seats, you will avoid the stress of finding out that one adult is stuck with two kids, while the other reclines in luxury several rows back. If you are a party of three, then I envy you. For all other family sizes, I recommend booking within the same row. One parent in the middle seat, one child in window, one on aisle, and partner across the aisle (and any subsequent children beside them). Then the aisle parent will deal with the child directly across from them, leaving the middle parent to tend to the one in the window seat. If this option isn’t available, try dividing up by twos. One parent and child in one aisle, the other parent and child close by. The bonus to long haul flights is that there is often a middle aisle, and sometimes you can all fit in.

Stroller VIP

If you travel with a little one in a stroller, then you can often fast track your security clearance!!!! Hello express lane.  If that isn’t enough to make you want to travel with youngsters… However, you also may want to take a seat further back in the plane if this is the case, since you can generally pre-board with kids, you will still get on the plane quickly, but when you disembark you will need to wait for your stroller to be brought up from underneath the plane. No sense rushing off the plane just to wait in a congested hallway. Mid plane seating usually works perfectly with the arrival of a gate-checked stroller.

Run it out

While you wait for your flight, find the nearest (or furthest) kids play area and have your minis run it out. If you are unfortunate enough to not have one in your gate area, then use long empty hallways, empty lounges or even sparsely populated moving sidewalks to have your kids expel all extra energy. Now would NOT be the time to give in to requests for treats or liquids. If you are heading on to an overnight flight, consider getting kids into their pjs and doing as much bedtime routine as possible before you board.

Inflight entertainment

So much of the entertainment provided onboard is based on the airline you choose. If you don’t bring your own media and devices with you, then it is definitely worth finding out what is available on the plane. When we flew to the UK, we had only one iPad, so we rented one from Air Canada Rouge, and it was the best decision ever. There was no seatback media (as often is the case now) so each child had their own iPad, hallelujah- fighting avoided. We also made sure to bring children’s earphones so that the volume was never too loud. Bring any and all media you are okay with. We downloaded audiobooks, netflix movies, games and photos. We also brought a Leappad, iPhone, and iPod. Between them all, we probably managed to kill about 5 hours of flight time! Parenting win.

One thing at a time

My rule for the kids when we travel is, “One thing at a time.” We do the opposite of multi-task. In order to not run out of activities or patience, the littles are only allowed to choose one activity (for a predetermined amount of time). When it is time for a snack, all activities/media are put away. We eat one snack at a time. Then we clean up. A highlight is often the plane meals! They love all the little things that come on the tray. Then I take the kids, one at a time (this allows me time to stretch) to the washroom. We wash hands, wash faces, use the toilet, blow noses etc. Anything to kill time! Travelling also feels less stressy when you move at a glacial pace.


Usually we are pretty healthy around our house, but when the kids are going to be confined to a seat for endless hours, sometimes you need a bit of sugar as collateral for good behaviour (yes, I know, not the best parenting method…but you will thank me when your preschooler is quiet for an hour while they suck the world’s largest lollipop.) It’s all about convenient, long lasting snacks. I choose things that require lots of chewing (gum, raisins, licorice), or suckers. The former are all small and time consuming items. Beef jerky, hard candies and cheese strings also work well. Again, my kids aren’t allowed to have media while they are snacking. When they are older with a longer attention span then by all means do whatever works for you!

Creative Activities

For flights longer than 3-4 hours, snacks and media sometimes are not enough to keep a small child occupied. My answer to this problem is the activity envelope. I use this on every car trip and flight we go on. Grab a plastic accordion envelope from the dollar store and then go nuts filling it with activities. I use a section for colouring, one for invisible ink activities, one for small stories, one for small crafts, one for sticker books, one for activity books and in the last section I store all crayons, brushes and markers in their own ziploc bags. This envelope is always the highlight of the trip. The kids love choosing what they would like to do, and I like that all of the items are in one place, and easy to store. I pack that thing everywhere.

Relax… and plan for the worst

Finally, the best advice I have is this: Be pessimistic and expect the worst. That way, you will be pleasantly surprised when your child only screams for 10 minutes during take-off rather than the whole flight. Realistically, it is pretty hard to get through any flight with no tears. On a red-eye to Dublin, my youngest daughter screamed the whole time we pre-boarded, and well in to the flight attendant’s speech. She simmered down to a cry during taxiing, and by the time we hit altitude she was asleep. We received only a handful of glares, and one couple thought we couldn’t hear their judging whispers, but by the end of the 7 hour flight, she had completely redeemed herself, not another tear was wasted. Her crying was soon forgotten, and the same whispering couple told us how delightful our daughters had been on such a “long and late flight.”

In my opinion, braving a flight for a wonderful vacation is 100% worth it. All of my best memories are ones where we have left behind our everyday life and focused on exploring together. A flight only lasts so long, but memories last a lifetime. So if you are on the fence about jetting off somewhere this year- just do it! You won’t regret it!

Natalie is an educator in St. Albert, Alberta. She is the mother of three incredible little girls under 6, and one evil cat. She is passionate about adventure travel, culture and running.