Air travel can be a hassle for adults traveling alone, so it's no wonder parents get stressed when you add a few kids to the mix. Here are tried-and-tested tips to make flying with kids as easy and stress-free as a walk in the park.
And while you're at it, check out Vacation Countdown: 15 Smart Things to Do Before Leaving Home.
Worried About When to Book? Know This
Researching flights can be a time-consuming endeavor. Many travelers worry about the best time to book flights, afraid that the fare will drop after they commit. But it's important not to wait too long, as studies show that airfares start climbing fast around six weeks before the trip. The ideal booking window is generally between one and four weeks before your departure date for domestic trips, and considerably longer for international trips.
There are some advantages to booking directly with the airline instead of through third-party booking sites. If your flight's airfare falls after you book your flight, you may be able to recoup a refund for the price difference.
Airfarewatchdog has put together a handy chart for airline fare drop policies. In general, if the fare drops for the same price category on the exact same flight, some (but not all) airlines will refund the price difference, minus a rebooking fee. Sounds good, but unfortunately, in most cases, the high rebooking fee, typically $75-$200, will wipe out any potential savings.
On the bright side, three domestic airlines do not charge a rebooking fee when there's a fare drop. Among those, Southwest Airlines has a particularly straightforward process that gives you a cash refund instead of a voucher for future travel. If you're worried your fare dropping after you book, it's worth factoring this into your airline choice.
If you don't want to worry about tracking your airfare, a website called Yapta.com will do it for you and will alert you if you're entitled to a refund.
Book an Early Flight
Crowd-free airports are blissful airports. Booking a morning take-off means a quieter airport, and it greatly lowers the risk of getting stuck in a congested nightmare. As the day goes on, there can be a domino effect as one delayed flight bumps back into the next, which is why afternoon and evening flights are statistically more fraught with delays. An exception to the rule: If you’re looking down the barrel of a long transcontinental or intercontinental flight, consider jumping on a red-eye so your kids can sleep onboard.
The Day Before: Check in Online
Up to 24 hours before your flight's departure time, you can visit your airline's website and check in online or, alternatively, download the airline's app to check in. Either way, this lets you avoid the long check-in line at the airport and choose your seats on the plane. You can either send your boarding passes to your smartphone (which can be scanned at security and at the departure gate), print them out at home, or print them out at a check-in kiosk at the airport.
- Allegiant Air Online Check-in
- American Airlines Online Check-in
- Delta Air Lines Online Check-in
- Frontier Airlines Online Check-in
- Hawaiian Airlines Online Check-in
- JetBlue Airways Online Check-in
- Southwest Airlines Online Check-in
- Spirit Airlines Online Check-in
- United Airlines Online Check-in
- US Airways Online Check-in
- Virgin America Online Check-in
Travel Light to Avoid Extra Fees
On most major airlines, each traveler with his or her own seat is allowed one free carry-on bag plus one personal bag (such as a purse, briefcase or small backpack). In theory, that means a family of four would be allowed to bring four carry-ons plus four personal bags.
Exceptions: Note that several airlines—including Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit—now charge passengers for each carry-on bag. Always do the math to determine if it's cheaper to travel with another carrier with a higher airfare but no baggage fees.
Strollers: Note that all the major airlines allow you to check collapsible strollers (less than 20 pounds) and FAA-certified children’s car seats without additional fees.
Need to know: Overhead bins in aircraft are getting smaller and smaller. It's become increasingly common for airlines to ask passengers to gate-check carry-on bags, even if they meet size restrictions. To be safe, pack everything you might need for the duration of your flight in your personal bag.
Compare Costs: Schlepping vs Shipping
Going on vacation with a baby or toddler? Because most major airlines charge you for every checked bag (Southwest is the sole exception), it can be cheaper to ship boxes of diapers, wipes, and baby toiletries to yourself at the destination, or simply buy when you get there. Always compare costs.
Most car rental agencies can provide a car seat (usually about $10 a day; always call ahead to confirm) and family-friendly hotels can provide a crib for free or a small fee.
You might also consider renting baby essentials, such as a stroller, crib or high chair, from a specialty outfitter in your destination. Baby's Away has rental locations in 29 states.
Packing Toiletries? Use the 3-1-1 Rule
At the screening checkpoint, remove liquids, gels, and aerosols from your luggage and send them through the detector in a separate tray.
Remember the 3-1-1 rule:
- Three ounces is the maximum size for any liquid, aerosol or gel.
- One-quart clear zip-top bag has to hold all your liquids, aerosols and gels.
- One zip-top bag per person
Note that the Travel Security Administration allows you to bring more than three ounces of breast milk, baby formula or liquified baby food in your carry-on bag as long as you declare it for inspection at the security checkpoint. Breast milk and baby formula are categorized with liquid medications and you will not be required to taste it in front of a TSA agent.
Prepare Kids for Airport Security
Children 12 and under no longer have to remove their shoes when passing through the security checkpoint. But little kids still have to hand over their backpacks and stuffed animals for screening, which can cause worry. Explain beforehand that the TSA agents will take a picture of their belongings and then give everything back a few moments later.
Before you get to the checkpoint, explain to your kids that TSA agents must randomly select some people for additional screening. Mom, Dad, or even Junior might get asked to step aside for an additional quick screening. Be prepared for that possibility and decide in advance that you’ll roll with it and get on with your day.
Many airports now provide a special family lane at the security checkpoint. Use it if offered. These lanes often have additional staff to help families make their way through the process more quickly. Be organized so that your family can pass through security without incident. Use large, gallon-size Ziploc bags to keep kids’ small toys like Legos and Matchbox cars corraled, and also for personal items like car keys and the inevitable gadgets such as smartphones, iPods, and so on. This makes it easy to gather up belongings at the end of the screening process.
Flying with a Baby or Toddler? Board Last
Most major airlines offer some form of pre-boarding for families with young children, but there's a downside. Confining a baby to a small space up to 45 minutes before take-off was not going to make your life easier anyway. Try this, instead: Have one parent board with older kids to get your belongings into an overhead bin and install the baby’s car seat or CARES harness. The other parent should play with the baby in the departure lounge until the last possible minute. Then just board and buckle in.
Get Kids Buckled In
Airlines take seatbelts extremely seriously and have been known to kick families off of planes when kids refuse to be buckled in.
Stressed out at the thought of having to install your child's car seat into the airline seat? Consider purchasing or renting the CARES harness, which is light, easy to pack, and takes 15 seconds to install. This shoulder harness loops through the airline lap belt and keeps your child safe and unable to kick the seat in front of her. It is FAA approved for all phases of air travel, including take-off and landing, for babies weighing 22-44 pounds.
Keep Kids Happily Entertained
Older kids can pack their own books and entertainment but if you're traveling with small children, you'll probably want to tuck some essentials in your carry-on bag to keep kids content and, hopefully, relatively quiet. Some suggestions:
- books, tech gadgets (iPod, tablet, etc.), headphones
- for preschoolers and young school-age kids: printable travel games, preloaded apps on your phone or tablet, several surprise activities or toys; crayons and coloring book or doodle pad. Keep kids busy with must-have travel toys and games and classic car games, which are also great for long airport layovers and other downtimes during travel.
- for babies and toddlers: diapers and baby supplies to get you door to door, plus three hours; several quiet activities; change of clothes
- several healthy, portable snacks, plus several empty zip-top bags and wipes or hand sanitizer
- to facilitate ear popping on ascents and descents: for kids ages 3 and up, lollipops or gum; for babies, a sippy cup or bottle. Many families swear by EarPlanes ear plugs to help with ear pain.
Navigate Airports with GateGuru
Navigating an airport layover with kids in tow can be a certain kind of torture, but knowing the lay of the land can be a game changer. The indispensable GateGuru app provides detailed airport maps, helpful navigation tips, and lists of restaurants and amenities tailored to arrival and departure terminals. You can quickly find out the location of the nearest bathroom or children's play zone and also if there's a Starbuck's or Jamba Juice along your gate-to-gate path. Meanwhile, the JourneyCard feature keeps you posted in real-time on updates to security wait times, flight delays, gate changes or layover time adjustments.
Long Layover? Consider the VIP Lounge
If you have a very long layover, consider buying your way into a cushy lounge where space is ample, chairs are comfy, free wifi is available, and food and drinks are free. For as little as $27, Priority Pass will let you and your family (typically up to 5 guests) gain entry to hundreds of airport clubs around the world. Most lounges allow children under 12 when accompanied by an adult, and there’s often no charge for tots 2 and under, but policies vary so double check before booking.
Make Your Smartphone Work Harder
You've got a fantastic travel companion right in your pocket. Make your smartphone work even harder for you on vacation with these quick-and-easy tips:
- Twenty-four hours before your flight's departure time, check in online and have your boarding passes sent to your smartphone. (This may not be possible if you're flying out of a smaller airport.)
- Before leaving home, put your airline's customer service number in your contact list. Should your flight be cancelled, dial this number while everyone else waits in line at the airport help desk. Odds are that you get sorted out before they do.
- At your home airport, take a picture of your parking spot in the longterm parking garage so that you can find it easily when you return.
- In the airport, snap a photo of your baggage before you check it. If the airline loses your bags, you can share the image to help locate them faster.
- At your arrival airport, snap a picture of airport signage listing local taxi companies and their phone numbers.
Know Your Passenger Rights
If your family's flight gets significantly delayed or canceled, it can be difficult to find out what services or compensation you may be entitled to.
One problem is that every airline sets its own policies, and they do not make it easy to find their customer service commitments and contracts of carriage online. Another problem is that airline staff don't always know the details of their own company's policies.
Thankfully, it just got a whole lot easier to get straight answers, thanks to a new guide that clearly spells out the customer service policies for domestic carriers in plain English. Allelujah!
Keep Young Kids Safe During the Flight
The FAA recommends that a child weighing less than 20 pounds use a rear-facing child restraint system and that a child weighing 20 to 40 pounds use a forward-facing child safety seat.