As a flight attendant and the mother of a very experienced traveler, I am offering the following information to parents traveling with kids during the holiday season:
1. Brief your children beforehand as to what to expect. Answer their questions, then tell them that at the airport, they are to follow your and other adults’ instructions and ask questions about the whys later. They are to follow you and do what they are told. They are not to interrupt your interactions with other adults. They are not to request every snack food and airport goody they see. They are not to make jokes about bombs and knives.
2. If you are with little kids, DO NOT SCHEDULE TIGHT CONNECTIONS. Give yourself a leisurely schedule. Try to get a direct flight, the earliest available. Always buy from the airlines website and not from travel sites, which will often schedule impossibly tight connections.
3. If you’re using an airport with designated security checkpoint lanes for families, USE THOSE LANES, no matter how experienced you think you are. Medicines, contact lens supplies and baby formula/breast milk have special exemptions from the TSA. Food is NOT liquid; bring a banana, sandwich, etc. But no messy or smelly food, or gum, please! Bring an empty water bottle for everyone through the checkpoint, then fill up from a fountain.
4. Most airplanes have no microwave to heat a bottle. If you nurse, bring a shawl or blanket.
5. Don’t wrap gifts to carry on board, as the TSA may ask you to unwrap them. Ship them ahead. Better: Shop and/or wrap when you get there. Best: Buy a gift card, cut a picture out of a catalog of the item you hope the recipient will buy with it, paste that picture into a greeting card, slide the gift card in, and you’re done.
6. Never put your money, ID, travel documents, batteries or chargers, medications or keys in a checked bag. Carry ONLY what you NEED for a night, just in case; check the rest. Bring diapers, wipes, formula and extra ziplock baggies.
7. When you put a bag under the seat in front of you, do NOT wrap the strap around your foot or ankle; this is one of the most dangerous things I see people do on airplanes.
8. If you allow your kids to wheel on shoebox-sized suitcases full of Legos and Cheerios, or to bring on toys that make noise or flash light, you deserve the middle seat forever! If you allow your child to fill a suitcase with stuffed animals, you are teaching them how NOT to travel. Tell them you are going on a trip, and the stuffed animals and toys are having a vacation too, and that they will be right there in their room when they return. This beats running through an airport, or playing games with the airline’s phone menu or website, trying to locate that one precious stuffed animal or toy that just HAD to be brought along.
9. A follow up to number 8: Don’t bring anything that it would break your child’s heart to lose. If they “must” have it, have a picture of it in your digital camera or a Polaroid in your purse. Bring quiet toys that are not in pieces; bring BOOKS! Remote-controlled toys are not allowed on board. Bring neat, healthful snacks and little surprises from the dollar store.
10. Bring headsets and splitters for DVD players/laptops, as forcing everyone around you to listen to Barney videos or to siblings dispute use of the gadget will understandably lead to violence.
11. Even if you haven’t purchased (for half-price, at some airlines, free if open) a seat for your “lap child” (under age 2), BRING YOUR CAR SAFETY SEAT THROUGH THE CHECKPOINT and tell the ticket/gate agents and flight attendant that you want to use it if there is an empty seat. AND THEN USE IT. The child should be in it ANY TIME the seatbelt sign is on. A car safety seat is an assistive device, not a bag; there should NEVER be a charge to check it if there’s no room to use it. Booster seats are NEVER safe to use on an airplane. The car safety seat must never be in an exit row. It must never be in the row immediately in front of or in the row immediately behind an exit row. It must never be in an aisle seat. If a parent is in the exit row they must move out of it: One of the qualifications of exit-row seating is that you not be responsible for anyone else on the plane, like your kids. Kids can NEVER sit in an exit row.
12. Put slower-moving folks — little ones, the frail, the elderly, those in car safety seats, the disabled — NEXT TO A WINDOW AND AWAY FROM THE AISLE and NEVER IN AN EXIT NO MATTER WHO SAYS IT’S OK.
13. Travel is a wonderful time to practice “please,” “excuse me,” and “thank you.” On board the plane is time to practice your “inside voice.” Exploit these opportunities. I’ve known moms to have nickels in a pocket and give one every time they hear “please” or “thank you.”
14. Take a pillow or roll up a towel into a pillowcase and seal with a ponytail holder. The towel turns into a blanket or can be used for bad spills (or air sickness) if you need it.
15. WEAR APPROPRIATE CLOTHING; layer so you can be comfortable in the airport and in the plane. Wear comfortable shoes, not flip-flops; they are dangerous in an emergency evacuation and mean that you will have to walk barefoot (yuck!) through security. Don’t EVER walk barefoot or let your child walk barefoot on a plane and do not take your shoes off until the plane is in the air and at level altitude. Don’t let your girls wear clothes so skimpy that the pedophiles on board go on alert!
16. Don’t let your kids have Ipods or earplugs or headphones on their heads until the plane is aloft, at level altitude, and the announcement has been made that approved electronic devices are OK to turn on. Tell your kids that their cell phones must be OFF at all times onboard the plane — not silent, not vibrating, not texting. OFF. If you don’t trust them, confiscate the device until you are off the plane. You do not want to risk a fine or worse.
17. If you are worried that your infant will cry with ear pain during takeoff/landing, give them a bottle or pacifier. But that is NOT the time to take them out of their safety seat and hold them on your lap. Crying on the plane isn’t unsafe or illegal. Being unfastened is, during takeoff and landing and anytime the fasten seatbelt sign is on. Do NOT allow your child to stand on a seat.
18. If your toddler kicks the back of the seat in front of them, CHANGE SEATS with them if you can once the plane is in the air and at level altitude; seek the flight attendant’s help, since she will know the legality and safety issues of where your child is to sit. (Move them back to their original position for landing, safe for an evacuation.) At the very least, offer to buy the aggrieved passenger a drink, movie headset, etc.! Tie the toddler’s shoelaces together or take their shoes off! DO SOMETHING.
19. If your child can’t resist going to sleep, do not work at keeping them awake so that they will sleep at your destination.
20. Your time on the plane with your kids is not for you to read that book you’ve been dying to read, or to nap. It’s not “me time” for mom; sorry. Interact and pay attention to your kids.
Not everyone has kids. But everyone WAS a kid. Remember that truth if anybody gives you the evil eye, and remind them of it if they say anything negative or critical to you. I’ve been a flight attendant for many years now, and I’ll take a plane FULL of babies over ONE drunk.