Air Travel: How to Fly with Children

Travel season’s here and it’s time to round up the kids and head for the airport. There are many things you need to know to make your trip with your kids smoother. Here are some important tips based on my 25 years as an airline pilot:

1. Educate beforehand: kids need to visualize what’s going to happen at security before they experience it firsthand. Like their first trip to the dentist, they need to be prepared for an unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable environment with a different set of rules from their normal life.

The fact that they can be separated from you by the TSA is scary enough unless they understand the process. Plus, whatever stuffed animal or toy they may carry for personal reassurance is going to have to be scanned separately. Talk it up ahead of time! Make it a game–“you’re going to walk through the arch between mommy and daddy.” There may be a magic wand involved (see above). Teddy’s going to ride the conveyor belt inside a duffle bag (please do–I’ve seen stuffed animals caught in the rollers and shredded to the horror of a little one).

Let your child know that you might be singled out for screening, which can be scary for a child.

If possible, tag team: one parent goes through and waits for the child or children on the secure side. Never send a child through first to wait–if you’re detained for further screening, you will be separated from your unsupervised child.

Hand carried items: this is a problem. You’ll have enough to carry just to support a child’s travel, so try to minimize loose items by making sure all hand-carried bags have some type of closing device to keep items inside. Open containers or bags will inevitably spill their toys, crayons, books and food when jostling through the security screening machine. Backpacks for elementary school aged kids make sense: they can carry them and still have hands free, and backpacks can be closed with drawstrings and zippers.

Make a total count of bags ahead of time–“we have three bags and a stroller”–and make it a game: “Mommy said 4 items.” Count and gather items on the secure side.  Tag everything and tie a colored ribbon or string on each item–kids will help find the color or label you choose, so make it distinctive. If you leave anything behind at the security checkpoint by mistake, chances are slim that you’ll ever see it again. In the chaos of gathering clothing, shoes, bags and kids, it’s important to inventory all for items before leaving the area for your gate.

2. At the gate: get a tag from the agent for your stroller. But before leaving home, get a protective bag for the stroller or car seat. Both Target and Baby’s-R-Us have them for around $20, and you do need one to keep the stroller or car seat clean.

Protect your stroller or car seat.

Also, the bag will keep loose or losable parts together, or at least in one bag–we find loose pieces of stroller trays and accesories all over the ramp and in the cargo compartment of the plane.  Cargo handling is an ungentle, dirty business–the cargo hold is not clean, nor are those other bags smashed in with yours or actually, the hands that handle the gazillion bags a day. Cover your stroller or car seat and keep the dirt and grime out of your infant or toddler’s food chain. Plus, on your return trip, you can stuff a world of used laundry into the bag as well as the seat or stroller.

Should your infant be gnawing on any of this?

Find yourself a spot at the gate that allows your little one(s) some space to expend a little energy. Consult the airport guide to find any kids’ playgrounds, a great idea that’s making its way into more and more airports. Usually, they are corralled off from the main traffic areas, allowing kids to run and play–something that presents a tripping hazard for kids and adults in the regular gate area.

Kid's Zone in the Detroit Airport

Check on-line to see if your airport has one, or just ask an agent or passenger service person. Just keep track of time, and be sure to listen carefully for gate change announcements while you’re there.

3. Food and water: here’s a more in-depth discussion of food while flying, but here are a few hints tailored to parents and kids. First, the MacDonald’s Kid’s meal in the airport?

Maybe–but only in the airport food court. Dragging this messy meal in flimsy containers on board–especially given everything else you have to carry–is a bad idea. There’s really no elbow room on board, which kid’s require to eat like kids do, plus there’s no way to contain the mess or clean it up afterward.

In the above-linked discussion, I make this important point: it’s not about eating on the plane–it’s about not being hungry. If you can’t feed your child right before the flight, be sure to have non-perishable, non-crushable or non-spillable snacks stashed in your hand-carried bag. Don’t count on any in-flight snacks which may not be kid-friendly (Does your toddler like beef jerky? Potted meat?) and are subject to the on-board service schedule and availability: once they’re sold out, that’s it.

Bring snacks and water for everyone. Again, don’t count on the inflight service which may be delayed or in case of turbulence, canceled altogether. Bring what you and your child will need!

4. Sanitation: the aircraft is known to many flight attendants as “The Flying Petrie Dish.” This is another good reason not to bring a meal on board: the aircraft isn’t really clean. Bring hand-sanitizer, plus wipes for your seat’s armrests, tray table and anywhere a small child is likely to touch.

$2.99 at Costco

Save yourself a cold or worse down the road: wipe down the common areas within your child’s reach.

5. Ears and pressurization: although modern jetliners have automatic cabin pressure controllers with very gradual rates of change during ascent and descent, little ears can be sensitive to the changes anyway. Be sure that your child is not congested due to a cold or such and if so, consider an over the counter children’s decongestant to ensure they can clear their ears. Some parents have had good luck with having their kids drink during descent, which requires swallowing, which helps equalize pressure between the inner and outer ear.

You’ll need to be prepared: bring something to drink in a container. Flight attendants are required to collect all service items in preparation for landing and so will not be offering or serving any beverages.

6. Deplaning: Inventory time! How many bags? Contents–particularly stuffed animals–returned to the bag (check the floor around your seat) and bags closed! Do this on descent–don’t wait till everyone behind you on the plane is trying to deplane! Be ready.

With my youngest on a trip, we once discovered the tragedy of a missing teddy bear after we got home. So now we actually have roll call of all traveling stuffed animals at the hotel and on the plane.

Much easier than having to call the hotel and prepay the shipping for a somewhat threadbare but much needed bear. Trust me. Check seatback pockets thoroughly too for things you or your children might have stashed and forgotten about.

7. Department of “Duh:” Shouldn’t have to say this, but some people don’t seem to even think about this nastiness, so here goes.

Don’t change a diaper at your seat. The aircraft lavs all have pull-down changing tables for that purpose.

And that’s the correct place to handle that matter. Literally, speaking of that “matter” or material, would you want my Uncle Fred to change his diaper on your row?

The only difference in the “matter” is in quantity, not content (well, Uncle Fred likes anchovies, but still). Yes, it’s your cute little one, but it still is what it is and everyone on the plane wants to not share the experience and scent.

Thanks, Uncle Fred.

And seriously: DON’T hand the used diaper to a flight attendant! Or DO NOT plan to have them dispose of it in the meal cart (I know, it’s incredible, but people do). Put the diaper in a barf bag and dispose of it in the lavatory waste bin. Again, no one on the plane–particularly the crew–wants to get involved with anyone else’s bodily waste. Would you?

You want me to take WHAT?

Actually, there are more helpful travel hints for parents traveling with children, but this will do for now. If you only master these items alone, your trip will be smoother and more enjoyable.

Have a great trip–and if you have any other helpful travel tips, send them to me and I’ll add them!


18 Responses to “Air Travel: How to Fly with Children”

  1. Napalm in the Morning Says:

    Excellent piece Captain. Very timely and useful. Hopefully, many will read it and appreciate the value of what you have to say.

    By the way, in my day the definition of an MD-80 cockpit crew was “two unaccompanied minors with no one to meet them at the airport.” Hopefully, that hasn’t changed …

  2. …Thank you, that was brilliant. I don’t have kids but have definatnley been around traveling parents who were not properly prepared to travel with their children. Great Advice. I look forward to more on traveling with children. May I post this on my travel web site?

    thank you


  3. thanks Cchris,

    also when you do the next bit on inflight with the kids I think it is agood idea to address the issue of safety. a lot of parents dont’ realize that if they can’t control small children during a flight it becomes a matter of safety during an emergency.m Yes, we all want quiet peacful flights, but if you can’t control a toddler what happens during an emergency landing. It puts the child and everyone else at risk. At least that’s how I see it.

    What is your perspective as a pilot?


    • That’s another good topic, and it might develop into a commentary on extreme behavior at the airport and in flight. The whole air travel environment is a microcosm of human behavior–with some requisite restrictions. The results are often bizarre and often ugly. Future essay . . .

  4. Hello, that is amazing blog,make me inspiring for my blog thanks mate

  5. blackwatertown Says:

    Good advice. I always keep in mind three things.
    1. Bring your own food.
    2. Make you have “ear medicine” for the kids – be it carton drinks, chewy sweets, whatever.
    3. On long flights ensure you, and your kids, get some exercise by wandering the aisles. This does conflict with the cabin staff mission to sell things, but may help to prevent fatal deep vein thrombosis.

    • The last hint is a particularly good idea–as long as the seatbelt sign is not on. Yes, you have to try to stay out of the way, but it’s good to walk for adults and for kids, it’s a real good idea: move around, get some energy out, especially knowing some mandatory seatbelt time is inevitable.

  6. Here are a few tips to increase your comfort.
    Firstly not pass a person who has been waiting for the taxi to take action. Be polite and wait your turn.
    You can have a share price with a second, even a stranger to save money or rain or snow faster

  7. Accommodation in the United Kingdom are among the best in the world and it’s true! We stayed in the cozy bed and breakfast in London and were very pleased with the overall service given to us by the staff

  8. Another tip, if your carrier charges for you to be seated together, DON’T BE CHEAP!! Parents shouldn’t expect other passengers to give up their aisle/window seat so you can all sit together because you checked in late… and, the crew don’t want to deal with it either. At the very least, make sure its parent/child parent/child even if the two pairs are split up.

    Also, when travelling internationally, check the regulations of the country of the carrier you are flying with as to whether your car seat is allowed and if you must use an infant seat belt.

    (See here for further info on this one:

    • Great points, particularly about sitting together: flight attendants really can’t negotiate this for you in flight. Better have it worked out BEFORE boarding.

  9. Chris,

    We purchased a seat for our little one and are planning on bringing her car seat–good idea or bad? We have all of the seats in a row, so I’m guessing it will fit?

    • I’d check it, because it’s a handful to carry on when you already have a child and many hand-carried items. It’s like your child is a rock star and you’re the roadie, and in the confusion of boarding and deplaning, having to wrestle the car seat is one hassle you don’t need.

      Really, for “safety,” the car seat is unnecessary. It’s more for peace of mind, but in any situation that involves the G forces associated with less than optimum ground contact (can’t think of a more delicate way to put that) the car seat is not going to make any difference anyway.

      The practical answer is check it. I’d definitely BRING it, because you’ll need it at your destination (we’ve already tried the rental car “included” car seat–and our first stop was Target to buy a decent car seat).

  10. cool post!

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