Families have a lot on their plates as we begin what is predicted to be the biggest summer travel season in years. Any age child or infant traveling by plane can provide a variety of mental, physical, and administrative difficulties. Long airport queues, possible airline delays and cancellations, and other factors may really wear down even the most resilient and experienced parents and caregivers. TIPS FROM A FLIGHT ATTENDANT FOR FLYING WITH KIDS

Despite the potential hurdles, families should be made to feel welcome when they fly, says Tony Dong, a Delta Air Lines flight attendant since 2011, and more recently, a father to his now three-year-old daughter (in short: he gets it). In the sky, he aims to encourage and support families on their journeys and offers some great advice for coping with the travel stress.

“Children can help parents be better prepared as travelers themselves,” says Dong, noting that no matter how hard we try to anticipate all the needs that might arise, traveling with kids teaches parents how to quickly improvise and change course.

Having worked on everything from long-haul flights to shorter domestic routes, Dong has witnessed—and assisted—a lot of families in-flight (and now has some toddler-in-transit experiences of his own to share). Here’s his advice for those getting ready to fly this summer and beyond.

1. Be flexible and embrace the unexpected

It’s known that kids thrive on routine. That’s why so many families develop bedtime rituals and daily schedules to get their kids to follow good eating, sleeping, and behavioral habits (in theory, at least). When you’re on the road, though, keeping to any kind of schedule becomes a lot more challenging, if not impossible. For parents and caregivers, that means their kids could behave in ways they don’t usually behave when they’re in the comfort of their own home.

On flights, children can do things that are “very unexpected,” says Dong, noting that children become very unpredictable when they’re placed in new and different environments. He gave an example of traveling with his then-two-year-old daughter on a red-eye last year. He and his wife thought they had tired her out by letting her run around in the airport before boarding and that she would sleep on the flight. Instead, she cried for more than two hours and in the end the only thing that would calm her down was . . . a bag of Sun Chips.

The moral of the story? When you think you’ve tried everything, pull something entirely new and novel out of your bag of tricks. It just might work.

2. Know that you’re not alone

So many parents have been in the position that Dong was in on his overnight flight, with a fussy baby or crying child they cannot seem to quiet. Every parent and caregiver is different, but for many the anxiety of not being able to calm down a child in addition to the pressure of disturbing a plane full of strangers only amplifies the mounting stress of the situation.

Rather than feel overwhelmed in solitude, Dong says that parents should see flight attendants as their allies when a baby or child is upset or unwell.

“We totally understand,” says Dong. “We try to give our best support . . . because I know no parent wants their child to cry for four or five hours.” He says flight attendants can offer some items that might aid the situation, whether it’s extra blankets for comfort or snacks as a distraction. Some flight attendants will even offer to hold the baby or walk with the child to give the parents a break.

“We want to be there to help our traveling parents and make sure to let them know we are on their side,” adds Dong.



3. The benefits of boarding (and booking) early

Many airlines offer families with babies and young children the opportunity to board early. The question is, is it better to get on the plane and get settled a little earlier or to let kids get their wiggles out until the last possible minute and then usher them onto the plane?

Dong says he would advocate for getting onboard early.

“Because [the] airplane is such a new environment for children, having them board early and [take] in the environment so they can be more comfortable” can benefit the child and the caregiver, says Dong. He notes that then the airplane is “less of a shock to them.”

When he’s traveling with his daughter, he does a little tour before the plane gets more crowded. He shows her where their seats are, explains that additional passengers will be coming on, and he shows her where the bathrooms and galley are.

“Give them a little rundown as far as what’s going to happen,” says Dong.

Families should consider booking their flights early, too. The earlier families book, the better access they will have to a more open seat map and making sure they have seats together. It helps to have flexibility to choose seats that best serve the family’s needs (many kids love window seats, for instance). Remember: Basic economy fares don’t usually include the option to pick your seats, which can put families in a bind if they aren’t seated all together. (The Biden administration is spearheading efforts to make it mandatory that families are seated together, regardless of their class of seats.) No matter what, the more people in your crew, the better it is to book ahead.


4. Toys and tech are your friends

Whether you’re a parent who embraces screens or one who prefers simpler distractions (such as toys and books), pack those kid-friendly amenities, says Dong. “Definitely bring toys,” whether that means an iPad (and headphones) or a device loaded with your kid’s favorite shows, crayons and a coloring book or paper, books, or small cars—bring items that will help amuse and entertain your children for the duration of the flight. “If I let her, she will literally watch [the iPad] for hours and hours,” says Dong about his daughter’s ability to watch cartoons seemingly without end. For some parents, that kind of prolonged focus and preoccupation can be the elixir for getting through a long flight. Dong says he will also bring books to read to his daughter as a nonscreen and bonding activity.

Another key item for many tiny travelers, he notes, is something that can bring them comfort from home like a familiar blanket, small pillow, or stuffed animal.

“I would refrain from bringing stickers,” he adds, noting that some kids like to “redecorate their seats” with them. (If your kid loves stickers, maybe get them the reusable kind.)

5. Bring flight-friendly snacks

Of course, airlines will serve some snacks or sell meals—but it’s not always a guarantee that kids will want what’s on the menu. Plus, kids can be frequent (constant?) snackers. You’d be smart to make sure they have their own stash.

When asked what kinds of snacks families should consider bringing with them on the plane, Dong notes that anything “that easily is packed,” is great. Things like chips and crackers that are “dry.” Apples and oranges can make for great healthy snacks on the go. And remember anything that needs to stay cold (cheese, for instance) or requires heating up (such as pasta) could cause more problems than it’s worth. Additionally, foods such as yogurt can get really messy, says Dong, which can present challenges for all involved.

Bringing extra bags to serve as temporary trash containers until the flight attendants come around to collect the refuse can also help keep the whole snack situation contained.

6. Kids with their own seat get their own carry-on, too

When it comes to packing said snacks and distractions, parents might feel they are already pushing their limit as far as what they can bring onto the flight.

“Some parents might think, oh my god, I’m already carrying so many things,” says Dong. But remember, he adds, as long as they aren’t traveling as a lap child, “Your children also [have] a personal allotment of bags they can have to carry on. So even if the [gate] agents say, ‘Oh, why are you carrying four things?’” you can remind them that the items include those that are for any younger travelers in your group.

7. Advice for nervous travelers (young and old)

Whether it’s the parents or the kids, if anyone in your crew is a nervous traveler it just adds to the multi-layered stress of family travel.

Dong’s advice for nervous fliers? Distract, distract, distract. Earphones for watching TV shows and movies or listening to music and books to read “are things that will take your mind off of being on a plane.” He recommends downloading a TV show that you can binge-watch during the flight.

He also encourages passengers to lean on their flight attendants with any questions they might have about the aircraft and about the pilots and what it means to fly an airplane.

“I love to talk to our customers about anything,” says Dong. “When you talk to the flight attendant . . . that helps with the anxiety as well.”

8. Make sure all in the family are well-rested

Whether or not you’re a nervous traveler, flying can take a lot out of us and flying with children even more so. While many families are often rushing up until the last minute to pack and prepare for their travels, “The day before [your flight] try to get as much rest” as possible, advises Dong. “And also let your kids get plenty of rest,” he adds.

As for getting rest on the plane, make sure to think about naps and sleep time when planning flight times and routes. If your child still naps, either plan to fly during (if you think they will nap on the plane) or around the nap so as not to interrupt it.

For longer, overnight flights, parents traveling with babies might want to consider bringing an FAA-approved car seat that the child is accustomed to using to ensure better sleep. Many airlines also offer the option to reserve a bassinet for babies, a good choice for families who think their babies might sleep better in something more similar to their bassinet or crib at home (though parents will need to make sure that they secure the proper bulkhead seats that can accommodate the bassinets—another reason to book early).

As children get older and bigger, there are other hacks that parents can try to help them get cozy and fall asleep on the plane. For instance, the JetKids by Stokke BedBox ride-on carry-on extends the airplane seat so littles can lie down. You can also try an inflatable foot rest that allows smaller travelers to stretch out. Once the younger ones have dozed off, parents should try to catch some Zs, too, maybe with the help of one of our favorite travel pillows.

9. Remember, it’s worth it

Last year, as families began to head back out into the world again following the lifting of pandemic restrictions, Dong traveled with his wife and then two-year-old daughter to Yellowstone National Park. Even though his daughter was only two at the time, Dong says he could “see on her expression, she was taking it all in, seeing waterfalls, the forest, the trees, and the animals.”

Despite her young age and the fact that the return flight was challenging, he still contends that “it’s definitely worth it” to travel with children. They bring a fresh perspective, he says.




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