Ask LH: How Can I Make Travelling With Kids Less Of A Nightmare?

Ask LH: How Can I Make Travelling With Kids Less Of A Nightmare?

Dear Lifehacker, I have to fly with my two kids, a toddler and an infant, for the first time. I am absolutely dreading it. Besides dealing with the car seats, strollers, nappy bags and other child contraptions, I’m afraid of being that parent whose children are a terror to the rest of the plane. What can I do to make this trip suck less for everyone involved? Signed, Can I Drug Them?

Picture: Surkov Vladimir/Shutterstock

Dear CIDT,

Travelling is stressful enough for people without kids. Add restless, impatient, volatile and messy little ones, and it’s a whole new ball game. Much of your fear is probably due to having seen the “eye daggers of hate” other travellers tend to throw at parents and their progeny (maybe you’ve thrown those invisible daggers yourself before). Part of it also is you just don’t know what might happen while you’re all trapped in the air — even if you usually have well-behaved kids — and so you imagine the worst: from nappy blowouts and vomit on a stranger’s laptop to six-hour screaming sessions.

The good news is, with a little preparation, you can mitigate many of the biggest concerns about flying with your kids. You don’t have to be the most-hated person on the aeroplane or get grey hair just from that one flight. You might even actually enjoy it.

The tips below are specifically about flying, but many of them apply to other kinds of travel.

Ignore the Idiots (and Don’t Be One Yourself)


First off, forget trying to appease everyone on the aeroplane. There are some people who simply hate children, and these misopedists will bristle at the mere sight of a child on a plane or the sugary sound of his or her voice, even if your kid is an angel (which many strangers will define as “completely silent and nearly invisible”). Ignore these people and their damning glares, because your kids have as much right to be on the plane as they do. Picture: Sky Eckstrom

On the other hand, it’s your responsibility as a parent to not be an idiot as well and to make sure your kids don’t intrude on the other passengers’ space or comfort. When we last talked about rude flying experiences, readers shared (almost) shocking stories about parents changing poopy baby nappies on the tray tables, letting their kids kick other passengers and other atrocious behaviours that give travelling families a bad rap. Since you’re asking this question, you’re likely a conscientious parent who would try to keep your kids as calm and well-mannered as possible on the plane. So as long as you’re keeping an eye on your kids and not completely spacing out on the flight, you should be fine. It also helps to be prepared.

Strategically Plan Your Flight

According to some people, there’s never a good time to fly with a young child, and some parents even delay travelling with their kids until they’re over the age of seven. If you’ve got no choice or simply want to travel with your children, here are the less-risky times and ways to fly:

  • If you have an early morning flight, make sure your kid gets to sleep early enough the day before, because taking an under-rested (read: cranky) child to the airport in the wee hours of the morning is a recipe for disaster.
  • If your kids still take naps or tend to get tired at certain times of the day, try scheduling your flight for that drowsy time.
  • If you have an afternoon flight, you can try to wear your kid out in the morning with plenty of sunlit, outdoor physical play. At the airport, let them run around at the play areas (if available) before they’re going to have to sit for hours.
  • Beware the notorious “witching hour” in the early evening (right around normal dinner time) when kids tend to turn into demons and everyone’s blood sugar is the lowest.
  • Everyone knows red-eye flights are torture, so, if you can help it, don’t add to the torture by bringing a colicky infant or restless toddler onto one of those overnight flights. People expect to actually relax and sleep on the plane on a red-eye flight; a screaming baby ruins that fantasy and draws their ire. After movie theatres, the aeroplane (especially the aeroplane in the middle of the night) is the most annoying place to hear a crying baby.
  • Fly nonstop if possible. Getting off the plane, dragging around all your baggage and rushing to make a connection with kids in tow is not good for your mental health.
  • Also if possible, fly on an airline that lets you choose your seats ahead of time, so you can be sure you’ll all sit together as a family. If that’s not possible, book your seats as early as you can or you might have to pony up for the privilege of sitting together. Some airlines are more family-friendly than others, with things like family pre-boarding and entertainment options. The New York Times offers this helpful comparison in its story about the challenges of flying with kids.
  • Try to sit at the back of the plane. As Sara Esther Crispe writes on The Jewish Woman, you’ll be closer to the bathrooms, less likely to bother the other passengers and possibly have more help from flight attendants. You’re going to have to wait for the stroller when you get off the plane anyway.
  • You can usually have a kid under the age of two sit on your lap instead of a separate seat, but I don’t recommend it. Children are more protected strapped in car seats and the plane seat, and it’s really no fun having a wiggling child (more likely to kick the seat in front of you) in your lap for a whole flight.

Basically, know when your kids tend to get sleepy or are more energetic and try to plan your flight around that if you can. Also, don’t implement some newfangled sleep hack on your kid the day before or of the flight, such as keeping the baby up and skipping naps in the hopes of a longer sleep on the plane; this will backfire and everyone will regret it. Especially you.

Ease the Discomfort of Flying


The rapid change in air pressure as your plane ascends or descends makes many adults feel like they’ve stuck screwdrivers in their ears. Imagine how it feels to babies who don’t know what’s happening and have tiny eardrums. Picture: César Rincón

You probably don’t want to offer that time-tested remedy, chewing gum, to a child under the age of three. Instead, offer milk or juice during takeoff and landing to relieve the inner air pressure. It’s a good time to nurse babies too.

For little kids, gummy worms are also a great alternative to gum. They last a while and, well, who doesn’t like gummy worms?

One other solution is Earplanes Ear Plugs, available for kids 1-10 and adults 11 and up. These ear plugs are designed to relieve air pressure discomfort. (I used them for my daughter on three flights without a problem, but, to be honest, the last time we used them, one of the ear plugs fell out and it didn’t make a difference. Reviews on the Earplanes from people who normally have bad ear pain when flying are really positive though. So if your kid is very sensitive or you’re not sure, the money may be well worth the investment.)

Pull Out All the Distractions to Make the Time Fly By


Did you know that many airlines allow you to carry a nappy bag in addition to all the other crap you’re carrying onboard? That extra bag is allowed because they know you need milk bottles and juice boxes, blankies and favourite stuffed animals, ziplock bags of Cheerios, baby wipes, nappies and more. And we’re not even talking about the stuff to entertain the baby yet — these are just the essentials. Picture: Pat Guiney

Your pre-emptive strategy for staving off on-plane meltdowns is packing several immersive kid distractions. Sticker books, toys that don’t have too many pieces, an iPad (with new offline games), portable DVD player (with two-hour-plus videos) and so on are your best bet. Don’t forget the headphones, and make sure everything is charged. Your kid might even be able to pack and carry his/her own entertainment in a small backpack.

You don’t have to spend a lot on new travel toys though. A new pack of triangular crayons (which are less likely to roll off the seat tray) and a pad of paper might hold your kid’s attention for a while, especially if you’re engaged with him or her. You know your kids best, so take along the kinds of things that occupy them most — and introduce new toys slowly over the course of the trip.

One word of advice if you pack favourite stuffed animals or other comfort items: Mark them somehow with your contact info just in case they get lost. (We even have duplicates of some irreplaceable stuffed animals, because we don’t want to see our daughter go crazy like Gollum after he lost the precious ring.)

Pack Helpful Accessories to Save Your Sanity

In addition to the toys and such, don’t forget to bring these essentials on the plane:

  • A spare outfit for yourself as well as for your kids in case of spills (and other worse things)
  • Lots of wet wipes and large zip lock bags, which serve as garbage bags and have many other uses
  • Extra formula/milk
  • Snacks (good choices include: crackers, string cheese, carrots, dried fruit)
  • Any medication and first aid supplies you might need, including hand wipes, children’s paracetamol, teething remedies, an anti-diarrhoea option, kid vitamins, Band-Aids, etc.

If there’s anything that your child would go crazy without, consider getting duplicates of it. My mum often tells the story of travelling with me as a baby when my dummy melted. It was the only one I would take, and no store in Florida carried it. You can imagine how that trip went.

To Drug or Not to Drug, That Is the Question

Many parents turn to medication, such as Benadryl, to sedate their kids on flights, but this is a really polarising issue. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea, because it can be dangerous for very young children, and you might end up with the opposite effect — a hyper child or a groggy and cranky one. Still, people do it. If you choose to, make sure you talk to your pediatrician beforehand, and be extra careful with the dosage.

Teach Your Kids What to Expect and How to Behave

Finally, just attend to your kids. Watch out for signs that they’re overstimulated or bored. Have fun with them on the flight, when those close quarters offer a chance for some real quality time.

And if worst comes to worst, know that the other parents on the plane who see you doing the best you can are sympathising with you. For the other, perhaps hostile fellow travellers, at least you’ll hopefully never see them again after you get off that plane.


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  • Or just don’t have kids. They are a big pain in the ass and should be checked in as luggage, not taken aboard long flights. Tranquilizers or alcohol to knock them out i’m sure would come in hand too.

  • I used to be one of those “shut your damn kids up” until I had a kid of my own. He’s been pretty good on flights, but he’s 3 now and I’m dreading the flight to UK we have coming up. I was seriously considering Phenergan for him and Temazepam for me, but I may try other techniques suggested.
    To those who don’t have kids: just buy noise cancelling headphones and thank (insert deity of your choice) that you don’t have to spend eight hours walking up and down the aisles to keep a toddler entertained. However, I do agree that parents who let their kid run amok on the plane should be thrown out – mid flight!

  • As long as I can see that the parents actually CARE about what is going on, I don’t mind. I get bored on long flights – I know kids must too. My ears hurt when they pop – I know it must be way worse for infants and small children. It’s only when the parents are ignoring their children in the hope that they will “tire themselves out” etc that I get frustrated.

  • Assuming you have relatives etc who are capable of looking after your child while you’re away (and you’re not going away for too long), why would you bother taking them? Unless your child’s old enough to actually appreciate and remember the trip, leave them at home! I was looking at some old family photos and was surprised to see photos of me in SE Asia when I was about 2. I had no idea I’d even been overseas as a kid, couldn’t remember it at all.

  • Funny, this article comes out AFTER I have flown with three young kids from Oz to Holland in two flights. Kids are aged 4, 4 and 2 and we had no real issues on either flight. This despite my wife and I getting stressed thinking about the kids on the flight.
    We had a long stop over so that everyone could sleep if required and I would recommend this if you have the option. Also our flights were late evening so the kids were able to sleep most of the flight. The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Holland saw the kids sleep at least half the flight, and in-flight entertainment helped for most of the rest of the flight.
    Drugging – we used night time pain stop (codeine and panadol) to help induce sleep.

    Honestly being prepared, warning your kids beforehand about what will happen on the flight, not to kick the chair in front of them, having lollies to help with the air pressure and a few things to do (our son played with his toy dinosaurs) on the flight all help to make for a less stressful flight.

  • Be aware that infants have a shortened and more horizontal Eustachian tube (thingy that goes to the inner ear). That predisposes them to ear infections, and blockages due to pressure changes. If you’re kid has any kind of infection/allergy, more than likely they will NOT be able to pop their ears and it will hurt like hell (think SCUBA diving and not being able to equalize). If it’s extended trip, try and reschedule, or bring along pain medications (paracetamol NOT ibuprofen).

    The other thing to remember is to try an d make your kid do a valsalva manouvre. Mouth closed. hold the nose and get them to try and blow out their nose GENTLY (we don’t want a perfed eardrum in the air!). Of course if Jr is screaming its head off wait for scream to come then hand over mouth and ear works a treat too.

    WTF is it with the anally retentive trolls on a Sat nig… oh, no life…. geddit.

  • I’d like to see kids’ only-style flights. Like the sessions they have at cinemas for people with babies and toddlers.

    Not because I hate kids and want to avoid them, but because I have them and would enjoy a flight a lot more if I knew everyone else on board was in the same, er, boat and didn’t care much about what my kids were up to.

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