As a military family, we are typically far away from our extended family over the holidays. We usually take two to four airplane trips each year as family. This year will be no different as we head down to sunny Florida for the Christmas holiday. Our family consists of: mom, dad, Kai (7), Liam (4) and Addy (2). I have attempted (only once) to fly with all three by myself, and somehow I lived through it. I have traveled numerous times with one or two of my children. Some special considerations for our family are: three car seats, Kai’s wheelchair, and special food/drinks.
Top 10 Airplane Travel Tips
- Car seats. Avoid bringing them at all costs. If you are going to rent a car at your destination, rent the car seats too- it will save you A LOT of hassle in the airport and on the plane. Better yet, if you are visiting family, arrange ahead of time for them to borrow or buy a car seat. Both of our parents have extra car seats for us so we don’t have to bother with them on the plane. If you feel you really need to have your own car seat (which we do for our special needs son), know that it has to be FAA approved to be on board. We use the Radian XT by Diono for all of our kids. Children do not have to be in car seats on the plane, but if you do not feel safe having your child out of a car seat you may want to try this option: CARES. It is essentially a safety harness that hooks around the airplane seat and folds up small so it is easy to carry.
- Parking. I am all about saving a buck when it comes to parking at the airport, but the thought of heaving all of our luggage and children onto an airport shuttle to park in the cheap spots is agonizing. The best solution is to get a ride to the airport- not realistic for us, but may be for you. Next best option is to get there early enough for one person to drop everyone and the luggage off at the airport, and then park.
- Security. Obvious tips for getting through security: follow their rules for liquids and medications, put these things in clear bags, take them out when going through the x-ray machine. Most airports have a “family lane”. Taking this lane will allow you extra time to unload all of your things. Don’t forget children’s shoes and jackets need to be taken off before going through. If you are traveling with a wheelchair and special food and drinks, expect that there will be extra pat-downs and forensic tests on your drinks. You may choose to carry a disabled child through security- but remember you have to take off their shoes and coats too. Additionally, make sure your children are “contained” in the airport- use Ergo packs or slings for babies and toddlers and/or small umbrella strollers. You can never be too cautious at a busy holiday airport.
- Board early. If you have a disabled person traveling with you, typically you will be first to get on the plane. Make sure you are standing near the gate and have gotten all of your pre-boarding materials before they announce the boarding time. If you miss this initial boarding, you will have to inevitably make a scene and appear to be cutting in front of others.
- Accept help. When people see me coming in the airport with two small children and another in a wheelchair, I get some looks. I learned early on that getting through security and on an airplane was going to be difficult, so I learned to accept help. It is amazing to me how much others just want to know how they can help, and often I do not wait for them to initiate, but ask them first. Flight attendants are very good at following directions and are ready to assist with holding a child, strapping in a car seat, or getting yet another bag of peanuts. I once had a very nice man follow me around the airport, carrying our car seat. I happened to just be traveling with Kai, and the man was very interested in learning about him and helping out where he could.
- Pack light, but not too light. I always bring a change of clothes for each child (more if your children are under 2), plus sweatshirts. We bring all of our son’s special pureed foods and drinks for the day. I bring snacks for the other kids, but not drinks. I pack books that are soft cover and thin, one coloring book, paper and a small pack of crayons. I usually mange to sneak in some other small toys as well (cars, action figures, a ball, etc.). We have ear phones for each child and either the iPad or laptop to watch a movie or play games. I can fit all of this into one bag and possibly a small back pack that a child can carry. Anything for myself has to fit in my purse- water bottle, magazine or book (not that I ever have time to read on the plane).
- Plan on talking. Long gone are the days when I could relax on the plane with my Hollywood gossip magazine or a short cat nap. Now I expect that I am going to have to talk, entertain or play games. Knowing that ahead of time will make it much more bearable and fun while on the plane.
- Warn Your Neighbors. Letting those sitting around you know of any special needs or things that may occur with your children will go a long way in the end. If people are front-loaded with this information, they are much more understanding. For instance, my son has a difficult time controlling his body movements and sitting in the small rows often means that he is constantly pushing on the seat in front of him with his feet. I always apologize to the person in front of me ahead of time and let them know that I will try to keep him from kicking, and that he is not intentionally trying to bother them. I ask them to let me know if it is getting too uncomfortable for them.
- Gifts. It is always a conversation in our family about how we are going to “do” Christmas- to bring or not to bring presents? My suggestions are to bring as little as possible and pack some extra bags to bring items home (you can find foldable totes that are fairly durable and pack small). We will sometimes wrap pictures of the presents we left at home and tell them that Santa dropped these off at our house and are waiting for us. We ask our family to buy small things and if there is anything big to send it to our house and wrap a picture of the item as a gift. At times we have also had a pre/post Christmas where we open all of our presents before or after we go on vacation. I often do shopping for relatives when I get to our destination, or I buy a lot of gift cards that pack small. Inevitably, at the end of every vacation, we still end up shipping a box home, so we have learned to figure that into our finances.
- Choose Airlines Wisely. I have flown numerous airlines and they all have advantages and disadvantages. For our family, we have found Southwest Airlines to be the most accommodating to our needs. As the risk of sounding like a promotional ad, this is why they rate high with us:
- No penalty for changing flights. We can easily change our flights, or cancel them, and get credit toward a future flight. You will only have to pay the difference in the tickets- no cancellation fee.
- Each person is allowed 2 free bags to be checked, plus carry ons.
- No assigned seating. Some people really do not like this quality, but we love it. We are always seated first because we have a wheelchair. We usually get the first row of seats- which has a lot more space for all of us to spread out.
- Flight attendants are very accommodating and helpful. Always willing to hold a baby when I need a free hand to take care of other children or use the restroom.
- If you have specialized equipment like air tanks, wheelchairs, suction machines, etc., it is worth it to make a call to the airline ahead of time and also to let them know when you check in. I find that people are generally accommodating to our needs, but get anxious when they are not prepared for something.