Family Adventure: How to Prepare Children for Airline Travel

When embarking on your family adventure, arrive at the airport early, particularly if you have small children. For domestic flights, the time recommended time is one hour before; for international flights, two hours is the minimum. If you have small children, add an hour to these guidelines, especially with the extra time it takes to get through security these days.

Make air travel part of the family adventure by explaining procedures before you get to the airport and as those procedures happen. Since children may have to remove their shoes when passing through security, get them to wear shoes that they can easily slip off and on. Know that carrying electronic devices such as computers and anything that looks suspicious will slow you down. Even carrying an excessive amount of change in your purse will divert you to the hand-check area of security.

To make your family adventure fun, be aware that anything that can be used a weapon, such as nail scissors, will be confiscated. Since you don't want a screaming child, make sure to check their backpacks before leaving on your vacation. In other words, your ten year old cannot bring his pocketknife, even if he uses it only for whittling. Security personnel may give you the option of mailing the confiscated item to yourself, but you must provide an envelope and postage. Since this can cause you to miss your flight, refrain from packing items like nail scissors, tweezers, razors and multi-function pocket knives in your carry-on baggage. If you’re using a bag that you haven’t used in years, check the compartments before you pack. (Last year, I took a bag on a trip that I hadn’t used in a long time. When I was referred to the hand-check area of security, the officer found a combination scissors/screwdriver/pocketknife that I didn’t know was in the bag. The pocketknife was confiscated and I never received it back.)

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Once your family is at the gate, check in first, then direct everyone to take a restroom break. Nothing is more unnerving than a two-year-old who announces he has to go "big bathroom" as the airplane is taxiing down the runway. Until the airplane reaches cruising altitude, no one—I repeat no one—is allowed to leave their seat. (Years ago, I was on a flight on which a drunken man decided he had to go the bathroom when the captain was waiting his turn to taxi down the runway. Even though, this passenger was forced to return to his seat, federal regulations required the captain turn the plane around and return a cabin full of angry passengers to the gate.)

With regard to heightened security, be aware that security personnel can search small children. Two years ago, when we left on a short family adventure to Seattle, my four-year-old son’s name came up for a random security check. When the security officer approached him with the metal detector, my son screamed and refused to let him near. He was terrified of this strange man and the instrument in his hand. Upset that they were unnecessarily traumatizing my son, I pointed out that he was only four and didn’t even have a carry-on. Although security precautions are designed to protect us, this seemed ridiculous. After a long delay, which threatened to make us late for our connection, an exasperated gate agent waved us onto the flight.

Before boarding the plane, explain the rules of airplane travel to your children even if they have gone on family adventures many times before. Tell them that the law prevents people from getting out of their seats when the fasten-seat-belt sign is on. This is why they must empty their bladders before they get on the plane and before the plane makes its descent. Setting the rules before getting on the plane helps children anticipate and comply with them.

Once on board, get everybody situated and fastened up. Explain to children what is going to happen next. Since the take-off and landing can build up pressure in small ears, nurse or bottle-feed your baby during this time and give small children a snack to eat or drink. Older children can have a stick of gum.

When traveling to a family adventure via air, pack a full change of clothes for small children in case an accident occurs. I even pack a shirt for my husband who tends to spill food down the front of his shirt. If you’ve spilled, it’s nice to be able to change into something fresh and clean before you arrive. If you’re traveling to a tropical location from a cold climate, bring an appropriate change of clothes. Regardless of your travel destination, make sure to bring a light jacket or blanket for children in your carry-on bag as airplane cabins can be chilly. Although airlines provide pillows and blankets, they go fast, so if you think your children will need them, grab them as soon as you board the plane. Small children who need a stuffed animal for comfort should be allowed to bring it along. Make them responsible for it by carrying it in their backpack or in a small suitcase on wheels.

Preparing your children for air travel and setting their expectations about the safety rules and regulations will make the family adventure more enjoyable for everyone.

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