The Secret to Successful Travel With Kids on Airplanes

Toddler with iPad

I’m going to tell you the secret to traveling with kids on planes really fast, because you have children, so somebody is probably going to call for you from the potty before you can finish this article.

The secret is BRIBERY. Traveling on a plane with little monsters is sort of like being stranded on a desert island: the goal is survival. However, it’s worth considering that the odds of survival on a desert island improve greatly if you are prepared. The same goes with air travel, so read on for some ideas that will help you and everyone around you make it alive to your final destination.

I am presenting myself as an expert on this topic, because I spent a LOT of time as a child on airplanes. When I was eight and my siblings were six, four and four months old, my family of six started living and traveling overseas. The first flight we all took together was from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Manila, the Philippines. This was the 1980s, and my poor mother managed all these flights without any electronics. (Can you even imagine?!)

My mother became a master of travel planning, and even though my kids become screen zombies nearly every flight now, I still use her old tricks for longer flights. (Even the most Mario-obsessed eight-year old has a limit for how many hours he can play his Nintendo.)  As child I loved planning for a transpacific flight — and even stepping on that plane — because of how special my mom made those trips.

Travel with kids

Allow the forbidden

I have invoked my parents’ old rule of no chewing gum in the house. Partially because my kids can absolutely not be trusted not to smear the gum on the dog, in the carpet and who knows where else. But also because this makes chewing gum a very exciting addition to the carry on. Gum is a necessity at take off and landing so you can pop your ears, which also means you can ban it the rest of the flight if your kids can’t be trusted.

Bust out new stuff

When I was young we almost never bought books (too expensive — we used the library). However, in preparation for a long trip, my mom would take us to the bookstore and let us pick out books, which were then kept locked up until the date of departure. With my own kids, I still do new books, but also new apps and new movies on the iPad.

Invest in travel games

You really can only stare at a screen for so long. For kids who are old enough to read and write, look for travel-size games. There are the old standbys like Yahtzee and Bananagrams, but also all sorts of other clever games these days. Look for ones with magnetic bases so the pieces slide off less easily. And I should mention I only take these on international or cross-country flights; anything else is too short to be worth the high probability that pieces will get dropped/shaken off/thrown at a brother.

When all else fails — SUGAR

In our house, if you are old enough to read, you pack your own bag. (I should note I pack food in my bag so I know all our bases are covered!) This means my eight-year-old packs his own snacks. I always feel like travel is at least slightly unpleasant all the time, so it may as well be made more pleasant by eating by whatever the hell you feel like. If your

Bribing kids for travel
Bribing kids for travel? Who? Me??

kids are made super hyper by sugar, you may want to manage this more carefully than I do, but the one thing I swear by is this: a tantrum can be stopped in its tracks by a lollipop. I always travel with relatively healthy fruit snacks for stage one bribery…and candy (hidden deep in my bag where no child can find it) for emergencies. Word to the wise: avoid chocolate, which melts. You thought the flight was bad? Wait until your kids find out you had chocolate that they can never have. Ever. And just wait until you feel your own soul sink because you can’t have it either.


Fun stuff you can buy

There are all kinds of other great distractions for kids on airplanes, from babies to toddlers to older kids:

But I still stand by the lollipops.