Surviving Cross-Country Flights With Toddlers Is Tricky Business

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Generally, I like spending time with my 3-year-old. He’s pretty funny, and he’s smart as a whip. There are only a few things I don’t love doing with him: giving him a bath, shopping, and traveling. Especially if that travel happens to be on a plane. We don’t fly often, but recently we flew across country, and let me tell you, I was stressed out way before we even set foot in the airport.

Flying from one end of the country to another is not a short trip, and like any long-distance flights, there are a lot of variables you have to consider when planning. Nonstop flights are immediately ruled out. Nothing is more frightening than the idea of being trapped on a plane with a 3-year-old for upwards of six hours. One layover is mandatory. Just one, because any more than that is just too much. And the layover can’t be too long. You don’t want it to be so short that you miss the plane, but you don’t want it to be so long that you run out of ways to keep the kid(s) entertained.

You can only take so many walks around the terminal (dragging all of your stuff behind you) before they get antsy, and you can only watch them load up the planes out of those big windows for so long before they want (another) overpriced snack.

Time of day is also crucial. I tried to plan our trip around nap time because at least I knew (hoped!) he’d be asleep for some of the trip. With one long flight and then one short one, I knew sleep was going to be crucial to both of us surviving and not making the news for being the lady with the crying toddler who got kicked off the plane (because people are jerks and can’t handle kids expressing emotions).

Then comes D-Day. Dun dun dun.

You double, and triple, check those bags. Did you bring enough snacks? Did you remember to empty the water bottles? Did you bring their favorite lovey? I spend the entire trip to the airport praying for short lines and efficient people. Because toddlers don’t like to wait in long lines unless they’re asleep. But you don’t want them to fall asleep in those lines either because having to wake a sleeping toddler to go through the security line? Not my idea of a good time.

Dear TSA, if you’re reading this, can you please make some sort of security line specifically for families? I’m immensely grateful that kids under 12 don’t have to take off their shoes, but still, when I’m behind slow moving people or people who just have a million things to unload on the scanner belt with my hysterical kid (who’s been anxious and crying and asking for fruit snacks since we got in the damn line) I am thisclose to ripping someone’s heart out of their chest. We already know that flying isn’t always family-friendly, and this just confirms it. Seriously, make it happen TSA. If passengers don’t like crying, cranky kids, this is a great way to help remedy that, after all.

Now that the hysterical toddler has been placated with fruit snacks and I have my shoes back on, it’s time to find the gate. As we shuffle through the terminal (read: dragging a car seat behind myself while pushing the stroller), I’m taking inventory of what’s available. Not a ton of food options for little folks. After I spent damn near $5 on a bottle of apple juice and a stick string cheese, I try to locate a bathroom. Then it’s to the gate to wait. The toddler is now getting antsy from being confined to the stroller for so long. So I let him go free and give him a couple toys. I spend the next 45 minutes keeping him from going rogue or tripping an oblivious passerby with the trains he leaves in the middle of the aisle.

Finally, it’s time to board the plane. While some airlines allow for pre-boarding for families with babies/toddlers, not all airlines have this option. Which is bullshit. It’s better for everyone to let parents get their kids strapped in and set up, ahead of time. It minimizes hassle, and whining, and overstimulation which will lend itself to a smoother flight. Win, win.

Now we’re sitting down: Fight with toddler about the seatbelt. Tell them to stop playing with the tray table. Make sure that all of the snacks and toys are easily accessible under the seat. Make sure that they understand that someone is likely going to be sitting in front of them and so kicking the seat is going to have to stop immediately.

Also, be sure to explain that someone is going to be sitting next to them, and if they could please, please, please just for once in their little life be mindful of personal space, that would be great. Then tell them to stop playing with the shade on their window. Keep picking up the plastic wings the flight attendant has so nicely given the kid to get them to wear the seatbelt. Repeat all of the above as needed. Brace for takeoff. Pray.

Reach cruising altitude. Remind them that we have to wait for them to turn off the seatbelt sign, so please stop asking. Hand them the toys and remind them to play quietly. Be thankful for complimentary snack (shoutout to Southwest Airlines for the Oreos, much appreciated). Pray for sleep to come quickly. Turn jackets and scarf into a makeshift pillow when kid finally passes out, so that you can have a free hand to knock back a well-deserved cocktail (or whatever beverage relaxes you.) Close your eyes, pray your kid keeps napping, and attempt to catch some zzz’s yourself. You’re going to need your energy for the next flight, after all.

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