How to keep your kids happy on a plane journey

  • Home
  • /
  • Blog
  • /
  • How to keep your kids happy on a plane journey

Flying with young children

This article was originally serialised in November 2012 and I’ve incorporated it into one post for easy reading.

Steps to happy travels with young children (no matter how long the flight)

I am strongly contemplating adding a new bullet point to my résumé:

I am a master of air travel with young children.

After the birth of my first child, I’d hop on planes for commutes to visit family. Our flights would be from Seattle to San Francisco and my daughter was the sole focus of my attention. We’d count little brightly colored snacks, read books, play with stuffed animals. Then came the birth of my first son, and he too hopped on and off the short haul flights. My in-flight attention shifted to figuring out how to entertain a toddler (my daughter had grown to two years old) while holding a baby in my arms. More often than not, I’d end up with a cramp in my side as I simultaneously nursed the baby and hunched over to pick up fallen crayons off of the plane’s floor.

Eventually, when my husband accepted a job offer overseas, we extended the length of our trips. So, my daughter, then four, and my son, who had grown to two years old, became international travelers. As is the case with many international families, I often found myself traveling with the kids on a schedule separate from my husband – which required me to travel as the solo caretaker. So, the kids and I would hop on a flight out of Thailand (where we lived), fly through Hong Kong or Tokyo and finally land into our planned U.S. west coast destination for a holiday. During our time overseas, we welcomed our third child and made another international relocation even further afield, with an increasing number of airport connections.

As the years added up (and the travel stories grew), I earned that résumé bullet point.

Next week, I’ll hop on yet another international flight with all three of my kids in tow. I, again, will be the sole caretaker on the flight. I’ll be holding my soon to be two year old, my now eight year old daughter will be beside me and my six year old son will be on the other side. And, just like every other flight I’ve taken with the kids, my hands will shake a tiny bit in anticipation of take-off, my bag will be jammed with essentials and the kids will be excited about what is to come. They’ll be anticipating the in-flight favors I placed into each of their backpacks just prior to travel. They’ll be happy to settle into their seats and experience the sights and sounds of a working airplane. And, they’ll be eager to get to the other end of our journey, after 19 plus hours in the air, where hugs from family will catch us as we stumble sleepily out of the now familiar immigration lines.

So, what have I learned during all of those flights that makes me confident enough to place my experiences on my résumé?

Here is the first of the five travel steps I live by. Follow along and you too will have happy travels (and possibly earn a new résumé bullet point!).

Step 1: Prepare the magic.

Kids naturally love adventures, mysteries and figuring things out. Play into these aspects of childhood and, prior to your trip, do a bit of preparation.

Select a bag that your child will be able to easily maneuver through the airports themselves. The bag should be something appropriate to their size and something they can independently carry. I have found that my kids do best with a lightweight backpack style of bag, with built in rollers. With this type of bag, they are able to roll it through the airport and, also, place it onto their backs for short portions of the journey that require stair climbing or bad weather when they don’t want to expose the bottom of the bag to soggy tarmac.

I create a small ‘in-flight favor’ bag to place inside each child’s carry-on. This is a bag about the size of a gallon Ziploc bag (although I like to use fabric drawstring bags) that you can stuff with some fun treats for the trip. On every flight, this bag includes some mini-sized markers or unusual, new crayons, a small blank notebook, a package of gum, a map that shows our departure city and our destination city (and any stops along the way), batteries to replace any kids’ electronic devices, a few tiny trinket toys and a package of small candies. Create the favor bag and slide it into your child’s carry-on just before leaving for the airport. My kids know to look for the bags now and will pull them out as soon as we get settled on the plane. This little touch of magic starts the adventure out on a positive note, distracts a child from the lengthy boarding process and gives them a few new things to do once you’re in the air.

Additionally, I recommend placing several activities in your own carry-on bag. These should be items that provide entertainment possibilities for layovers and in the air. I actually don’t carry a lot of toys with me, but instead try to pack an assortment of small, lightweight activities. I take a small bag of office supplies so the kids can link paper clips, stick tiny stickers onto envelopes, use tiny rulers to measure, draw with stencils and glitter pens. I’ve found an inflatable beach ball to be great for airport layovers. Small new action figures or dolls provide quite a bit of play time too if you take turns making up stories and acting them out with the figures. If your child enjoys crafting, I’ve also had great in-air luck with homemade felt activity books (I made these for my own kids.). Prior to your trip, with a few pieces of felt you can cut out small monster or animal shapes and bundle them with a small bit of stuffing, a needle and thread to create small sewing kits to work on in the air.

And, I would never travel without a good stash of small sized lollipops. On the roughest of flights, a lollipop can change everything in your favor.

Step 2: Discuss the near future

Begin to involve your child in the trip’s preparations. Have them help to organize and pack their carry-on bags with a few favorite toys and a change of clothes. When my kids were a bit younger, they’d also throw in a pair of pajamas for our long flights.

Talk through the travel process and what will happen when you reach the airport – check in, security, immigration. And, depending on your child’s age, you may wish to role-play. I’ve found that playing ‘airport security’ can help to ease some of the nerves that can accompany a part of flying that is intimidating to young eyes. By role playing, they’ll see that their baggage will be scanned and returned to them. My daughter is a great flyer, but the security screening makes her nervous. Role playing has helped to ease some of her fears.

Additionally, there are some great books, at every age level, featuring the process of travel. My youngest is currently enjoying Richard Scarry’s ‘A Day at the Airport’. Adding these to your child’s reading collection is a good, easy way to introduce all that happens during travel.

Step 3: Go forth with confidence

Your bags are packed, you’ve prepared the magic, your child is at your side and you are ready to travel.

Once you are on your way, tell yourself that you can handle this. Yes, give yourself a regular pep talk and repeat it to yourself as often as needed! It will be a long day (or in the case of international travel, days!), but you will get to your destination eventually.

Break down a massive travel itinerary into manageable mental chunks of time. Don’t allow yourself to count down the hours you have left. Instead, focus on one hour or leg of the travel at a time. Continue to focus on your child and react calmly to whatever the day throws your way.

Step 4: Get into the groove and ignore

Unfortunately, every once in a while, a tired, overworked airport or airline staff member will be less than helpful. Sometimes a fellow passenger will roll their eyes as they see a child board the airplane. IGNORE these people. You are doing the very best you can in a situation that can be difficult. Again, just focus in on your child, make a happy place within your zone of the plane (albeit a very small zone!) and ignore anyone who wishes you ill in these moments. Pull out your pre-packed favor bags, play some activities, strap on the airline headsets – do whatever it takes to keep your focus on getting through the flight as happily as possible.

Step 5: Earn that bullet point.

Get off that plane and celebrate your arrival. (And, I mean, dance, jump, shout for joy, hi-five your child type of celebrating! You have earned that additional bullet point on your résumé.)

By Shelby Reynolds

Shelby Reynolds is an American currently repatriating to Seattle by way of Tbilisi, Bangkok, Seattle, Paris, San Francisco and one long, cold winter in Philadelphia. A mama to three lovely little bohemian spirits, she’s a rememberer of every good moment. Shelby writes at and can be followed on twitter at @anewbohemia

Need to talk 1-1 about your move and life overseas with someone who 'gets it'? Consider me your own, personal expat expert! I'm here for you.

Your one-stop-shop for a successful life abroad

Expatability Club

An expat community and advice hub where you’ll never feel alone or unsupported. With an Expat Expert in your pocket for real-time support.

Let's stay in touch!

Subscribe to my newsletter and be first to hear news and updates from Carole.

By subscribing you also agree to receive marketing emails from Carole Hallett Mobbs. You can opt-out of these emails at any time. My full privacy policy can be seen here: Privacy Policy

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Want some personalised advice?

Find out how I can help you make your expat life a success!