10 Tips for Air Travel With Little Grandkids

A former flight attendant's strategies for keeping toddlers amused in-flight.

By Beth Blair

There is nothing more exciting for young grandkids than to hear they are going to take a trip on a plane, but, once they're aboard, the novelty quickly wears off. Flying is the exact opposite of what children are about. There are no pots to bang or wide-open spaces where they can run. In-flight movies are not geared toward passengers who love to sing along, and the noise level is reminiscent of a library, not a fast-food restaurant playground.

As a former flight attendant and mom of two, I have firsthand experience. With preparation and a little patience, you and your grandchildren will be flying high in no time. Here are some suggestions to make your air-travel adventure pretty easy:

1. Carry-on or check.  When you're traveling with grandchildren, checking luggage and being suitcase-free, despite your balking at the cost, makes it  fairly simple to get through security, the airport, and on and off the plane. A stroller is a must for zipping through airports, but leave the big, bulky one at home. Opt for a lightweight umbrella stroller. They're easy to fold and they fit in most overhead bins; this means you don’t have to wait with a squirmy 2-year-old after landing; the child will be comfortable in the stroller. 

2. Plan your seating. Even if your grandchildren are young enough to be considered "lap children" (younger than age 2), it's safer to purchase their own seats for them.  Buckle infants in their own aviation-approved car seat, which offers familiar comfort. Toddlers can stand when the seatbelt sign is off and use the airline seat as a coloring or play table. If you're worried about disturbing other passengers, request bulkhead seats facing the partition that divides a plane into sections. This is a terrific place to park with kids because there are no passengers to disturb in front of you. Plus, your grandtots can play on the floor. Extra tip: Bring a blanket. Remember, bulkhead seats have immovable armrests because the tray tables are stowed within them. Alternatively, Heather Poole, a flight attendant and blogger, recommends sitting in the back of the plane: "People are more forgiving [there] since business travelers and frequent flyers are seated closer to the front."

3. Dress the youngsters appropriately. Slip-on shoes make the security screening process go smoothly, and bring layers —  sweaters, sweatshirts, sweatpants, even socks — aboard; airline temperatures are unpredictable. Just to be sure to have an extra outfit, including underpants, ready.

4. Prepare for clogged ears. If your little ones have had a cold recently, ask their pediatrician if it is safe for them to fly. Even without a cold, little ears tend to get clogged in flight, especially during descent. Bottles and pacifiers work well for clearing ears, or, teach your grandchildren to hold their nose and gently blow. If they're old enough, provide a large lollypop to suck on (just monitor their eating it).

5. Food. Eating lunch and snacks is a great diversion tactic. Trail mix, colorful crackers, grapes, and baby carrots are all airplane-friendly food. Turn eating time into fun time with games of counting, sorting, letter sounding, and spelling. Use sippy cups and bowls with suction-cup bottoms to keep containers secured to the tray table and to avoid spills.

6. Potty stops. There are two crucial times to insist your toilet-trained grandchildren use the potty: before take-off and before landing. Simply walking the cabin aisle on the way to the lavatory can amuse toddlers (after beverage and snack service ends). Kids love company, so as you’re roaming the cabin, look around for other children to visit. I've seen families switch seats so the children could sit near one another and the kids end up entertaining themselves for the entire flight.

7. Books. Children love to be read to and to turn the pages of picture books. Take it a step further with a photo album filled with photos of your grandchildren and family. My father, a grandpa of four, loves to tell his grandkids stories and show photos of the "olden days" when my siblings and I were young.

8. Show time. DVDs have changed the way children travel. With a DVD player (and a headset) and a new show to watch, they will remain busy and in their seat for hours at a time.

9. Make a tent. Get creative with the tray table and drape a blanket over the seat or between the upraised armrest and immediately you have a world of fun in your row. Better yet, bring along a dark blanket and charm your grandchildren with glow-in-the-dark toys; they're perfect for night flights, too.

10. Surprise! Grandparents are great at spoiling the grandkids and flying provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Have ready a surprise sack filled with new toys, treats (skip the sugar), and diversions. I've recently discovered a pack of colorful pipe cleaners equals extended entertainment.

 
Related information

Flying alone with your grandchildren requires a notarized medical-release from the parents giving permission for medical care. And don’t forget copies of the children's insurance and prescription cards.

Consider using a CARES harness, an FAA-approved child safety belt and buckle device for kids 22 to 44 pounds.

Seatguru.com has 550 airplane seatmaps to help you find kid-friendly aircraft seats.

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