Five airline tickets.
Four car seats.
One trip covering 3,500+ miles.
It might sound intimidating, but repeat after the mom who's just flown with four kids in tow: “We can do it!”
My husband and I have kids, ages 8, 6, 3, and 4mos, and I'll be honest: I wondered if we were a little crazy as we walked through the airport doors with our entourage. But, a little pre-planning, some strategy, and plenty of deep breaths made traveling with young children surprisingly simple, and we picked up some tips along the way that are worth sharing.
Before you go
1. Book at the airport for possible lower fares
When we booked our tickets, the online processing fees would have totaled almost $50 per person. We bypassed that by visiting the airport several weeks ahead of our trip and booking directly at the ticket counter. When you consider we were buying five tickets, it was well worth the hour spent at the airport to save more than $200.
2. Pass on selecting seats
New FAA regulations require airlines to seat children under age 13 next to a parent, at no cost. This saved us another $200 on our trip! You may not all sit together (my husband and two of our kids were about a dozen rows behind me and our other two kids), but your kids will not be next to strangers. Tip: If your boarding passes have your family split apart like we were, ask the gate agent before boarding begins if he can move you. On the flight home, we were able to be reassigned to all be in the same row.
3. Make your itinerary kid-friendly
Book direct flights whenever possible to minimize travel time and hassle – and consider flying in and out of smaller regional airports. We flew into Mesa, AZ instead of Phoenix, and were able to rent a car on-site and walk only about fifty yards to it – a godsend when you've got kids, a stroller, suitcases, and car seats to transport. We flew home from the (very large) Las Vegas airport, and the experience was much more challenging because of the sheer size of the complex.
Try to fly during daytime hours, too. It's not easy for anyone to answer a 4am wake-up call, let alone a toddler who may be off her game the rest of the day because of it.
4. Get the kids photo IDs
When we travel, I like our kids to have photo identification. Our local DOT office issues exactly what I was looking for. I brought their birth certificates and social security cards, as proof of ID, and it took just a few minutes to fill out the paperwork and snap their photos for their cards. Plus, even if they end up not needing them during your travel, these cards make adorable keepsakes. Bonus: the first card was free and additional cards were less than $10.
5. Buy something new for each child
It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive, but a new toy or activity to give each child during the flight is a great trick to have up your sleeve. Stickers, a new book, special treats – the possibilities are endless, and the benefits are, too. A mom friend was traveling solo with her three boys ages six and under when they encountered a 90 minute delay after boarding the plane. She said a cleverly hidden bag of gummy bears saved her whole trip.
It's also a great idea to pack each child a small backpack with a few favorite things inside. An easy way to organize things like crayons and small toys is to pack them in gallon Ziploc bags; this makes grabbing what they want hassle-free once you're in the air.
At the airport
6. Check all the things
Most airlines let you check things like car seats, strollers, and Pack 'n Plays for free – something you should take advantage of at the ticket counter if at all possible. Some might argue you're better off taking car seats to the gate to check them, that they'll be handled more gently that way. We lugged a car seat through the airport on a previous trip and gate checked it; when we boarded, I looked out the window and watched it be tossed right alongside the booster seat we'd checked at the ticket counter. Now we check everything we can right away.
If you have an especially wiggly toddler over age 2, you might consider bringing the car seat onboard and installing it in his paid seat so he has a familiar and secure place to sit. I have some friends who swear by this approach and who say it makes the whole flight a much more pleasant experience.
7. Utilize car seat checking hacks
You can buy car seat covers, but there's a cheaper option: I bring several big, clear garbage bags and a roll of duct tape to the airport to wrap our car seats before we check them. It's not fancy, but it keeps them a little cleaner during transport and allows me to double some things up – like the Bumbo seat for the baby I taped inside her car seat. It's also a great place to stash things like life jackets or pool toys if you're packing them. I use two bags per seat, and it's worked well every time we've flown.
8. Don't be in a hurry to board
Use the time before your flight to let the kids run off some energy. We sat next to an open area that our kids happily flipped bottles in, and my husband took a couple of them on a walk to get snacks (and use the ever-exciting moving walkways). Take a couple of bathroom breaks, and spend some time watching airplanes take off and land; the airport is a busy, fascinating place – especially for a kid! Once boarding does begin, we wait as long as possible to avoid unnecessary extra time cooped up in the parked airplane. Tip: If you have a stroller, you'll need to fold it up at the end of the jet bridge so make sure it's emptied of toys and snacks when you board.
In the air
9. Help those ears
We make sure the older kids have gum or chewy snacks to help cope with the altitude change, and I always nurse the baby during takeoff and landing.
10. Capitalize on the excitement
You're zooming through the air thousands of feet above the ground – flying is an adventure! It's fun to look out the window together and talk about how tiny everything looks below. It's even fun to put the tray table down and enjoy a cookie and drink together, or chat with the passengers around you. For most kids, flying is an out of the ordinary experience that can really be memorable.
11. Hand the kids the camera
This trip, I tried to be conscious of letting the kids take pictures instead of always doing it myself. It's fun to see the adventure through their eyes, and handing it off means mom and dad have a fighting chance of being in some of the snapshots, too.
Roll with the punches and stay relaxed – your attitude sets the tone for the little eyes watching you, and they want to enjoy the experience just as much as you do. You've got this!