Many avid travelers relish the idea of getting their children up in the air early and often. Brad, Kevin, Scott, and my old buddies Kyle, Carly, and Matthew all share their adventures with their young ones. But not me. I dreaded flying with our son Ashok. In fact, we largely switched to road trips, with a cruise mixed in, for family outings. But in the last six months, we’ve witnessed a real transformation with our son. He’s growing up into a full blown air travel enthusiast right before our eyes.
An Unscheduled Early Start
I intended to hold off at least until Ashok was 3 before getting him in an airplane, and then starting slowly. But in May, 2018, we had to get to Portland in a hurry for a family funeral. It takes a good four days each way to drive from Dallas to Portland with a small child. And with a two week road trip already planned for June – let’s just say I doubt my boss would approve. That left us no choice but to fly. And it went about as badly as I feared.
Rather than fly nonstop, we decided to break it up into two segments on Southwest. We took an evening flight to Denver, overnighted there, then continued to Portland the next day. Departing from Love Field, Ashok started screaming his head off as soon as we stepped on the plane. It took a good 45 minutes after boarding to get him calmed down. A flight attendant gave us bad instructions on how to buckle in his car seat, leading to a near confrontation with another FA on our second leg. And the whole ordeal made him cranky the entire time in Portland.
On the return, he did sleep about half the flight, which provided some hope. But in general, it validated the decision to go air travel free.
Trying Again in 2019, With Completely Different Results
Fast forward to April of this year, with my sister’s milestone birthday in Florida during tax season. Not enough time to drive, so we had to hit the skies again. Once again, we decided to book two shorter connecting flights on Southwest. This time, though, things started off on a better foot from the beginning. Ashok took his seat quietly, and immediately started staring at the airplanes outside. (Dad takes pride in teaching him well in that regard.)
And we had a lot of this.
No, he didn’t sleep the entire way. The big difference, I noticed, was that at 2 1/2, he was a lot more “distractable” than at 1 1/2. Videos downloaded onto may laptop kept him happy and occupied. Perhaps most surprisingly, he showed no interest in moving around. Rather, he sat quietly in his seat when not napping. Not what I expected from a little boy I can barely get to sit still for dinner…
Another test loomed the next month – another trip to Portland, this one nonstop one way. That clocks in at around 4 hours, a good challenge I thought. Typically we stop every 2 hours or so when driving, so I was curious how he’d do. The result? More happy face.
And in general, another good flight, with some video watching followed by a nap. Amazingly, he sat still in his car seat the entire time, though that provided a lesson for next time. Sitting that long led to a tummy upset. Luckily, it disappeared quickly after getting back on the ground and moving around.
On the return, we took a connection on Delta through Salt Lake City; that provided the best option to avoid a too early departure and a too late return. Ashok enjoyed some plane and equipment spotting at PDX before getting on board. Matthew, if you’re reading, note his excitement at seeing the United bird.
Incredibly, despite a cold picked up from his cousin, he made it through the first leg without protest. Not so much as a peep during either take-off or landing. Then, after stretching his legs in Salt Lake, he slept for much of the second. That long nap kept him up past 11 after making it home. But I’ll take that cost any day in exchange for a quiet flight. One item worth mentioning – this is where Delta’s decision to keep in-seat video proves its value. We soon found the Disney Channel, which kept Ashok occupied until he fell asleep. Yes, he can watch something on my phone, but he was really happy to find his Disney shows.
Moving on to September, we decided to try again given how well the last two trips went. This time, we headed to San Jose to visit family, this time nonstop both ways. Now a month past his third birthday, we decided to have him seat in the “big boy seat” (sans car seat). He seemed pleased with the promotion.
And he discovered his new favorite position, lying down across mom and dad’s laps.
We did at least have him move around a couple of times after eating, which took care of the tummy troubles.
Still Not All Fun and Games Plus a Few Tips
I have to say, it frankly amazed me how he’s become the perfect flyer. I don’t know what it is, but somehow, this rambunctious toddler becomes totally zen on an airplane. Like, sitting quietly or sleeping the entire time zen. Flying puts me to sleep easily, so perhaps he just takes after dad. (And before anyone asks, no, we do not give him Benadryl to calm him down. Nor do I think it’s a good idea.)
Now, does that mean flying with the kid is fun? Not really. For starters, lugging a car seat and stroller through the airport for a gate check is a PITA. Following Scott’s lead, I decided to try checking the stroller at the counter on the way to San Jose, but guess what? Southwest managed to mishandle it, on a nonstop flight no less. They forgot to offload it and sent it on to San Diego. While they gave me a loaner, you can bet I’ll just stick to gate checking. It’s also pretty much impossible for the three of us to go without checking at least one bag. Unless we fly Southwest, paying bag fees stinks. And waiting for your bag on the other end stinks even more.
But overall, I share this story to hopefully give some other parents out there hope. Your kids might pleasantly surprise you with their flying ability. So what do I think has helped in our case? It’s hard to say, but here’s a few things we’ve tried:
- Book seats in one of the last rows. It sounds counterintuitive, but sitting at the very back gives Ashok more room to walk around without getting trapped by the drink cart. And it’s closer to the lav in case of emergency.
- Respect your child’s sleeping schedule. Ashok is NOT a morning person, so we avoid anything that requires leaving home before 8:30 am. If your kid likes getting up early, great, but if he’s a sleepyhead, just avoid the 6 am flight. No matter how cheap it is. The sleep schedule is also why we’ve held off on major time zone changes so far. I shudder to think of a jetlagged Ashok on our first day in Europe…
- Consider using their car seat onboard. Yes, you can use any FAA-approved car seat onboard, regardless of your child’s age. It’s a PITA to bring onboard, but I think sitting in a “familiar” seat helped him adjust. After three flights, we weaned him off of it. I do strongly suggest gate checking even if you don’t use it onboard, though. Besides the risk of loss or damage, strollers and car seats come out at the oversized baggage claim. Often that means a further delay in retrieving it, which may make your small child impatient.
- Break the no electronics rule. We try to limit Ashok’s exposure to laptops and phones as much possible. But we made an exception onboard the airplane. Watching videos kept him occupied and quiet whenever he started getting restless. But make sure to download some content before boarding. You don’t want to rely on WiFi to download it onboard.
- Try a short flight or road trip first. If your child has trouble on a short (i.e. Dallas to Houston) flight, or misbehaves in the car, you just might have your hands full on a long flight. Better to find out before you book those expensive flights to Europe; if nothing else, you can prepare yourself for what to expect.
So what’s next for us? LA later this month, and then a big test, Hawai’i, next month. If Hawai’i goes well, we’ll move on to something even longer. Judging by his hat, I think he really wants to go to Australia…