Horrible Parenting Advice: Traveling with Young Children

Flickr walmink — CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 edits made

I’m getting to the point where traveling with my kids no longer triggers the existential consideration of whether it would have been better to not travel at all or, in the alternative, to travel but to not have had children in the first place.

The first time I took my first kid on a flight when he was a baby, I was armed with every possible suggestion from every parenting blog across the internetosphere. Like most parenting advice you find on the internet, the suggestions sucked.

Out of all the topics out there on parenting, the most fraught with horrible advice is traveling with children. We tend to overthink and over-research everything when it comes to parenting. Travel is one of those.

Based on extensive research and experience, here are ten horrible pieces of advice for traveling with young children and how to deal with them.

1. Give each person sitting around you a baggie with candy, earplugs, and a note apologizing for your sure-to-be-disruptive child.

flickr riebschlager — CC BY-NC 2.0

When you board a plane under the best of circumstances, you’re opening yourself to all sorts of experiences: A complete lack of legroom, mystery gassy fellow passengers, and, of course, crying babies.

Let’s take it up a level. When you leave your house and go out in public, you’re opening yourself to all sorts of experiences, as well, including crying babies. Crying babies are everywhere — they’re in grocery stores, waiting rooms, there even might be one behind you…right…now. This is something that a well-balanced adult can come to expect and deal with. That is part of being an adult.

Consequently, don’t apologize in advance for what your kid is going to do. Most people are not going hate you for it. The only people who will hate you for it are people who are assholes. So don’t take a shotgun approach of passing out candy hoping that it reaches and placates the assholes. Because they’re still going to hate you for your baby. Is your kid being obnoxious and should know better? Is he kicking the seat in front of him? Yeah, then make him stop and verbally apologize individually.

Aside from this, give your kid some credit. A parent preemptively handing out candy to strangers isn’t too different from one of those parents who talks loudly to their kid in earshot of all the adults around “Stop yelling, [insert kid name]. You’re embarrassing yourself in front of all these grown-ups.” No. You’re the embarrassed one, and your kid is paying the social price for it. Be a better parent.

2. Bring a bag filled with little toys. You can surprise your kids with a new toy every so often to keep their attention.

Flickr 9619972@N08 — CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The first problem you’re going to run across here is that you want to keep your kid occupied while not making that your full-time job on the flight. Few activities are more exhausting while sitting still than flying (having a monotonous desk job being one of the exceptions). Why would you make it even more exhausting by spending your whole time engaging your kid with crappy toys?

Aside from the time and energy factor, what you’ve brought on board is a real life version of the game Perfection: a mish-mash of random parts that will soon be all over the place. Remember that dinosaur shaped eraser that was first out of the bag of surprises but your kid lost interest in immediately? That’s the exact thing your kid will be screaming for at some random point but you won’t be able to find because you’ve been through so many pieces of imported toy garbage that you can’t remember where you put it.

3. Pack a quiet activity, like crayons and a coloring book, or legos.

Flickr donhomer — CC BY 2.0

Building on the last bit, don’t bring a set of anything onto the flight. Especially things that can roll around. Your kid is going to lay the crayons down on the tray table, immediately knock them onto the floor, and send them rolling backward. Good luck finding those with all the cabin lighting off, your sleepy gassy neighbors behind you, and your kid shrieking “WHERE’S THE CORNFLOWER BLUE ONE!!??”

Speaking of losing things: If your kid has a favorite toy, pack a double. This is worth losing some packing space. Nothing’s going to kill a trip faster than trying to solve the case of your two-year-old’s missing stuffed panda that has no exact replacement at the airport gift shop.

4. Check the in-flight entertainment before you fly.

Flickr scazon — CC BY 2.0

Forget the seatback in-flight entertainment. Bring a screen for every kid. iPad, Android tablet, TI BA II Plus. Doesn’t matter. If you’re traveling with children, the plane’s entertainment systems will be broken. That is how fate works. Load your devices up with as many videos and kid’s apps as you possibly can. Bring at least two headphone jack splitters (because you will lose one) and enough kids’ headphones to go around plus an extra (because one of your kids will bend and break a headphone jack within 5 minutes — this is a fact).

I’m totally down with parents who prefer not to give their kids screen time. But if there’s one time and place for it, it’s an airplane. Not only will it keep everyone calm, but it will make flying a treat your kids may actually look forward to.

You’ll also want to travel with an external power supply like this. You know how your in-seat entertainment system will likely not work? That’s doubly so for the in-seat power. You do not want Toy Story 2 suddenly flicking off to be the end of your relatively peaceful flight.

If you’re traveling with an infant who’s just not going to get into any video action, just do what you’d normally do at home. And also get used to walking up and down the aisle.

5 . Check the Airline’s Pre-Boarding Policy for Families

Flickr nasahubble — CC BY 2.0

Airlines differ on pre-boarding with kids. Some allow all families to preboard. Some permit just families traveling with “small” children. Some favor “small children under 2.” Others just don’t allow it because they want to frustrate passengers who are traveling with children and all the other passengers on the plane. Conventional advice is to check what your airline offers

Don’t waste your time. When the airline is offering pre-boarding for passengers who “need a little more time getting down the runway,” just casually take your family and… board. As long as you’re not a jackass about it, the gate agent will calmly take your tickets, scan them, and let you board. The most pushback I’ve received on this is an agent who let me know that pre-boarding is really meant for children under two but he’ll make an exception this one time. Wink.

6. Take Advantage of Gate Check for Your Stroller

Flickr wwward0 — CC BY 2.0

In theory, gate-checking kid stuff is super-awesome. You can take the stroller directly up to the plane, forget about it, and then get it back moments after you get off the plane. It’s like having your own valet in a jumpsuit and acoustic earmuffs. This is pretty sound advice when you have a direct flight.

For connecting flights, however, gate-checking a stroller is, in practice, a hellscape you never thought possible. You know that sinking feeling you have when your first flight arrives late and you start mentally plotting your course through the terminal to get to your connecting flight in under 9 minutes? Add the weight of a gate-checked stroller and the sinking feeling turns into a free fall. Without fail, your gate checked stroller will be late, and of all the things gate-checked, your stroller will be last, and it will be missing a critical part — usually a wheel — that a ground crew member will have to go down and look for.

This happened recently while connecting to Albany airport from Dulles, the latter of which was clearly designed by an architect strongly influenced by M.C. Escher and the snake from the Nokia phone Snake game. We did make our connecting flight, but only by about a minute. The effects of all the stress and running and daddy-why-are-you-sweating-so-much questions wasn’t worth it, though.

Though I’m the cusp of cycling the strollers out of the house for good (hurrah), if I needed a stroller at the destination next time on a connecting flight, I’d rent one from a baby rental place (note: they rent supplies for babies, they don’t rent actual babies), which can be found in a lot of places in the U.S.

Also, if you don’t gate check, you don’t have to stand around and make small talk with other parents. Unexpected perk!

7. Don’t Bring a Car Seat — Rent One

Flickr rbh — CC BY 2.0

Yes. Absolutely. But know what you’re getting into. Just when you thought the stressful part of your trip was over when you arrived, you need to deal with the car rental company’s kid seat issues. These things will probably happen:

  • A car rental employee will be sent to get the seat and disappear for a minimum of 20 minutes.
  • Once you’re provided with the seat, all car rental employees will vanish completely, leaving you to figure out a car seat which is nothing like the car seat you have at home.
  • When you’ve finally figured out how to install the seat — of course the strap goes around the hook and under the loop! — there will be a fatal defect of some kind, like a brace not tightening or a latch not working.
  • You will then have to find one of the missing rental car employees. Bonus points if the rental office closed immediately after you got your car seat.

So, build in time for the rented car seat, the devil’s travel tool.

8. Let the Kids Pack Their Own Little Bags

Flickr chej — CC BY-SA 2.0

Know what’s adorable? Seeing kids at the airport with a little kid-sized backpack, presumably filled with things the kid packed to feel more involved and to make sure that everything in the bag is something the kid actually wants to bring, therefore more likely to keep the kid occupied.

But you know what else? Kids suck at packing. Yesterday, my two-year-old wanted to bring a box of paperclips and glass of water in the car just to go to the grocery store. Sure, it made sense to him at the point of gathering these things, but no so much in the long run. Let’s be clear: Kids live in a state of it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time. That’s going to be evident when you open their bags on the plane only to find a pile of crushed saltines and a cable bill from 2009. Pack things you know they’ll want once you’re sealed in a giant metal flying tube.

9 . Make Sure You Pack Everything You May Need in Your Carry-On Bags

REI Co-op Roadtripper Duffel — XX-Large

No. A bag. Not bags. Have one bag with snacks, electronics, diapers, extra clothes, etc. Once you’re seated with kids, you’ll be shocked at how much room little humans can take up, leaving less space to rummage around. And if one kid is asleep while the other is asking for something (most likely a pouch of applesauce after you’re pretty sure you’ve run out), you don’t want to be rummaging around in more than one bag. Also, packing blankets is usually a waste of space, especially if you have a floor-sleeper like I do.

10. Don’t Triple Check that You’ve Packed Diapers

Flickr mig — CC BY 2.0

Actually, this is good advice. Everyone has their story about the time they forget to pack diapers for a 6-hour plane ride. Or that could just be me.


I occasionally write things here on Medium. You can listen to my sometimes dark but generally funny and useful Ask a Lawyer podcast, Unwonk, here. You are also welcome to read my Ask a Lawyer column in Deadspin here . I’m on Twitter here and here but still don’t understand why.