You've spent countless hours preparing the family for the big day, and it has finally arrived. You've packed wisely (and legally), nixed the layovers, labored over seat assignments, photocopied birth certificates and passports. You've chosen a flight to coincide with nap time, invested in the latest, hottest, newly released DVD and stocked up on new iPod downloads, all for the sake of the children.
You know you can't plan for everything, but you've planned for what you can. Now it's time to put that plan into motion.
ARRIVING AT THE AIRPORT
Don't be late
The airlines say it, the FAA says it, but you can never hear it enough, especially when kids are involved: Give yourself plenty of time. How early you need to arrive depends upon a variety of factors, including your airline, airport, plans for parking, flight time and whether or not you are checking baggage. If you're traveling during school vacations, chances are good the airport will be crowded with other families doing the same. We recommend arriving at least ninety minutes ahead of your scheduled departure. Keep in mind that some destinations (such as international flights and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have earlier check-in times than others; if you miss the plane, it can be very difficult for you to find enough seats or seats together on a later flight.
Know the location and workings of long-term parking
Long-term parking is the most economical place to leave your car, but it's also the least convenient. Several years ago, when flying out of JFK alone with my son, it took me a solid hour to get from long-term parking to my terminal. It was raining, and I had a stroller and checked bags, and I was ready to go home before I even stepped foot into the airport. In most cases, you'll need to take a bus, tram or train to the terminal from long-term parking; be sure you know the schedule before you get there and how you are going to handle strollers, luggage, and kids in tow.
Get a ride to the airport
If you can, get a ride to the airport, so you don’t have to worry about parking and can be dropped off at the curb. I highly recommend asking a family member or friend for a ride to the airport. If they don't have room in their car, offer to let them use yours. If you can't catch a ride and you can afford it, consider hiring a car service. If you need to drive and have two adults, have one parent dropped off at the curb with the kids and the luggage while the other parks the car.
Check in online and curbside
When possible, check-in online from home. Take advantage of online check-in, and print your boarding passes ahead of time from home. It will save you aggravation and time at the airport; more importantly, getting seat assignments near one another is imperative when traveling in a group, especially on full or sold-out flights. Make sure you have your seats assigned together ahead of time when you book, or call before the flight to arrange it. Take advantage of curbside check-in and porters where available. It’s well worth the tip you pay them when you’re loaded down with luggage and kids.
Consider your seat choices
If you are traveling with an infant consider asking for a seat in the back of the plane. If there are any empty seats left on the flight, chances are they will be there, and you might have extra room to stretch out. In addition, you are closer to the bathrooms, will have extra standing space and will have flight attendants close at hand, if you need them. Bulkhead seats have a little extra leg room, and remember that you'll need to avoid exit-row seats with kids.
Carry on only what you need
Presumably, you've done this at home, but go over the bags before you check anything. When you've got children, the ratio of carried to checked items is a careful balancing act. Even though it may feel like you need to pack half the house in your carry-on, be realistic about what you really need with you on the plane. Being bogged down by loads of unnecessary weight can be as unpleasant as having too little. Try to pack a few surprises for the kids in your carry-on. Go to a discount store, and pick up a couple of small inexpensive items like stickers, small toys or action figures for younger kids and music, books or handheld games for older kids. If you can manage it, consider bringing a portable DVD player or small laptop in your carry-on for movies.
Let kids who are old enough to help do so
Children, ages 3 and older, should be able to manage their own small carry-on bags through the airport. Something with wheels or a small backpack is ideal. Older kids can also help wheel the checked bags inside — giving people jobs to do will keep them focused and make your life easier.
PREPARING FOR SECURITY
Know the rules
Again, you'll do the real planning for this at home, but double check your items before getting in the security line. You must be aware of the 3-1-1- rule for carry-on baggage. You can bring no liquid or gel that's more than three ounces, and you are permitted one quart-sized baggie per person, in which to store them.
However, if you are traveling with an infant or toddler, you are permitted to pack breastmilk, formula, juice and medications in "reasonable" quantities in your carry-on luggage. These liquids are not subject to the three-ounce rule. If you are traveling with any of these items, you should place them in a separate (second) baggie, and remove them from your carry-on prior to going through security. Make sure you have not packed any prohibited items in your carry-on. Keep adult boarding passes and ID's handy, as you will be asked to present them while passing through security.
PASSING THROUGH SECURITY
Talk the kids through this beforehand. If you don't fly often, discuss with your children ahead of time what this process will be like and what will be expected of them. Even if you are frequent flyers, remind your children to be on their best behavior. If they see you taking it seriously, they are more apt to do so themselves. Review the FAA’s tipsfor getting through the screening process.
Everything but the kitchen sink must pass through the X-ray machine
All baby gear, including strollers and car seats, will need to be collapsed and put through the X-ray machine; you will need to remove backpacks and infant carriers. All of your teen's electronics will need to go through, as well. Children, along with adults, will need to remove their shoes and put them through x-ray, so consider Velcro or something that is easy to get on and off — this will come in handy on the plane, as well. It may seem like common sense, but avoid packing any children's toys that even remotely resemble weapons — they will be taken from you. When we were returning from Disney one year, they confiscated my son's pirate sword.
Kids must also go through the metal detector
If your child can walk, he or she will likely be asked to pass through the metal detector alone. If not, you may carry your child through with you. If the alarm sounds, you will be inspected together by an agent. No one will separate you from your children.
Divide and conquer with little kids
If there are two adults in your party, it's often helpful to assign a task to each. My husband is usually in charge of the gear, and I'm in charge of helping the kids — getting shoes and sweatshirts on and off, directing them through the metal detector, etc.
IN THE TERMINAL
Don't just sit there
Once you've made it through what is generally the least pleasant part of the airport experience with kids, you should have some time to kill. Don't panic or break out the surprise ammunition just yet. (Save those items until you're trapped on the plane with nowhere to go.) Take advantage of the opportunity to move while you still can.
Get something to eat
Airport food courts and restaurants are a great place to waste some time, and they also serve a practical purpose. You won't be getting anything good on the place, so feed the kids now. Happily, kid-friendly fare and restaurants are becoming much more visible at airports these days. Chains abound. Avoid overly messy or smelly foods, and take any leftovers with you in your carry-on. If you’re lucky enough to be on a plane that is still serving meals, order kids’ meals a few days in advance.
Inquire about airport play areas
If your kids are small, see if there is an airport play area where they can burn off some energy. Many airports have them these days in some form or another, whether they are funded by the airport itself, an airline or some local sponsor. Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago all have great kids' areas that are sponsored by local children's museums, and Seattle's Sea Tac has a cool aviation-themed area, as well as a separate infant room with rocking chairs and a private bathroom.
Take advantage of airline lounges
If you can, absolutely take advantage of airline lounges when traveling with your kids. Once primarily full of business travelers, you now see many more families making use of them, so much so that many have even added separate family rooms and amenities. They are a great place to hang out because they often offer televisions, games, reading material, free snacks, free wireless and clean bathrooms. Rules and fees vary by club, but you can purchase day passes, as well as annual or lifetime memberships, and, if you are traveling first class or if you're an elite member of your airline's frequent flier program, you're usually entitled to free or discounted admission. Priority Pass is the world’s largest independent airport lounge access program and gets you in to over 600 clubs worldwide for an annual fee starting at $99, while also requiring you to pay $27 dollars per visit. A platinum American Express card will also gain you entrance to many of these at no charge.
Take a bathroom break just before boarding
They'll inevitably have to go again as soon as you're seated, but do it anyway. If you have a child who is potty training, consider switching to a pull-up just before boarding. It’s a personal decision, but remember: Yes, you can change their clothes, but they are stuck in that seat (and you are stuck in the one next to them) for the duration for the flight.
BOARDING THE PLANE
Make sure you make it back to your gate in time for the first boarding call at least half hour ahead of time — but not too long before. Normally, families traveling with young children are allowed to board right after the first-class and elite passengers. Take advantage of this, especially if you are traveling with a lot of gear. If you are planning to use a car seat on the plane, it will be much easier to install before the rush of passengers, and flight attendants will be more apt to give you a hand if you need it. If you are traveling with a stroller, you will leave it just as you are stepping into the plane, and will reclaim it as you step off.
ON THE PLANE
Give kids time to settle themselves
Younger kids will be excited and anxious, and curious about everything in their new space. This is the time to let them investigate, while it's noisy and no one is paying attention to them.
Don't stow too much
Decide what you should keep at your feet, as opposed to in the overhead bin. Items you will need frequently should be kept close at hand, especially if you have a window or middle seat. Chances are, your seatmates will be getting up enough times just on account of bathroom breaks.
Avoid dehydration, and move around
While in the air, especially if it's a longer flight, be sure to keep the kids hydrated, and encourage them to get up at least once and walk up and down the isle. This will pay off later, as they'll feel better when you land. Water or juice is the best choice for a drink; drinks with caffeine should be avoided.
Teach children about equalizing
Explain to kids what to do if their ears are hurting or if they are having trouble hearing. If you think children are having difficulty equalizing their ears, have them take a small drink or give babies a bottle. Older kids can suck lollipops or chew gum.
Ask about free stuff
Although increasingly rare, kids' airplane activity packs do still exist, and there is no harm in asking about them. Anything new is bound to be cooler than something you brought along.
Break out some surprises
You'll know when you need to resort to this. When the kids start to get antsy, surprise them with that new DS game, toy or special treat.
Talk to your children
It sounds silly, but seriously, how often do you get the chance to spend this much uninterrupted time with your kids? Take advantage of the time together, and do your best to get older kids to take off the iPod for a few minutes and talk about what they are looking forward to most about the trip. With younger kids, pull them close, and make up a story together.
Dismiss grouchy passengers, and be proud of your kids
Let's face it: On every flight, there will be a few people who, no matter how well your children do, are inherently grumpy or just plain old don't like kids. They'll grumble under their breath when your child drops something or turn around and sneer when voices get too loud. But really, who cares? You'll never see them again after the flight, so return any sneers with a smile, and be proud of your kids. They have as much of a right to be there as anyone.
Family Vacation Critic is published by online travel specialist The Independent Traveler, Inc. — a subsidiary of TripAdvisor LLC and the creator of Cruise Critic, the leading cruise news and reviews Web site.