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Flying With Kids: A Survival Guide

By Budget Travel
updated February 21, 2017

Ryanair's announcement of child-free flights earlier this year may have been just a joke, but the reality is that new fees and restrictions have made flying with children harder for many families. Here are some tips on how to prepare for a flight, navigate fees, and keep the whole gang happy along the way.


Due to capacity cuts in the last decade, many planes consistently fly full. That means reserving a block of adjacent seats for a family can be difficult. The best advice is also the simplest: book your flight as early as possible. If nothing suitable is available, call the airline and make a request—airlines are hardly flush with cash at the moment and are certainly keen to keep your business.

Unfortunately, sometimes there really isn’t anything an airline agent can do to help out. There’s still one possible recourse: unoccupied seats reserved for passengers with disabilities are often released just prior to a flight, so check back with your airline a few days before you’re scheduled to fly and see if any of these have opened up.


Traveling with young children can mean lugging around strollers and car seats. Thankfully, one area in which airlines have retained some leniency is in gate-check fees for families. True, some airlines have eliminated the perk of free stroller checking, but others—including Delta, Southwest, Virgin, and JetBlue—place no restrictions on gate-checking strollers, and other airlines only restrict large non-collapsible strollers or those weighing 20 pounds or more. Many airlines also don’t count diaper bags in carry-on weight limits (call ahead to find out if that's the case for the airline you're flying).

There’s another hidden danger in the check-in process: switched seats. Due, again, to capacity constraints (and in some cases a plane substitution), some families find themselves separated even if they had originally purchased a block of seats. Airline agents may be able to remedy the situation, but sometimes the only way to reunite yourself with a child is through some old-fashioned seat-haggling with other passengers. Many flyers have been in the same situation and would be happy to accommodate your request—but at the other end of the spectrum, a few irritable passengers may show you nothing but spite for bringing children on the flight, regardless of how well mannered the munchkins are. In either case, always be courteous.

Finally, boarding: while families with children were once given boarding priority, the New York Times reports that this is no longer necessarily the case—first-class passengers are now the first to step aboard. To ensure smooth boarding, have everything prepared well in advance. Tuck extra items away into your carry-on, make sure the kids have finished up any open snacks, and guide them to their seats as efficiently as possible. Don’t be the scattered, inconsiderate parent holding up the rest of the passengers.

The Flight

So you’ve paid your fees, defended your block of seats against interlopers, and gotten your kids settled in with a minimum of fuss. Now all that’s left is the flight itself.

Again, the best advice is simply to be prepared. Pack games and treats to keep the children occupied. Make sure your distractions aren’t the kind that could cause an awkward mess on the seats (and other passengers). Electronic games are one option, but they may have to be turned off during takeoff and landing, so make sure your kids can handle the interruption without throwing a tantrum.

Long flights present particular problems for keeping kids interested. One solution is to pack a secret stash of games and candy and dole them out slowly over the course of the flight. The kids will love the surprises, and your fellow passengers will thank you for keeping things calm.

Food is another issue. Sweet treats are all right, but on longer flights you might want your kid to have something with actual nutrition, and airlines have cut back on cabin service for many routes. Prepare meals that can be eaten easily on a plane—trail mix, crackers, simple sandwiches—and that have a low risk of being strewn about the cabin due to turbulence at mealtime. Remember that some items (especially liquids) might not make it through security, and plan accordingly.

Lastly: keep in mind that everyone else is dealing with the stresses of air travel along with you, and rambunctious children can only make their experiences more excruciating. Letting your kids treat the plane as a playground won’t endear you to your fellow flyers—or to the flight attendants, who have their hands full without having to chase down your toddler—and it might just bring Ryanair’s “child-free flights” that much closer to reality.

Flying with children can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be a calamity. With patience—and a few extra precautions—your flight can pass as smoothly as any solo trip.

And for those that have passed the test already, what are your tips for flying with kids? Share your comments and stories below.

—Ryan Murphy


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