Whoever said getting there is half the fun surely never flew with a toddler.
Getting there isn’t even half the battle; it is the battle.
If you accept this truth and view your flight as the trial to be endured for the payout of getting to visit a new destination, you will go into the experience with realistic expectations.
That said, there are measures you can take to make your journey more tolerable. Sometimes, you are even graced with that rare and beautiful flight that lives up to one blessed word: unremarkable.
The airplane part of traveling with kids (with toddlers being the most difficult group by far) warrants an entire book. But because I know how busy you are, I’ll give you the straight dope in just three easy installments.
Today, we’ll discuss getting along with others, or as I like to call, it:
Combating Pariah Status
It’s not all in your head. Nobody likes you when you’re flying with kids. Yes, those are withering glances being aimed your way. Yes, the gate agent did just sigh with exasperation when she saw you. Yes, that business traveler is irked that he’s behind you in the security line.
Who can blame them? You and your children are going to make a trying journey/workday all the more trying, what with all their fussing, rambunctiousness, and requirement for five times the hand luggage as anyone else.
Empower yourself with these words: These flights are for the paying public. We bought tickets just like everyone else. Nobody gets to pick who they fly with. WE HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO BE HERE.
(And to those rude business travelers —who are often bigger babies than anybody who’s ever sat on my lap: Mr./Ms. Important Pants, is this your big, important private jet? No? Then shut up and take your seat with the rest of us. Then I’ll add a Please. Because I try to adhere to the same good manners that I foster in my kids.)
That said, plenty of people will be kind and helpful to you. Usually those people are also parents, and understand that this trip is tougher for you than most people, and that your child isn’t crying because you are obliviously allowing her to cry.
Navigating between these two extremes, you can get what you need without annoying and alienating your fellow travelers. Too much.
First of all, smile and say hi. Smile and say hi with all the sycophantic exuberance you’d use when being introduced on a job interview. Because you need to make friends. Lots of friends.
Smile and say hi to the gate agent. He might grant you an extra seat or bulkhead row.
Smile and say hi to your seat neighbors. They might have more patience with you than if all the noise was coming from some faceless screaming kid.
Smile and say hi to the people behind you in the security line. They might grumble less when you fill the entire belt with your hand luggage.
Then remember this:
To be merciful to your fellow travelers, you must aim to accomplish two impossible tasks: keep your kids quiet, and for the love of all that is holy, try to curb seat kicking.
Keeping a baby or toddler quiet on a flight is a feat so impossible that even the Greek gods wouldn’t wish it on a mortal. Here’s the best you can do:
1. Try to schedule overnight flights.
If your flight is going to be a long one, use your child’s circadian rhythm to your advantage. Most small kids will readily fall asleep on a plane. And then sleep at an uninterrupted depth that I would only get in my wildest inflight dreams.
If those dreams weren’t interrupted by an excruciating crick in my neck.
2. Have a bag of tricks prepared.
We dealt with this topic in the epic gear post, and will deal with it again in another installment. Suffice to say that you should pull out all the stops in packing a separate bag full of toys and snacks, then pull out those stops g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y throughout the flight.
3. Apologize profusely.
Yes, you are disturbing others. At least let them know that you are trying your darnedest to keep the peace. Because otherwise people become irate not just because of the noise, but also because of perceived apathy on your part.
Who among us hasn’t heard (or thought), “Why won’t they shut that kid up?” As if stopping the screaming is just something you haven’t bothered doing yet.
4. Expose your kids to flights and long car rides early and often.
Because I firmly believe that the ability to sit contentedly in a small space for hours is equal parts nature and nurture. If my kids weren’t pretty good on planes (and gratefully, they are pros), Globe-toddling probably wouldn’t exist.
5. Remember that noisy toys are nearly as annoying as crying kids.
I am unable to forget a transcontinental flight over a decade ago when a little girl pressed a button that struck a harp chord and said, Your wish is granted!” at least 60,000 times.
Also annoying: DVDs cranked to full volume. Be kind. Use headphones.
6. Even happy kids are only cute to strangers for, oh, 60 seconds.
After that, a cheerful “Wook! Airpwane!” whooped endlessly is going to drive others to drink. And with the price of inflight beverages, they’re not going to be happy about it.
As far as seat kicking goes, there is often little you can do if your child hasn’t reached the age of obedience (say under two-and-a-half).
Luckily, seat kicking isn’t generally an issue unless your child is in a car seat —otherwise their wee legs won’t reach the seat in front of them, even in these days of non-existent legroom.
If your child is in a car seat, then you can give the person in front of you a couple of choices. This not only let’s them pick their own lesser of two evils, but also makes them feel like they have a say in their fate. And people like that.
Choice #1: To recline or not get kicked.
With most car seats, you can choose either front- or rear-facing orientation. On a plane, each has an unpleasant side effect.
If you place the seat facing forward, little feet press up against the seat in front of them.
And little feet irresistibly kick. And flex. And make the person in front of you contemplate hitting you. Because they don’t want to admit to wanting to hit your kid.
Rear-facing seats present their own pickle. Economy seats being what they are, the top of the seat rests right up against the seat in front of it, rendering that little recline button on that passenger’s armrest useless.
Here’s the script:
“Hi,” you say say with award-winning congeniality. “I’m so sorry, but I’d like to ask you what you’d prefer. I can either face his/her seat forward, and do my best to keep him/her from kicking your seat. But he/she is too little to understand and I can’t promise I’ll be able to stop it. Or I can face the seat backwards, but you won’t be able to recline. I’m so, so sorry about this. What’s better for you?”
(For anyone reading this who doesn’t have kids: the reason we can’t stop this is because, a) toddlers do whatever the hell they want with reckless abandon unless restrained, and b) if you try to restrain a kicking toddler, they will only get angry and kick more.)
Choice #2: Get kicked, or get to know us.
If you’re traveling with another adult, you can offer to have one of you sit in front of your child, thereby absorbing any fancy footwork on your kid’s part.
Again, this is a lose-lose for your neighbor, because in switching seats, they end up sharing your chaotic row. People almost never choose the second option. But you showed goodwill, and…
…encouraged them to move. If the flight isn’t full, this exchange seems to give folks tacit permission to relocate without offending anyone.
Truth: it’s really better for everyone this way.
Here’s that script:
“I’m sorry, but would it be better for you if one of us sat there so that my child won’t kick your seat? You can sit in this aisle seat instead.” (Because car seats must go in window seats by law. And offering them the middle seat between you and your baby is so insane that its comical.)
When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough
You can do all of these things, and some people will still resent your presence and spare you no kindness.
As I said, they are not the arbiters of who may and may not fly and you shouldn’t be cowed by them.
What you can do is make sure that you are doing everything in your power to be as kind and courteous to your fellow passengers as possible.
And with a little luck, they will do the same.
Isn’t it nice when the grownups behave better than the children?