Air Travel with Children: Your One-Way Ticket to Crazy Town

Flying is not fun. This is fact. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not your friend. Granted, there was a time when flying was considered fun—glamorous, even. But that time has passed. Yes, there may be times when you enjoy the relative solitude of sitting on a plane, unfettered time you can use to just sit on your rear and catch up on all the episodes of [insert Netflix series here] that you missed last year. But by and large, the process of squeezing said rear into the little postage stamp that airlines try to pass off as an acceptable seat, is unpleasant at best.

Tell me this isn’t the face of a mom who is hovering dangerously close to the edge of sanity.

Now, imagine enduring this process with a child. Imagine it with two. Imagine it with more than two. No, wait—actually, don’t. I can’t even bear the thought. What I can tell you is that, for me anyway, flying with my two small children is nothing short of an Olympian-level test of my patience, endurance, and sheer determination to finish what I started. It is the sort of accomplishment that should earn us a Mommy Oscar, Grammy, Nobel Peace Prize, or similar honor, should such honors actually exist for moms. Which they should, by the way.

There are those who will tell you that traveling with children can be manageable—perhaps even pleasant—if managed correctly. Countless blog posts and Pinterest boards are devoted to how we as moms can make air travel less boo-hoo and more woo-hoo. If you have travel plans coming up, I encourage you to read these blogs and explore these Pins. But while you do, remember that air travel with your children will stink. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not your friend.

Consider the following scenarios, which are a small but very realistic sampling of the many ways flying the not-so-friendly skies can go horribly wrong when you have your brood in tow:

I did one thing – and only one thing – right on my last trip. I made the munchkins haul their own backpacks instead of trying to squeeze all of their stuff into mine.

While waiting in the seemingly never-ending, snaking line to check your bags, you will constantly remind your children that they are not monkeys and should therefore refrain from hanging on the security ropes or the stands holding them up. The second you turn your back on your children to speak with the agent behind the bag-check counter, the poles will come crashing down with a resounding clamor that will shake already anxious passengers to their core. You will acknowledge this is not a good start to your “adventure.” You will question where you went wrong as a parent.  

Your child will be asked by the TSA gatekeeper in front of the baggage scan area what his/her name is to make sure it matches the name you’ve presented on his/her ticket. This is clearly a question designed to sniff out child smugglers with falsified documents and all similar types of weirdos. Your excessively talkative child will suddenly become afflicted by an inexplicable inability to speak. Awkwardness will ensue. Or better yet, your child, failing to recognize the gravity of the moment, will lightheartedly smile and sing out the name “William,” which she and her brother have used regularly in their fantastical playing around the house. Awkwardness, extensive conversation, and a mild delay in progress will ensue.

You will be loaded down like a pack mule. You will have packed all of your earthly possessions and then a few more, just in case. You will have considered every possible scenario when you packed: a heat wave, a cold front, a monsoon…you get the idea. Your bags will be, understandably then, packed so tightly that, left alone for a few days, they would probably morph into the world’s largest diamond. Bags of this density tend to confound the TSA agents reviewing the X-rays of the luggage. As your bag passes through the dark tunnel of scrutiny, the agent will pause his screen and peer closely at the labyrinth of shapes and sizes contained in your bag. He will turn around to solicit the assistance of a coworker, and your eyes will lock with his. You will share a moment wherein you communicate to him in no uncertain terms that you are merely a seriously frazzled mom, not a bomb-wielding terrorist, and you NEED him to skip the bag search just this once. He will return your stare with a mixture of fear and disdain, look down at his keyboard, and silently advance the baggage conveyor belt without calling for a bag search. You will want to ask him for his name so that you can name your next child after him, but there is no time for such frivolity.   

Watch out! Little land mine coming through!

You will hear unsolicited comments from fellow travelers trying desperately to dodge the little land mines that your children have become. These comments will include: “My! You certainly have your hands full!” and “I bet you wish you had an extra set of arms right about now!” and “I bet they’re going to sleep well on the plane today!” You will actually enjoy hearing these comments, as they mean others are bearing witness to your struggles and pain.

Your child will declare, just seconds after the gate agent has announced that your plane is ready for departure and mere minutes after you last asked your child if he needed to go potty, that he does, in fact, need to use the restroom. You will sigh, collect your 26 carry-on items, and walk hurriedly to the restroom.

Once in the restroom, you will be forced to make difficult and soul-crushing decisions, such as “Which is the lesser of all evils: the stall with a super soaker’s spattering of pee all over the toilet seat, the stall with a toilet bowl that was clearly decimated with diarrhea by the last user, or the stall that has a bloody sanitary napkin playing peekaboo out of the little silver trashcan on the wall?” You will decide to go with the pee-splattered toilet seat as your children are already well-versed in the art and aftermath of tee-tee.

You will come to regret this decision as, seconds after you have plopped your little one on the seat, sounds of the unmistakable relief-filled release-of-bowels-held-tightly-for-hours-on-end explode from the stall next to you. This sound will be met, in your stall, with squeals of giggles and exclamations of “That was a BIG toot!” Next will come the smells. As you are willing your child to hurry up and finish his business, the odors wafting from the stall next door will become more intense…as will the commentary from the peanut gallery in your stall. So embarrassed will you be by this running commentary that you will attempt to wait out the passenger in the stall next door to you to avoid a potentially embarrassing accidental meeting of the eyes at the bathroom sink.

Bad move, Mom. You will emerge from the bathroom to hear your name being paged from the loudspeaker: “Last call for boarding, stupid delinquent Mom,” the terse voice will exclaim. You will run—as fast as you can run with two littles hanging on for dear life to the backpacks straps trailing behind you, anyway—and will make it on the plane by the (ever-increasing number of) hairs on your chinny-chin-chin. Once on the plane, you will field the smug, withering stairs of your fellow passengers as you stand there drenched in your own sweat, a complete and total wreck. You will “accidentally” hit a few of them on the side of the head with your backpack as you make your way to the back of the plane. Whoops!

Minutes after the plane has departed, your children will announce that they are “dying of thirst,” and you will happily remove the Contigo flip-top straw cups that you had brilliantly carried through security (empty, of course) and refilled with juice prior to departure. You will hand them to your children with a smile, but this smile will be short-lived, because once your children hit the “eject” button on their own personal weapon of mass destruction, a torrent of juice will be unleashed from the spout and all of your fellow passengers will unwittingly find themselves seated in the splash zone of this not-so-amusing park ride. Word to the wise: changes in cabin pressure do crazy things to spout cups. You’ve been told.  

Should you find yourself seated next to us on a future flight, my strong recommendation is to request a seat reassignment. Immediately.

Once the mortification of that incident has worn off (and as a mom, you will find the time it takes to do so is significantly shorter than it was before you had kids), you will turn your attention to amusing and appeasing these animals you call children. You will pull things out of your bag in a way that makes Mary Poppins’ huge magic carpet bag look like a microscopic coin purse. You will have packed coloring books, little magnet games, reusable sticker sets, and more. Basically you will have the entirety of Five Below, The Dollar Store, and the Dollar Spot at Target crammed with gusto into the relatively small confines of your trusty traveling backpack. You will foolishly think all these new goodies will entertain your children for the duration of your three-hour flight. Instead, they will have gone through every activity you packed in less than 30 minutes. You will ask yourself, “Why?”

The passenger in front of you, who will take this opportunity to relax and recline his seat back as far as it will go, will express surprise when your child in turn, begins to kick his seat with the ferocity of a joey trying to break free of its kangaroo mama’s pouch.

After the plane has landed (at long last), you will proceed to pick up your luggage from the baggage claim carousel. You’ll spy your bag and instruct your children to stand next to the pillar where you can keep an eye on them. And you will keep an eye on them, until the moment that your bag approaches, at which point you will take your eyes off of them for probably less than five seconds. It is in this moment that they will swipe someone’s empty baggage cart and gleefully careen it through the crowd of wary travelers with the speed and enthusiasm of someone who’s won one of those “you can keep everything you manage to put in your cart in 60 seconds” game shows.

You will expect a parade to be held in your honor upon your return to a safe place (otherwise known as anywhere besides an airport). Or at the very least, a medal to be placed around your neck. After all, you survived your trip without seriously hurting or killing anyone. Instead, you will be rewarded for your efforts with a husband who tells you he doesn’t know what you’re complaining about. After all, he’s the one who did all the work booking the tickets, getting the rental car, and helping you with the bags. And—oh, yeah—speaking of bags, all the hard work that you will have selflessly and thoughtfully poured into making sure that your children’s every need was considered and accounted for in your luggage will be summarily dismissed in one cruel and calloused accusation: “You packed too much.” Like a dagger through the heart. 

The moral of my story is, the next time you’re flying, look around and see if you notice a mom. Consider offering her your help, even if it’s just an understanding smile. If you have a spare medal in your purse, give it to her. Chances are, she’s earned it.

Elizabeth is a native Texan and stay at home mom to a 3-year-old human hurricane in pigtails and a 1-year-old son who is currently jockeying for the title of world’s biggest mama’s boy. She has been married to her husband, who lives in perpetual denial of the fact that he is, in fact, a Yankee, for eight long (and wonderful!) years. Together they have renovated a historical home with their own little hands (never again), braved the winters of New York (and decided they’d rather not), and discovered a profound and binding love of travel (travel without the children, that is). They currently reside in Fair Oaks Ranch where they are surrounded by family and deer.


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