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Kids and airlines CAN mix

Bring some toys. Let them watch a movie. And don't ignore them -- or their misbehavior.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 11, 2011 9:36AM
Recently I heard about what a former co-worker took onto the plane for her preschool-age daughter: 

Three puzzles, eight card games, two My Little Ponies (each with its own hairbrush), a doll (plus clothes and blanket), two containers of modeling clay, five books, seven DVDs, eight Highlights magazines, two sticker books, two coloring books, a Fisher-Price camera, two tablets of paper, crayons, a Leapfrog computer tablet, a fleece blanket and a stuffed mastodon.

All that for a flight lasting less than four hours. Yikes.

Here's what we used to take along on our annual Alaska-to-East-Coast flights, back before seatback screens, DigiPlayers and laptops that play DVDs:
  • Colorforms (which are now back! -- everything old is new) and a "magic slate" (those never went away).
  • One of those miniature puzzles from Hallmark (they fit on the tray tables).
  • The smallest deck of cards we could find (about 2 by 3 inches).
  • A box of multicolored toothpicks, which we used to play pick-up sticks.
  • A few Yahtzee score sheets and 10 miniature dice -- you only need five, but I figured some would get lost (and they did).
  • Coloring book and crayons.
  • A couple of storybooks and, when she got a little older, some Mad Libs
Suddenly that sounds like a lot, too. But it all fit neatly into a bag small enough to be toted by a tired 6-year-old. Had there been a DigiPlayer, it's likely I would have rented one; the sheer novelty of having her own little screen would have fascinated my daughter, especially since her TV time at home was limited.

Stupid parent tricks

In the past year I've made 11 airline trips, some short and some long. I watched some kids handle travel well and others melt down completely.
Some of the parents I felt sorry for, because they were overwhelmed by the needs of more than one child. Other parents I wanted to shake, frankly, because they committed one or more of the following sins:
  • They didn't bring anything for their children to play with, listen to or read.
  • They didn't bring anything the kids could eat or drink; one little packet of party mix isn't enough to keep a kid full on a longer flight.
  • They ignored their children when the tots started screaming or kicking the seats in front of them.

I don't know any adults who like being stuck in a seat with nothing to do for hours at a time. Imagine being 3 years old and hard-wired for constant movement, but strapped into a seat and told to "behave."

A little planning goes a long way

There's been talk of having child-free flights, because some travelers are fed up. The parents of young children always chime in indignantly that toddlers are people, too, and they have the right to travel.

I agree. But the adults traveling with them need to do a little planning. Bring along a number of activities and new stories, and take out one at a time. Rent that video player or bring along a favorite movie or series and plug it into a laptop. Load the child's favorite music onto an MP3 player.

Pack some snacks, as healthy as you can make them; if you can afford it, include something the kids love but rarely get. Most of all, pay attention to them during the flight, instead of zoning out with headphones or doing the crossword puzzle in the inflight magazine.

I know from personal experience that it's hard to keep a kid from going stir-crazy during airline trips. (Our travel days used to last 14 hours or more.) There's nowhere to run, to play, to climb. Your child is bored and restless but he's repeatedly told to sit still. He wants to move around but the captain has turned on the "fasten seat belts" sign.

Put yourself in his adorable little sneakers. How do you feel after a long flight? I bet the answer isn't "refreshed and happy." You're stiff and thirsty and vaguely headachy -- but you at least have context, i.e., "Only another 40 minutes before we land, thank goodness."

Little kids can't process concepts like that. Forty minutes might as well be 40 years.

Tired of getting dirty looks from passengers when you enter a plane with a small child? Then step up. If your children need to be comforted, entertained, distracted or reassured, then do it.

P.S. Mad Libs are fun for adults, too.

MSN Money columnist Donna Freedman blogs at
Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.

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