How to Keep Kids Quiet and Happy on Flights

Much of this information comes from travel expert and FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney, whose now teenage daughter has been a frequent flyer since infancy.

Whether you’re flying over the holidays, jetting off on summer vacation or simply enjoying an impromptu family getaway, here are some tips for traveling with children that can be real life-savers.

What once-a-year travelers should know

Before You Go

General advice: Tell children in advance what to expect every step of the way, especially those who have never flown before. What’s boring to you – from going through the airport to actually getting on a plane – may be exciting for them. Or even scary.

Airport security: If you’ve got time, sign up with a government trusted traveler program so you and the kids can breeze through the screening lines. Otherwise, explain all security procedures in detail – but simply – including what they’ll have to do such as putting backpacks on conveyor belts (just like Mommy or Daddy). Don’t make it sound like a big deal; remember, kids take their cues from grown-ups and if you treat security matter-of-factly, so will they.

Security procedures for kids 12 and under

For older kids: Show them maps of the journey they’ll take and pictures of the plane. Point out attractions you’ll visit once you reach your destination.

For younger kids: Consider reading them a book on the topic (we’ve seen tons of titles for children including, Going on a Plane, My First Trip on an Airplane and many more). We know older kids have phones but if you’re brave, tell the little ones they too will be able to use a camera (or phone) as a special privilege from time to time to take pictures for their friends. If they’re good, that is. Which brings us to The Talk.

For all kids: This is where The Talk comes in, which is you telling the kids what kind of behavior you expect from them – on the plane, in the airport. Then explain that, yes, they can still have fun, but they’ll have to use their indoor voices and play nice. Further explain that there will be some nice surprises on the plane – or should you hold on to that information? In any event, this leads us to our next topic, packing.

How to pack absolutely everything in a carry-on

What to Pack

Suggestions from a veteran parent who’s been there.

Gum and/or hard candies: Even minor pressure changes can be hard on little ones’ ears but these small treats may solve the problem. For infants, feed them (or consider using a pacifier).

Special treats: A pack of peanuts? Hah! Consider bringing special treats (and by special, we mean junk food): chips, cookies and/or chocolate usually does the trick. We are not above bribery for good behavior if the situation calls for it. And finally, set aside some of the treats as prizes for games (see below).

Meals: Unless you’re traveling overseas or in first or business class, you’ll have to pay for meals. If you go to that expense, who knows if the kids will actually eat it? Pack some favorite sandwiches from home or the local sub shop (and don’t forget the napkins and wet wipes).

New toys: No, we are not talking about blowing a bundle at Toys R Us. We mean cheap, plastic dime store-type stuff that can be found at any big-box drug store. You know, little things to pull from a purse to bedazzle a seat-kicking toddler with (did we mention we’re not above bribery?).

Old toys: Old favorites can be a comfort (and a big help at naptime). Caution: Do not bring a child’s very favorite stuffed animal because if old Bobo goes missing, you’ll never hear the end of it.

Paper, crayons: Airplane tray tables were meant for art work. Suggest the child draws himself sitting on the plane. Good for tic-tac-toe, too.

Electronics: Bring anything that can play movies or favorite TV shows. There’s no substitute for the electronic babysitter, am I right, parents?

What Else to Do on the Plane

Sightsee: Take a trip down the aisle with a toddler, or visit the lavatory with all those cool knobs and fixtures (well, it’s cool to a child). Caution: Do not do this during beverage service. Do not block other passengers. Above all, do not do this when the seatbelt sign is on.

Games with prizes: This is where those treats and cheap plastic toys come in handy. Play a game of ‘name your favorite thing’ that starts with the letter A and proceed to B and so on.

When All Else Fails

Don’t forget the cocktails: No, not for the kids – for other adult passengers. Buying a round of alcoholic beverages (or a snack for travelers seated around you can work wonders at soothing tempers if your child is behaving badly.

Look like you’re trying: Many passengers say what they most dislike about being seated near children is parents who do nothing while the little one is screaming. Yes, sometimes kids cry and there’s not a lot you can do about it – but if you at least are seen making an effort at soothing them, people will be more understanding.

Don’t worry: We were all kids once – even those passengers giving you those nasty looks. Do what you can but don’t forget to have fun. The kids won’t be kids forever.

More from Rick Seaney:

Flying With Kids: How to Turn Holy Terrors Into Little Angels


Published: November 14, 2013