What I Learned During 32 Hours Of Air Travel With Two Kids

What I Learned During 32 Hours Of Air Travel With Two Kids

I instruct fellow parents on traveling like a pick-up artist instructs his students. Confidence is half the battle, and you should fake it even if you don’t feel it.
Mary Katharine Ham
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I’m to blame. I was stupid enough to tempt fate. After a 17-hour trip from Washington DC to L.A., I actually said, aloud, “Well, at least the way back can’t be this bad.”

It was the second time I’d tempted fate. The first was in deciding to fly across the country with two children under three in the first place. To explain why, let me back up a bit. I had a baby seven months ago. She was my second, and her arrival helped me recognize a pattern in my particular brand of postpartum crazy. Some people respond to having a baby by cocooning themselves in the house and rarely leaving. I go the opposite direction, making plans and getting out and about with a manic glee and determination that no number of children can stop me from doing a speech in California and July Fourth on Cape Cod in the same week.

My first kid clocked thousands of air miles in my lap on work trips. The second had at least 10 states on her list at six months. I hadn’t set foot on a plane until age 19 because my mother is saner than I.

This brings us back to the first leg of our cross-country trip. Four airports, three delays, one giant storm system, one rebooking, and 17 hours later, we were on the West Coast. But at least it couldn’t be that bad on the way back. About that: one missed flight, one extra night in a hotel, three airports, and 15 hours later, we were back on the East Coast.

Along the way, I learned some things, and not just how to gaze into the abyss and push a stroller through it.

Practice doesn’t make you perfect, but it makes you brave.

As with most things parenting, this is both a physical and a spiritual journey.

I instruct fellow parents on traveling like Mystery the pick-up artist instructs his students. Confidence is half the battle, and you should fake it even if you don’t feel it. Your first flight with your first kid is gonna freak you out, as is your first flight with two or three kids, or your first flight on your own with them.

But don’t show it. Your kids and fellow passengers will sense your fear. Be polite and matter-of-fact. Act like you’ve been there. Broadcasting confidence will make fellow flyers less likely to throw shade, and after you’ve faked that a couple of times, you’ll feel confident because you’ll have some successes under your belt.

I would not recommend 32 hours of holiday travel on your own with two children, but on a practical level, a three-hour flight with two children used to seem scary. Now it seems like a delightful afternoon. Just as suffering through a marathon makes a 10K seem like a breeze, these accidental training sessions with my kids made me stronger. Turns out all three of us were capable of more than I thought we were.

Get a direct flight.

Outside of hitching a ride with Kate and Wills and kids, this is your best bet for a smooth experience. First-class tickets and status can certainly make one’s life easier, but for the average traveler with kids, a direct flight is the most attainable of these perks. With some planning ahead and scouting around, it’s even possible to get directs for the same price as connecting flights. I knew connections on a holiday week were begging for trouble, but I didn’t anticipate just how much.

Use screens and snacks.

Everyone knows this is the No. 1 tool for parents on a plane, but it bears repeating. Plug in your iPad or Kindle, charge it fully, and download a couple go-to shows or movies, so you don’t have to depend on unreliable Internet connections.

Carry more snacks than you think you’ll ever need, including some unhealthy ones if you can bear it. Chocolate almonds staved off the two-year-old’s slide from tired to tantrum during a layover in Cincinnati.

For very little ones, nurse or bottle feed on take-off and landing to prevent ear pain.

Zen out, don’t stress out.

When you run into problems or delays, which you will, stay calm and parent on. I realized, 10 hours into our trip when we were still in Atlanta, that my toddler doesn’t know things. She has no idea how long it takes to get to California, so I put a smile on my face and acted like a 17-hour odyssey is simply what it takes to get to “where Mickey Mouse lives.” She seemed satisfied by this, if not thrilled. If I had been amped up and angry, she would have responded in kind. My placidity did not guarantee hers, but it didn’t exacerbate things.

Being calm also increases the chances that kindly airline employees will take pity on you and your sad situation and go out of their way to help you. Not only are you more pathetic than the irate business travelers they’re encountering, you’re more pleasant. Bring on the extra pretzels and waiving of change fees.

Transport your progeny without shame.

There is a segment of the population that believes you should apologize for even having children on a flight. This is silly and self-absorbed. It is incumbent upon you as a decent person and parent to do the best you can to keep your kids from bugging everyone, especially if said kids are of a sentient age and can take direction.

But you don’t have to feel ashamed or explain why you’re taking your children on a trip. You paid for your seat just like everyone else on the flight did, and if there’s a chance anyone under 70 will see a dime in Social Security, it’s coming from your kids, so they’re doing their part.

In all my travels, I’ve encountered far more kindness and help from strangers on planes than judgment. Don’t psyche yourself out by assuming everyone’s judging you when they’re often thinking, “Aww, remember that age?” For the truly self-absorbed, there’s technology that allows them to close the loop entirely and block out the rest of humanity, young and old: noise-canceling headphones.

I confess, however, that when various delays have put me on a late-night flight with an overtired baby, I’ve wished I had a onesie that read “Delta did this, not me.” In those situations, I’ve offered to buy drinks.

Plan your TSA process.

My TSA strategy is about the only thing in my life I plan and practice, and it’s worth it. Think through how you’re going to get yourself, your kids, and your stuff through. My personal process is: Grab three bins, put diaper bag on belt, inform TSA it has liquids and baby food in it, remove car seat with baby from folding stroller, set on floor, tell toddler to hold on to stroller and stay, unload purse from stroller, remove laptop from purse and put it in one bin, place purse in another bin, put extras such as sunglasses, phone, stray stuffed animals and pacifiers in third bin, break down stroller, place on belt, remove baby from car seat, use free arm to put car seat upside down on belt, place any other luggage on belt (though with two children, I check as much as possible), throw shoes on belt, grab toddler’s hand, walk through magnetometer as instructed by TSA with both children.

Some parents choose not to do strollers to keep things as simple as possible. The point is to know your process, whatever it is. Like a SEAL, you want your training to kick in and your movements to be automatic when under fire. I can dismantle and rebuild my situation so fast, I look like Optimus Prime.

Traveling with kids, you can carry liquids, but they’ll have to be double-checked, so plan for that time suck. Kids don’t have to take their shoes off. You can go through the magnetometer, not the millimeter wave machine, and then TSA will do a swab of your hands for screening.

Diversify your gear and games.

I talked to a couple of other hyper-flying parents for tips outside of the iPad. For those who want to limit screen time or whose kids just aren’t that into it, there’s:

—Painters tape: Amanda, mom of three, tries to get the bulkhead seats, and makes murals with her kids on the canvas before them with this easily removable tape on long flights. Traditional painters tape works fine, but the same type of tape is available in lots of colors and designs under the name “washi tape” at craft stores.

— Etch-a-Sketch: Elisha likes this for quiet drawing fun without having to chase pencils and crayons under seats

— Pilot’s Helper: Befriend as many gate agents, flight attendants, and pilots as possible. Maya’s young son gets a trash bag from the flight attendants and goes up and down the aisle collecting trash. It gets him out of his seat and moving—a toddler necessity—but for a good reason. I describe the pilot as a benevolent but no-nonsense figure whom we must please to get to our destination. The disembodied voice and uniform project authority. Why not use them?

— Card Games: Lauren just flew cross-country on her own with three boys, and suggests Go Fish! or something in that vein for the family to play together when the kids get antsy.

— Something New: Charity packs a surprise new toy for each kid to reveal during the flight. I sometimes add a new movie to the iPad and hype it as something that’s just for the plane.

— Something Old: I sometimes forget this but a change of clothes for each kid is essential. I once changed a blow-out diaper on the jetway and carried a basically naked nine-month-old onto a plane wrapped in her baby blanket. Rookie move, but please see above about my lack of shame.

— Carry-Ons: Many moms have each kid pack his own backpack with special items. My child doesn’t carry hers, so it ends up being something else for me to carry or something else for us to fight about, but it works well for others.

— Luggage Strap: Frankly, traveling with two kids would be easy if I didn’t have to travel with two car seats. A friend without kids bought me this because he thought the picture was hysterical and didn’t imagine I’d ever use it this way. Little did he know. There’s not always a kid in it, but I do use it to transport the toddler’s seat attached to my roller board.

— COSCO car seat and Snap n Go Stroller: I bought a COSCO car seat just for traveling. It weighs between 6 and 8 lbs and costs under $60. You can throw it over your shoulder or balance it on a pile of luggage or strap it to your roller board without trouble. I bring a low-maintenance stroller like the Snap ‘n Go, which is made to hold my infant’s car seat. Checking car seats and strollers, at the ticket counter or gate, is free. I’m not a particularly finicky mom, but the quality of car seats from rental car companies is not great, so I like to have my own.

Deltababy: I have a miracle diaper bag from some Belgian company that has tons of pockets, a cool-storage area, and opens into a bassinet without having to empty the bag. It’s a modern design feat and a parenting revelation. Between that and my sling, I always have a place for my baby to sleep. I wish I’d had this bag with my first kid.

So, there you go. I remain unbroken after 32 hours, and may even be calmer and stronger. All this being said, I’m definitely leaving my kids at home when I go to Cleveland next week. We all have our limits.

Mary Katharine Ham is a CNN contributor.

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