Long haul flights can be rough for anyone, but it is especially challenging when flying with little kids. This is part 2 of a 5 part series and covers surviving the airport.
Extra hands is the single most helpful thing when checking in, particularly if flying as the sole adult. Don’t be me wrestling a 2.5 year old, massive cat in a carrier, 2 carry-on bags, and 4 checked bags from the airport door to the counter by myself because Indian security won’t let anyone without a ticket in the doors (so no help from DH) and all the guys supposed to assist you were off taking photos of some celebrity entering the airport at the other end.
If flying solo with kids, get someone to take you to the airport, park, and enter with you if at all possible. My most recent flight my mom and step-dad drove us, helped haul 2 kids, 1 stroller, 3 carry-on bags, and 6 checked bags up to the check-in counter. And then entertained the kids while I did the whole check-in and bag drop off business.
If you’re on your own (or even with helpers), see if you can go to a priority line if lines are long. The US is less good about this than internationally, but sometimes you get to go in the priority/business/people with disabilities line. This is also true if you have to do a documents check/immigration line at a connecting airport. We got to go through the much shorter EU passports line in Frankfurt with our US passports because of having little kids.
Getting Through Security
The hardest part of the airport is getting through security because you have to unload and load your items, remove shoes, take kids out of strollers, etc. Particularly hard if there’s one of you and 2+ of them. Preplanning where you put packed items is key.
-Liquids–all liquids, gels, things that ooze, need to be in quart-sized bags. One per person. I use one bag for medicines, chapstick, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, etc. The other two bags (there are 3 of us when I travel alone), I use for liquid food. Individual peanut butter containers and pouches. Food for babies is exempt, but I stick the pouches in the bags anyway and have never had an issue with them being 3.5 or 4 oz. Put the liquid bags somewhere really easily accessible. I have an outer slot on my carry-on that I stick the liquid bags into and nothing else. Easy to pull out and automatic as I put them there every time.
-Electronics. Normally laptops and iPads/tablets need to come out of bags. My camera gear rarely has to come out, except in India where they wanted ALL electronics out, including chargers! My carry-on bag has a laptop slot that I keep it in and it’s easy to access. I stick the tablet in my son’s carry-on and it’s easy to pull out there too.
-Food. TSA has newly started requesting food to be pulled out and placed on the belt. I don’t think it’s required yet at the time of this writing, but they say it can slow things down if you don’t. I keep all my snacks in gallon Ziplocs in my son’s bag. So I pull out that bag or two, plus my iPad.
-Shoes. Most airports don’t require little kids to take off their shoes, so ask at yours before starting on your kids. As an adult, wear shoes that come off easily. I do on occasion wear my hiking boots when flying to cut down on luggage weight or ensure they don’t get lost, but they are a pain to take on and off and I don’t wear them if traveling alone with the kids.
Now you’re at security. If kids are in strollers, keep them there until the last minute! Get everything onto the belt, then take out kids and send the stroller through security. Unless you have two adults, then I send the stroller through first. One adult takes the kid(s) through security, grabs the stroller and sticks kid(s) back in. Other adult meanwhile sends items through the scanner.
On the other side, have kids sit on a chair, stand next to you, or hold them until the stroller appears.
Airport Survival: Post Security
-Play Areas. Google your airport’s name and “kid play area.” Most airports these days have a play area. Some have more than 1. If you’re lucky, there will be one in your concourse or a nearby one and you can play there until the flight.
Frankfurt had some great ones. A concourse had our favorite with a large plane kids could climb in, “fly,” and go down the slide. There was also a fire truck, space to run, and some little ride-on things. B concourse had a helicopter with slide. Z concourse had a climbing wall thing, but was our least favorite. Didn’t try the other ones.
Dulles Airport has a play area in Concourse B, which was not near our gate area but we’ve used in the past.
-No play area?
My kids are obsessed with the moving sidewalks. If it’s not a busy time of day, I let them go down and back and down and back and down and back.
Walk! and Walk! and Walk! No one says you need to go right to your gate. If you have time, wander the airport! That’s how we found out the play area in A at Frankfurt was better than the one at B where our gate was.
Get a snack. Use the bathroom. Watch airplanes.
-Watch a movie. I don’t normally pull out the electronics until we’re on the plane. But, our last flight departed at 10 pm. We were through security by 7:30 pm and they were worn out (they normally go to bed by 7:30). I found a quiet corner, and put on a movie I’d downloaded from Netflix earlier. They vegged and watched airplanes and the movie. Since I was wanting them to fall asleep on the plane right away, this gave them the movie time they associate with planes while ensuring they still slept.
Super Long Connection Time?
-Transit Hotel-If you’re in for a really long connection, check and see if your airport has an in-airport hotel. Some have hotels you can use without going through customs or leaving the security area. That means you don’t have to pick up checked bags or do security again. We did this on a Delhi, India-Colombo, Sri Lanka-Male, Maldives flight where we had 8 hours overnight to kill. Got a hotel room and slept for a while. Our hotel room was freezing and they only provided sheets (not comforters), so I was really glad to have my sweatshirt.
This website has a guide to many airports around the world with transit hotels, nearby hotels, wifi, tours, etc.
-Take a Tour-some airports offer tours either of the airport or the connected city for people with long enough connections. Not all cater to kids, but some do! Frankfurt for example does a behind-the-scenes tour of their airport.
Most airports have great food options and eating too much is more a risk than eating too little. However, I always plan on bringing food for the airport (and connections) as well. This food always includes fruit of some sort (applesauce and mixed fruit/veggie pouches are popular, or clementines) and a protein source.
Some airports have surprisingly little food choices, or the food is not what your little kid likes/knows/prefers. Some airports practically shut down on certain holidays (I’m looking at you Frankfurt Int’l Airport on Labor Day) and all the restaurants close at 5 pm. Sometimes you’re transiting at 4 am and nothing much is open.
Bring food. I’ve never regretted having too much food. But I have regretted not having enough.
-Look for family bathrooms. I can fit 2 kids, a stroller, and our carry-on luggage into a family bathroom easily. Otherwise, I strap DS into the stroller, and position him, DD5, and our luggage directly outside an end stall and make them talk to me. DD5 is super rule following in these situations and won’t stray. Of course, if you have two adults, you can tag team.
-Do a bathroom break and diaper change immediately before boarding. Even if no one claims to need it.
-Wanting kids to sleep right away on a night flight? Consider starting the bedtime routine in the airport. We’ll do potty, brush teeth, and read stories near the gate prior to boarding. Then once on board, we can settle in for bed. We call them airplane sleepovers.
-Want to know about the gear I use for hauling kids and stuff through the airport? Check out this post from when the kids were 4 and 15 months.