There are far worse things than traveling in a plane with kids — but that can be easy to forget. In-air child chaos has triggered breakdowns in even the most patient of parents. Something about the mix of airplanes, air pressure and claustrophobic seating can cause the sweetest kid to transform into every parent's nightmare. But before you decide to cancel all family vacations until your kid's 10th birthday, let us provide some hope and help.
How to dress: We've all seen families who don matching clothes at Disney World, malls or festivals. And look dorky they do, but trust me, there's good reason for those personalized neon-green "Griswold Family Vacation" T-shirts. Dressing in comfortable yet noticeable clothing helps you keep a better eye on everyone in your party. If anyone gets lost, it's easy to remember what they were wearing. It's also simpler for little ones to track Mommy and Daddy in a crowd. In your travel backpack, store an extra shirt for the kiddos; what they start off in will be filthy by the time you land.
Which bathroom supplies to pack: Don't forget extra diapers and wipes. Ask the flight crew about changing tables in the bathrooms, and if they don't have changing tables, ask if they have a preference on how you should handle this. They will be grateful that you've cared enough to inquire and might go out of their way to accommodate you. Bring some large pins with you and attach them to a blanket. This will help you create a makeshift privacy area if you must change diapers at your seat.
What to put in your carry-on: Be sure to include extra diapers, toys, food and more in your in-flight backpack. Put snacks in individual bags and be sure to pack wet wipes, napkins, utensils and bibs. If you need something warmed up, let the flight staff know early on. Most planes don't use microwaves to heat and will need time to warm your food.
What activities to pack: When it comes to entertaining your child, think small. Stash plastic bags with a little of this and a little of that. Come equipped with a variety of activities, such as a deck of cards, pens or pencils, paper, puzzles, little books, stickers and more. Take one out at a time to keep your child entertained. Give up the anti-TV campaign, and let your child sit back and enjoy the in-flight shows or movies.
How to pack your luggage: Bags with wheels are your friends. Ideally, you'll want to check in everything except your carry-on backpack. But streamlining your packing is key if your airline charges per bag. In this case, have everyone carry their own backpack or small bag with wheels. The rule you should follow is to pack less, less, less. Unless you're hiking in some remote wilderness, there will be a store where you can buy necessities. And washing your clothes is an ideal way to stretch your wardrobe. Pack for half the amount of time you're going away and do a load of laundry midway through the trip.
When to arrive: Most people will advise you to get to the airport early to allow for all kinds of mini-catastrophes. They'll tell you, "The earlier the better," because the last thing you want to do is miss your flight. Others say wait until the last possible second because sitting around an airport with little ones is akin to getting a root canal without the drugs. Unfortunately, there are caveats either way.
How to board: Get on first, and get off last. Before you even sit down, instruct everyone to take some wet wipes and clean the seats' armrests, tables, headrests, windows and air-conditioning controls. You'll breathe easier knowing germs are at bay. When the plane lands, don't panic and rush to start locating lost items. Reaching for your bags in the overhead bins while holding your kids' hands, socks and shoes will make you appear more like a soccer mom caricature rather than a graceful Carol Brady-type. Just sit and, if possible, relax. Let everyone else exit first.
How to beat the stress: Prepare to lose things. Leave your best clothes and irreplaceable valuables at home. Get a Sharpie and write your e-mail address and phone number on everything. Expect delays, hassles and mistakes. This way, you'll be even happier when you dodge any travel pitfalls. Keep a bag filled with Motrin, a comb, some mints, a washcloth and a little makeup. Have everyone freshen up before landing. If both parents are traveling, book one seat away from the family so one adult can rest and sleep.
Paula Sirois is a Florida-based writer who specializes in family life and frugal living for www.RetailMeNot.com — the No. 1 coupon site in the world.