Flying Solo with Young Children: Single Parent Hacks

One of the most daunting aspects of our family trip to France this past year was knowing that I would be parenting alone for a month and then flying home with my three young children on two flights (totaling 9 hours) until we could rejoin my husband in Oregon. Thankfully, those experiences were mostly smooth, and not worth stressing over far in advance (as we parents are prone to do). Recently, however, one of my close friends told me that she will be flying alone with her three children on more than twenty hours of flights, and she's asked me for advice. Here are the hacks I suggest:

Flying solo young children hacks parent tips family by Thomas Hawk flickr

1. Identify your fears. The thought of flying alone with multiple small children can fill any parent with dread, but I suspect that our worst-case scenarios might differ. Is it not being able to carry all of the luggage? One or more of your children crying inconsolably on the plane? Physical exhaustion coupled with an inability to sleep? Identifying the travel scenario that seems the most dreadful will help you figure out your definition of a successful trip, and you can do your best to avoid that situation by planning in advance.

  Flying over the Canadian Rockies with Iceland Air on our way to Europe

Flying over the Canadian Rockies with Iceland Air on our way to Europe

2. Start preparing now in tangible ways. Make a list on your smart phone of items you don't want to forget. Talk with your children about what they can bring and what will stay behind. Use your phone to snap photos of your passport I.D. page(s), flight details, and confirmation codes, then email them to yourself and to those who will be meeting you at your destination. Call the airline to ask about meals, and put cash aside for buying refreshments and/or for purchasing in-flight meals if they aren't provided. (On Iceland Air, flight attendants brought the children's meals before the rest of the passengers were served--what a blessing!). Load some new children's apps on your tablet and buy new reading material you can all enjoy. Find finger foods and small, open-ended toys to carry-on.

  The meal box that Iceland Air delivered to our children (with detachable figurines)

The meal box that Iceland Air delivered to our children (with detachable figurines)

3. Role play with your children. Admittedly, I didn't do this, but I will before the next time we fly, because my three-year-old nearly climbed up my arm in fear when our plane tilted and turned before each landing. Role playing in advance--circling a toy plane around a block "tower" and runway and talking about what will happen ("Now we're landing in London, and the wheels are coming out and they sound like this, and the plane is tilting to turn around the airport, and one wing goes down like this and the other wing tilts up; the seatbelt sign tells people to stay in their seat") would have really helped my children know what to expect.

  photo by  Jeanie

photo by Jeanie

4. Travel light, but travel prepared, of course. Have the kids wear shoes that slip on and off easily so you don't have to tie or buckle shoes at security checkpoints. If possible, limit your carry-ons to a folding stroller that you can gate-check and a rolling carry-on (preferably strong enough to pull a child on). Make sure there is room in your carry-on for the loose items like lightweight jackets and water bottles--they have a tendency to get left at checkpoints, so the less items you have to remember, the better. Pack a small ball or frisbee for your children to chase when they have more space at the airport between flights. Bring changes of clothes for the children and yourself in case of airsickness or potty accidents. Wear something with pockets so you can easily stow the passports and boarding passes. Bring earbuds for everyone since the in-flight headphones are often too big for children.

  A selfie during our flight (my three-year-old might have been sleeping)

A selfie during our flight (my three-year-old might have been sleeping)

4. Enlist help. Ask your friends to pray specifically (that all of your luggage will arrive promptly, that your children will enjoy the trip, that you will get several hours of sleep, etc.). Not only is prayer reassuring, but it's powerful! 

And certainly during your travels, fellow travelers and flight attendants will notice you are traveling alone with children and they will ask if you need help. Take them up on the offer--have them wheel some luggage to your destination at the very least! This trip isn't the time to try to be self-sufficient--you will be glad for any energy you can conserve along the way.

  My daughter sleeping on a French train

My daughter sleeping on a French train

5. Make it fun (and healthy)! The most refreshing flight I ever had was a sunny eight-hour-flight to Japan where the attendants constantly brought us water and bingo cards. So drink lots of water to stay hydrated, and bring simple card games to cut down on screen overload. (We love Batawaf; it's for ages 3-7 and can be played in any language.)  Stretch your legs by walking up and down the aisle with your kiddos. To help children sleep, let them have the comforts they use at home. I was apprehensive when my daughter wanted to bring her enormous pillow pet (a puffy pillow resembling a penguin), but I'm pretty sure she was the most comfortable sleeper on our flights! That said, don't expect children to sleep much; their patterns will be irregular at best.

For more tips for flying with young children, you'll find more advice here (and read the comments as well).

What tips would you add? Tell us in a comment!

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