Nothing puts a damper on vacation bliss faster than stressful situations when flying with kids. Things like mechanical or weather delays are unavoidable and all the preparation in the world won’t make a difference, but there are steps families can take to increase the chances that vacation transportation logistics will run smoothly.
Tips for Reducing Stress when Flying with Kids
Expect Snafus and Plan Time Accordingly
There is no worse feeling in the world than thinking you may miss your flight, particularly one that runs infrequently with disastrous implications for an itinerary if missed. Add time padding to every component of the trip plan.
We always add 30 minutes to the anticipated drive time TO the airport to account for unexpected traffic or other snafus. Likewise, we arrive no less than 1.5 hours before any domestic flight and 2 hours before an international flight. If we’re going economy, sometimes we push airport time to 2 hours before a domestic flight and 2.5 hours before an international flight to account for the inevitable longer lines. This leaves time to buy water and food, snoop around airport stores, and keep the whole airport time feeling leisurely.
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Leave Extra Time for Connections
Incorporate at least 2 hours for connections. We recommend leaving 2.5 to 3 hours for connections to/from an international route when clearing customs and a change of terminals may be involved. The airlines may allow you to book closer connection times, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make that flight and during busy periods, missing a connecting flight can significantly delay your trip.
Smaller airports are more user-friendly. Of the main hubs in Europe, Heathrow in London and Charles De Gaulle in Paris are notoriously stressful for transfers, as they are likely to involve trains and buses. Schiphol in Amsterdam and Zurich have fewer logistics and feel easier, although getting between gates may still involve lengthy walks.
Book Routes on One Carrier or Use Carriers within an Alliance
If you plan to check luggage, booking connecting flights on one carrier or carriers within an alliance like One World or the Star Alliance is a must. The airlines within an alliance have relationships that allow you to check your luggage at your departure point and not have to pick it up until arriving at your destination. Having to pick up and recheck luggage en route adds major connection stress and will result in having to go through security again.
Book Tickets Under a Single Record Locator Through a Single Carrier
It’s also best to book tickets under one record locator. If you don’t, it can cause issues when you are transitioning between flights, even for alliance partners. For example, we just came back to San Francisco from Temuco, Chile and one leg of the flight was purchased separately via American; although we were on LAN, an American partner, they could not check us all the way through to our destination, which added another step when landing back in our first U.S. entry point, Los Angeles.
Booking flights though a single carrier doesn’t mean you have to be flying on that carrier for the entire trip, it just means that that single carrier is the source for booking the entire itinerary. A travel agent can do this on your behalf as well.
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We have one person in the family carry all passports and paperwork. Our process is that everyone hands all documents over to me after we are seated on the flight. The only time individual family members carry their own paperwork is to board the plane. This means we always know where we can get our hands on our paperwork throughout our trip, including hotel check-ins that involve showing passports.
Out and Ready
It sounds really basic, but surfing through your purse or briefcase for documents creates stress. Have them out and ready before you get to customs, while you are seated at the gate before boarding starts, and in your hand when making connections. This way they are always readily available and you don’t have to dig in your travel purse, a process I find results in things flying out of your purse.
Limit Loose Carry-On Items
Loose jackets, toys and pillows are a recipe for disaster when everyone is tired and likely to leave things behind. Make sure little things are packable for the transition points so everyone can have a “stuff” roll call after security and after leaving a flight.
Take the Time to Register for TSA Pre and Global Entry
TSA Pre saves a huge amount of time and stress at airports. The line is always smaller and not having to take out liquids and laptops or take off shoes is so much more relaxing. Global Entry holders automatically are enrolled in TSA Pre.
Likewise, Global Entry is a huge perk and a must for international travel. Although passport control has become more automated, the lines are still long. Now that I’m part of the Global Entry program, I often make it through customs before the flight crew. Note, the interview takes months to schedule in certain cities. Take the time to fill out the application now …
Flying is rarely fun, but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant.
Editor’s Note: Photo by Amie O’Shaughnessy.