Skyrocketing ticket costs. Security lines. Unexpected delays. Getting your gaggle off the ground is one of parenthood's most daunting tasks. But it needn't be. Read this special guide and learn our tricks for winging it with ease
The Six Commandments for Flying with Kids
1. Start out on the right foot: Arrive with hours to spare, use sidewalk check-in, and have everyone wear slip-on shoes.
2. Burn energy before boarding. Run races, hunt for lost change. Tucker out your crew—and then buckle them in.
3. Don't surrender your stroller until you step onto the plane. When you arrive, it'll be on the gangway, ready to roll.
4. Go nonstop. Connections = complications + nap interruptions.
5. Dodge delays. For the best chance of a timely arrival, book the first flight out.
6. Keep the fun flying: Dole out treats and surprises all along the way.
How to Score the Best Airfares
Compare prices at the major booking sites (Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com) and the aggregators (we like Kayak.com). Once you've found the best rate, book through the airline's own site to avoid the middleman fees—with multiple tickets, these surcharges add up. Keep in mind too that you'll likely pay less by opting for second-tier airports—Chicago's Midway instead of O'Hare, for example—and by flying whenthe coast is clear (see "Traffic Alert,").
Do Tots Need a Ticket to Fly?
True, babies under age two travel free, if perched on an adult's lap. But according to the FAA, parents should shell out for an extra plane seat to prevent kids from getting tossed about during turbulence. The agency also recommends that passengers weighing less than 40 pounds be strapped into a child-restraint system (most car seats fit the bill—check the label for the government's okay). To simplify your schlep, consider a stroller you can snap your car seat into, such as Maclaren's Easy Traveller (rightstart.com; $75). Or for children 22 to 44 pounds, opt for an FAA-approved Cares harness (kidsflysafe.com; $75). It connects to airline seat belts and fits in a six-inch stuff sack. Mothers and fathers, rejoice: you finally have space to yourselves!
Friday is the most mobbed day of the week at airports.
Saturday is the least.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving sees the heaviest traffic of the year.
Christmas and New Year's Day are typically quiet.
July is the busiest month for air travel.
February is the sleepiest.
U.S. airport security-line wait time averages 8 minutes.
During peak travel hours it increases to 14 minutes.
The longest delays generally occur on flights departing between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.
The fewest occur on departures between 6 a.m. and noon, and after 11 p.m.
What to Do If . . .
. . . You Miss a Flight
Talk to a ticket agent (nicely). For a $30 to $100 fee per person, as well as the difference in fare, she can get you on the next flight out—but a kindly agent will often make the change gratis. As for missed connections, the airline is generally obliged to fly you to your destination ASAP—even if that means putting you on another carrier.
. . . Your Flight is Canceled
Dial your airline as soon as you know (sign up for text-message alerts from your carrier)—you won't have to join the queue at the customer service desk. And, if the airline is at fault (mechanical problems are typical), you're likely entitled to meals and a hotel room.
. . . You Get Bumped
Hold out your hand. If it's a domestic flight, expect a flight voucher for up to $200 ($400 if you're stuck for over two hours) or an on-the-spot check—plus, of course, seats on the next available flight to your destination.
. . . Your Bags Don't Arrive When You Do
File a report at your airline's baggage-claim counter (and get their local phone number and a copy of all paperwork). Lost luggage is insured by airlines for up to $3,000, but 98 percent of missing bags turn up within hours.
The Scoop from Flight Attendants
They've seen it all: three airline hostesses (all of whom are mothers) tell us how to conquer the not-always-friendly skies.
• Sorry, we can't refrigerate your food or bottles, but we'll give you a bag of ice and we'll refill your sippy cups
• The seat-belt sign is likely to be lit for a good while. Use the bathroom before you board
• Making funny faces or yawning relieves ear pressure just as well as chewing messy gum
• If it's a smooth ride, we'll let kids help us hand out pretzels
• Officially we're not supposed to accept tips, and at first we'll refuse—but we'll be very glad if you insist
• A lot of people prefer the bulkhead, but the armrests don't lift. So if your kids are cuddlers, choose a different row
• Kids pick up on their parents' anxiety. Bumpy flight?Pretend you're on a roller coaster
Gives specs on seats
Answers security questions
Predicts dropping fares
Shows a flight's delay history
Stretches frequent-flier miles
What to Expect on Domestic Flights
Snack Flights over 2 hours: trail mix, chips, cookies, or M&M's, $3<
Meal Flights over 3 hours: cold sandwich or salad, $5
Entertainment Movies (overhead screen); music channels
Extra Fees and Unaccompanied Minors Nonstop flights: $75 (ages 5–14); Connecting: $75 (ages 8–14)
On-Time Record 75.5%
Snack Flights under 2 hours: pretzels
Meal Flights over 2 hours: cold sandwich. Over 3 hours: hot sandwich
Entertainment Movies (seat-back screen); music channels
Extra Fees and Unaccompanied Minors Nonstop: $50 (ages 5–14); Connecting: $95 (ages 8–14)On-Time Record 73.4%
Snack Flights under 3.5 hours: granola bar, chips, or cookies. Over 3.5 hours: snack box
Entertainment: Movies (seat-back or overhead screen); music channels
Extra Fees and Unaccompanied Minors Nonstop: $50 (ages 5–14); Connecting: $75 (ages 8–14)
On-Time Record 76.3%
Snack All flights: nuts, chips, chocolate-chip cookies, animal crackers, or biscotti
Entertainment Directv (seat-back screen); XM satellite radio
Extra Fees and Unaccompanied Minors Nonstop flights only: $25 (ages 5–12)
On-Time Record 72.9%
Snack Flights over 1 hour: trail mix or chips, $2. Over 2 hours: snack box, $5
Meal Flights to/from Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean: cold sandwich, $5
Entertainment None, except on select Minneapolis–Honolulu flights: movies (seat-back screen)
Extra Fees and Unaccompanied Minors Nonstop: $50 (ages 5–14); Connecting: $75 (ages 8–14)
On-Time Record 75.8%
Snack Flights under 2 hours: pretzels. Over 2 hours: dried fruit, crackers, chips, or cookies
EntertainmentColoring books; toilet paper–roll aisle races
Extra Fees and Unaccompanied Minors Nonstop flights only: no fee (ages 5–11)
On-Time Record 80.2%
Snack Flights over 3 hours: snack box, $5<
Meal Flights over 5 hours: cold sandwich or salad, $5
Entertainment Movies (seat-back or overhead screen); music channels
Extra Fees and Unaccompanied Minors Nonstop: $99 (ages 5–11); Connecting: $99 (ages 8–11)
On-Time Record 73.9%
SnackFlights over 2.5 hours: snack box, $3–$5
Meal All flights: cold sandwich or fruit and cheese plate, $5
Entertainment Movies (seat-back or overhead screen)
Extra Fees and Unaccompanied Minors Nonstop flights only: $40; (ages 5–14)
On-Time Record 76.9%
Since last January, when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect, every American—even a newborn—is required to have a passport for re-entry into the United States from foreign trips. That explains why passport-office lines are 33 percent longer than they were last year, and the average processing time has stretched to 12 weeks (up from 6 weeks in 2006). Before dragging your kids into the queue, here's what you need to know:
- You can download the forms online at travel.state.gov, and fill them out at home. Caveat: You'll still have to submit them in person at a passport facility (an approved post office, library, or county clerks' office; for locations, see iafdb.travel.state.gov). Be aware that not all passport sites have devastingly long lines, so if you end up at one with an all-day wait, move on. A suburban post office is a good bet.
- Your child needs to be with you during the application process, and both parents must be present unless one has sole-custody documentation.
- If the trip date is nearly here, you can pay a $60 rush fee (on top of the standard charge of $97 for adults, $82 for kids) for delivery in two to three weeks. Write EXPEDITE on the outside of your application envelope—and cross your fingers.
- Independent expediters (find them at napvs.org) charge $45 to $295 to turn the government wheels. In some cases, you'll get your passport the next day.
- Once you are card-carrying world travelers, mind the expiration date: 16-year-olds are treated as adults—so no need to renew for 10 years—but the under-15 set has to apply for a new passport every five years.
Attention domestic carriers: take a civility tip from the international fleet! On most planes going to Europe and Asia, you can reserve bassinets for babies under one, bathrooms come with changing tables, pillows and blankets are plentiful, and airline goody bags are doled out to junior fliers. Kids' meals, too, try harder: Lufthansa has cucumber race cars and strawberry mousse aliens on the menu. And Virgin Atlantic flight attendants pass out chocolate ice cream just in time for the in-flight movie. Confections at 600 mph—now that's a rush.
Terminally bored families can now stretch their legs and expand their minds as they count down the hours till boarding time, thanks to an influx of new play areas and interactive exhibits at airports across the country (scope out the offerings by looking at airport Web sites). There's also some decent local food to be had (Chicago-style hot dogs, anyone?). Our top three places to get stuck:Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport; bwiairport.com
At the Observation Gallery between concourses B and C, little ones can get behind the wheel of kid-size planes, trains, and automobiles (don't worry, they're not going anywhere), examine the inner workings of a deconstructed Boeing 747, and watch airplanes come and go on three runways from a 147-foot-long window on the upper level. And once you pass security, stop for pre-flight crab cakes at Baltimore standby Phillips Famous Seafood.Chicago O'Hare International Airport; flychicago.com
If you missed the Field Museum downtown, check out the four-story-tall brachiosaur skeleton model in Terminal 1, outside the museum's satellite gift shop (good for King Tut and Sue the Dinosaur coloring books). Then, let your crew romp in the airport-themed play areas in Terminal 2, complete with kiddie control towers. This being Chicago, every moving sidewalk leads to pizza, popcorn, and the country's best-dressed hot dogs.San Francisco International Airport; flysfo.com
Watch small-scale tornadoes and lightning at the Kids' Spot interactive weather zone in Terminal 3, gaze at the Amazonian fish gliding by in one of three 140-gallon tanks in Terminal 1, then look up at scaled-down Pan Am planes suspended from the ceiling of the International Terminal's on-site aviation museum. Let them dig into a San Francisco treat from Just Desserts, a Bay Area bakery, while you fuel up on Berkeley-based Peet's Coffee.
Stocked with books, TV's, and toys, these areas are situated in separate rooms in the business-traveler clubs, but they are just as plush. Find them at Tokyo's Narita International Airport (Northwest Airlines and Japan Airlines); Heathrow in London (Virgin Atlantic Airways, with a multiscreen-style cinema!); Washington Dulles International Airport (Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse; free but only open to the airlines' upper-class passengers and Flying Club Gold members)); and American Airlines Admirals Clubs at Dallas–Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York's JFK airports (day pass, $75 for family of four). Move over, suits—the kids are coming!
Size up fares from airline- and meta-search sites—then get redirected to the source for purchasing.
Read airline reviews from seasoned—and opinionated—travelers.
Avoid on-board peanuts.
Browse user-submitted photos of in-flight pickings.
Pinpoint the airport restaurants with the healthiest fare, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
...You Need to Cancel a Flight
As far ahead of the departure time as you can, inform the airline that you aren't going to make it. After paying a penalty of $50 to $100, you can apply the remainder of the fare to a flight in the next year. Many carriers are sympathetic to illness-related cancellations, so mail your carrier a doctor's note—you'll likely be reimbursed.
...Your Child Has a Stuffy Nose
In the case of a bad cold, or one accompanied by a fever, reschedule the flight. For common sniffles, clear the child's head before boarding: Kids 14 and up can use decongestants; nasal saline sprays help relieve pressure for younger kids. Encourage swallowing during takeoff and landing; sipping water and even making funny faces does the trick.
...You're Concerned About Your Trip's Effect on the Environment
Fly direct routes (takeoff and landing require the most fuel); ride in economy class (less legroom packs in more people); and buy carbon offsets from reputable programs such as nativeenergy.com.