If you're reading this, you already know: Flying with a toddler is terrible. No offense to lovely small humans everywhere, but they are genetically designed to wreak havoc upon enclosed spaces, especially when they're old enough to walk but too young to sit still for eight minutes. And though the obvious solution would be to never travel again until your child is old enough to actually feel and respond to guilt, that's not always realistic.
My goal today is not to try and make you believe there's some glorious, joyful way to fly with a toddler. That will never happen. Instead, let's just minimize the damage. Make it tolerable, a slightly uncomfortable thing you can power through, like getting a flu shot or watching a movie sex scene with your grandparents. And it starts with a few easily fixable common mistakes.
Mistake 1: Carrying anything onto the plane
This should be a no-brainer, but I've seen parents with children also lugging their carry-ons on top of diaper bags and car seats and Ready for School Elmos. It makes no sense. Most likely, you already had to check a stroller, or some other equipment, and once you do that, you might as well rid yourself of all possible clutter.
The cheap way to do this, of course, is to go through security and then wait until the gate agents make that plea to check bags. Then magnanimously present your bags and check them for free. But think ahead. Pack whatever you'll need for the flight (magazine, iPad, tiny bottles of gin, etc.) amongst your child's stuff, or in your emergency bag (more on this below).
Mistake 2: Not packing an emergency bag
You know how Special Forces people and cool clandestine agents with eye patches always have some sort of emergency attache case packed with cash and passports and guns and Big League Chew and stuff? Well, you need the same type of thing, except instead of cash and guns, it should have all the things that calm your child down: her favorite books, a few smaller toys, maybe an applesauce packet, some Goldfish, Cheerios, and those toddler cookies that taste like cardboard.
The emergency in this case is when you need to buy time once you've exhausted all normal forms of entertainment. But don't make the rookie mistakes of:
A) Offering up an emergency toy or snack when your child is otherwise occupied
B) Using more than one emergency item at a time. The idea is to extend each one as long as possible. If you've exhausted all your items in the first hour, you're going to have a different kind of emergency.
No one in history has survived a five-hour flight with an 18-month-old in their lap.
Mistake 3: Getting onto the plane with your child with your boarding group
When you travel alone, it's nice to board the plane early. You can settle in, scan your Twitter feed for mentions, and passive-aggressively like your exes' photos on Instagram. When you have a child, that loitering is 20 extra minutes of non-flight time where people are shuffling through the aisles and swinging giant bags.
Instead: Send one parent onto the plane during normal boarding time with the essentials -- the kid's seat, the bags, etc. They can set everything up and then do all of the aforementioned stuff on their phone while the other parent stays in the concourse with kiddo till the very last second. In fact, I often tell the person at the gate to just let me know when the final, final boarding call is, and we'll come in then.
In the meantime, I race my daughter around frantically, trying to get her to expend so much energy that by the time she does get on the plane she's a perfect angel and sleeps for the entire trip*.
* This has literally never happened.
Mistake 4: Flying with your child in your lap
It's one thing if your kid is young and immobile. You can just hold them and rock them and they're effectively a bag of groceries strapped to your body that might occasionally spit up. But have you ever tried to hold a squirmy 14-month-old who has just discovered walking and who wants to practice this talent over and over again? It's like trying to grip a greased pig, if that pig were also able to shout nouns at you and stare woundedly into your soul.
The FAA allows children 2 and younger to fly for free in an adult's lap. It's an enticing deal, if only because plunking down $300 for your 18-month-old to fly to a wedding she'll never remember feels like a punch in the gut. But don't get cavalier. First buy seats for the parents, blocking off a middle seat. Next, as your flight approaches, call the airline to inquire as to whether the plane is full, and explain your predicament in a self-deprecating and polite way. (Note that this is infinitely more effective if you have status on said airline.)
Airline employees often also have children, and will be sympathetic to your cause. We've had nice agents actually block that middle seat if the flight wasn't packed, and so we were basically guaranteed the peace of mind of an actual seat for our child. Saved the day. But on longer flights at peak times, this is risky business. You might just need to suck it up and plunk down for the kid's ticket, because no one in history has survived a five-hour flight with an 18-month-old in their lap. I'm pretty sure I read that on Wikipedia.
Mistake 5: Sitting at the front of the plane
Common plane logic suggests that you want to sit as close as you can to the front, where you get to leave the plane sooner and you feel smugly first-class adjacent. But toddlers upend common plane logic. Retreating to the rear of the plane works for three reasons:
A) The very back seats tend to not be reserved, even in full flights. The chances of getting a free seat for your child increase exponentially.
B) You're right next to the bathrooms, which -- in any other case -- would be kind of gross and unfortunate. But this allows for easy escape in case you're the gross/unfortunate one.
C) The very back of the plane where the flight attendants hang out is the closest thing you'll find to an active play area. Assuming your child will not annoy them, the attendants often let the kid roam around, and give them little snacks, and think they're cute for six to 10 minutes before encouraging you to return to your seat. Now you're 10 minutes closer!
Mistake 6: Raising your voice
Look, at some point, your child will do something suboptimal. Perhaps throw her drink at the person's head in the seat in front of you. Maybe run down the aisle screaming Italian swears. Maybe she'll realize she's on a weird flying car and has been for several hours and missed her nap and she'll decide this is some end-of-days shit. Whatever the case, we've all been around babies yowling or shrieking on a plane. People are used to that. It happens. What people aren't used to, is when it's a parent throwing the tantrum.
I've been on planes where a parent lost it and screamed at their child, and it's infinitely more uncomfortable and embarrassing and unnerving than a baby crying. So even if your child has somehow managed to rip off a priest's toupee and wave it around while attempting to unlatch the emergency exit doors at 35,000ft, be cool. You can be stern and decisive without the yelling.
If everything else fails, download Sesame Street on your phone, hand it to your child, slump in your seat, order a gin & tonic, and accept defeat to the soothing sounds of Super Grover, Cookie Monster, and Murray Has a Little Lamb. The plane has to land sometime.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.