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Flying with Kids: One Parent, Four Kids

flying with kids

Last month, I took my four kids and flew from Boston, Massachusetts to Panama City, Florida, and back – four flights, including one red-eye, with just me and the four kids. Traveling with kids is always an adventure, and if you had told me even a couple years ago that I would be flying on my own with four kids I would not have believed you. Flying with kids has not always gone smoothly for us. But my kids are older, I have more experience parenting, and I’ve learned what makes flying with kids work for me. I’m sharing the things I have learned here in hopes that they will help someone else!

  • Have kids carry their own stuff, wherever possible. This prevents over-packing and gives kids a job in the airport.
  • Bring a comfort item from home. My kids consistently pick their Owie Dolls. They were a little disappointed that I didn’t get Anna’s made in time. Hopefully I can before we fly to California, because she really liked playing with the other kids’ dolls on this trip! Comfort items that double as entertainment (like the ALEX Toys Learn to Dress Monkey) work especially well!
  • Give kids ownership of the trip. Look at airport maps with them in advance and discuss the itinerary.
  • Give kids responsibilities. On our trip, Emma (7 years old) was in charge of helping Johnny (5 years old, and a little phobic of flying) stay calm. Johnny was in charge of making Anna (8 months old) laugh, and Lily (3 years old) was in charge of making sure I didn’t forget anything while going through security or when getting off the plane. They all did their jobs perfectly.
  • Let kids know what to expect. The TSA has worked hard since I first started flying with kids to make security more child-friendly (TSA officers even gave my kids stickers in Panama City!), but it can still be frightening for kids to send their backpacks through the x-ray machine and be separated (albeit briefly) from parents as they go through the metal detector.
  • Wear the baby. You can usually wear your baby through security now – they’ll just do a little extra screening on you.
  • Be stroller smart. You can gate check or luggage check a stroller for free. If you have a long layover, I recommend gate checking – it makes a great luggage cart for the kids’ carry-ons, even if you are wearing the baby. If you have a short layover, I recommend luggage checking it, because waiting for it on the gangway could make you miss your flight.
  • Plan layovers. We had a three-hour layover in Atlanta on the way there, and a 40-minute layover on the way back – at the same airport. The Atlanta airport is HUGE, with a train connecting the various terminals. On the way there, I planned a train excursion to Jamba Juice, which I love from my Stanford years and which my kids had never experienced. It was the perfect way to spend the time. On the way back, I was worried about making our connecting flight – especially since we had to change terminals. I called the airline, and they were able to arrange for us to ride on one of the airport’s electric carts. We made the connection – barely.
  • Pack surprises. I put one thing in each kids’ backpack that they weren’t expecting to find in there (ALEX Toys Ready, Set, Write tablets they had all been coveting because I raise nerds). I also had three small angry birds and three small animal figurines as back-up surprises. All of these were used – and they were enough for our trip. Note: I have learned that these surprises are most effective if kids don’t know they exist.
  • Bring Post-It Notes. You can use them to stop the scary auto-flush on airport toilets, create a mini art gallery on the seat in front of you on the plane, or teach an older child how to make simple animated flip books!
  • Enjoy this quality parenting time. Plane travel is a great time to connect with your kids! Use this time when you are away from daily responsibilities to learn more about their hopes, dreams, and takes on the world around them!

Have you flown with kids? What tips would you add to this list?

Disclosure: I blog for ALEX Toys and receive toys from them, including those referenced in this post. All opinions are my own.

MaryAnne lives is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

36 thoughts on “Flying with Kids: One Parent, Four Kids”

  1. You’re so brave! I’m nervous about an upcoming flight with only two kids AND two parents, so you’re an inspiration to me! These are great tips – thank you.

  2. All such great advice! I really regret not taking the kids for a few years because I was afraid of traveling alone with two and here you did it with four!

  3. Thanks for these great ideas, Mary Anne. I am flying solo with my two later this week and I’m a tad nervous, but I think we’ll do just fine. This will be our first flight since my son was born, but when I flew with my daughter, special snacks and art supplies saved the day!

  4. You are my new hero. I love flying with J, but I can handle one kid who loves flying. Since we fly frequently, a routine is always good for our OCD family. J was pretty upset when TSA changed the rule and allowed kids to wear their shoes once again. He still takes them off. I’m fine with that since I’d rather not have a meltdown at security. Nerdy surprise toys are always fun! J enjoys Wiki Sticks. They keep him busy, yet sitting still for hours. BTW, how did the kids like Jamba? They are still around here in the Bay! J asks for them when he’s been sick. I think we’ll go after his immunization visit later in the week as a special treat.

  5. Great tips MaryAnne – I worry about flying alone with my two since they are still small but not small enough to wear or put in strollers. Mainly I worry about losing the kids during connections because airports are such a sensory overload and they want to run off and explore everything – usually they want to run in opposite directions especially when I am distracted by checking in or immigration. Do you have any helpful hints for having them stay with you? I plan to do a lot of talking about why it’s important not to lose each other and also make sure they know what to do if we get separated and I plan to travel very light I have my hands free but I’m still concerned. The beauty of having another adult is that one ends up being in charge of all the logistics and the other in charge of keeping track of the kids.

    1. You want them to see keeping track of you as their job – maybe a job like Lily’s, where they have to make sure you don’t lose something? Traveling with little ones is always a challenge, though! My kids aren’t the type to run off on their own, usually, and that makes this easier. It is a situation where I could see the backpacks that have parent leashes attached making a lot of sense!

      1. You are right – they need to see keeping track of me as their job. I’m definitely going to try your tip of having them make sure I don’t leave anything behind. I wish my kids weren’t the type to run off but they get so excited at everything there is to see and waiting in line with me is not very exciting. I really don’t like those leash backpacks but I agree they would be helpful when traveling solo with kids.

  6. I remember traveling by myself with my kids…by plane..I have to admit, it is easier to drive them by myself! Good tips! :)
    Sorry I haven’t been around…I’m expecting #7….and I’ve been sick! :(
    Can’t wait to catch up!

  7. Elisa | blissfulE

    I LOVE the jobs you gave each of the kids!! Letting them know what to expect is my top tip. I didn’t realise you had connecting flights, and I am very impressed that you made such a journey on your own with four kids! Hurrah!

  8. Funny, I just did this (while pregnant) with 3 kids… by accident! My husband had to get the next flight when we missed the baggage loading cut-off. We survived, obviously, but it would have been a lot smoother if we had planned it that way from the beginning!

    1. What an adventure! Glad you made it!

      I had something similar happen once when I was flying with my sister and three kids (not pregnant though) – and that experience was part of why I felt like I could do this trip!

  9. I learned a very important thing from a friend of mine when flying with small kids “Benadryl”.especially if its an international flight and you cant spend the whole time deflecting nasty looks from other passengers

    1. The benadryl does not always work the way you want it to! There is nothing worse than a tired child who refuses to put there head down for a minute to fall asleep.

  10. Again, your parenting savvy and guts continues to impress. Love your tips! I used many of these techniques when I traveled solo with just my 2 little ones recently. Definitely sharing this post!

  11. Great list! Now that my kids are older and very used to flying, I don’t have to plan nearly as much. In addition to carrying their own bags, I now give them a packing list every time we travel. That way, they can choose their clothes and toys to bring. It works well!

  12. Great tips. I’ll be traveling to the US with four kids, my husband and parents in a few weeks. I admire you for managing on your own…and staying sane!

  13. Glad your trip went so smoothly but I think it was because you were so prepared. Thanks for sharing your tips. Very helpful! I was never that brave to travel with more than 2 small kids on a plane by myself and it totally stressed me out!

  14. great tips! car trips with a teen and a preschooler are tough on me…. i can’t even tell you how awesome i think you are for being able to do this!

  15. Great tips! I would add one that my kids love. I bring deflated balloons that I inflate during a layover at an empty gate and they just run around playing volleyball and get all their energy out. No space in packing and takes care for at least an hour of layover.

  16. Love your tips. We’re flying to Scotland at the end of the summer with 3 kids (5 and under) and I’ll be about 6 months pregnant. I’m always looking at other people’s tips for things I hadn’t thought of! ;-)

    1. Oh wow, that will be an adventure! I love Scotland, so I can’t wait to hear about your time there – I hope you love it as much as we did!

  17. I’m traveling with 4 kids next weekend. A set of 3 year old twins and 2 older children. Has anyone found the Cares Harness to be extremely helpful for small children? This will be their first time on an airplane and I’m really stressed about the whole thing. We didn’t travel with the older ones until they were at least 5 (now 10 & 13). They are great helpers to the younger ones. I love your tips, great ideas!

    1. I have friends who love the Cares Harness. The only disadvantage is that, since it holds them flush against the seat, they can’t reach the tray – so you may want to bring a lap tray they can use instead. As a bonus, this also means they can’t kick the seat in front of them!

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