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Negotiating Airline Travel For You and Your Children

A cautionary tale of traveling with kids in tow.

As the holidays approach, many parents are planning to travel with their kids.  While the idea of visiting family and friends sounds great, it's usually when they anticipate the traveling that parents start to question their sanity— for good reason, too. 

I recently flew to Boston from Baltimore with both kids and husband in tow. In many ways, these were ideal flying conditions as it was a short flight, minimal luggage was required, and my husband and I were together so we were able to take the “man-on-man” defensive approach with the kids. The kids had their own backpacks stuffed with activities and FAA-regulated snack options. All ducks were in a row… or so I thought.

When we arrived at the airport and checked in, to my dismay I noticed that the airline had booked us in four separate middle aisle seats all over the plane. I brushed off my anxiety telling myself that when we got to the gate, we would surely get help from the attendants.

While I held my two-year-old daughter’s hand and explained my situation at the desk, I was met with some version of, “You’re on your own, lady.”

I was told that I would need to ask people to change seats with us and hope for the best.  When I got on the plane, I got the same message from the (very grumpy) flight attendants. 

The anxiety I had brushed off a few moments earlier was now mounting substantially, which for me, inevitably means the tears are not far behind.

I got my two kids settled into their middle seats 10 rows apart and then waited in the aisle for the unfortunate folks in these rows to arrive so I could ask them to switch with me. While I stood there looking at my tiny daughter sitting by herself, wondering what my son was up to sitting where I couldn’t see him any longer, and trying to contain the floodgates; my husband settled into his seat nicely, buckled his belt, and seemed to take the moment to catch up on sleep— thanks, husband.

I was mortified to have to ask strangers to switch from their window or aisle seat to my middle seat (and to wake my husband to switch with him for his middle seat), especially as they may have paid extra for early seat assignment (which I obviously did not, thinking that such a charge was ludicrous and mistakenly believing that others felt the same way). These thoughts were not helping.

If you are a parent, you see where this is going. Two wonderful women, both mothers, agreed to switch with us as I blubbered in the aisle. They each consoled me, taking my side against this ridiculous airline and promising me that this whole mother-thing gets easier as the kids get older. My husband cowered in his seat, poking fun with his row-mates at the crazy woman in the aisle who seemed to be crying over nothing (his cover was blown when I made him switch to sit next to my son).

I hope that other parents reading this story will learn from my mistakes:

  • Read the airline rules carefully and check-in as early as possible (i.e., be at your computer ready to click the mouse exactly 24 hours in advance). 
  • DO NOT fly on airlines that nickel-and-dime you because their flight was the cheapest you could find online (it won’t end up being so).
  • Do get the names of the wonderful people who are nice to you, so that when you win the lottery, you can send them your husband’s half.
Chrissy Rey November 16, 2011 at 04:44 PM
If you fly Southwest, you can pay a little extra ($10/ticket/destination) to get early check-in automatically. That was a lifesaver when my daughter and I flew a few months ago, because I didn't have a way to check in for our (rather full) return trip. It was one less thing for me to worry about, and ended up being totally worth it for us.
Sarah Wayland November 17, 2011 at 12:01 PM
I actually do not fly any airline other than Southwest because of an experience just like this on United. I eschew all other airlines, I don't care what the cost is.
EBT November 18, 2011 at 05:16 PM
Another Southwest fan here. Our two kids each have their own small carry on with snacks, activities, etc., but after reading all the horror stories about planes sitting on the tarmac for hours, I also bring an emergency bag. It has snacks, extra water, extra clothes, medicine, etc, and used to have extra diapers, wipes, and diaper cream. It goes in the overhead bin as soon as we get on and we've never had to use it. The intent was to use it if we are ever stuck on the tarmac, but it will also come in handy if the airline ever loses our luggage.

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