Family Air Travel Tips
from Susan Foster, packing expert and author of Smart Packing for Today's Traveler
To try and keep air travel from being a frustrating chore for families about to embark on summer vacation - Susan Foster, veteran traveler and author of Smart Packing for Today's Traveler, has some timely and helpful advice. Planning ahead so that any trip runs smoothly is the key to making sure families enjoy a trip of their dreams rather than experience a travel nightmare.
- Plan flights carefully. Ask travel agents or airline representatives which flights have the best on-time record, which are non-stops, which flights are the least crowded and which days are less hectic than others. Spend a little more to fly on a slower day, rather than buying the cheapest ticket and finding the flight/airport overcrowded.
- Morning flights (after the 6-7 am crunch) are often a good choice. Summer thunderstorms that affect the entire airline system are usually an afternoon event, so if your morning flight is delayed or cancelled there will be options for a later plane.
- Non-stop flights minimize potential delays and are the best choice even if they cost more. Direct flights (stop but no change of planes) increase the possibility of delays with every stop, but are better than changing planes. If you must change planes you increase the potential for delay dramatically. Choose connecting flights based on their on-time track record, which is still no guarantee.
- Ask if any food is served on the flight. Request a kid's meal if available, or a low-calorie or vegetarian meal for healthier options. If no meal is scheduled (more the norm these days), pack food for the entire family. Avoid the horror of a two-hour delay onboard an aircraft with no food. Water, juice boxes, granola bars, crackers, bananas, and apples all travel well and will keep hunger pangs at bay. Antibacterial hand cleaner and moist towelettes are also a must-pack item.
- Understand airport security. Airport security is serious business and applies to every member of the family, including babies.
- Begin at home with a thorough search of every carry-on item including your child's backpack. No toy guns or knives will be allowed. No sharp objects of any kind or size will be allowed through security checkpoints - including scissors, corkscrews, multipurpose tools, metal nail files, etc. They will be confiscated. If you want or need these items at your destination, pack them in your checked luggage.
- Airports advise checking bags to reduce your wait at security checkpoints. The more you carry on, the more time it takes.
- According to the FAA, passengers on domestic flights are limited to one carry-on bag not to exceed 45 linear inches (length + width + height), plus one personal item such as a purse, laptop, or briefcase. Child car seats, umbrella strollers, and other kids' items are not counted in this ruling.
- Plan to carry on as little as possible. Each child should have a small backpack containing only items needed in transit such as toys, books, jacket and water bottle. A child's carry-on suitcase is a disaster if the child is too small to manage it through airport security and the aircraft aisle. Backpacks in place of a carry bag for parents leave hands free to manage children.
- Increased security takes more time. Lines are longest at the security checkpoints at peak travel times. Call your airline to ask when you need to arrive at the airport. Many will suggest arriving at least 1 1/2 hours in advance for domestic flights, 2 hours in advance for international flights. Allow even more time for peak hours or holiday travel. These times differ by airport and airline, so calling in advance is important. Plan snacks and activities for your children for this added waiting time, too.
- Everyone over the age of 18 must present a current government-issued photo identification (driver's license or passport) and boarding pass at the airline check-in counter, at the security checkpoint, and again at the gate. Additional screening may take place at the gate.
- Every passenger must pass through airport security and their personal items scanned. Prepare your children for this process. If you don't know what to expect, call your airline and ask for details.
- Go directly to the security checkpoint. Lines build in seconds, so don't get caught with too little time to clear security. Use airport services inside the secure area. Your family must stay together in the security line and it may be long. Make bathroom stops before entering the line; have water available; a small umbrella stroller is a legal carry-on item and will corral a cranky child. This can also be gate-checked (handed to the flight attendant at the aircraft door and retrieved there after the flight) so your child can ride to and from the plane.
- Minimize screening time. Expect security procedures to be slightly different at each airport as they are managed independently. Here are some general rules that apply to all passengers, regardless of age.
- Passenger screening equipment has been set to lower tolerances. Empty pockets of unnecessary coins or keys, and avoid large metal belt buckles or jewelry.
- You may be asked to remove your shoes and coat and pass them through the screening machine. You may also be subjected to hand-held metal detector wand searches and hand pat downs. Do not be offended if your children receive extra security attention. In some cultures, children are used as "mules" to carry contraband and so must be checked just like adults.
- Scanning equipment reads a total of the metal on you. Metal buttons, zippers, hair accessories, shoe fittings and shanks may add up to wanding and pat down searches. Pare down by packing metal items in a checked bag or placing in your carry-on at security, and check your children for metal items, too.
- Limit electronic equipment (cell phones, CD players, pagers, games) and place in your carry-on bag. You may be asked to prove that they work, so have batteries installed.
- Laptop computers must be removed from a case so both can be X-rayed separately.
- Gift-wrapped packages may be unwrapped, searched, and confiscated. Pack in a checked bag or plan to wrap upon arrival.
- Check for all your belongings before leaving the screening area! Wallets, keys and coins, jewelry, cell phones—even laptops—are often forgotten.
Consider airport security to be a new game that you and your family can win—when you know the rules. Plan ahead, travel smart, and have a great summer vacation!