The key question you need to ask yourself before flying alone with kids is: How many backpacks can you reasonably expect to carry ALL BY YOURSELF?
Because you will.
You will carry all the backpacks.
There will come a point when it will be easier to just carry all the backpacks than have your 4 year old plop down on the moving walkway and dig in like a stubborn mule.
So, again, I say...how many backpacks can you carry?
Here are my best tips for flying alone with kids:
1. Get Specific About How an Airport is Different If You Get Lost or Separated
The airport is so busy. So many people rushing around — it stresses ME out and I’m a seasoned traveler, so I imagine that for kids, it’s extra overwhelming and unfamiliar. So it’s important to get super specific about what to do if you get separated from your child in an airport. My guidance for my kids is simple: look for someone at a desk or podium (tall desk) in a uniform. There are so many uniformed people in an airport doing various tasks that it can be hard for a kid to distinguish between all of them to determine who can be most helpful. A gate agent is going to be able to help get a kid connected with security so that they can reunite with you quickest. Also make sure your kiddo either knows your cell number by heart, or knows where it’s printed so they can show it to security to call you. I write my number inside the kid’s backpack and coat.
On my end, I always take a photo of the kids on a travel day, so that I have a current photo of them in the exact clothes they are wearing. I also try to dress them in something bright on a travel day so they are easy for me to spot in a crowd. Neon green shirt? EASY TO SPOT.
2. Dress for Success
Flying alone with kids —skip your adorable shoes that are a pain in the butt to get on and off. Slip-on Vans are your friend. Same goes for the kiddos. Do they have slip-ons, or velcro shoes? Those are the ticket!
Dress everyone for easy bathroom trips (this is not the day for those jeans that your son can’t button up on his own, this day is basically NATIONAL ELASTIC WAIST PANTS DAY) and comfort. Sure, you might want those kiddos to look adorable for the Grandma waiting at the other end of this travel day, but it’s okay to dazzle Grandma the next day.
3. Empower those kiddos!
My daughter is the proud owner of a Frozen-themed rolling suitcase. It goes against my better judgement as a champion packer to use this small and somewhat awkward bag. I had to let that go.
If you’re not flying on an airline that charges for baggage, or has some sort of extreme carry on limit, then add another bag to the mix that can be wheeled by a kiddo. If you are the only adult traveling with kiddos, don’t get yourself into a scenario where you are the ONLY FREAKING HUMAN THAT CAN LIFT OR MOVE THE LUGGAGE. Three bags that can be carried or rolled by three people (even small people) is much easier than two heavy bags that can only be managed by you...the solo adult.
4. Let Go of MAXIMIZING EVERY NOOK AND CRANNY.
A jam-packed carry on bag is not efficient with little kids. If the inside of your backpack resembles a ridiculously snug game of tetris then you need to settle down. Because kids want a snack and then they want crayons—no not those crayons, the crayons that are actually markers—and then they are cold and will want their blankie and then they need a drink and…
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You get my drift. Save your extreme ninja packing for when you’re traveling without kids, or when you’ve got another set of hands to help.
5. Pack food on your travel days as though you may not have access to food.
I made this mistake. I totally overestimated how much time my kids and I had to connect between flights in Chicago. See, I was calculating time between gates using “adult leg pace time.” A 5 year old travels at a considerably slower pace...especially at what would normally be his bedtime...when he’s hungry and begging to stop at every fast food spot in the airport. I ended up feeding my kids peanut M&M’s for dinner because that’s what I could grab as the line wound in front of a newsstand as we boarded our connecting flight.
Not my proudest moment. We’re making the same connection this summer when we fly to Michigan and my oldest kiddo has asked, more than once, if we can please make sure to pack PB&J’s for the plane.
6. Everyone needs their own headphones. Including YOU.
My first big solo trip with my kids was from Utah to Michigan—it was a really long day and I was convinced my kids would NEED ME SO MUCH on flights. LOL. Nope. Both kids were super pumped to have unlimited access to the iPad, and I found myself sitting on a 3 hour flight without ANYTHING to do. I didn’t pack myself a book, magazine, or even earphones to listen to music. Can I interest you in a dramatic reading of all of the articles from the August 2016 Delta Sky magazine? Because I can deliver on that.
7. Look for the Family Restrooms
Honestly, I never needed these until I flew alone with my kids. Usually I just took one kiddo to the bathroom while the other hung out with their Dad. It wasn’t until I was flying solo that I realized it would be pretty helpful to be able to get both kids and all the luggage/backpacks into a small bathroom, as opposed to a single stall, would be WAY easier.
8. The time to explain the security line process is NOT during a TSA pat down.
On my last business trip (flying completely solo) I was behind a family (mom, dad, two kiddos) in the security line and I think those parents set a new land speed record for getting through security with a stroller, various electronics, outerwear, multiple backpacks, and four entire people, two of which couldn’t do a darn thing to contribute to the process. (I’m looking at YOU, adorable tiny humans.) This was not their first rodeo.
It reminded me that kids have pretty limited experience with anything like airport security. If you don’t set the expectation before you go and walk them through it, you will get approximately 74 questions while you travel approximately 17 feet. Prep them in advance and they’ll be better at going with the flow.
9. Also, the moving walkway is not a teachable moment.
There are a lot of crazy airport features that are EXCITING, and NEW, and UNEXPECTED! And kids want take it all in! But maybe explain to them that airports are super busy and people are in a hurry and that while it may resemble a jungle gym, the moving walkway and the luggage carousel are not in fact for your entertainment.
I have also found it helpful to explain that the airport is often full of cranky people in a hurry. And if one of those cranky people ran one of my kids over with their rolly bag that I would have to beat them up*, and then I would go to jail instead of going on our trip, so if you could listen to mommy then mommy won’t have to spend our vacation in the slammer, mkay?
10. Pack lean and do laundry if you can.
If you’re traveling solo, packing to return home (with trinkets in tow) can be brutal. Before I traveled solo with my kids I never thought much of packing to come home. Just throw it all in the bag and go! Yeah, that only applies to adults. Especially if you’re trying to keep your bag underweight. Sorry kids! We’re not hauling all those rocks home! Pack a few laundry pods and dryer sheets so you can do a load or two at the hotel or at your host’s house. That way you can get away with packing fewer clothes for your trip.
11. Let people help you.
Traveling solo after your divorce? You may want to prove to the whole world, including your kids, that YOU’VE GOT THIS.
But maybe settle down and let Grandma make a few PB&J’s for your flight home before you leave her house.