This past holiday, I flew solo with three kids under age 5. On purpose. Twice. Am I crazy or do I just like to party in the back of the plane?
Flying with three kids – while not as relaxing as a day at the spa – is doable. From my experience, it all boils down to three things: attitude, planning, and improvisation.
It’s All About the ‘Tude
The most important “tool” in my parenting toolkit is my attitude, hands down. My kids could spill milk on the table three times in one meal and I can either flip out three separate times (which will get us nowhere) or calmly suggest they
sprinkle cheerios on it clean it up with a towel.
When flying solo with three kids, I bring my “A” game attitude. This means I attempt to get some sleep the night before, keep myself well-fed and hydrated, and repeat my highly effective mantra:
This will be fine. And if it isn’t; that’s okay. I’ll just have a giant margarita when I get to my destination.
If that mantra isn’t working, I can always go to my alternate one:
This will be funny someday and will make great fodder for their wedding toast. (Gocha, suckers!)
I like to view traveling with preschoolers as an episode of a sitcom. Keep it light and funny, and my audience (my three kids) will eat it up.
This is also a good tactic because when you have several hours to kill at an airport, people will inevitably come to notice that you are running around with three kids by yourself and will comment on it. I have found that if I can find something witty to say that generates a chuckle, everyone relaxes and things go more smoothly.
Nice Man: “Wow, you sure are brave for flying by yourself with three little kids.”
Me: “Nah, brave would be sitting in the car for 10 hours with them! This is the easy way out.”
Will I be able to read a book for more than one minute or think in complete sentences? No, I will not unless all my kids are
drugged sleeping on the plane at the exact same time. If that ever happens, I will buy a lotto ticket before I take a nap too.
It’s All About the Planning
To get to my happy place, I need to plan. What I have found that is if I spend a half an hour thinking things through with my husband, I will come up with an awesome Plan A, B, C, and D, E, F, and G.
Together, we pretend we are Olympic athletes getting ready for slalom run; like them, we try to visualize the course and how we will handle it successfully.
For example, I might think through a few critical questions: How will I be getting to and from the airport? Will I be checking the car seats or bringing them on the plane? Will I order
Irish coffee once we are airborne?
Sometimes this planning exercise will reveal surprising things. For example:
- If I take a bus to the airport, I do not need to install and then remove car seats or fold my stroller. I can just load the carseats onto my stroller and wheel the whole thing on the bus.
- If I take Uber or Lyft, I have to install all three car seats while my kids wait and while the driver gives me massive side eye. Then I get to uninstall everything at the airport while the driver and kids wait again.
- If I drive my car and park it at the airport, I have to uninstall the car seats by myself while I convince my kids to not play in traffic (“No tag in the parking lot! Here, come admire this hubcap.”). And then I have to carry all the car seats and luggage (and kids) across the parking lot to the airport terminal.
- If my husband drives us, we have to uninstall all carseats curbside while the security guards give us massive side eye. Good news though: one of us can entertain the kids while the other uninstalls the seats.
I’ll take a bus to the airport over a taxi any day.
I’ve also made decisions that seem odd to an outsider but work great at go time. For example, I brought a baby backpack and a double stroller even though no kids were in the stroller. Why? Simple: So I can wheel the car seats around the airport while I wear my infant in the backpack. This setup also has the added benefit of providing my older kids with something entertaining to do (pushing a stroller) while we hang out in the terminal. And when my 2 year old decides she does not want to walk anymore? No sweat – into the stroller she goes. And only then do I have to lug a car seat around.
In addition to visualizing what getting to and from the airport might look like, I also think through how I will make waiting at the airport for 1.5 – 2 hours enjoyable. Through a few “practice” runs with 1, 2, and 3 kids in tow, I have finally figured out the goals I like to set for myself. Note that these are goals, which means if I hit them, I get to celebrate. And if I don’t, I hyperventilate improvise.
- Goal: Get to airport 1.5 – 2 hours early. This gives my preschoolers plenty of time to stop to look at other people’s suitcases, “fill out” bag tags in line, and try to eat food off the floor.
- Goal: Get through TSA faster than people without kids.
I get a kick outta being able to get through TSA faster than the people who sigh and eye roll when they see me wheel up with three kids and all our baby gear.
Well, Mr. Business Traveller, I bet you can’t draw out your liquids and laptop faster than this mama in the West! 10 paces and bam! Laptop, food, 4 sweaters, and carryons: all on conveyor belt. Gotcha, sucker!
I learn things from this exercise all the time. For example, belts are
a spawn of satannot ideal. I had to get a belt on and off one-handed while holding a baby, wrangling two preschoolers, and managing the extra special TSA screening of a stroller. The belt severely impeded my TSA record-setting capabilities. From this experience, I have decided to avoid wearing belt-requiring clothes again unless that means I have to clean a load of laundry. I will take belt gymnastics over an additional pre-trip laundry load any day!
- Goal: Check for gate changes and delays as soon as I’m in the terminal. Knowing this information allows me to pace myself and my troops in the airport. If our plane is delayed for hours (it has been), I can think up a few extra “activities” for us to do while we wait. “Hey, let’s check out all the food stands – twice – before deciding where we grab a snack. Whoa, this one has napkins! YEAH!!! I wonder if there are napkins at the other stands too! Let’s go find out!”
- Goal: Get a stroller gate check tag. The sooner I talk to the people at the gate and get the stroller gate check tag, the more flexibility I have with how I use my time right up to departure. If the line at the gate is long, I can come back when I see it’s shorter.
- Goal: Buy a drink and share it with my kids. My kids and I share a large smoothie at the airport. This activity may seem insignificant, but this “treat” activity burns up quite a bit of time without breaking the bank: We spend time walking to the location, waiting in line for the goods, walking back to find a seat, and then sitting down and enjoying it with some snacks packed from home. This “tradition” also keeps small bellies (and therefore small kids) happy.
- Goal: Go to the bathroom 15 minutes before the plane starts to board. If my flight boards at 4:55 pm, at 4:40 we head to the bathroom. Everyone (self included) uses the facilities and/or gets a diaper change (self not included). Since my little kiddos have already eaten, they are usually primed for bathroom time. I have found that this timing seems to set us up for success so that my kids don’t have a blowout or need to go potty during take off. It also allows me to put a “backup” diaper on a young toddler if the bathroom trip has me doubting their ability to hold it until we reach cruising altitude.
- Goal: Party on the back of the plane. When I board, I head straight to the Unofficial Kids Zone on the plane: the very back. Yes, this is near the bathroom. Yes, this is awesome. Why? Because I don’t have to walk across half the plane when a preschooler has to go or when baby needs to be changed.
- Goal: Make friends with the flight attendants. Flight attendants are
magical unicornsawesome people. I’ve found that if I am super nice and gracious with them, they will gladly help me out if and when I need an extra hand. I’ve had flight attendants offer to hold my baby while I buckle in my kids’ carseats and bring my kids watered down apple juice kidtinis with lids on them (shout out to Southwest Airlines!). Plus, they don’t judge me if I order a beer on the flight. Thank you, airline angels!
- Goal: Strategically provide activities for the kiddos. Small kids tend to have kid-sized attention spans. What this means is I need a mental list of activities that will entertain them for 10-15 minutes at a time.
In flight “activities” can be as simple as touching all the materials in the back of the seat pocket in front of them: Ohh, an emergency procedure card! Can you find an inflatable vest? What about a plane on fire? So fun!
When the novelty of an activity has worn off and boredom is boring, kids might start to create their own activity (like testing the durability of the seat in front of them). This is when I know it’s time to move on to the next activity.
- Goal: Let everyone else off the plane first when it lands. I don’t need someone who has 15 minutes to make their next connection oozing sweat and negative vibes on me while I suggest to my preschooler that we stop trying to eat gum off the floor of the plane and just head toward the exit. G-d speed, Type A Traveller! We will be way, way behind you.
It’s All About Improvising
Sometimes Most of the time, things don’t go as planned. We slept in and now we are behind schedule or our plane is delayed for an unknown period of time due to Superman weather.
No plane? No problem! No one died (yet), so today is a good day.
Over the years, I have had to remind myself that as long as we get to our destination intact, our plane ride was a success. I mean, that’s ultimately the point, right?
Keeping this in mind has allowed me to free up my mental energies so that I can improvise “good enough” solutions that will get us to our travel destination.
Uh oh. Kid’s drink leaked in the backpack and now we have two diapers to last us 24 hours? This is gonna be
a total s*show manageable. I’ll just pack my baby’s diapers with sanitary pads and change those instead of the diaper. Aaaaand I will Amazon Prime a box of diapers to my inlaw’s house right now.
Plane still delayed? Let’s count all the paper coffee cups we can see, guess where people are flying to/from, stare at the airplanes, stare at each other…
A dad with his own kids offered to carry our car seat onto the plane? I’m buying that guy and his wife a drink on the flight. Pay it forward, people.
At the end of the day, no trip will be perfect. But, it will be memorable. And, there’s always chocolate.