Avoiding the agony of airports Taking the Kids: Smart packing and scheduling and a relaxed attitude can ease the way for parents and children.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Airports will be jammed this holiday season with families who are taking to the skies to visit relatives or reach vacation spots. Thousands of kids whose parents are divorced will be flying alone to visit moms or dads. More than 7 million people will fly somewhere, early estimates from the American Automobile Association suggest.

So what's a parent to do? Make the best of a rotten situation, of course. To help you arrive with your sanity intact, here's my survival guide.

* Allow yourselves more time than you think you could possibly need to make your flight. Plan to arrive at least an hour early.

Remember that everything takes longer at the holidays, from finding a parking place in the long-term lot to navigating beefed-up airport security. For that reason, pack wrapped presents in suitcases to avoid unwrapping them for security guards, and don't forget to bring a photo ID, even on domestic flights.

* Get your tickets and boarding passes ahead of time. Request window seats for the kids and special meals, if they prefer burgers or hot dogs. Before leaving home, call the airline to make sure the flight is on time.

* Plan on delays, whatever the airline says. That means having plenty of supplies and snacks on hand to keep the kids amused and to ward off hunger pangs. Don't count on airport concessions to be open when your family decides it's time to eat. Don't count on being able to buy diapers when you most need one.

Stash a well-stocked lunch box and water bottle in the backpacks the kids have packed with comic books, string for friendship bracelets, hand-held video games, tape players and other can't-live-without items of the moment. An extra T-shirt is always a good bet, in case anyone gets sick or spills pop everywhere (as has happened to us on more occasions than I like to remember).

Pack another bag yourself with "surprise" stocking stuffers or Hanukkah gifts and a few treats that can be handed out at appropriate moments. It's become a tradition in our family to give the kids a new toy -- nothing expensive, however -- once we've arrived at the airport gate. Anything new is guaranteed to keep them amused for at least 15 blissful minutes.

My rule: The younger the kids, the more new diversions the better. They won't care that each toy cost less than $3. And please bring that car seat to the gate, even if you haven't purchased a plane seat for the baby. If you're lucky, there will be an empty one available. The baby will be far safer and more comfortable in its car seat and so will you. If there's no seat available, the car seat can be readily checked at the gate.

* Use the time at the airport to have some fun. It's the perfect opportunity for some quality family time. Besides, what choice do you have? Bring along a map so the kids can plot their route while waiting for the flight. Bring a deck of cards and teach the crew how to play poker or gin rummy. Did you ever build a house out of cards?

If you're lucky, you may be traveling through an airport with a KidPort. Growing numbers of airports in cities across the country, from San Jose, Calif., to Des Moines, Iowa, to Pittsburgh to Boston have installed these areas where kids can run, jump, climb and make noise.

Delta Airlines has gone a step further, opening Dusty's Dens in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, New York's JFK, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Tampa, Fla., and Orlando, Fla., where parents can get a breather while kids can watch TV, play with Legos or board games.

But don't despair if you don't have access to these amenities. You'll just have to be more creative.

Take the kids to the flight observation deck. If you're traveling through Chicago, take the kids for a 15-minute ride around O'Hare International Airport on the new People Mover.

Board early and ask if the pilots will let the kids visit the cockpit.

* Keep the kids in sight at all times, but be sure to tell them -- even preschoolers -- what to do if they get separated from you. I tell mine to find someone who is clearly working at the airport, wearing an airport security badge, to help.

* Above all, try to stay relaxed, even when things go wrong. The more uptight you are, the worse the kids will behave. Try to stay in the holiday spirit. Whip out a seasonal story and read to the kids. If they're old enough, tell them about when you discovered the truth about Santa. Tell them about their very first holiday.

Before you know it, you'll all be laughing. That's certainly a lot better than spending hours gnashing your teeth.

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