An Archer Travels: Flying with a Toddler

We made it to Costa Rica! On Wednesday we had 14 hours of travel starting at 6 am with our first flight from Seattle to Los Angeles, and our second from LA to Juan Santamaría International Airport. We are very loyal Alaska Airlines flyers and we used the companion fare ($99+taxes) that we get every year through the Alaska Air credit card for one of our tickets. That’s actually how we ended up in Costa Rica before Colombia – it was the farthest south Alaska flies.

Even though Alaska is awesome and does everything it can to accommodate even the most annoying of travelers, flying with a toddler is kind of rough! Although our daughter Marian – Mae for short (her initials) – loves airports and airplanes, that love is not enough to overcome the frustration of not being able to push down on the enticing handles of emergency exits (look around next time you’re in an airport; there are a surprising number of them), of having to keep her very-easily-opened seat belt fastened, and of not being able to run and jump and yell at the top of her lungs in a tiny metal tube that already has most people feeling weary.

There are some tricks to keeping her happy and us (and those around us) sane. First, snacks. I cannot emphasize enough the power of a special snack to fix any problem. We bring her favorites (cashews, goldfish crackers, seaweed) but we also always bring an entire box of individual packets of fruit snacks. I’m pretty sure she’s only ever eaten those on airplanes, and she will do anything for them. We also let her drink juice (mixed with water), another special treat, and eat whatever snacks the flight attendants hand out. Pro tip: before taking off, use a few diaper wipes and some hand sanitizer to clean the arm rests, tray tables, seat belt buckles, and windows.

Our second line of defense is letting her do whatever she wants that isn’t absolutely prohibited. Now is not the time for teaching moments and towing the discipline line! We let her pick which seat she wants; if she changes her mind halfway through the flight (and a dozen times after that), we switch with her. Before the plane takes off and after it lands we let her stand up on her seat and look around. If she wants to visit with the people around us and they’re amenable, godspeed. When the seat belt sign is off we let her walk up and down between us in the aisle, which sometimes turns into running and laughing hysterically. Is that annoying for everyone around us? Maybe. Is it less annoying than her screaming? Definitely.

Third, and most commonly employed by parents everywhere, is a tablet. Now that she’s old enough it’s a very effective method at keeping her quiet and occupied for long periods of time. We make sure to download content before we leave so she can watch offline. We also download the airline’s app if it has one, since that usually includes free movies and shows for the duration of the flight. (Alaska has a great app.)

Fourth, and this one is the hardest, is to try to maintain her regular schedule. Our second flight coincided with her nap time. We got her as cozy as we could, Carson cradled her and gave her milk, and I leaned into her and sang her song on repeat (“I Will” by the Beatles) until she fell asleep. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s worth it for everyone. She slept a full two hours (!!) during which time Carson and I watched the dumbest movie we could find – Dodgeball.

Even with all of these tools at the ready (plus a few more like a new toy, a favorite stuffed animal, crayons, playing the toddler version of I Spy out the window) it’s still impossible to keep a kid happy and entertained for the entirety of a 14 hour travel day (or, let’s be honest, any amount of time over 45 minutes). The only real trick for parents is to tap into a deep well of patience and stay calm at all costs. If there are two adults, tag-teaming is great – one is on duty while the other gets some tablet time of their own or a chance to snooze.

I also find smiling sympathetically at the people around us helps a great deal when she’s melting down. If fellow flyers see that you are a conscientious parent who is trying their best, they’re going to cut you a lot of slack. Plus they’re going to be glad it’s you and not them dealing with a cranky kid!

This has been written from the air-conditioned comfort of our apartment in Cahuita on the Caribbean ocean, where it is hot and humid and currently thundering. Next time I’ll share details about our truly incredible trip to a nearby cacao plantation.