Christopher Elliott | Special to USA TODAY
On a recent flight from Atlanta to Mobile, Alabama, I saw the future of travel: an unmasked toddler racing up and down the aisle in economy class, screaming for his mama. It was the ultimate kids-on-planes nightmare.
Meanwhile, Mom was safely strapped into her seat as the aircraft started its descent. Flight attendants eventually cornered the child at the first-class partition and whisked him back to his family.
Maybe you’ve noticed how quiet air travel has been in the last two years. One reason is that families, especially those with young kids, have taken a break from air travel. But with the approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children as young as 5, the kids on planes have returned.
“In a very real sense, 2022 is shaping up to become the year of family travel,” says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of VisitorsCoverage.com, a travel insurance marketplace. “Between the surge in family travel bookings for 2022 and the reopening of international borders after nearly two years, not everything will go smoothly.”
A renaissance in family travel
New research by Vrbo suggests families will travel differently this year than they did during the first two years of the pandemic. Parents must feel a little guilty about staying home for two years. Half of the customers Vrbo surveyed said they intend to give their kids a bigger say in vacation planning compared to before the pandemic.
“We expect family travel to surge in 2022 and parents want to make family vacations bigger and better for their kids,” says Vrbo spokeswoman Alison Kwong.
A recent American Express survey on family travel underscores how much of a renaissance this might be. A majority of consumers – 68% – also said they would be happy to forego gift exchanges with their family to go on a vacation with them instead. More than half of parents surveyed say they are willing to book a trip even if they might have to cancel or modify it later. And almost 10% of all personal travel bookings tracked by TripActions bookings were for more than two travelers.
“Family travel bookings will continue to increase,” predicts TripActions spokeswoman Kelly Soderlund.
So this is probably a good time for a refresher on traveling with kids, both for families with young kids and those who have to share a flight with them. What are some of the challenges of air travel with young kids in the age of masks and social distancing? What would make it better? And what are some survival strategies?
► The Daily Money: Get our latest personal finance stories in your inbox
Idea for kids on planes: a special section for families
I asked a manners expert what airlines could do about the influx of kids on planes. Adeodata Czink, who runs the etiquette consultancy Business of Manners, had a surprising response: Let’s create a “kids only” section on the plane.
“They can cry together, play with each other, and leave the rest of the passengers in reasonable peace,” she says. “And before you ask – yes, I have children.”
Full disclosure: So do I. But her idea isn’t that strange. Airlines have toyed with the idea of a family section for years. Right now, they unofficially do have a section for junior passengers. The back of my last flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco was filled with families that had babies and toddlers.
In the meantime, airlines might do their youngest passengers a favor by voluntarily adding the language of the Families Flying Together Act to their passenger contracts, which would allow families to sit together without having to pay extra for a seat assignment. That would make it less likely that the screaming toddler on the loose incident would repeat itself on your next flight. But it’s not a guarantee. Kids have minds of their own, you know.
► CDC monitoring 92 cruise ships for COVID: Here’s how to check whether your ship is on the list.
How to handle all the kids on planes
So how to cope with this barrage of babies on planes? Let’s review the basics, courtesy of Canadian family travel expert Jody Robbins.
“Being in a confined space for an unknown amount of time is challenging enough for adults,” she explains. “But when kids feel they have no power, they tend to act out.”
Distraction and surprise are the best tools for keeping the young’uns from freaking out. Robbins recommends packing a “surprise bag” with fun items to parcel out during the flight. And bring plenty of food, but go easy on the sugar. Let’s just say too much of that can make your offspring misbehave.
How do you keep the mask on? For younger kids on planes, Lauren King likes to turn it into a game. She uses an app called Class Dojo to track the goals for each of her four young children and offers corresponding rewards for responsible masking.
“For example, if the child is compliant in the mask for 30 minutes, he receives 10 points. A collection of points can lead to a souvenir, a piece of candy, or a cash reward,” says King, a travel advisor with Key to the World Travel.
For older kids, she recommends an honest conversation about the importance of masking. But as I’ve always said, when it comes to flying, it’s not the kids you have to worry about – it’s the adults. The experts I talked to said kids are actually more cooperative than adults when it comes to masking, and after what I’ve seen lately, I’m inclined to believe them.
OK, but seriously, is there anything new?
The rambunctious toddler on my flight to Mobile was just the beginning. As I write this, I’m sitting one row away from a baby on an 11-hour overnight flight from San Francisco to Lisbon. I feel lucky that I’m on one of the new, super-quiet Airbus A330neo jets, but I also know babies – and this one certainly has the potential to prevent anyone in the main cabin from sleeping. So is there anything you can do besides avoid air travel?
Maybe. The solution to unruly kids on planes lies mostly with parents. Sometimes you have to fly with your kids. But if you have a choice, at least make sure your children are prepared for the experience.
“Family travelers may face everything from long lines and flight disruptions to vaccine checks, COVID testing and food shortages,” says Dr. Gene Delaune, an emergency room physician and senior medical consultant for Allianz Partners. “Parents can, however, plan ahead for these situations.”
Of course, the same could be said for adults. But that’s another story.
Ready for a chilly vacation? Here are the best national parks for families to visit this winter
Tips for flying with kids this year
Don’t overdo it. Dr. Yvette McQueen, a travel physician, says parents can avoid a meltdown by planning responsibly. “Try to limit the number of flights,” she says. That means if you have to spend a little extra for a nonstop flight, do it – or face the consequences.
Have a conversation about the masks. “Start talking about the requirement to wear a mask while traveling early in the planning process,” advises Tracy Schatz, president of Elite Travel Journeys. Also, find a mask that your child likes, and teach your offspring to wear it properly.
Make a plan in case your kids test positive. That’s the advice of John Gobbels, chief operating officer of Medjet. “It’s absolutely possible for just one of the kids to test positive and the rest of the family to test negative, even if you’ve all been doing the same activities, eating the same meals.” You need to know what to do before it happens. Will one parent stay behind? The entire family? Are you staying at a hotel that will allow you to extend your stay for a quarantine, if necessary?
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.