In September, Allie Olson will be flying with both of her two young children for the first time. Even though the trip is more than a month away, she is already feeling anxious about the two flights it will take to get from Tennessee to California. “I am a very low-stress person, and I am nervous about this.”
Her stress is warranted. Little about flying is set up to support families. Here’s how experts suggest navigating the most common issues parents face.
When Allyson Matthews’s twins turned 2 last November, it doubled the cost for her four-member family to travel; children 2 and up require their own paid ticket. Even though she was grateful to have the extra seats and not have to balance two babies on their laps, the cost is almost prohibitive.
The affordability of travel is consistently the top challenge cited by respondents in the Family Travel Association’s annual survey. Kenneth Shapiro, president of the Family Travel Association, tells Yahoo Life that budgeting for trips continues to be difficult because of rising costs.
The cost of airfare is one of the main reasons that Jo Kaur and her husband have never flown with their kids (ages 3 and 9 months). They became a one-income family when she left the workforce to stay home with her son Riaan, who has a fatal neurodegenerative disease called Cockayne Syndrome. The cost of airfare and the travel gear required for two young children, especially one with a medical disease, is too great of a barrier.
The good news for families is that while it might not feel this way when booking tickets, average flight prices are decreasing. June’s federal inflation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that airfare decreased 8% from May to June and has fallen 19% over the last year.
But, as ticket prices fall, “[a]irlines are finding ways to get families on the small fees,” Rob Taylor, the founder and lead journalist for 2TravelDads.com, the original LGBT family travel blog, tells Yahoo Life.
From checked bag fees and upcharges on main cabin seating, there are many costs built into flying that can quickly add up. “Instead of paying all those fees, we pay credit card fees to get upgrades and free baggage included as part of an annual fee," Taylor says. However, beginning this year, even rewards and loyalty members like Taylor are experiencing increased costs for family travel. For example, before February, his credit card’s annual fee included lounge access for him and two guests, which he used for his kids. Because they travel often as a family, this perk helped defray the cost of buying overpriced food and drinks during layovers. Now, it costs $30 per child to enter the lounge unless a person meets the exorbitantly high minimum card spend. “[This] feels like a step to exclude families.”
Vedica Kant was pleasantly surprised to see a separate immigration line for families traveling with kids under 5 when she was traveling through the Istanbul airport this summer. “It allowed us to move through immigration quickly and removed the stress of both dealing with a cranky baby for long periods of time and annoying a bunch of other travelers — seemed like a win-win for everyone,” Kant tells Yahoo Life.
Unfortunately, in the United States, the closest families can get is to paying extra for TSA PreCheck or CLEAR, both of which Taylor highly recommends for family travel. Matthews, who used it for the first time on her trip a few weeks ago, thinks the cost is worth it. "We were in and out within five minutes. They didn’t have to take off jackets or shoes, so they were minimally affected by the whole process.” However, both programs are cost-prohibitive. CLEAR is $189 a year plus $70 a person (children 18 and under are free) and TSA PreCheck is $78 for five years (children 17 and under are free).
Seating and boarding
One of the most stressful parts of flying — seating assignments — is hopefully about to get better for many parents. In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a notice to ensure that young children are seated next to a parent at no additional charge.
However, it’s likely this won’t ease the anxiety for families traveling on airlines that don’t assign seats. “[It’s a] stressor because you’re trying to beat out other families. I need an entire three seats for me and the two kids,” Matthews says. Without assigned seats next to each other, parents are often at the mercy of their fellow passengers. A woman's recent post about refusing to swap seats so a mother could sit next to her two kids has ignited debate about the etiquette of seat-swapping.
Guaranteeing seats so families have more flexibility for boarding would be helpful. “The advice I [always] give to parents is how to use the pre-board,” says Samantha Brown, the Emmy-winning host of PBS’s Samantha Brown’s Places to Love, who is both a travel expert and mother of 10-year-old twins. Instead of boarding early, which most airlines allow for passengers traveling with young kids, Brown would have her husband board early with all the gear, and she would let the kids run around in the gate area until the very last person in the very last zone boarded. This reduces time spent in the plane; however, it doesn’t work for people flying solo or for parents on airlines that don’t have assigned seats.
Hannah McDowell’s stroller has been damaged almost every time she’s flown. In one incident, the frame of her stroller was completely snapped in half. Luckily, she was able to get reimbursed because she filed a claim within the 24-hour window, but the process was convoluted, and she had to be extremely proactive. Some airlines she's traveled with, however, have refused to cover any damages.
Taylor encourages all parents flying with strollers to invest in a stroller bag. “Everyone I’ve ever spoken with who has had a stroller broken, hasn’t had a stroller bag or hasn’t provided their stroller fully packed for travel, so it won’t open up as it’s being moved,” he tells Yahoo Life.
While the 2016 Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening (BABES) Act was designed to make it easier for parents to get through airport security with their breast milk and assorted baby-feeding essentials intact, many moms — including Keke Palmer — say they still face threats to have their milk, formula and frozen ice packs thrown out. (Packing formula inside checked luggage can also be a headache, as Olivia Munn learned last year when her infant son's packed containers spilled, during a national formula shortage no less.)
When flying without kids, these challenges only increase. “If you are breastfeeding and traveling without kids ... all of the sudden people in TSA are very confused as to why you need to continue the act of pumping if the child isn’t there,” Emily Calandrelli, an Emmy-nominated science TV host and mom of two, tells Yahoo Life. She was “humiliated” when TSA agents refused to let her through with partially melted freezer packs that she needed to keep the milk cold when she pumped in the airport. When Calandrelli tweeted about her experience, her post went viral and the response from other women who had experienced something similar was overwhelming.
Calandrelli has since worked with Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) on expanding the BABES Act. Introduced last summer, the BABES Enhancement Act bill is intended to make it easier for breastfeeding parents to travel safely. Based on her experience, Calandrelli also encourages women to have TSA policy pulled up on their phones before going through security. “Knowing your rights in that situation can help prevent you from having any issues,” she says.
Staying calm in the sky
Mitigating these systemic issues can involve a lot of stress, planning and added expenses. However, there’s one tip that both travel experts Brown and Taylor recommend: snacks.
“Snacks solve most problems — that’s something we learned from an early age with our kids. Having easy snacks on the go saves money and time and makes it so you can de-fuse a lot of stressful kid situations,” Taylor tells Yahoo Life.
Brown offers similar advice and encourages parents to remember food for themselves. “Always keep a snack for yourself, because every one of my meltdowns was because I was really hungry and didn’t have the capability to have another 20 minutes without yelling.”
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