Avoid these mistakes when you fly with your family

April 5, 2019, 12:15 PM · Flying somewhere with your family? Before you board that plane, before you pack your bags, before you even book your ticket, you'll want to read this.

A solo plane trip can be stressful. But add kids or grandparents to the mix, and it's enough to make you throw yourself out that emergency exit door at cruising altitude. In a recent Yahoo Travel survey, one in five parents surveyed found traveling with their own children "difficult." Roughly 10 percent of adult respondents even wished they could sit apart from their own kids.

My most stressful flight happened on an American Airlines flight from Houston to Orlando a few years ago. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Three of us were suffering from the flu. We misplaced a bag. The turbulence was so bad that my oldest son, then 9, thought we were going to die. I think my daughter was teething or had some kind of skin condition -- but I remember her being in agony for the duration of our trip.

After we touched down in Florida, I swore I would never fly again. That lasted all of about a month. I can't not fly. But that flight from Hell really helped me deal with the next flight, and the one after it. I learned that some things are more valuable than what you paid for that nonrefundable ticket. Also, you can plan your flight carefully to avoid most of the craziness my family and I suffered.

What's more valuable than your airline ticket

Of all the mistakes when you fly with your family, the biggest is placing too high of value on your airline ticket. Here's what I mean by that: Your nonrefundable economy class ticket cost a lot. And you probably shelled out one of those ridiculous "seat assignment" fees so you could all sit together.

What's more valuable than the money you spent? Your health.

I've shrugged off upper respiratory infections, a touch of the flu, and hangovers (in younger days) and boarded my flight. Not worth it. First of all, flying with an infectious disease ought to be illegal. You'll make the whole plane sick. But more importantly, it guarantees that you -- and your family -- will be miserable. And let me tell you, there's no worse feeling than sitting in a pressurized aluminum tube, feeling as if your head is going to explode. When it's one of your kids, you have to deal with them and sometimes the irritated passengers next to them, too.

If you or a family member are sick, here's my advice: Consider canceling or postponing the flight. Most tickets allow you to reschedule (but you have to pay a change fee). If you booked one of those "basic" fares, you can still call the airline and explain that your child has a virus and shouldn't be on the plane. Airlines can bend their own rules and offer a credit or a refund. It's worth asking.

You're flying when?

Timing, as they say, is everything -- and nowhere is that truer than air travel. Sometimes, the conditions are calm. Other times not so much. Our flight from Houston to Orlando took place in the early spring, which is known for its turbulent weather

Let me share a moment with you from that flight. We'd just hit the second pocket of violent air. The pilot had warned us to buckle up, and then added, "Flight attendants, I'm going to ask you to be seated, too."

When you hear that, expect a wild ride.

The plane suddenly jerked up and down and the plane seemed to dive. I looked over at my middle son and saw him, bulging eyes, colorless skin. Yes, he looked like Gollum from "Lord of the Rings."

"Dad," he whispered. "What's happening?"

I assured him everything would be fine. But the truth is, I didn't know.

If I'd done a little planning, I might have chosen a different city in which to connect. The skies around Houston on that particular day were not ideal for flying. Come to think of it, there are other skies I try to avoid. Flying over the poles during the winter can be a rough ride. There are some notoriously windy airports in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona where you can count on a rough landing. You don't have to be an aviation insider to know. Just do a quick search online before you make your reservations.

Your family planning guide for flying

The other thing that could have made our flight better was a little advance planning. Oh, I know I'm always talking about that, but hear me out. Whether you're flying with children or grandparents, or just friends who need a little extra care, these few planning steps can help:

Bring more food than you'll need. Because you never know when your flight will be delayed or stuck on the tarmac for hours. Good food is hard to find on a plane, on many flights it's expensive, and on some, food is non-existent. If you have dietary restrictions, you might have to go without food for the entire flight -- and that adds to the stress.

Entertain them. A flight goes better when you bring the digital pacifier and plenty of movies. Not for the kids -- for you. (I'm half kidding.) Seriously, you can't force them to look out the window the entire time. They will make you pay for it later. So distraction is key to a smooth flight.

Explain what will happen and then listen to their concerns. If your kids have never flown, they will probably have questions -- everything from "What's that noise?" to "Are we there yet?" Consider briefing them on what will happen next. Then listen to them. Let them air their concerns and try to address them before the flight. Nothing is worse than a midair meltdown.

When it comes to flying, families often fail to adequately plan their flights or schedule a route that works best for them. They also don't pay enough attention to their health and well-being while they're in the air. But you don't have to take that flight path.

Christopher Elliott's latest book is How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler (National Geographic). He edits the family adventure travel blog Away is Home. You can follow his adventures on Twitter or Facebook. © 2019 Christopher Elliott.

Replies (10)

April 5, 2019 at 12:50 PM

The last two times I have flown to Orlando, I've ended up sick for a week... in all likelihood because someone chose to bring a sick child on their flight. I know it's tough to have an illness coincide with a planned vacation, but it's people's refusal (or inability) to stay home when they are sick that allows illness to spread.

We treat illness terribly in the United States - with inflexibility towards sick leave, health care, and travel plans - and we pay the price for that. But until we get smarter about taking care of ourselves and each other as a nation, please consider travel insurance when traveling with kids, or follow Chris' advice above. Or at the very least buy a mask for whoever in the family is sick and wear it whenever they go out.

April 5, 2019 at 1:42 PM

Sorry, but altering your vacation dates because of common weather phenomenon is a pretty ridiculous recommendation. Certain routes definitely will see some rougher skies during certain times of the year, but if you live in a city with limited service and have to plan vacations around the school calendar, there's very little shifting that can be done. Plus, all of that extra time (and money) spent in attempting to avoid common turbulent routes could be ruined by a single unusual storm. Most people plan big vacations months in advance, and are not going to cancel a trip because of a potentially bumpy ride, and don't necessarily have the luxury to travel when skies are the smoothest.

I'm all for bringing food, but there are limitations. Unless you want to pay ridiculously marked-up prices for stuff inside the airport security perimeter, the food that you can bring onto a plane is limited to dry goods. That means no yogurt, fruit cups, Jell-O, pudding, and juice boxes. Also, some airports have gone to great lengths to make it as difficult as possible to bring food through security to the point where TSA agents are inspecting individual pieces of candy (like the treats guests had collected from last fall's MK MNSSHP - thousands of them!!!). I've heard some travelers complain of having factory sealed food like fruit snacks/roll-ups, raisins, jerky, and even fresh fruit taken or being subjected to additional security, and even fast food purchased in the terminal (but outside security) thrown in the trash because it contained "gels" like ketchup, mayo, and mustard. Also, the ever-shrinking allowable sizes for carry-ons and limited weights for checked bags further reduces the available space for snacks.

It's easy to say you should just cancel your vacation when you feel sick, but that ignores some very real world situations that travelers face (particularly the ones that may only take 1-2 trips to WDW in their life). Certainly, if you can talk your airline into booking you onto a later flight, then great. Travel insurance is another option, but can often double or triple the cost of airfare, which many people cannot afford. However, even if you could change your flight to a later date, the chances of getting your entire family (especially if you have a larger contingent) on the same later flight within a day or two of your original departure are minuscule, even if you're willing to pay the change fees. Also, those change fees are assessed per ticket (and sometimes per segment), so if you're only planning to spend a few days at your destination, you might need to change your return flight as well, or just bag the entire trip because the costs of changing 10+ plane tickets/segments (at $75 or more a pop) would cost more than writing the entire trip off and trying again next year. Also, sometimes the stress of a trip can bring on symptoms that are similar to colds, flu, and other illnesses, so aborting a trip because of an upset stomach, headache, or achy joints may be for naught as those symptoms may subside once you reach your destination.

The entertainment suggestion here is a HUGE one. More and more airlines are eliminating the seat-back screens and drop down in-flight entertainment in favor of Wi-Fi enabled planes. A tablet, iPad, or other mobile device is almost a necessity these days, even for the little ones. Also, make sure they're charged before you arrive, and that you have an adequate supply of backup power for those cross-country or international flights.

On the preparation point, a number of airports have familiarization events for kids, especially those with Autism. These events are a must for those taking their children on their first flights. Families get to not only see what it's like to go through the airport, but they get to go through the security checkpoint, and all of the steps of boarding a plan and preparing for takeoff.

There are definitely some good takeaways here, but cancelling or shifting an already planned trip, which can be an incredibly costly proposition, should only be a last resort.

April 5, 2019 at 1:28 PM

Good advice!! On the surface, many times it seems like cancelling or rescheduling the trip will be a headache, but ultimately many times it actually is LESS stressful than traveling (on a plane) when sick....especially when it's for leisure / vacation purposes.

April 5, 2019 at 4:03 PM

Relax your grip on the stick Chad. Half this Turbulence you're creating for yourself, stop trying to fight it, you're making it worse.
-A Gliding instructor of mine

Turbulence can be scary, and yes, there is a risk of things getting thrown around the cabin.

But a chance of falling out of the sky? No, not a realistic one.

The Wings are still doing their fundamental job. They are great big energy converters - they turn Kinetic-Energy (Forward Momentum) into potential-kinetic-energy (Height) and back again. As long as they're there, there's pretty much not much to worry about at cruising altitude.

Yes, those bumps are uncomfortable, but they're not nearly as big as you think they are.

Now, as for trying to plan around it... Turbulence is a bit like the brain - We kinda understand parts of it, and then there's other stuff we don't have much of a handle on at all. Some turbulence can be predicted - Flying through Cumulonimbus (Thunder Clouds) for example is very very very bad for Turbulence - but your pilot team will be intentionally avoiding those. Other areas are prone to "mountain wave" - the wind constantly going up and down mountains leaves it bouncing after the range, even in clear weather- although what might be uncomfortable for a passenger gets a glider pilot up early in the morning hoping to catch it.

...But much of it can't be so easily anticipated, and sometimes its not known, or its intensity isn't known until someone goes there and checks for themselves. There's a reasonable chance the reason why the Pilot team at the pointy end know there's turbulence coming is because of the last guy to fly through it told everyone who was listening that it was getting a bit choppy.

In general, I have to agree with Russel. I wouldn't go out of my way to avoid certain airports on the chance of turbulence.

What I would do, is as the OP rightly suggested (after the panic) is talk to nervous flyers/kids. Let them know before their first flight where they're old enough to understand that there's a chance of turbulence, and as long as they wear their seatbelt it's perfectly fine and safe - no matter how scary it might seem. Reassure them as needed. Make sure even though it won't be welcome, it should never be completely an unwelcome surprise.

And for those a bit older, I'd suggest they "Ask the Pilot". Patrick Smith has brilliant books and a brilliant blog (where he gives much of the book content away for free). His essay on Turbulence, from the pointy-end perspective, can be found here:


April 5, 2019 at 4:27 PM

"The last two times I have flown to Orlando, I've ended up sick for a week... in all likelihood because someone chose to bring a sick child on their flight."

People do realise that most illnesses are contagious before symptoms actually present? If plans had to be changed every time a child had a runny nose or cough, or said that they felt unwell, then nothing would ever get done in the world.

April 5, 2019 at 5:41 PM

>>>People do realise that most illnesses are contagious before symptoms actually present?

Given the arugments I've had online lately, no, I don't think people realise this.

April 5, 2019 at 10:02 PM

Working at thene parks does tend to build up the immune systen. After so many years of guests of all ages hacking and sneezing, it's like a personal force field. So rarely ill that if I sneeze, they call the Center for Disease Control to see if there's an unknown strain loose at the thene parks!;)

April 8, 2019 at 10:34 AM

Changing a flight can be shockingly expensive. I was tempted to change my flight to Orlando when I saw that the forecast was for rain on the only day I had to spend at SeaWorld but Spirit was going to charge me $480 - far more than the cost of the original flight - to reschedule, so I flew anyway and spent a day at SeaWorld in a soaking rain. (I guess I'm more fortunate than Robert in that I've flown to Orlando twice in the past couple of months and haven't gotten sick as a result.)

I always buy travel insurance, relatively inexpensively, but am not sure whether that will cover the full cost of the flight if I need to cancel. As to rescheduling without paying through the nose, some years ago I got sick and landed in the hospital, where I underwent an appendectomy, a couple of days before I was scheduled to fly to London. Before allowing me to reschedule the flight at no charge, the now defunct US Airways insisted upon contacting my surgeon to verify my version of events.

April 8, 2019 at 2:24 PM

That's a great point Bobbie...Many of us don't have thousands of dollars to simply throw away because we have the sniffles or because the ride might be a little bumpy. As Disney and other theme parks start to really crank up the costs of a vacation with non-refundable admission tickets that are soaring well over $100/person/day, there is a lot less flexibility with vacations than Mr. Elliot seems to consider. That means families have to look to do more with less, often booking fare classes with less flexibility and foregoing travel insurance.

What we really should do is to put the screws to tourist destinations about the exponentially increasing costs of taking a family vacation and the inflexibility of airlines, hotels, and other travel-related businesses to change or delay those trips. The cost to take your family on vacation for a week has gone through the roof over the past 10 years, and while airfares have not increased that much over that time, the decreasing convenience, comfort, and efficiency of taking a trip by plane has outpaced any perceived savings. Also, all the nickel and diming that airlines do now to passengers erodes any savings seen in base airfares, especially for families that typically carry more luggage and need more amenities than your average business traveler (like assigned seating and early boarding). Then you have hotel rates that have more than doubled and tripled in some areas over the past 10 years, but lure vacation travelers with lower, non-refundable rates that are total losses if a trip has to be canceled or even delayed.

If a family has saved for years to take a once in a lifetime 10-day trip to WDW, and sunk $10k or more on mostly non-refundable costs, you better believe they're going to hop on that plane with a sick child. Do you blame them, or perhaps you'd be willing to reimburse them for the $10k they'll lose if they stay at home? I think there's a lack of appreciation for those types of travelers, because so many here visit theme parks so frequently. However, there are far more once in a lifetime visitors to Disney parks than we recognize, and most of them fall on the lower end of the economic spectrum, trying to give their kids that one "magical" vacation they'll remember for the rest of their lives. It's easy to say that they can just postpone their trip, but until you've been saving money for the past 5+ years for that trip, there's no way to know how you would handle that situation.

April 8, 2019 at 7:53 PM

Oh, look, another travel writer who seems to hate to travel. And who categorizes everything cash-strapped families do out of necessity as "mistakes".

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