When In Rome Tours Survival Guide to Flying with Kids
As an expat living in Italy for 20 years with four children and our immediate family spread out over three continents, I’ll humbly admit that i’ve earned my girl scout badge for flying with children. You see, the When in Rome offspring are what you might call “lively.” They don’t always listen, they fidget, shout, argue and love to wrestle (sometimes for fun, often for real).
Owning a family business with Vatican tours and Rome sightseeing running all summer, it hasn’t always been possible to take a vacation all together. When faced with the options of spending July and August being scorched by the Roman sun while all our friends abandon the city for beach or mountain destinations, or Momming up and jumping on a flight to visit our families abroad, for me it has generally been a no brainer.
While flying with four kids is stressful even when both parents are present, going it alone takes the anxiety to a whole new level. The first few times it was terrifying. I would imagine every single parenting nightmare scenario happening simultaneously on one flight and drinking copious amounts of wine at the thought of it alone. But the truth is, on each trip I learned something new and can honestly say it gets much easier.
On our last flight before the Covid 19 pandemic, we flew direct from Boston to Rome on Alitalia airlines. While Alitalia is not the most reliable airline and isn’t known for having the friendliest staff – this flight was the “Gucci” of all trips (yes, even in coach). We boarded, were given extra leg room, the in-flight entertainment/video games were all working and with great selections on a brand-new state of the art Airbus. The kids and I were all brokenhearted after saying goodbye to our family, yet they bound together to cheer me up as we headed home (“home” being a blurred concept after living for 20 years in the states and 20 years in Italy).
Following take-off, dinner was served and then after a few hours of games and a movie, one by one the children passed out. They woke up as we were making the descent into Rome, couldn’t deal with the muffin and yoghurt at 3am Boston time, and that was okay. Just before the fasten seatbelts sign came off, the entire staff of 5 flight attendants came over to us and broke into a round of applause for me and my kids. They were amazed that a mom and four kids could be so low profile on a long haul flight. Just like that we entered the (unofficial) Alitalia Good Passengers Hall of Fame, which qualifies me to impart the following wisdom to aspiring parents of mini-frequent flyers.
Seat location matters If you’ll be flying coach with infants or toddlers, call the airline directly and ask to reserve the very first row. There are pull down tables with bassinets that are life-changing for babies, while toddlers (and you) will appreciate the extra leg room for them to move about and/or play on the floor.
Car seats Many parents swear by them on flights, but I truly never saw the real benefit. The thought of one more heavy item to haul around the airport always deterred me. Once at your destination, renting or borrowing a car seat is so easy, in my humble opinion it just isn’t worth it.
Extra clothes This may sound obvious, but one summer I learned the hard way and will never forget. My toddler son came down with a stomach bug just before traveling. Nothing was going to stop us from taking a much-anticipated trip to Colombia and so I packed extra diapers, extra wipes, and 5 changes of clothing into my carry on for my explosive little cherub. A few hours into the trip, with the little one on my lap I realized what I had forgotten as I felt the warm gush all over my legs… a change of clothing for me!
Fly direct If there is a direct flight, take it. Even if it costs a bit more, it’s a small price to pay for the peace of mind you will have. Nothing is worse than waking a cranky toddler who you then have to convince to stand up and walk to another terminal to board another flight. Especially if this happens at night when the child is usually sleeping. You’ll have a million things to carry already, adding a furious toddler to your burden can and might break you.
The above is easier said than done, I realize. One year we decided at the last minute to head to Boston. The direct flight would have cost us $6,000 one way, whereas a cheapo flight with a stopover in New York would save more than $4,000… needless to say we quickly got into a New York state of mind.
Delegate responsibility Let your older kids (even if not much older) help you – you’ll be surprised at what they are capable of and they’ll be beaming with pride like my oldest in this picture as she holds her brother on the floor of an airport bathroom stall.
Last but not least, remember this: No matter how awful it is, it only a few hours (or a half day, one day etc – choose your destinations wisely) of your life. The payoff? Once you get off the plane you will quickly reap the rewards that more than compensate for the hell your toddler may have put you through.