After eight hours in the nicest bus I had ever ridden in, my family arrived at the border of Chile and Argentina high in the Andes mountains. I stood in the baggage revision line with my wife and son as the immigration officer began searching everyone’s bags. I had felt fine all day, but suddenly I was hit with altitude sickness and everything went blurry. The last thing I remember is my wife screaming, my head banging on the baggage table, and my big toe fracturing. I woke up with an oxygen mask on my face surrounded by officials in a tiny office on the border and a throbbing toe.
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They gave me a sandwich, shuffled me back on to the bus, and we traveled another eight hours to the Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport in Chile where we would have to wait all night for our flight in the morning. We didn’t have money for a hotel, I was pale and sick, my wife was worried, and my oldest son was scared. We somehow had to survive the night before our fourteen hour flight the next morning without traumatizing our son. We learned some things on that trip, and on many others since. If you are a parent and have a long night at the airport ahead of you, here are some tips to help you make it through, and make it more bearable with your children.
Find an Empty Corner.
This may seem like a no-brainer. Everyone tries to find an empty corner somewhere, especially with their kids. That can be extremely challenging in a busier airport, but there are certain places that are more likely to have empty corners than others. I have found that one great place to find an open space is around the restaurants. At the airport in Chile there was a restaurant on the top floor with only a few clients, and at the back there were no tables and wifi with no password. Plus it was close to food! I have found that not all, but many airports have locations like that rather than that main seating areas.
Bring Their Favorite Bedding.
Children are extremely adaptable, even in difficult situation like my story above, but travel is especially difficult for them. This is because even with their ability to go with the flow, stability is vital for them. Too much change too often can cause different issues like separation anxiety, inability to connect with others, and similar issues. You can’t always control the change in your life, especially if your career, like mine, causes you to move around a lot. However there are things you can control that will make a huge difference.
A child’s bed is his/her safe place. It may not be in the same geographical location, and it may take a bit more luggage space, but recreating their bed as much as possible at the airport can mean the difference between a fitful, exhausting night (making for a miserable next day), and peace for your child. This will give them a much greater sense of security and comfort. Let them sleep with their same pillow instead of those travel pillows, and a familiar blanket and toy. You will be glad you did!
Make a Fort
Children already love making forts. I recently walked into a dorm with four teenage guys who didn’t notice I had entered. They had taken about ten mattresses from the bunk beds and made a fort out of them. When they saw me standing there with a quizzical look on my face, they all got embarrassed, and trying to act cool said, “This started as a wrestling match, the fort just happened.”
When you have your safe corner at the airport, and have enough luggage, surround the bed with the bags. With my wife and two kids we have traveled overloaded with so much luggage (sixteen bags once!) we surrounded our whole family with them. Too many bags might make a space too wide to do this, but if you have a single bed space, you can throw a sheet or blanket over the baggage, which will give a feeling of much greater privacy. Your kids will love it!
Have Incremental NEW Toys and Movies
The great thing about smaller children is that even a new toy that costs fifty cents on eBay can excited them. It can keep them entertained for half an hour to an hour depending on the child and age. This is a classic bit of advice, but incredibly valuable. If you are stuck at the airport you should have an arsenal of new toys, and if you have a tablet or laptop, new movies. Don’t let your kids know you have anything at all when you start the trip. You want to wait until there is a lull, some boredom or whining, and then bust out the new toy/movie to the complete shock of your children. The shock itself will take their mind off what is going on, and then you buy more time with fresh entertainment. Wait until the lull hits again in an hour or two, and as the kids start asking when it is all going to be over you shock them with another. I always do this and now my children love to travel with me, and the longer the trip the better because they know there will be more fun things for them.
Bring a White Noise Generator
Airports are noisy. For a lot of kids all the hubbub won’t effect them if they are tired enough, but some are more sensitive to sound than others. In those cases I have seen many parents bring along a white noise generator, sometimes with headphones, so their child can listen to that instead of the frantic family storming through the airport to catch their next flight. If your child is already accustomed to the white noise it will really enhance her ability to sleep in an already strange location.
Keep the Stress Level Low, Forgive Accidents
We all know travel is incredibly stressful. Hauling all your luggage, trying not to miss your flight, keeping a constant eye on your children so they don’t wander onto a flight to Nepal while you are trying to finally eat. And also making sure you don’t leave those ninety-three bags unattended for more than two seconds so nobody calls security on you. Our children can often face the brunt of that stress. They can already sense it at the start and get stressed themselves, so a family vacation can start out as a nightmare and the first two days are spent forgiving each other.
As much of a struggle as it is, I can’t place enough importance on keeping your cool during your stay at the airport with your children. If you have to leave even an hour or two earlier than you usually would, pack your bags days in advance, triple check everything, bring extra cash to buy those crazy expensive snacks at the airport, do it. It’s totally worth it. And when your children are stressed and throwing tantrums or crying or making messes, be very forgiving. Remember that it is all hard on them too, and they have zero control over what happens.
On one of our first family trips, my three year old son who was potty trained, wet himself at the airport because he was scared to use the public bathrooms. We didn’t really have the extra clothes we needed to change him, but we kept our calm, hugged him, told him it was okay, and got the new clothes we needed. It was frustrating, but our response calmed him down and after that he was able to use the airport bathrooms no problem. He felt safer and more comfortable in our travels after that. Patience is key to any travel experience with children.