Killing Time in the Airport With Kids

Tips on how to entertain the kids—and not lose your mind—during airport delays.

Not so long ago, the weather and a certain airline conspired to trap me, my husband and our 2-year-old daughter in Reagan National Airport—outside Washington D.C.—for more than five hours, a good four hours longer than we anticipated.

I’ll spare you the part about how we sat on the tarmac for those additional four hours. Suffice to say we were already worn threadbare by this particular travel experience when we boarded the plane.

I’d done all my normal preparations for flying with Emmeline—I packed goodies in the form of new toys and snacks, loaded up on crayons, and fully charged my laptop so that we could find a quiet corner and watch the movie Finding Nemo.

By hour three in the airport, my Big Bag o’ Bribes (patent pending) was empty and my laptop battery was dead. My sanity had left the building, and we were letting our daughter lick the windows looking out over the jet way while she yelled, “Look, Mommy! I’m cleanin’ them!”

That’s when my guardian angel entered from stage left, in the form of a pretty teenager headed to Chicago for a performance with a national choir.

She spotted my girl from across the gate lounge just as I was considering ritualistic suicide.

“What’s her name?” this sweet vision asked. “Oh, she is so CUTE! Do you mind if I play with her? I just LOVE to babysit!”

I could swear I heard a heavenly chorus burst into song at precisely that moment.

Now, don’t get your knickers in a twist and call child and family services on me. Of course I didn’t hand my child over to a stranger. I sat nearby and watched as they sang silly songs and Emmeline pirouetted.

The key word in that sentence is “sat.” As in, did not move. As in, gathered the strength for the rest of the journey. And man, did we need it.

Air travel these days is tricky at best, even for adults traveling solo. If you are holding an airline ticket in your hot little hand right now, odds are good that you’ll be delayed at some point during your journey.

Toss in a handful of the Terrible Twos or the (God, I hope) Terrific Threes, and you, my friend, have what we like to call “a situation.”

Entertaining kids in the airport can be challenging for even the most talented, patient human being. But according to travel experts John Frenaye and Elisa Bernick, it can be accomplished with just a little forethought.

Find Family-Friendly Airports

A father of three based in Annapolis, Md., Frenaye is the founder of the online travel agency, Travels With Fred, as well as Single Parent Travel, a Web resource devoted to the growing number of single parents who travel the world with their children. In addition, he shares his wisdom in a bi-weekly travel column on [Full disclosure, Frenaye also is a contributor to TravelMuse.]

“People get so into checking out their destination and finding out what they are going to do when they get there,” says Frenaye. “Look up the airport, too, to see what it has to offer.”

Doh (smacks head)! That never, ever occurred to me. Me, who could be found rocking back and forth and muttering in a corner when my MacBook was in the shop for three VERY LONG DAYS.

But I don’t need Google anymore, because Frenaye saved me the trouble of doing an online search of the nation’s airports. [Read more about top family-friendly airports here.]

“Most airports have wonderful things for kids to see and do,” he says. “For instance, Baltimore/Washington International Airport has a great flight deck outside the security area, where you can go and sit and hear the [air traffic controllers], and watch the planes come in and out.”

Outside the security areas? I have to exit the gate area and re-enter security?

Yes, says Frenaye. When you know you’re in for the long haul, sometimes leaving the confining gate area is your best bet.

“It isn’t something you want to do when you’re going to be boarding the plane in 45 minutes,” he says, “but if you are going to be delayed for hours, you might want to consider it.”

Bernick concurs. As the author of The Family Sabbatical Handbook: The Budget Guide To Living Abroad With Your Family, she has seen the inside of many an airport. They are, she says, pretty interesting places if you take the time to explore.

“There are lots of windows to look out, airplanes taking off and landing, weird carts and trains to move you around (or avoid), moving walkways, lots of stores and restaurants to walk through,” says the Minneapolis–based writer. “You can actually get a pretty good workout by taking a long stroll from one terminal to another, and letting the kids race down a fairly empty concourse to get out their pent-up energy.”

If you are looking at a delay of upwards of four or five hours—just think of all those poor families who got stuck when a certain airline recently grounded more than 1,000 flights—you could even catch an airport shuttle and check out the lobby of the nearest Holiday Inn.

And the bonus for you?

“Holiday Inn and McDonald’s always have really clean bathrooms,” Frenaye says.

Speaking of McDonald’s, the pleasures of fast-food dining can also be an excellent way to get kids excited about the airport. Just ask my sister, whose motto for air travel with her kids is “all bets are off.”

“For years, [my daughter] Lizzy thought that the only ‘Old McDonald’s’ in the world was in Detroit Metro Airport,” she says.

Bernick says that allowing special treats like fast food can make for a much smoother travel experience, especially when you are hoofing it with young kids.

“Bring a variety of favorite snacks along, of course, but also let the kids choose new or ‘forbidden’ foods for lunch or dinner,” she says.  “Maybe they get to have ice cream for dinner or breakfast for lunch.”

Also consider easing up on other verboten activities, she adds. Don’t let the kids get a lot of screen time at home? Dude, bust out that portable DVD player or laptop.

“Hunker down in a corner and let them watch a movie they’ve been dying to see,” Bernick says.

If french fries aren’t your thing and you can’t stomach the idea of watching High School Musical, try taking a walk all the way to gate No. 5,345. The farther away you get from the “main drag,” Frenaye says, the more likely you are to find the gates housing small regional jets. These areas tend to be less crowded, and often you can find a spot to shake the sillies out before you get on the plane. Let the kids run, jump and dance to their heart’s content—as long as they aren’t disturbing other passengers, of course—and you might just buy yourself a nap once you take off.

Activities for Older Kids

If you’re traveling with older kids—Frenaye’s youngest is 10—there are ways to make a day out at the airport an educational experience.

He points out that many airports these days are also great places to see wonderful public art or exhibits about local history.

“Philadelphia International Airport, for instance, has a big history section, where you can learn all about the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross,” he says.

Some larger metropolitan airports also have actual kid-centric play spaces, such as the “Kids On The Fly” interactive exhibit at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (smacks head again—this is my hub, and I DID NOT KNOW THIS).

If you happen to be flying out of a smaller airport, you can still find plenty of entertainment just by looking around.

For example, if you see luggage handlers putting bags on the plane, you can count the bags, or ask your child to make up a story about what is in them.

See? Instant teachable moment. I love it.

Also never underestimate the power a new treat, says Bernick. Buy a little special something and stash it in that Big Bag O’ Bribes (patent pending). Make sure it is something the kids have never seen before—and don’t just buy the first bauble you see.

“Make it something they have to spend time working on. A puzzle, coloring book, Sudoku, a book of mazes or a new chapter book. Also pack one family game. It could be as simple as a deck of cards or cribbage, Mancala, chess or a traveling Yahtzee board,” Bernick advises. “Frame the delay in terms of ‘our family against the world.’ Hunkering down together to tell stories and play games creates a really wonderful sense of family intimacy.”

And remember my babysitter friend from Reagan National? Frenaye reminds travelers that other parents are probably sharing your pain, and no harm can come from letting your kids make friends while they’re waiting for departure time.

Obviously, you need to be safe and use your best judgment, but when that angel teenager asks if she can play with your kid, say yes, please, with a cherry on top.

And p.s., treating the act of traveling as an adventure—not a chore—will go a long way toward helping you endure those seemingly endless hours in transport.

Turn that frown upside down, buddy. One of the biggest challenges when you're stuck is hiding your frustration and displaying a positive attitude for the kiddies, says Bernick.

“The best advice I can give is to plaster on a smile, take regular breaks from the kids (leave your spouse or traveling partner in charge), and let go of all the normal ‘rules,’ ” she says. “The point is to embrace the adventure the best you can. You might find another family sprawled out next to you in the same boat. Invite them to join yours for a rousing game of ‘20 Questions.’ Nothing makes the time go by faster than actually having fun.”

I’ll try to remember that the next time I’m stranded at O’Hare for 89 hours with my 2-year-old and an empty bag of Goldfish crackers in the middle of thunderstorm season.

Themes: Family Travel