Airport layovers, as an adult, can be boring and frustrating, but airport layovers with kids can be downright distressing. That’s why I strive to turn our inevitable layovers into an extension of our vacation. Being prepared, getting some rest and turning wait time into game time can help reduce the stress.
Because the reality is that you will, at some point, experience layovers. Flights with layovers tend to be much cheaper than direct flights. Sometimes it’s just not possible to get a direct flight between destinations. Other times circumstances beyond our control, such as weather or aircraft delays, result in more time than expected hanging around the terminal.
Luckily, this does get a bit easier as kids get older. At least they no longer need constant attention. But being hungry, tired and bored can amplify emotion in an already moody teen.
Don’t land stressed and frustrated! Gone are the days of sitting around at the gate twiddling your thumbs trying to keep the kids calm. Here’s our 12 suggestions for surviving airport layovers with kids:
Know Your Gate Location:
We like to find our gate right away, so we know where the aircraft will be located. I don’t want any surprises when it’s time to board. I can’t count the number of airports we’ve been in where it takes 30+ minutes to get from one side or terminal to another. Recently, I swear we walked for 15 minutes down a never ending corridor before we even saw the first gate number.
Find a Deserted Gate
However, instead of waiting at our gate, I like to hunt down an empty gate. You might find these closer to the end of the terminal. Here, kids can be a little louder and more active without disturbing other flyers. If kids are little, they can run around the chairs to get some of their energy out, spin in circles or have a mini dance party.
Play a Game:
Play a game to keep the boredom at bay. It’s even more fun when the parents join in.
- Simon Says
- Mother May I
- I Spy
- Scavenger Hunt
- Walk like an…. (Elephant, Frankenstein, Crab, Mummy, Chicken, Penguin)
Take a Walk:
Walk the terminal to keep kids moving – but make it fun. Skip, gallop, Frankenstein walk, play “I Spy” or do a scavenger hunt. Those moving walkways can also keep kids entertained for ages!
Stretching and getting a bit of exercise can do wonders. Even little ones can benefit from stretching out their muscles. Simple moves like side bends, arm circles and even touching toes are great for kids and adults. The idea is to move and stretch their bodies.
Fun at the Play Area:
Airport play areas are a fun spot for kids. Not all play areas are created equal, but some major airports now have awesome play areas. Within the U.S.A., airports such as Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle have cool play areas that the kids will want to enjoy – and may not want to leave. International airports in Helsinki, Sydney, Heathrow, Amsterdam and Warsaw have fun play areas for kids as well.
There are many other airports with play areas. I just wanted to give a sampling of some of the most popular ones. Play areas are usually tucked away out of sight from the main areas of the airport. Make sure to ask or look online for an airport map, so you don’t miss the fun.
Some airports even have museums such as the San Francisco International Airport, which includes a kids spot. The Vancouver International Airport houses a large collection of art and architecture located throughout the airport. It’s time to let the kids go on an art hunt!
Take a minute before your trip to look on the airport website to see what goodies they offer.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry:
Keep kids (and yourself) fed and hydrated. It’s easy for kids and adults not to drink enough when traveling. Have kids sip on water throughout the flight and during the layover to avoid dehydration. You’ll also want to avoid sugar drop meltdowns by keeping kids fed.
I always pack snacks for our flights and layovers, but kids may need something with a little more staying power. Skip the sugary snacks and instead go for fruit & veggies or a sandwich. If you need a more substantial meal, many major airports now offer great dining choices. Extend the meal by talking with the kids about your trip or what’s going on at school or with their friends. The longer you can drag out the meal while keeping them happy, the less time you have to entertain them later. You can also share a little dessert or treat to reward patient flyers.
Don’t forget to check if any restaurants in the airport offer free kids meals. On select dates, at select restaurants, Heathrow offers a free kids meal with adult meal purchase.
Side note – I like to have lollypops for takeoff and fruit snacks make a great inflight treat.
Pack the Right Stuff:
You’ll want to think ahead when packing your carry-on bag(s). I try to keep things separated. One bag (usually a backpack) is packed with items the kids will need while traveling and an entirely separate bag is dedicated to items that we just didn’t want going under the plane. I try to eliminate the need for hunting through several bags to find something the kids need. Alternatively, each kid can have their own backpack with toys, snacks and other gear they may need during the flight.
A few ideas:
- Coloring books (or printable sheets)
- Crayons or colored pencils
- Gaming device or iPad with charger and adapter if necessary
- Cars (limit the number so they don’t get lost)
- Barbie or other small dolls
- A travel blanket – Even my older kids still travel with a blanket. They are great for snuggling on a flight and if they get chilly at the airport. My rule is that it must be small and easy to wash. If you don’t have room for a blanket, a scarf works well in a pinch.
- Cards – fun for the entire family and a great way to pass the time. Young kids might prefer Go Fish or Old Maid. Mine like Uno and Spades.
When my kids were little, I would put together a little goodie bag, usually with items purchased from the Dollar Store or the Dollar Spot at Target. These small and inexpensive items can be just what kids need as a distraction on the fight. This also works well for layovers. You can create two mini bags and use one for the flight and one for the airport.
If you’re looking for more packing tips before your trip, you might like my article on How to Pack Lightly for a Vacation. I can usually manage to pack for a family of four in only a few carry-on bags.
Explore the City:
If you have a long layover, consider heading out to see the city. This tip is best with some pre-planning. Airports usually have fast, direct connections to major cities via public transport. However, it is important to know how far away the attraction or city is located. You need to factor in time there and back plus ensure you will have enough time to get back through security before your flight. You should still plan to return to the airport 2 hours before your flight, as you normally would when flying.
Recently, my step-brother and his family came to visit us in Nice. They ended up with an 8 hour layover at Charles de Gaulle. Who wants to sit in the airport for 8 hours?! They went into Paris for several hours, sightseeing and letting my nephew run around. I wouldn’t suggest museums with kids during this time, especially if you’ve just had a long flight, but other attractions and even parks are a great option.
A couple interesting ideas –
- Get from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to the Mall of America on the light-rail in only 12 minutes!
- Head out for a city tour with pickup and drop-off from the airport. This option is available from airports such as the Frankfurt Airport, and Amsterdam Schiphol. Additionally, Singapore’s Changi Airport offers a FREE heritage tour!
While you’re looking at the activities and restaurants available, see if your airport allows you to deposit your carry-on luggage for the duration of your layover. While you’ll pay a fee for this service, it can be much easier than hauling it AND the kids around the city.
Relax in the Lounge:
While airport lounges were once a place for traveling businessmen and women, they are becoming more popular with families. Recently, we got the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card for our travels. It comes with a hefty annual fee, but includes Priority Pass Lounge access for the entire family as well as many other benefits. This has been a huge perk! I’m not sure I can ever go back to not having lounge access.
Now, lounges are not the place for little ones to get their wiggles out, but it’s great for my older kids. Food and beverages are available for free, so we can save money by not having to make purchases in the airport. There are also plenty of charging stations for electronics, comfy chairs to relax or nap and some even have family areas. One recent lounge had a foosball table that my kids loved.
You can also purchase day passes into some lounges with prices ranging from $20 – $59 per person. Take a look at Lounge Pass where passes can be purchased for around $19 and Airspace Lounge offers day passes for $20.
Get a room:
If you’ve come off a long flight and know the kids are in desperate need of sleep, get a hotel room. You’ll usually find airport hotels or hotels that are close to the airport to get some shut eye. Some hotels even offer shuttle service.
Bonus if the hotel has a pool! This is great for long layovers and overnight layovers where everyone could benefit from the sleep. You’ll all arrive rested and ready tokick off your vacation.
Some airports, London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle, have YOTEL facilities. These are small hotels right inside the terminals! You may need to book 2 separate cabins as many can only accommodate only up to 2 guests. An exception is Schiphol, which has a family cabin.
Alternatively, set kids up on a couple of seats in a quiet gate, so they can get some rest. Don’t forget to set the alarm on your phone. It would be horrible for the family to oversleep!
Yes, I must mention electronics. Letting kids play a gaming device, an iPad or your phone can be a huge lifesaver. Ensure there are movies and offline games downloaded on the devices, and that they are charged before the trip. I’d advise breaking out the electronics during a layover as a last resort. It’s likely kids will need these during the flight, so try other options during a layover, first.
One of the most stressful aspects of flying is waiting around in airports with kids. Airport layovers can last for hours on top of the extra time you already waited in the airport for your initial flight, and the time spent keeping the kids entertained while actually flying to your destination.
In all honestly, I try to book direct flights when traveling. I despise layovers as I’m not a fan of flying. I want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, only suffering through one takeoff and one landing. But I know that airport layovers can be inevitable. At some point they are simply unavoidable.
So use these tips next time you’re stuck waiting for a connecting flight. Layovers don’t have to be a headache or leave everyone stressed and frustrated. Turn the layover into playtime, explore a new city or use the time to get some rest. Start with a little airport research and the mindset that the layover is just an extension of your families vacation adventure. Happy flying!
What are your tips for surviving layovers with kids? What are other kids airport tips you can share?
We love doing mad libs. I have the app and got a couple of hard copy books. We also used to love moving sidewalks when they were little.
Dana Zeliff says
Mad Libs are great for airports and roadtrips. I need to download the app. Thanks for the recommendation.
Ryan Biddulph says
As an adult, Dana 😉 I always go for deserted gates and never sit in crowded aka our gates until the final 5 minutes before boarding. Easy way to sleep, relax and lounge during long or even short layovers. Great tips here.
Dana Zeliff says
Yes, finding deserted gates as an adult is great too Ryan. It’s so much nicer (and quieter) than being crammed in with everyone else waiting for the flight.