Here's a typical holiday travel scenario: You're on a plane, minding your own business, while a brat two rows ahead of you is making your life miserable. You know what you'd like to say, but do not dare.
I know one woman who dared.
Valerie Waterman was a flight attendant a few years back on the old Pan Am. A seven-year-old kid was doing a pretty good imitation of the running of the bulls at Pamplona.
"He was racing up and down the aisle, yelling and bothering everyone," she said. "His parents were completely useless."
So Valerie took charge. "I smiled my sweetest smile while I held his forearm very tightly and hissed into his ear that if he did not sit down immediately, I would personally break his arm and then lie about it."
No, she didn't really mean it. And yes, the kid sat down.
Don't file this under one of my "solutions" -- creative though it may be. I've got better ones. Besides, why let it get to this point? Here are five easy ways to ruin a family trip, and tips on avoiding these messes in the first place.
1: Play the Pal instead of Parent
Many travelers cite bad behavior by children as their number-one pet peeve, but those kids wouldn't be kicking the back of your seat for hours if their parents were doing their job.
And for you snobs out there, it's not an economy-class-only problem. Kendall Baldwin Flint, a public relations specialist who flies almost every week, recalls a harrowing flight in first class.
"I had two children behind me while the nanny sat in front with another," said Flint, who watched the kids kicking, screaming, and fighting endlessly. As for the parents? "Mom and Dad took a sleeping pill and nodded off. I really couldn't decide who had it worse, me, the nanny or the flight attendant."
If you're the parent, wake up! Last year, an allegedly unruly child and his mother were kicked off a Southwest Airlines plane; true, the airline later apologized (apparently the child was simply overcome with excitement) but the family missed the flight just the same.
Here's an idea - instead of acting as your child's pal, be the parent instead. Some specific grown-up roles to try include:
Teacher: Explain proper behavior on a plane. Some kids honestly don't understand that an aircraft is not a playground.
Nurse: Little ears can suffer from changing cabin pressure; get medical advice before flying (veteran parents like pacifiers and bottles for infants, and gum or hard candies for older kids to suck on). If your child is sick, don't fly.
Godfather: Make the kid an offer he can't refuse (see #2, under "B" for bribery).
2: Forget to Bring Tasty Snacks
Notice I say "tasty" snacks, not just any snacks. I have seen parents attempt to entice children into good behavior with raisins and carrot sticks, and have almost fallen out of my aisle seat laughing at the idea.
Sorry, but when it comes to bribery (and sometimes it does), pull out all the stops: unless your family flies all the time, I say a nine-hour flight is no place for concerns about dental hygiene. You need cookies and candy oozing sugar with no redeeming nutritional value whatsoever. That or chocolate, or Chicken McNuggets, or…well, whatever works.
The rest of us will thank you.
3: Ignore Airport Security Fears
Did you know those airport security officers must screen everyone, regardless of age -- including babies? If you want to see a mega-meltdown, do not tell your children anything about what to expect. Which of course is precisely what you shouldn't do. Before you head to the airport, explain in simple terms what might happen at security and be matter-of-fact about it. Tell them they'll have to remove their shoes and place them on the moving belt along with their other belongings.
Children may even be selected to go through the body imaging scanner or be subject to an embarrassing pat-down as I was, but please note that the TSA's website says, "We will not ask you to do anything that will separate you from your child." Let the kids know this too.
Despite your best efforts, a child may throw a fit anyway; sometimes it's simply because they're tired, or because a parent impatiently pries their stuffed bear out of their arms and they think he's gone for good. Let them know Teddy will re-immerge in just a few seconds, ready to continue the journey.
4: Neglect Entertainment Options
You know what they say: a bored child can get into trouble. In fact, you don't even have to be a child; actor Josh Duhamel, 38, was escorted off a plane last week refusing to stop texting (he later said he was "sorry"). So keep your kids occupied. Some tips:
Bring books (skinny children's books don't take up much room and paperbacks are light).
Bring art supplies (just paper and crayons, and you're in business).
Bring travel-size chess sets or checkerboards (make sure they're magnetized).
Bring a device to watch video or TV (not every plane has a seatback monitor).
Hint: If you'll be bringing an "electronic babysitter" be sure you've got the right batteries and that the device itself is charged up, or you may find yourself in big trouble as the video quits just before the exciting Quidditch scene.
5: Give In to All Packing Demands
Don't let the kids insist on taking everything they own, or you'll be looking at an extra $50 roundtrip checked-bag fee -- per kid.
And you might want to suggest that pets are happier at home. A ten-year-old girl was left sobbing last summer when she discovered her turtle, Neytiri, was not allowed in the AirTran cabin and the little guy wound up in the trash (but don't worry, the reptile was eventually rescued by an AirTran employee and a happy reunion followed).
Even if you follow all these tips, there's no guarantee any family trip will be scene-free; just do the best you can. And for the rest of us, this may be why noise-canceling headphones were invented. Try them.
Or is it time to revive the idea of family sections on planes?