Best Bribes for Happy Holiday Travel With Kids

FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney offers tips to avoid airplane meltdowns.

Nov. 2, 2011— -- I've gotten a parking ticket or two in my life, but otherwise I'm a fairly law-abiding guy. Except when it comes to bribery. On planes. With kids.

My favorite bribery tip ever came from Kim-Marie Evans of LuxuryTravelMom who's flown around the world with four -- count 'em! -- four little ones. She knows a thing or two about kiddie meltdowns and says when children are screaming on planes or otherwise annoying fellow passengers, getting out the credit card and offering a free round of drinks to everyone in earshot usually does the trick.

On the other hand, alcoholic beverages can run as much as $9 a pop on some airlines (on United for one) so it's a pricey option. Apologies are cheaper and nearly as welcome, especially if paired with a matching facial expression that says, "Yeah-I-know-my-kid-is-behaving-badly-but-I'm-trying-my-best". Nothing ticks off nearby passengers more than parents who appear to be doing absolutely nothing to control their brats.

It ticks off the airlines, too. A couple of years ago, Southwest booted a mother and child because the 2 year old wouldn't stop screaming. The youngster was not upset, exactly, just loud and kept yelling "Go, plane, go!" over and over and over again at ear-splitting volume. I imagine the echoes are still ringing in the heads of some of his seatmates (by the way, Southwest ultimately issued an apology).

If you are flying with another exuberant little traveler, no problem: just bring out the bribes.

For more travelnews and insights view Rick's blog at

Ogden Nash knew what he was talking about with that candy-is-dandy line and I can't think of a better bribe for kids. Don't worry; all that stuff you hear about "sugar rush" is a myth. At least, that's what the Straight Dope's Cecil Adams says; he even cites medical studies but suggests the myth endures because "control freak" parents believe in it:

"Kids … typically aren't oblivious to this sort of anxiety; consciously or not, they may well figure out that after taking on a load of candy they're expected to run amok and happily oblige." --The Straight Dope, Feb. 2008

Ask your pediatrician about sugar and if he gives the okay, load up on the Milky Ways. The kids will behave.

And pack whatever else your child likes to eat. Why spend hard-earned money on airline snacks? Take the airline's free beverages (though I'd advise against giving the kids any of those "energy drinks" as caffeine really does produce interesting results in all of us) but bring your own food. Favorite sandwiches, raisins, nuts and cookies are a great distraction for kids.

So are toys. Pack some favorites but not so favorite that if it gets lost the child is inconsolable. Need another bribe? Buy a couple of new toys you know they'll enjoy but won't cost a lot of money; try your local big-box drug store. If the child is old enough, put these toys in his or her own backpack; most enjoy the responsibility of having their own bag.

Now for some tips that don't involve bribes and may involve shelling out some more money --- but it can be worth it!

If your children are small, pay the extra for direct flights instead of connecting routes; the time and hassle at the airport you save will probably make it worth the money. Plus, if there are delays or weather problems that cause you to miss your connection, well, that doesn't bear thinking about, not if you're traveling with tired, cranky kids.

Another idea: none of us like airline fees but family groups will discover some can be worth every penny. Like early boarding fees; remember, a lot of airlines have dropped the old "families with children first" rule, so pay the extra to get bin space right by your seats and the kids settled in quickly. Such fees aren't always outrageous either; Southwest's EarlyBird boarding only costs $10.

Also, if your airline has seatback screens that cost a fee to activate, such as the ones in Frontier's economy class, it's probably worth paying for. Or fly Virgin America or JetBlue and get it for free. Or bring your own device and movies.

Now here's a tip that will save you money, but you traditionalists out there may not like it: travel on the holiday itself. It's the cheapest day to fly during holiday periods, and if you travel early enough on Thanksgiving Day or December 25 and you'll still reach your destination in time for the celebrations, plus you'll be rewarded with near-empty airports. My 83-year-old father-in-law travels to our annual Turkey Day gathering on Thanksgiving Day and wouldn't have it any other way; he just hates fighting the crowds.

Security will be a breeze, too, and speaking of security, if your child (or any other family member) has never flown before, explain the security process before you get to the airport. Little ones especially can be frightened of new and unusual experiences or they may pick up on your own anxieties about security. Tell them what to expect, but do so casually and matter-of-factly, and for your own peace of mind, know that the TSA will never separate you from your children.

And now some good news from the TSA: the agency is currently revising screening procedures for passengers aged 12 and under which allows those children to keep their shoes on. Plus, they anticipate other changes to further reduce the possibility of your child having to endure a physical pat-down (though you might want to let older children know it remains a remote possibility). The better you handle it, the better the kid will.

Final thought: a very young child who sees his backpack or beloved Teddy bear glide away on the conveyor belt into the X-ray machine may not understand that he will get these items back; reassure him on that score.

Now, back to bribery and my personal favorite: reward your children's good behavior by reading to them. Bring a favorite book or a new one you know they'll love. And don't worry about disturbing fellow passengers. I suspect they'll warm to this scenario just as much as you and the kids will.