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Six ways to handle your child’s midair meltdown

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Flying with small children is often fraught with tension. Children are unpredictable, even more so when confined to cramped quarters. And the stress of trying to quiet a screaming toddler is often amplified by the dagger-like stares coming from fellow passengers. While there may not be a playbook for handling pint-size petulance at 32,000 feet, pediatric behavioural experts and the Association of Flight Attendants offer insights into how to avoid, or at least contain, meltdowns.

Pre-trip prep

Relying on an iPad is tempting, but kids often have a hard time transitioning back to reality.
Relying on an iPad is tempting, but kids often have a hard time transitioning back to reality.  (Matt Cardy / GETTY IMAGES)

According to Margret Nickels, a clinical child psychologist and former director of the Erikson Institute Center for Children and Families in Chicago, preparation is key to prevention. She instructs parents to address stressors of plane travel — confinement in a small space, lack of control and interruption of routine — before heading to the airport.

Her advice? For children 2 and older, preface the trip with a chat about the (potentially overwhelming) sensory experiences related to airplane travel so they know what to expect. “Children like predictability,” explains Nickels. “Let them know that they must sit for a long time, hear strange noises, feel bumps, wear a seat belt and sit close to strangers.” According to Nickels, this narrative will reduce anxiety and help the parents refer back to that conversation (“Remember we talked about how you wear the seat belt until the pilot tells you it’s safe?”) when the child get antsy during the trip.

With that said, parents should prepare for meltdowns (plural) in the form of bribes. Sock away some stickers, new markers (the ones with scents go over well), a small toy your child has admired and special treats like the child’s favourite candy to nip a blossoming tantrum in the bud.

Set ground rules

Dr. Christopher Young, medical director of Wellmore Behavioral Health and Clinical Faculty at Yale University Department of Psychiatry, stresses the importance of setting ground rules before the flight. “There’s not much reasoning that can take place with babies,” he says. Just make sure they are comfortable and well fed. For older children, you can establish in-flight limits and boundaries by using safety as a rationale. For example, “It’s the captain’s rule to keep your seat belt on during the flight, that running in the aisle is dangerous and that kicking a seat hurts people.” But Young advises to offer positive alternatives to the “no” (Do you want to colour? Read a book? Play hangman?) to swiftly redirect the child’s attention.

Keep them busy (but watch that iPad)

A fact of parenthood: Children are easily bored. One recommended strategy is to keep your children busy so they do not react to the confines of the environment. Parents should be armed with books, developmentally appropriate games (colouring books, Legos, dolls) and electronics. But you can’t just plop these items down on the tray and dive into Netflix. Why? “Parents’ tuning out leads to kids’ acting out,” cautions Nickels. “You need to hold your child’s attention. Switch up their playtime-reading, stickers, drawing and make snack time an activity, not a detail.” Another potential land mine: hunger. Since a hungry child is a volatile child, it is essential to have easy-to-transport food (grapes, cheese sticks, goldfish crackers) on hand to keep blood sugar at optimal levels.

About those electronics. It is tempting to let an iPad or other tablet serve as makeshift baby sitter. But, nonstop electronics can backfire. Young posits that gorging on electronics can induce peevishness and tantrums. Nickels concurs: “Children do not transition rapidly from digital absorption to reality.” Without parent enforced breaks, kids fall into a daze ignoring hunger, thirst, the need to use the bathroom and exhaustion. Then, when the device is switched off, they go into “distress mode,” a professional term for a freakout. To avoid overstimulation, set usage limits (“You can watch two cartoons and then have a snack and read for a while”) before handing over the tablet.

Establish a rewards system

Rewards can encourage good behaviour. Nickels is a fan of the goody bag. She advises filling a small sack with four surprises to be distributed at specific points during the flight. Let your children know about the goody bag but not what is inside. This way, they can focus on a goal. Electronics can also be leveraged as a reward for good behaviour. Screen time can be earned by spending “X” amount of time doing other activities.

Use a flight attendant as a buffer

Of course, these strategies are not foolproof. So, what can you do if you are that parent with a child in full blown tantrum mode? You can’t blame fellow passengers for becoming irritated, especially if the parents are ignoring the situation. According to Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, passengers will have more empathy if they see that you are trying to diffuse the meltdown. So, standing up and delivering a statement like “I’m sorry my child is being disruptive, please bear with me” can help.

But sometimes things can get hostile. On a Jet Blue flight from Miami to Boston, a nearby passenger berated Becca Schoen when her 15-month-old daughter Leah became fussy and started crying. Recalls Schoen: “My daughter had missed her nap and was overtired. I was trying to calm her down — walking the aisle, rocking her — and after I sat down, just as Leah was settling down, a woman whipped around from the row in front and said ‘This is outrageous! You need to start walking her again!’ I was mortified. I went to the back of the plane with the baby and began crying myself.” In an aggressive situation like this, Nelson suggests reaching out to a flight attendant for support. “Flight attendants are trained to de-escalate conflict,” she says. “They can move a family, offer complimentary food or drink to the frustrated passenger or try to reason with the child themselves.”

Bribing your fellow passengers

Even if your child has not uttered a peep, some parents head conflict off at the pass by proffering gift bags to their fellow passengers with a cute note apologizing for unruliness in advance. George Clooney and his wife, Amal, famously handed out wireless noise cancelling headphones to the entire first class cabin on a flight with their infant twins in 2017. But, a less glitzy offering does the job just as well. Cambi Clarke prepared gift bags for passengers in the row ahead, the row behind and aisle seats abutting theirs, all containing an apology note along with chocolate, ear plugs and snacks. “I did not want to be that mom that everyone hates,” Clarke says. “It was a preventive measure that made me feel less anxious.”

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Travel & Escape

Dealing with baggage on your trip

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(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

  • Clearly label all baggage with your name, home address, and contact information
  • Place an identification tag inside the baggage in case the outside tag is torn off
  • Lock bags with CATSA/ACTSA travel locks
  • Put a colourful ribbon or other identifying marks on your bags so they are easily recognizable
  • Carry valuables in your hand luggage; jewelry, money, medications, important documents, etc.

You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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Travel & Escape

What travellers need to know if a destination wedding is cancelled

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(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Travel & Escape

Be safe not sorry when booking travel online

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(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
  • Know where your credit card payment is going. Some websites are only search engines or booking agents for other providers.
  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
  • Keep in mind that tax amounts can vary in travel advertisements. Ontario travel agencies and websites can display their taxes in four different ways:
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    • A base price plus total taxes, fees and additional charges
    • A base price with a detailed breakdown
    • All taxes, fees and additional charges.
  • Research your destination to find out if there are any travel advisories, which can be found on the Government of Canada website.
  • Check the online travel agency’s website for a live-chat feature, email address or toll-free number to talk to a travel agent. Travel agents are a great resource to answer any questions you may have to ensure you are making an informed travel purchase.

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