Over the years, I’ve read a lot of travel tips for parents, often written by people who managed to schlep through an airport with their spouse and a baby, on a 90-minute flight with no layover, whining about how difficult it is to travel with children.
It can be difficult, but it can also be an adventure.
Some people said I’d never travel again once I had a kid, but the Peanut has been on more than two dozen flights with me, and in his three short years he’s been to three different continents, just as many countries, and numerous states. He’s been on 45 minute hoppers, and long-haul flights over 18 hours. We’ve run through the airport to make tight connections and we’ve had six-hour plus layovers. We’ve been delayed, bumped, rerouted and most recently, we nearly missed a flight because even well-traveled mamas sometimes make mistakes.
I’ve learned a thing or two about flying with a kid. So fasten your seat belts and pay close attention. Whether you’re a first-time flier or a seasoned jet-setter, these 10 tips might come in handy for your next trip.
(Disclaimer: While I do often travel sans husband, I only have one mini frequent flier to contend with. I’m sure traveling with multiple children definitely boosts stress levels. Bonus tip: book an airline that still offers a free beverage cart before you consider flying with more than one child.)
1. Consider alternative forms of transportation.
Flying is generally the fastest, but with increasingly lengthy lines at security and long layovers, sometimes you can get to your destination just as fast if you drive, or take a train. (This point is moot if you have to cross an ocean. I may have married the Sailor, but we still have to fly over a giant body of water to see his family.) Children are rarely, if ever discounted on a flight, unless they are a lap baby. Even then you have to pay taxes on the flight. However, they are often free or discounted on trains or other modes of transport.
2. Price check.
Taking the cheapest flight may not be the best option, especially with kids. Consider flight times and layovers. A new layover airport may have been fun when you traveled as a single lady, but it can be torture if your baby needs a nap, your gate is miles away, or your flight is canceled due to weather.
3. Pack lightly.
The less stuff you have, the easier it is to navigate through an airport. Baggage claim is often in the boondocks of an airport. Hand luggage is absolutely doable, even with a kid. Unless you are traveling to a completely remote area, you can buy diapers, wipes, formula, snacks, and even clothes, at your destination. It’s cheaper to wash clothes than to pay for a checked bag on most domestic flights these days. Weather and overbooking can wreck havoc on schedules — you may end up getting diverted or staying in the airport (or even overnight in a hotel) longer than you anticipated. Diapers are surprisingly NOT available at airports, so take a few more than you think you’ll need for the flight. I recommend a smaller backpack or carry-on bag you can throw over your shoulder, so that you’re truly hands free in the airport. You will need those hands to wrangle your child.
Roller bags are great, but you usually have to store them in the overhead bin. It’s easier to have everything within reach under the seat, especially when the fasten seat belt sign is on and your little one needs a snack, STAT.
4. Leave your car seat at home.
The FAA and sanctimommies will tell you that the safest place for a baby on a plane is in a car seat, but I’m pretty sure the latter has never flown an international flight that costs thousands extra for another ticket. I’ve encountered lots of turbulence while holding a lap baby, and he’s never flown out of my arms. And while the FAA may be right, they’re not offering those seats for free. Lap babies are still legal and therefore allowed.
Your car seat must be FAA approved, and even then, some planes are too small for it to actually fit. Also, Ashley goes into more detail here, but if you’re flying overseas, your car seat may not be approved for use, depending on the country. Borrow or rent one at your destination instead and use a CARES restraint for your child on the plane (purchase or rent this beforehand — they are not available on planes).
If you do take a car seat, buy a cheap extra one. It’s far easier than trying to get a baby out, plus a convertible car seat, on your own. Get a backpack carry case like this one, stuff it full of anything that doesn’t fit into your carry on, and then check it. It’s FREE* to check car seats and strollers, even on airlines that charge you to use the restroom (okay, I’m exaggerating on that last point, but it’s probably coming, people).
(Locals: Groome Transportation offers hourly services to and from Chattanooga to both Nashville and Atlanta airports. Children under three are free, and 3-7 are discounted, but you need to provide your own car seat for children eight and under.)
Bassinets that strap to bulkheads on larger planes need to be booked in advance, but even then, you may not get it. I have been on flights practically crawling with babies. The only time I had a bassinet seat, my little giant was already too long to fit in it.
5. Bring a carrier.
The Peanut is nearly 35 lbs. and my preferred way of getting him through an airport is still the Ergo. You can usually navigate a crazy crowded airport (and cramped bathrooms!) much easier while you’re wearing your child. When you travel with kids, you’re going to sweat, no matter what. Embrace it, and your child. Rent or borrow a stroller, or buy a cheap one at your destination.
6. TSA varies from airport to airport and agent to agent.
I have been all but strip searched while traveling with my child. Occasionally, I’ve breezed right through security with only a hand swipe. Other times, I’ve had to haul my kid half asleep out of the carrier. Recently, they actually tried to get him to go through the x-ray machine.
7. Board as quickly as possible.
Other people say to keep kids in the terminal as long as possible and to board last. However, I feel much more relaxed when I am one of the first people on the plane and can settle the Peanut into his seat without shoving past everyone else. He’s also so excited to board a plane that it’s a win-win for everyone.
8. Have something special for your child on the plane.
In a moment of desperation at an international airport, I threw an overpriced box with a small plastic ‘Dusty Crophopper’ onto the Duty Free shopping belt. It was the best $8 I’ve ever spent. The Peanut carried the box for the next hour, knowing that he could only open it on the plane. Dusty kept him occupied for the next 15 hours, in between a few brief naps.
I also break out the iPad full of apps and movies, something my child is generally only allowed to use while traveling.
9. Do not expect special treatment or help from anyone.
Be pleasantly surprised when it happens. I have had people carry my bags and my child, and one lady practically fed me my meal on a long international flight. But don’t expect it. People are also horrible. One man boarded a flight that we’d already been on for nine hours, only to get snippy with me when the Peanut kicked his seat for a few seconds. Let’s just say it took everything in my being to not kick his seat myself for the next eight hours. Be prepared to wait in long lines of people through security, immigration and customs, and to receive the occasional stink eye from other travelers and even flight attendants. Be overjoyed when a TSA agent waves you towards the front or when a flight attendant helps you find the only restroom on the plane with the changing table.
10. Give yourself lots of time and grace.
No matter how much your child screams or fusses, you will most likely never see the people on your flight again. They’ll get over it. So will you.
*Traveling is an industry that is constantly changing and what’s free or valid for today, might not be tomorrow. Be sure to double check with your carrier before any flight if you have questions or concerns.