I write this aboard a Southwest Airlines flight with a 2.5 year old squirming all over the seat next to me, overtired yet refusing to nap. She has dragged her pink blanket, fondly coined her “na na,” across half the Denver airport, and her diet today has consisted of Doritos, orange juice and inflight snack mix. Here I sit amidst contents of my carry on bags scattered all over the seats. I have enough wipes on me to to fulfill an entire newborn hospital ward and enough snacks to run a preschool for a week (or so it seems). Oh, and of course all this is during the Coronavirus pandemic so the joy of wearing a mask for eight hours is also present.
I am taking my daughter and her two cousins (ages 6 and 9) to our brother’s ranch north of Austin, and then will bring everyone, plus my other nine-year old niece, back to Idaho to their grandparent’s home. These annual “cousin camps” are the highlight of the girls’ summer and I feel grateful I get to experience these memories with my daughter and nieces.
While I have a few moments of relative tranquility on this flight, I wanted to share my top air travel tips.
I’ve been traveling domestically with my daughter, Savannah, since she was three months old (her first plane trip was to the quaint town of Savannah, Georgia so we could explore her name sake city – highly recommend)!
Much of my travel has been solo since I am self employed and my husband’s job does not offer much flexibility. Over the years I’ve gathered a good amount of experience navigating airports with an infant, and then a toddler, and have come up with the following list of random observations, appreciations and air travel hacks. I hope this helps to make flying the friendly skies a little more friendly (and tolerable) for you and your little one!
Flight Times: Book flight times conducive to your child’s nap(s). If your baby will nap being held, or nap in bright areas (i.e. an afternoon flight), go for it. Sometimes you don’t know this until you give it a try. Most children will do pretty well napping anywhere up until about four months. Then they become much more picky. My daughter would never nap in my arms, so I had to book flights that were either before or after nap time. The one thing you do not want in a confined space is an overly tired, cranky, baby. Trust me when I say getting your baby on that plane either freshly rested or about to be rested is KEY to a successful travel experience. Car seats and strollers do not count toward your checked bag limit: Fun fact – these items are in addition to your checked bag limit - score! Read on though; I actually suggest in some cases bringing the car seat on board with you. If you are checking a car seat, make sure to invest in a car seat protector - ideally one you can roll or fits on like a back pack. There's nothing worse than trying to juggle a bunch of heavy bags you can't roll, or wear, when you are exhausted from a long day of travel.
Find a comfortable baby carrier: My lillebaby carrier, with the lumbar support belt, was a gift from the travel gods - it was so easy to put on and so comfortable. When traveling solo with a baby who can’t walk, let alone stand, it’s essential at times to have both hands free, and well, you can’t really do that unless they’re strapped to you or laid on some dirty airport surface (assuming most people would choose the former). My lillebaby carrier saved my bacon waking through security, boarding the aircraft, and even using the restroom!
P.s. Note to any public space architects out there – these wall mount baby seats are a welcome sight for a mom with a baby who can't yet stand! Transporting Milk: TSA allows a “reasonable” amount of breast milk through security. Keep in mind with breast milk or formula bottles, they will likely test it! This will of course add on extra time getting through security so just be prepared for that. What worked best for me was to measure powdered formula into the number of bottles I’d need on the flight, and then I bought bottled water to mix with it later once we made it through security. Check out the TSA’s guidelines for traveling with children.
The Lap Child Discount: What an incentive to get out there and travel with your little one, right? Babies under two fly free as long as they sit in your lap. Flyer beware . . . this isn’t as attractive as it seems, in fact, it can be a unique form of torture based on your bab For a flight under 90 minutes, this can actually work if you travel lightly, have a baby under six months old, and have a baby who will nap on you. If, however, you have a flight over two hours, a baby over six months old, or a combination of both, I would highly, highly recommend just purchasing a seat to save your sanity, especially if you are traveling solo. Visualize with me: You have your diaper bag bursting at the seams, barely able to fit under the seat in front of you, you likely have another, smaller carry on bag wedged somewhere where the flight attendant wont yell at you, and an infant demanding every bit of your attention while you try to access said carry on bags for milk, wipes, toys, etc. without elbowing the other two passengers wedged next to you in the face.
Does this sound remotely pleasing?!
There are some strategic ways, however, to take advantage of the lap child discount so that you can ideally score an empty seat next to you. Book on a less busy travel day which are typically Saturdays and Wednesdays. Avoid early morning and late afternoon flights on Mondays and Thursdays as those typically carry business commuters.
Consider upgrading to Business Class: Sometimes it can be more comfortable and less expensive to upgrade to Business Class and fly with a lap child, than it is to purchase two economy seats. Make sure, however, that you first know what type of plane you’ll be flying on - here's a helpful resource to determine that (www.seatguru.com).
I upgraded to business class on one flight only to find out it was a tiny commuter airline and Business Class really wasn’t much bigger than economy and I would have been way better off purchasing two economy seats.
Currently, due to the Pandemic, some airlines such as Southwest, are maximizing capacity at two thirds, as middle seats must be left open. If you feel comfortable traveling during this time, this is actually a huge silver lining to traveling with children because that middle seat is guaranteed to be empty!
Consider bringing a car seat on board: Bringing a car seat on board may not be manageable unless you are traveling with an adult companion to help carry it, but it can be a very smart decision – especially for longer flights. Why? You and your partner don’t have to always hold your baby and chances are, if your baby likes the car seat, he or she will nap MUCH better and be more relaxed the entire flight. The Cosco Senera is SUPER duper light, extremely reasonably priced at around $50, and is easy to tote around on any vacation.
Avoid long layovers: This seems obvious, but I’ve been lured into an amazing fare with a long layover and later regretted it. In the thick of chasing around a toddler, dealing with a tantrum or hauling a heavy carry on up and down the terminal, I would have gladly paid the fare difference just to be on board and on our way.
However, if there is an amazing deal with a longer layover, it could be doable if you are connecting through an airport with a children’s play area. My favorite thus far is in the Seattle-Tacoma airport. It’s a large play area with cushioned seating for parents and a private family restroom. My husband and I had a layover here en route to Hawaii and it was surprisingly a very pleasant experience!
Bring an umbrella stroller that will fit in the overhead bin: If your baby is at an age where they can sit in an umbrella stroller, find a lightweight one that will collapse and fit in the overhead bin. Yes, you can check your stroller at the gate, but just know that waiting for the gate checked items to unload can take an extra 15 minutes plus, and typically when I was getting off a plane with my daughter, I immediately had to make a beeline for the restroom! When your baby is a toddler, they will either want to walk everywhere or be carried, and neither is an ideal option in a crowded airport. Having a portable, lightweight stroller will save your sanity, and your back.
Nursing/Pumping Pods: Did you know that it's federal law that by Oct 1, 2020, all large and medium-size airports must have lactation rooms for breastfeeding mothers to nurse or pump? Mamava is a brand that I’ve seen in a lot of airports; they even have an app where you can locate them. Or, hop on to the website of the airport(s) where you’ll be passing through and it should list where specifically their nursing suites are located.
Attire: It goes without saying that traveling with a baby or toddler is not the time to make a fashion statement. When traveling with a baby who cannot stand, opt for pants that can easily be shimmied up and down with one hand. This is very important, especially when traveling solo, because there will be times when you will have to bring your child to the restroom with you, holding said child, and will need to do all your business one handed.
Wear comfy, non-laced shoes, especially if you do not have TSA pre-check and need to remove shoes going through security. Bring an extra outfit for baby and an extra shirt for yourself, extra leggings or light weight pants as well if you can fit them. If baby spits up, or has a major blow out on your lap, you’ll be soooo glad you did.
Random Extras: I always bring a couple plastic grocery sacks with me to use as trash sacks on the airplane or for soiled baby clothes. Babies may spit up or have bathroom accidents, toddlers spill everything that comes near their mouths all over themselves. I also bring an entire pack of wipes with me. Yes, they are heavy, but wipes are a mother’s best friend when it comes to air travel.
Electronic Entertainment: The iPad is the best and the worst thing there is for a toddler. It is wonderful to keep their attention during times when you have to have your undivided attention elsewhere, but they are awfully addictive and tantrums tend to ensue when iPad time is over.
My general rule of thumb for air travel is that all rules go out the window. My daughter gets as much iPad time, snacks, etc. as she wants while flying, just to keep her calm and my sanity intact. Most kids aren't really able to begin engaging with an iPad until around 20 to 24 months old. If you are considering getting your young toddler an iPad, opt for an iPad mini or even an older model phone with a large screen (I love the iPhone 6S+ for this purpose).
Traditional iPads are too heavy for young toddlers to carry, heavy for you to haul around, and extremely bulky when you add in a silicone carrying case (however, if you do go with a traditional iPad, this case is ideal because of the handles). A smaller device is better suited for a toddler so they can actually hold it and maneuver it, plus it’s way less bulk for your carry on.
Pro Tip: get a device with the most storage as possible. This is essential when downloading TV shows and movies . You do not, I repeat, DO NOT, want to forget to do this and run into a situation with spotty or no wifi. There are many free apps, such as Hoopla, associated with your local library membership, that will allow you to “check out” and download video and tv shows.
Toys: Around six months old, babies will no longer just “lay there” and will need something to keep them entertained and engaged when not napping. Until they can engage with electronic entertainment, this task is all up to you of course! Just be prepared to pack a few things that will engage them, and ordinary items that you can find on the airplane are fair game as well. Straws, a crinkle bag of pretzels, cups, magazines (not to look at but to tear and crinkle up of course) etc. For children 15 months and up, consider bringing large stickers or window clings they can stick to the window or tray table, Post-it notes, those pop up “sign here” stickies are always a hit, a busy book, lacing toys -- anything that you think will captivate your baby for short increments.
A lovey double or replacement: Most young toddlers will start to develop an affinity for an attachment object around age 1 to 1.5. If you’re someone who travels frequently, I highly encourage you to encourage this attachment item to be on the smaller side, such as a small, lightweight blanket or a small stuffed animal. You will inevitably be carrying this object with you on every airport trip until your child is ten years old.
My daughter’s lovey is a lightweight blanket. By the end of our travel day, that blanket has literally swept the airport floor, touched down in the public restroom and has sopped up every particle of airport grime imaginable. And when we finally make it to our destination, she wants to sleep with said mop of filth. So, you can only imagine that my first order of business when arriving to our destination point is to get that blanket in the washing machine asap, at the expense of delaying bedtime for my exhausted little one.
After a few times doing this I got smart. I purchased an identical, second blanket that I pack in my checked luggage so that she has a clean lovey I slyly swap out at bedtime. Even if you don’t travel often, buy a second or third replacement lovey now while the item is still being manufactured – you will thank yourself later!
I'd love to have you comment with your best air travel tips! Until then, we'll see you in the clouds!
Caroline helps exhausted moms and dads get their babies and toddlers sleeping through the night. Schedule a free 15-minute consultation to see if we might be a fit to work together.