Key Travel Tips for Parents Flying with a Baby or Toddler

Air Travel With Kids. MomsicleBlog

If you’re like us, you are a little family island far away from relatives, connected only via Skype, texting, and Facebook. You have to get on an airplane so your child (or “the prince” as your relatives call him) can get the unadulterated spoiling he deserves.

There was a time a long, long time ago when I loved flying—when I imagined bouncing in the clouds, and when Alaska Airlines strangely put quotes from Proverbs in their in-flight meals. Those psychedelic, Biblical days ended years ago. After September 11, to survive the decline of the airline industry, I started drugging myself—Ambien, Dramamine, Nyquil: I’ll take anything that will turn me into a drooling, open-mouthed, zombie seat mate.

But then K-Pants put a wrench in my drugged-out plane rides. He needed an alert and attentive mother to cater to his every whim—tearing up Sky Mall magazines, crawling up and down the aisle, guzzling Sprite—and things just got worse. Not to mention that once I was flying as a parent my anxiety soared: any turbulence had me clutching the arm rest chanting the Lord’s prayer and fearing desperately for the Pants’s life.

But I’ve learned some things in the 6+ plane trips we’ve taken in K-Pants’s short 17 months. So if you are like us and have to get on a plane with a child or children a few times every year, here are the four things we always do.

1. Schedule flights around sleep times. Red-eye flights are perfect for harnessing kid exhaustion. You can run your toddler ragged near the gate until it’s time to board, and then the bedtime weariness should kick in, and you may even get some sleep yourself (or watch “Snakes on a Plane” or some other in flight movie). On a red-eye this year from PDX to EWR, there was a virtual slumber party at the gate with kids of all ages in pajamas running wild—clearly people are onto this.

Warning: Recovery from a red-eye with an infant/toddler can be rough like a mental asylum, so make sure you take a nap the second your child goes down the next day. But even mental-asylum rough is better than a cranky baby on a plane.

For day flights, we try to schedule around nap time, and we do everything humanly possible short of poking the Pants with hot needles to keep him awake until right before boarding. This nap-scheduling doesn’t always work, especially if the flight gets delayed or you sit on the tarmac, SO…

2. Drug yourself and others. If nap time goes out the window, schedule it yourself. I am not going to share with you my secret baby medicine, because I am not a doctor, but it does involve infant Tylenol…

I thought giving K-Pants a little Tylenol would help us all out (and it does), but ultimately I need the drugs more than he does. Sitting next to someone with a baby can be annoying, so imagine how horrible it is when the baby is yours. I take two Dramamine. It’s mostly psychosomatic, so take whatever you need to take the edge off. (I write more about the parent anxiety that goes into flying here.)

3. Travel Carry-On. After a flight with a cranky baby, or a sleeping baby, or even a well-behaved baby who you’ve been using Jedi mind-tricks on for 900 miles, you are totally, utterly spent. Every extra minute it takes to get from the terminal to home is a miserable eternity, not to mention the additional risk of lost baggage. So we travel carry-on (which is redeeming because it’s kind of an anti-materialistic lightening-of-being after the drugged-out last tip). Or, maybe this is just how backpacking hippies do it in general: drugs and packs.

K-Pants and I get the roller-bag carry-on and my husband gets a trekking pack, the diaper bag is my “purse” and my husband gets a regular backpack with our books and computer. I can do it when I’m on my own, but I imagine carry-on with two or more kids gets tough. However, at JFK recently we were in the taxi line with a family of five (parents plus 3 kids) and their 16 suitcases and 2 luggage carts, and the only intelligible thing out of the wife’s mouth was “F*&% you, Frank! F#$% YOU!” (If you want tips for flying with two young kids, I write about  14 tips for flying with your kids here.)

4. Bring a stroller—it’s an excellent cart for your bags. People traveling with children can gate check their strollers and the strollers don’t count as extra baggage or get charged a fee. Read that one more time. It’s true. This is the one advantage we get: so use it! We rarely need the stroller when we’re at our destination, and family would be happy to borrow one for us, but that bad boy carries all our luggage on the subway, commuter train, and down the interminable airport hallways. All the while, K-Pants is in the Ergo. Brilliant!

5. If your child loves the iPhone or iPad, don’t worry about screen time guilt and just load that thing up with new games and videos. You can find my favorite toddler and preschooler apps for travel here. Headphones for kids are great, but sometimes don’t work for little kids  who hate having stuff on their heads. So just turn the volume down real low.

Want more family travel advice and ideas? The Travel With Kids page has links to useful travel posts by other parent bloggers.

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24 responses to “Key Travel Tips for Parents Flying with a Baby or Toddler

  1. Woot! Love this! We are awesome!

  2. Congrats on the blog series! I don’t have children but I am putting these links in my virtual “back pocket.” Excellent stuff, Ev. And a joy to read. You are too funny!

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  4. You could link to my blog… stuffing the baby full of cheese pre-flight might be a decent strategy. I hear that enough of it will eliminate in-flight poop too. :-)

    • LOL. Ah, yes. I did used to bring on nice cheese to eat inflight. I would unpack my little baggie full of delicious crackers and gourmet cheese and just pretend I was at a tapas bar. Now you have to do that!

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  7. Great tips — but mostly I’m relieved not to have to fly. And I realize this wasn’t the whole point of the post, but my FIL’s name is Frank — so the ““F*&% you, Frank! F#$% YOU!”” really made me laugh.

    • Sue at Motherhood and Me did a much better job empowering people to fly (alone and with two kids to boot!). I apparently just need to be much, much nicer to people. Also, I need to leave the NYC airport scene.

      Glad you got a laugh about the couple in the taxi line…somehow I don’t think you would have been swearing a blue streak at your hubby. ;0)

  8. If I’d only known these things 29 years ago. Great stuff.

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  10. Ahhhh…. so *that’s* how ye do it!

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  15. So the stroller for sure doesn’t count as luggage?……I was told carseat. Or stroller and that it counts as one pf his carry on’s….

    • For sure stroller does not count as one of your carry-ons. At least we’ve never had an issue, and we’ve traveled with it on at least 10-15 flights. You just go up to the gate beforehand and ask for a gate check tag. We’re traveling now, and have our double stroller with us. It’s a LIFESAVER. One kid goes in the stroller, one bag goes in the stroller, and our other kid walks. We can also clip on extra bags to the handle of the stroller. GOOD LUCK!!! :)

  16. Young children should be banned from red eye flights. Many people anticipate the rest they’re going to get and a screaming child makes the ride torture.

    • I’m sorry you feel that way, Wilbur. Although we would love for there to be flights for families, there currently aren’t. In the meantime, you might also like to ban people with loud voices, autistic children, the mentally disabled and others who might interrupt your rest. Oh, wait! That’s illegal. I think they call what you’re asking for discrimination.

      • Well Wilbur’s comment is nice and accepting. Or not.

        Sorry, sir, but that is my PREFERRED time to fly with my toddler, as that is the only time I know she is GUARANTEED to sleep. MY problem on red-eye flights is all the slamming of the bathroom doors by the men with the tiny bladders that have no concern with anyone else’s sleep besides their own. Would that by chance include you?

  17. LOL Evelyn…I love this post but your comment above to Wilbur is PERFECT. Sure a flight for families would be great, but until then get over yourself Wilbur!

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