Tips for Air Travel with Small Kids

Summer is in full swing, so I may be a bit late for those who have already taken their vacations.  But we’ll be departing for Hawaii in a few short weeks, so my mind is once again turned to airport/airplane strategy.  Plus, I’ve been asked for some tips by several friends lately, so I figured I’d just put it all out there at once.  🙂

Basically, we’re self-taught experts on the subject of air travel with babies and young kids.  When we get home from Hawaii in September, Ryder will have completed his 25th flight.  And he’s only four!

We moved from California to Illinois shortly before Ryder was born, and flew back and forth for visits for three years, starting when he was only three months old.

First plane ride... enthralled by the safety video.

Travelling with babies can be stressful even if things go according to plan, so the most important rule is to REEEEELLAAAAAAX!  Easier said than done, I know.  But if you’re flustered, your kid(s) will be too.  One way to decrease stress is to arrive early… like, even earlier than the recommended time on your airline’s website.  If you’re travelling with a stroller (more on that in a minute) you’ll have to find and wait for elevators, you’ll have more stuff to send through the machines at the security check-point, and you know your precious bundle is bound to blow out a diaper at some point.  So giving yourself plenty of time means you won’t be “those people” sprinting through the airport, praying out loud that you make it to your plane before they close the doors.

My second most important rule is to nurse or use the bottle or binky upon take-off and landing (or make sure older kids are eating/drinking/chewing gum).  Little ones don’t know how to regulate the pressure in their ears, and it can be extremely painful.  Pain = screaming.  Screaming = angry people.  ‘Nuff said.

When purchasing your tickets…
~ Let the airline know you’ll be travelling with an infant.  They’ll put his/her name on the manifest (good for emergencies) and provide a boarding pass.  Most airlines allow infants to fly for free until they’re two, assuming they’ll be sitting on your lap.
~ If you have the ability to choose seats, try to get the aisle.  You’ll have an easier time getting up to change diapers, take a stroll, or retrieve something from your carry-on.  If possible, reserve your seats in a bulkhead.  You’ll have tons of extra leg room where you little one can stretch out a bit.

When packing…
~ Make a list, and don’t be afraid to start laying things out several days in advance.
~ Consolidate your purse and diaper bag into one large backpack.  A tote bag won’t cut it.  You’ll need to be hands-free many times during your airport experience, and won’t want to mess with a ton of bags that slip off your shoulder or could be easily left behind.  For baby, include diapers (I always packed one for every hour of travel, including car time), wipes, at least one complete extra outfit, and a light blanket.  Also consider some snacks or food if you’re flying during mealtime, and a special toy/blankie/lovey.  For yourself, you could add a small wallet containing your ID, a little cash, and a credit or debit card, a book, and an extra shirt (nothing worse than smelling like baby puke on a plane!).  Even for older kids, an extra outfit isn’t a bad idea (you never know when they’ll have an accident or experience air sickness!).
NOTE: You can take sealed baby food though security at most airlines.  Sometimes we were allowed to bring sippy cups full of water, and sometimes we were asked to dump the water before going through.

Getting through the airport…
~ I can’t stress this enough – ALLOW EXTRA TIME.
~ Most airlines allow you to gate-check your stroller for free!  Use this to your advantage.  Save your strength and energy and keep baby in the stroller until you reach your gate.  Get a gate-check tag from the attendant, and they’ll put it under the plane for you.  When you arrive at your destination, they’ll bring it right up and you can stroll to the baggage claim to gather the rest of your luggage.  The only stroller we owned was a BOB Revolution.  We invested in a travel case for it, and actually strolled through O’Hare and SFO with our jogging stroller and giant bag.  It ROCKED!  Once Ryder was walking, it was awesome for carrying our carry-ons.
Everything will pass through the x-ray machines… stuffed animals and blankies included.  You’ll have to take baby out of the stroller or carrier, and may be asked to remove his/her jacket and shoes.  You’ll carry your bundle with you through the metal detector, and then you can be on your merry way.  If you have a compact stroller, you can put it on the conveyor belt, otherwise they’ll just examine it by hand.
~ Now that Ryder is older, he carries his own little backpack with a couple snacks, and some entertainment.  It lightens our load, and is something he doesn’t get to do every day.  I actually rigged Ryder’s with a “leash” (for lack of a better term) so that we could be sure he didn’t run off or get left behind in a crowd.

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On the plane…
~ Once again, I must make myself clear – when the pilot says, “Flight attendants, please prepare for take-off” make sure your child is sucking or chewing on something.  Happy baby, happy flight!
~ Many airlines still allow families with small children to board first.  If you can, do it!  It’ll give you time to find your seats and get yourselves situated before the crowd piles in.  I like to pull out my book, a baby comfort item, and a snack/drink, and then stash my backpack overhead.
~ It can get downright cold on airplanes, so dress baby accordingly.  For infants, I recommend socks and a one-piece outfit.  Diaper changes are speedier and you won’t have to worry about dropping his/her pants in the airplane commode.
~ Most flight attendants are very willing to help out by holding baby while you use the restroom (if you’re not traveling with another adult), as long as they’re not in the middle of something.  Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance.
~ It can be hard enough for adults to sit through a whole flight, so imagine being a kid!  Don’t hesitate to stroll up and down the aisles (assuming flight attendants aren’t passing out drinks, etc.).  Most passengers will get a kick out of watching your little one explore his/her surroundings, playing peek-a-boo, and saying hi.  We often end up hanging out in the galley, chatting with the flight attendants, and have even been given a stack of plastic cups for Ryder to play with.
~ For older kids, bust out the DVD player or other entertainment device.  Kid-sized headphones are an inexpensive but wise investment for car/plane travel.

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In our experience, early morning flights work better with our kids’ schedules.  We get them out of bed and straight into the car, and then change them out of the pj’s after we pass through security.  The excitement of the airport itself will be enough to prepare them for a great nap, and hopefully they’ll sleep a good portion of the flight.  Then they’ll be rested enough to cooperate while you pick up your luggage and make your way to your destination.  Throughout our twenty-something flights, we have never been asked to show anyone our kids’ birth certificates, but I’ve heard that many people bring a copy just in case.

You’ll also want to have a car seat plan.  You’ll want to make sure you either bring your own and either use it on the plane (if your child has his/her own seat) or check it.  Most airlines allow you to check car seats for free.  That way, when you pick up your rental car, you’ll be ready to roll.  We’ve never used ours on the plane, instead opting to just buckle our kids in.  That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

I’m sure there’s a ton I forgot, but these are tops on my list.

Do you have other travel tips?

3 Responses

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  1. Paula
    Paula July 19, 2013 at 4:51 pm | | Reply

    I am in the midst of a solo trip with Henry that included a short (1.5 hour long) flight and several hours in the car at both ends. I was asked for his birth certificate at the ticket counter to get his own bording pass. He would not have been able to go through security without a bording pass. There were a few empty seats so I was able to bring his carseat on the plane without purchasing a ticket for him. It was really nice because he fell asleep and I was able to have my hands free. I just asked nicely at the gate as soon as I got there. I also had a few new quiet toys/books for him to play with and look at. The novelty factor was quite high.

    I was really nervous about flying alone with him, but most people were very helpful. Hopefully the second part of our trip goes as well as the first!

  2. Charlene Alexander
    Charlene Alexander July 19, 2013 at 11:36 pm | | Reply

    Loved your thoughts and ideas! Keep up the good work Megan.

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