I recently returned to the East Coast from a family jaunt to the deserts and red rocks of Arizona and was reminded that plastering social media with great landscapes, fancy resorts, and frolicking babies is easy.

The stress, puke, and fatigue that come along with traveling babies is not.

Allow me to recap the hardships we faced on our trip and share the lessons learned.

Plane Travel

We flew Southwest Airlines non-stop from Baltimore-Washington International to Phoenix on a round trip itinerary utilizing my Southwest Companion Pass. It’s a great deal because it means I only had to buy tickets for me and my wife. My 2 1/2-year-old son flies for free with the companion pass and my five-month-old daughter doesn’t require a ticket — but, protip, you do have to show Southwest proof of age!

The flight down to Phoenix was more than five hours thanks to a 130mph winter head wind but we were comfortable given we had two rows to ourselves with a rather empty Southwest plane, as well as the airline’s famous no assigned seating policy.

While it was a long day, we made it relatively unscathed to our first resort and only had to deal with a missed nap time, which made for a bit of a fussy evening. I was pleased with our outbound flight and thankful we’d escaped plane travel hardships.

That was, until our return flight.

By the end of the week we were all stressed, tired, and fatigued from our week to the desert. It seemed likely foreshadowing of the puke to come when I woke my son up at 5:45AM to make the trip to the Phoenix airport. He has a distinctive body motion and cough when he is feeling nauseous and it was in full force at our Phoenix hotel. He never got sick, so we quickly decided to proceed with the day’s travel. My son and I grabbed an aisle by ourselves with the middle seat open and my wife and the baby sat directly behind us. About an hour into the flight, after the already tiring rental car return shuffle and shuttle bus to the terminal, my son was falling asleep in the car seat we brought onboard. I thanked my lucky stars and settled into watching some free live TV on Southwest.

Then it happened.

My son, his car seat, the plane seat, my right side, and surrounding toys and snacks were covered in his fluids faster than I could blink, and it kept coming. Few situations make a parent feel as helpless as a sick child. But a sick child strapped to a car seat in significant clear air turbulence with flight attendants also buckled up make for a particularly stomach-wrenching gasp of helplessness.

All that was left to do was let the boy sleep on my lap the rest of the flight.

Eventually I was able to get cleaned as best I could. I used some napkins and moist towelettes from flight attendants, stripped the boy down to his diaper and saved his spare set of clothes for later in case more was to come. And more there was.

By the time the four-hour flight landed I’d gone through three full size kitchen trash bags worth of dirty clothes, paper towels, Southwest cocktail napkins, and baby wipes. My son had spewed once again on landing and the four Kerrs, defeated, tired, and smelly, waddled into the BWI terminal, gathered our luggage, and waited on yet another shuttle bus to the long term parking.

Environment Adaptation

I believed a two-hour time change would be inconsequential to my kid’s fairly rigid nap and sleep time schedule. By the first morning of 5 o’clock wake ups after bad/no naps the day before, I swallowed my assumption pill with a glass of humility and watched helplessly over the week.

My kids did not get the required rest toddlers and infants need,  but more importantly, mom also didn’t get the sleep she needed. While my career over the last 8+ years has taught me how to function with little rest, my wife rightfully so mutates into an unhappy, irritated creature rather quickly after a night of consistently interrupted sleep.

Warm Phoenix days turned to cold Sedona hikes in Northern Arizona.

When you add in a new physical environment of warmer days in Phoenix than we were used to in the Mid-atlantic and rather chilling winds and temperatures in the red rocks of Sedona, we quickly concocted a recipe to make everyone a bit on edge.

Lessons Learned

Based on the challenges we faced, here’s how I’ll take the experiences of the last week and make our next trip easier for everyone:

  1. Go to a single location for a trip less than five full days, and stay. Hopping around is too much for everyone on a short trip.
  2. Adjust the kids at least two days before the trip towards the new time zone, even if it is only a couple hours difference.
  3. Keep plastic grocery bags in the onboard diaper bags to quickly fetch in case of “Dad, I’m going to puke” body language.
  4. Put effort into planning healthy meals before the trip. Feeding a toddler on the fly usually results in them eating less than desirable nutrition. Plan ahead a few restaurants or grocery store visits where they’ll get their required food. I noticed a large difference in my son’s (and normally very health-conscious wife’s) overall behavior when eating junk all week.
  5. First thing in the morning flights may not be as great an idea as I thought, given the early wake up times needed and then a full day ahead after landing. Evening arrival times followed by bed immediately may be better.

The red rocks of Sedona can easily make an impression on even the non-nature lovers.

Bottom Line

I look forward to a week or so from now when, as a family, we review our pictures of the Southwest landscapes and can perhaps laugh, maybe even smile a little about the trials we faced and ultimately overcame. I’ve done more than 40 plane segments now with my son and daughter, and this was our first disaster scenario. I feel as though I woke up today with a new parental merit badge having survived the week and the disaster plane flight back. I can give another dad the look of understanding and hopefully lend a hand if I see him begin to experience the day I just lived.

The family pictures of memories of the trip already make me grin, but I’ll need a week to really smile.

I can safely say I’ll give my wife a few weeks to recover from our travels to the desert. While the trip was challenging, I definitely enjoyed the chance to see a new part of the country. This certainly won’t deter me from our future family travels, I’ll just be a bit smarter for next time. While there was plenty of stress, puke, and fatigue with our traveling babies, I could never pass up the chance to ask my wife and see her willingly try to give a happy, curious answer when I ask, “Where are we going next?”