So you’re taking your baby on her first flight – great! I, for one, am a huge fan of getting infants and toddlers used to flying as early in life as possible. But as everyone knows, family travel can be stressful, and flying with a baby even more so.
After dozens of flights with little ones — our 3-year-old and a 9-month-old — my wife and I have pretty much figured out what works for us when we fly with small children. Every family is going to be different and I wouldn’t tell anyone what’s best for their child on the plane.
I will, however, offer up some questions to ask yourself, especially if this is your first time flying with a baby. These are the questions I’ve asked myself before every trip with our children. My goal is to make sure I’m creating the best environment for air travel success. The answers change as my kids change, but the questions remain pretty constant.
1) Will I buy the baby her own seat or take her on as a lap baby?
A lot of ink has been spilled on this subject, and people are very passionate about buying an extra seat or flying with lap children, citing costs, safety issues etc. etc. This is still the first question I ask when flying with young children because the answer to that question changes a lot of answers to the next questions.
We’ve always had success with lap infants but every family is different
My personal take? Our daughter rode on our laps all the way until she was 23 months old. Her last trip on our laps was to Taiwan and Hong Kong before her second birthday. At that point, I knew she would be fine on our laps because she had a load of experience on planes and I was confident she’d handle it well (she did). She wasn’t very active though, so a lot of the decision was based on her personality.
We’ll see what we do with my son – once he starts walking all bets are off. Handling one lap infant between two parents is a different proposition than a walking lap infant and a preschooler. My guess is by 18 months we’ll be getting buying an extra seat for him and and his FAA-approved car seat. But time will tell.
2) What time do we want to fly?
Most parents are going to try to avoid connections, which is common sense. But another thing to consider is what time you are flying? Can you get out of the house quickly enough in the morning to make a 9 AM flight? When is your child the most wired or cranky during the day?
Try to schedule your flights at a time when your child is fed and in a good mood. For some people this will be in the morning after breakfast; for others (like my family), it will be after lunch and running into naptime.
For the really young infants (under six months), I don’t think this question is as important – most pretty much sleep whenever. But once they hit six months, babies start getting curious about everything, so getting on a plane at naptime might backfire if your son wants to see and touch everything on the plane.
3) What equipment will we need to bring?
As much as we can with two kids, we try to travel light. This is basically impossible due to the essential items we bring on our trip along with our family travel gear:
– car seat
This is where I find it useful to have friends at the destination. Or you could rent at your destination. For example, if you’re going to Walt Disney World, you could just rent strollers in Orlando or even at the parks. Many hotels will provide you with a pack-and-play crib or equivalent (though call ahead to make sure the hotel will have a crib available) and car seats can be rented from the rental agency. Look into all available options before you decide what you’re going to bring, because the more you bring the tougher the airport is going to be.
We generally end up bringing out own car seat and stroller while procuring a crib on site. And of course when the baby is young and is happy is a baby carrier or riding in a Snap N Go or equivalent, your stroller and car seat come together, which is great.
4) Will we be checking any bags?
Believe it or not, we didn’t start checking bags when traveling with our daughter until she was about 18 months old. Our checking bags coincided with needing to check a car seat.
Remember that you can check a car seat or stroller in for free on almost all airlines, and on some of them you can check two items. So you’ll be going to the bag counter and baggage claim anyway, which might make you lean towards checking bags.
At this point, it’s worth it for our family to check bags even at cost. You don’t need the extra stress of hauling your luggage through the airport. But if you don’t want to check a bag, you can sneak some extra diapers into your car seat bag, which gets checked for free!
5) How early will we get to the airport?
Every traveler has various tolerances for how early to show up at the airport. When I was single I’d show up 45 minutes before my flight with my carry on in hand and not break a sweat.
But throw kids, spouses, checked bags, bathroom breaks, prolonged security times due to strollers, and needing to eat into the mix and things get a lot dicier.
Here’s my advice: take the amount of time you are comfortable showing up at the airport alone and add 30-45 minutes to that number. For most infants and toddlers, that will likely be enough time to handle everything.
Practice of course makes perfect, I only add about 15-20 minutes these days. As you start traveling, err on the side of caution and refine your plan as you get used to your family’s needs at the airport!
6) Should we check our stroller at the counter or the gate?
This is personal preference. Some people hate dragging their strollers through TSA and the rest of the airport, preferring to strap their baby in to a baby carrier and just walking everything.
We prefer to get our stroller as soon as we get off the plane
Others enjoy the extra storage space and just check the stroller at the gate so that they’ll have it on the other end. Think about what works best for you and your child and plan accordingly.
7) When are we going to board?
This question I always ask and answer when we are at the airport. I take stock of how my kids are doing at that moment and then decide whether we board first (if the airline allows it) or whether we board absolutely last.
The pro of boarding early is the con of boarding late: you have plenty of time to settle yourself (or feel rushed at the end).
But if you board early you’re adding an extra 30 minutes to the amount of time you need to entertain your child on the plane. If your child is high energy, you might want to let them burn that energy before boarding. Another situation where we board late is if our son has fallen asleep in his carrier – most US airlines make you remove the child from the carrier before takeoff, meaning the kid will wake up. For us, it’s worth giving up the time to settle on the plane for him to get his sleep while we walk around the terminal.
8) What’s the plan for the plane?
After you’ve planned for all of that, you have to tackle the actual flight itself! There are a million things you can do to keep things smooth on the plane, subject enough for their own post. Here’s my quick hit advice:
– Bring baby food and plan on feeding on takeoff and landing. Be flexible if your child doesn’t need it (like, don’t wake them up to feed them if they sleep through takeoff!)
– Ziploc bags are your best friends. Bring plenty in the diaper bag. (Read More: The Ultimate Travel Hack: 7 Uses for Ziploc Bags)
– Said Ziploc bags should contain extra clothes, preferably for everyone in your party
– Bring some favorite toys.
– If your child sleeps well in a carrier use that as an emergency sleep plan.
– Ask the flight attendant which airplane bathrooms have changing tables.
– It’s almost never as bad as your worst fears. When it is, stay calm and just focus on parenting your child, as there’s nothing you can do about everyone else.
My mentality when planning for a flight is this: Let’s put ourselves in a position to have the best chance of success. This is by no means an exhaustive list but these are the main questions we ask before traveling with our kids. And if you’re interested on another take on the subject, check out Richard Kerr’s guide to surviving a LONG flight with a baby!
But no matter how much you prepare, as often happens, the best laid plans of mice and men all go awry, and that’s okay. Take a deep breath, enjoy traveling with your child, and take notes for what to do differently next time! Bon voyage!