My older child, S, went on his first flight at 7 weeks old and has since traveled extensively, on every kind of journey—from super-short flights to international ones. At first, he was the perfect little traveler, peacefully sleeping through most flights, even when it was loud, bumpy, or turbulent. While other babies were screaming during takeoff and landing, he would happily nurse or look around with curiosity. I assumed that he was just a "good traveler" and pitied parents of more challenging babies.
Then, right around six months, my wife and I decided to take him on a trip to Hawaii. Enter: Monster Baby. He screamed during takeoff and landing. He screamed any time we put him in his car seat, which was multiple times a day. We went through another challenging phase when he started walking at just under a year old—it was a struggle to keep him in his seat at all. He just wanted to run around and explore the plane!
As S got older, I started to realize that the "easy" baby or child traveler doesn't exist. Kids are always changing, growing, and developing new skills, so traveling with them is basically like pulling a wild card. One flight might be dreamy and oh-so-restful, while the next is a nightmare. We really like to travel and plan on continuing, so it was critical that we learned how to make traveling with young kids easier. Here are some of our hard-earned lessons:
Before travel day, look online to see what kinds of amenities are available at the airport. Many airports have child-friendly areas like indoor playgrounds or spaces to run around and play. If you have smaller kids, check where the nursing room or family restrooms are ahead of time—these can be great for nursing, using the bathroom, changing into pajamas pre-flight, or even just for getting organized.
Check out the different kinds of food options available and decide if you want to eat a meal or buy extra snacks at the airport, and make sure to confirm what time places close and what part of the airport they are in. In the days or weeks leading up to your trip, "practice" flying with your kids. Make a pretend airplane in your house and model all of the special activities they'll do, and how they'll need to stay in seats for playing, eating, and sleeping during the flight.
- Flight Times: Think about what time makes the most sense for your children. Do they nap best in the morning? Or sleep in the car? How do they manage when they have to sit for long periods of time? Use this information to plan your trip accordingly.
- Seats: If you are buying two seats (kids under 2 aren't required to have their own seat), a helpful trick is to reserve an aisle and a window seat in the same row, ideally in the front of the plane. This makes it much more likely that you'll end up with the whole row to yourself. Even if the middle seat gets reserved, the worst case is that the other person will end up with a window seat instead of a middle seat—a switch that makes most people happy. If this does happen, consider keeping the middle and the aisle in case of urgent bathroom needs mid-flight. Try to get seats near the front of the plane. The front of the plane is ideal as you'll feel less turbulence and your child will be less likely to feel nauseous.
- Arrive Early: Check the boarding time and give yourself an extra hour or even two to arrive at the airport. Extra time means that you can account for late shuttle buses, longer lines, hungry kids, or any unexpected circumstances without feeling added stress.
- Think Convenience: Consider what you actually need to bring and what you can pick up at your destination. When my older child was a baby we discovered that packing diapers for a week took up a lot of bag space, so we opted to bring enough for the first two days and buy more at our destination. Check with your hotel, family, or friends to see if there are available cribs, beds, or highchairs for the kids so you don't need to bring your own. Think about any regular travel destinations, such as grandma's house, where you could keep an extra car seat, toddler bed, or stroller. This way you won't need to travel with these items. When packing your suitcase, it is easier to have one larger bag to move around the airport (and check-in!) with than multiple smaller bags. If you are going to be traveling by air often with your kids, consider investing in 1-2 items to make airport travel easier. This might mean buying a sturdy travel stroller, car seat carrier, or lightweight car seat. At the moment this might seem like an unnecessary purchase, yet it can save you in time and convenience later on.
On the Plane
- Boarding: My family always takes advantage of early family boarding—we are able to get on the flight when it is pretty empty to stow our stuff, get organized, and set the kids up with toys/games/entertainment without having to worry about immediately taking off. Once you get to your seats, stay in them. Letting the kids up to walk the aisle or play around will only make it harder for them to stay in their seats later on.
- Pack a Plane Bag: Pack a bag just for the plane with an easy-to-access change of clothes (for everyone, including extra shirts for adults!), snacks (more than you think you need), a water bottle, a small blanket, and a variety of activities.
- Activities: Decide if you are going to use a device ahead of time, and then preload it with age-appropriate games, movies, and activities. Sometimes there are seat-back movie options—although these are becoming less available across all the airlines and often the options aren't ideal for all age levels. Consider bringing a variety of new (small) toys or games and wrapping each individually. Bring them out one at a time throughout the flight—the unwrapping (especially for younger kids) will provide entertainment on its own! Try to break the flight up by engaging your child in movies/devices, meals/snacks, and then toys/games. Add in a nap or bedtime routine for a later or nighttime flight to see if they can get some sleep on the flight.
Traveling with kids doesn't need to be stressful! The best advice I've gotten (and try my best to live by) is to let go of your normal expectations when traveling. If watching a movie and eating a special treat on the plane while opening a small gift every 30 minutes is going to make everyone's travel day easier and more enjoyable, I'm all in. I like to think of traveling as a special treat, so normal rules don't apply—we do what we need to make it through in one piece, and hopefully, have a great time on the way there!