Cindy's guide to flying with infants and small children
Ok, so you've decided to take the kids to see grandma in Tulsa, Oklahoma. What do you need to know about flying? The following is some tips and tricks we've come up with while traveling with our little ones, and from talking to other fellow travelers. If you have other suggestions to add, please feel free to email me. Please, no rants about car seats! I've heard all sides of the debate, and I'm not taking sides.
The great car seat debate: To buy a seat for baby or not. Babies under two can fly in their parent's lap.
Some things to consider:
- Safety: If something does go wrong (excessive turbulence, problems on push-back or landing) where the plane experiences something between a 10 and 75 mile-an-hour crash, you will not be able to hold onto the baby. Period. That said, this sort of accident is fairly rare.
- Since the most likely cause of injury is sudden turbulence during flight (the plane hits a pocket of air and drops) to be truly safe you need your child in the car seat, strapped in, at all times.
- If a flight is not full and you can get an empty seat next to you, they will let you use it for the car seat, even if you didn't pay for it. Some tricks:
- When you check in, hit the "change seats" button and see if there are any empty rows.
- Ask the gate agent shortly before they start boarding if there is an empty pair of seats.
- If there's two of you, book the window and the aisle seat. Middle seats fill up last, and I'm sure the person in the middle won't mind moving.
- If your child screams in their car seat, they will likely scream even more in the car seat on the plane.
- If your child loves their car seat, then they will love their car seat on the plane, too.
- The car seat has to go into a window seat on a row where there are extra oxygen masks.
- Why does the airline allow people to have infants in their laps? Because they figure you won't buy a full-fare ticket, and, for long trips, flying is actually safer than driving (depending on how you run the statistics).
- An interesting fact: On international flights you are required to put a belt that attaches to your belt around baby. These are illegal on American-based flights. Go figure.
- If you are breast feeding than you can't nurse the child on take-off and landing.
- Car seats take up a lot of space - they're wider than the seat on small planes. So if you're nursing a larger baby you may have space problems.
- Be aware that not all car seats fit into an airplane seat, especially on smaller planes and especially infant car seats. Check the manufacturer's web-site - they should list if the car seat is airline-compatible.
- You might, for slightly older babies, consider taking a convertible (rear or front-facing) seat instead of an infant seat. These fit in airplane seats and taxis a bit better.
- If you have an older child (22 pounds or more) you can get a five point restraint harness from CARES (http://www.kidsflysafe.com/) that is a good compromise between the full car seat and just a seat belt (around $70). I wouldn't recommend this for babies until they can sit up, even if they meet the weight requirement.
- It's a lot smaller and lighter than carrying a car seat.
- More space for you and your kid.
How to decide:
- If you can afford it, you are risk-adverse, and/or your child tolerates a car seat well, buy the ticket and keep your child in the car seat the entire flight. This is the safest option.
- If you like the safety of a car seat, but can't afford an extra ticket, bring the car seat with you and see if they have an empty row. See notes on buying tickets below to optimize your chance of a non-full flight.
- This requires gate-checking the car seat. Consider wheels (http://gogobabyz.com/products.aspx) for your car seat.
How to carry the baby through the airport
There are a couple options here; you can combine them.
- Sling or baby carrier
- Pros: If your baby is fussy, really small, or just generally can't be put down without crying then a carrier is the way to go. Helps with getting baby to sleep, too.
- Cons: You have to take the baby out of the carrier and send the carrier through the scanner when going through security. There is no place to put baby down on the other side if you don't have a stroller or car seat. This makes getting back into the sling challenging, especially if you're traveling alone. Going to the bathroom can also be problematic if you're traveling alone (see restroom below).
- Be aware that you can't have the baby in a sling on the airplane itself, once they turn the seat belt sign on. Somehow, baby sitting in your lap is safer than a sling...
- Backpack carriers: I have had them threaten to mark this as luggage when gate checking, which means they return it via baggage claim. So if you're using a backpack carrier, make sure you don't put anything in the pockets. (See section on gate checking.)
- Pros: If your child is use to being pushed around in a stroller, then they'll feel right at home and you don't have to carry them. They also are great for carrying all of your stuff (if you have the deluxe model) or all of your stuff when you're carrying baby. You also have a place to put the baby after going through security (the stroller itself will have to go through the scanner).
- Cons: You have to gate check it before you get on the airplane, so everything that's in the stroller has to be carried onto the plane. Sometimes it can be a hassle to try to manage a stroller and all of your carry on luggage.
- Car seat with wheels
- Go Go Babyz (http://gogobabyz.com/products.aspx) makes wheels that attach to the car seat so you can wheel it through the airport. (around $70).
- Pros: Doubles as a stroller and a place to put baby after going through security. If your kid isn't riding in it, then you can put your luggage in it.
- If you're using the car seat on the plane then you may be able to just leave the wheels on; I couldn't get the seat belt to thread through with this on, though, and had to take it off.
- On small planes the car seat won't fit through the aisles and you'll have to carry it and the baby.
- Cons: One more thing to carry.
What you choose depends a lot on what you're doing at your destination.
- If you can borrow (or buy a $10) stroller, consider leaving it at home, especially if you don't use one much anyways.
- If you're going to be driving or in a car or taxi, you may want to bring the car seat to gate check (see gate check). In which case, managing a stroller and a car seat and luggage can be a pain; pick one or the other.
- If you're used to using a sling or baby carrier, bring it along.
- If you've got a connection, remember that you may have quite a ways to go carrying baby and all your stuff.
- Delays happen. If you're stuck in the airport for four hours, can you carry baby around all that time? They may not want to sit in the stroller.
- If your baby gets fussy and wants to be carried, can you carry them and push or carry your stuff around?
See what to bring as well.
Gate checking and checked bags
Here's what you need to know about what you can bring, how much it'll cost, and how far you have to carry it.
- Checking bags: You get two kid items per purchased ticket for free on most airlines. This is a stroller, car seat, or back-pack carrier.
- You can sometimes get a bit of "free" storage by, say, packing a jacket inside a car seat. Just make sure you have a bag to put the car seat in. There's lots of companies that make them (google "car seat bag").
- It's worth having a bag to put the car seat in. Ours fell apart after a few trips (the wheels came off and the zipper's temperamental - but it still works). Cuts down on wear and tear, and the strap makes it handy to hook over a wheelie suitcase, even if the car seat bag itself doesn't have its wheels anymore.
- Your luggage will get lost. If you must have a car seat at the other end, gate check it.
- Most airlines do have loaner car seats and strollers in case yours gets lost. Their quality varies. You can also ask at the rental car counter.
- You must check in 45 minutes before departure if you want to check bags.
- When using the kiosk to check in, don't count kid items as bags, they'll charge you. Just count regular items then tell the person behind the counter that you have a car seat to check.
- If you aren't checking bags you can still use the kiosk - but you will have to get the attention of someone behind the desk to get them to generate bag tags for you.
- Gate checking bags: In this case, you take it through security and leave it at the end of the jet bridge just before you get on the plane. They give it back to you when you get off the plane.
- Make sure you get a tag from the gate agent - preferably before you get in line to get on the plane.
- You can always gate check strollers or car seats.
- Be aware that if your back pack carrier looks too much like a back pack, they may treat it as luggage and you won't get it back on the jet bridge (see next).
- You can gate check luggage on some small planes. Ask, though, if it will be treated as luggage (tagged and sent to baggage claim at your final destination) or gate checked (returned on the jet bridge).
- Small airplanes usually support gate checked luggage because their overhead bin space is too small for a carry-on suitcase.
- Gate checking is free, even if they end up checking your luggage all the way through.
When to fly
Sometimes you won't have a choice, but if you do, here's some thoughts on which flights to chose.
- Try to book a flight in the middle of the day.
- If your child naps anywhere and any when, and is not easily distracted, consider a flight that overlaps nap time.
- If your child is easily distracted, be aware that they probably will not fall asleep on the plane.
- This is even more true for being in the airport.
- Flights get delayed. If your flight is delayed for several hours, how cranky will your child be when you get there because they haven't slept? A child that sleeps on the plane may not sleep in the airport. Also consider how tired you're going to be.
- An early morning flight may sound good, but remember that you have to get the kids up, get the car seats out of the car, get there early if you're checking bags...
- These are often less full.
- Take a direct flight if you can, even if it's a few more dollars. Failing that, try to avoid some of the problem airports (like Chicago anytime, Denver in the winter).
- Most airline booking sites now have information on the on-time record for individual flights.
- Especially if you're making a connection, don't take the last flight of the day if you can help it. If you miss your connection you will be stuck in the airport with a small child. This is Bad.
- If you miss your connection because of a mechanical (not weather) they must give you food and, if you're stuck overnight, a hotel.
- Most airlines have deals with the local hotels. Ask them; sometimes this is cheaper than getting a hotel yourself.
- Look for flights that aren't full. How to figure that out? Airlines keep statistics, so you can call and ask how often flight x is full. Some airlines, like American, let you check to see how many seats are left on a flight the day of departure. This won't tell you how full your flight is, but you can watch it for a week and get an idea of how full it is in general.
- Flying on Tues-Thurs is usually better.
- Flying on a holiday is just going to be bad.
- If you're flying with a baby in a lap, make sure to call as soon as you book your tickets to add the baby. Not all seats/rows have extra oxygen masks, so you can only sit in certain parts of the plane.
- Get seat assignments as soon as you book the flight. Most airlines let you do this on-line now.
- Be aware that the last row of seats before the bathroom usually don't recline.
- Ask when you check in if the bulkhead seats are open - these don't have storage in the seat in front, but they do have extra floor space.
- If there's two of you, book a window and an aisle seat. This will decrease the chance of having a third person in your row - and if someone does end up in the middle, they will happily swap for an aisle seat. Or move somewhere else entirely.
- If for some reason they can't seat you all together, keep checking back. Seats come and go. And definitely ask the gate agent when you check in to try to put you all together.
- People are usually pretty good about moving around to accommodate a family. It helps if you have an aisle seat to trade. So if you can't get seats together, try to put everyone in aisle seats.
- International flights: You will have to pay taxes for a lap child, which can be up to 1/4 of the full-price fare.
- You must have a passport for a child traveling internationally. This can take up to two months to get (you need a social security number, a photo - this is a pain - and then send in all the paperwork).
- Sometimes it's cheaper to buy a regular ticket. Call before you book to see how much they're going to charge you, then see if a regular ticket is cheaper.
- You want to do this before you book so you can make sure you and your child are on the same reservation, either way.
- Some large international flights have a bassinet that attaches to the wall in the bulkhead seats.
What to bring on the plane
When packing, especially if this is your first time trying, try this. Have one person carry the baby (you will end up doing this, you know) and walk around the block with all the stuff you want to take with you. Do the same thing with the baby in whatever carrying device you want to bring with you. How easy is it to get the diaper stuff out? To get to a toy? To get to your tickets? The phone? How much stuff do you have to pull out and place somewhere?
A general rule of thumb is don't have more separate things to carry than you have hands. This includes the baby. You will forget one of them. Hopefully not the baby.
- Diapers and wipes: Bring enough for 1 1/2 days for a short domestic flight (5 diapers minimum), 2 days for an international or long domestic flight (8-10 diapers). Diapers are hard to find in the airport. Make sure you have enough to see you through if your flight is delayed 6-8 hours. Or if they lose your luggage.
- Diaper mat. Sometimes you can't find a changing table, and it's better than the floor.
- Consider leaving the diaper creme in your luggage or putting it into a small container (think travel-sized) that goes in the ziploc bag with any other liquids or gels.
- Medicines. Get a doctor's notes or put it in your luggage. If it's small (travel-sized) you can put it in a ziploc bag. I always bring Tylenol along either in luggage or in a ziploc.
- Snacks/food: Same as above, if your child is on formula/bottle feeding. If your child is eating solids food, bring lots of cheerios, crackers, grapes, cheese cubes - things that aren't too messy but take a while to eat. My daughter loves Cliff bars - a few of these are really helpful, especially if you or your other half gets really cranky without food.
- I recommend against buying food, especially fruit, in the airport. Our daughter has gotten sick several times. It's also hard to find healthy food.
- Bring something like wipes to wash your kid's hands and faces with. Diaper wipes work pretty well, and actually feel pretty good on dried out airplane skin.
- One of those mats that sticks to the table and a plastic washable bib for the messy table-top eater.
- I have not ever taken formula or breast milk on the plane. My understanding is that you can get it through security, just be ready to taste-test it.
- Extra change of clothes for the kid, and a spare shirt for yourself. Double that if your child is in diapers and inclined to blow out.
- I don't know what it is about take-off, but it seems to induce a bowl movement. Pressure change?
- There is nothing more unpleasant than sitting on an airplane covered in vomit. Trust me. BTW, use seltzer water to rinse out the clothes in the airplane lavatory - takes some of the stink out.
- Put your child in pants. That way, if the diaper leaks, it leaks on their pants and not on your pants. Easier to carry a change for them than for yourself.
- Wear dark clothes that don't show stains.
- Bring wipes or a wet wash cloth in a bag.
- The best toy is the airplane safety card, followed by a plastic cup. Really. Plus making faces at the person behind you, the arm rest, the light buttons... Don't overload on toys, they won't use half of them. Think variety, not quantity.
- For the baby: Bring the smaller toys, especially the chewable ones. Put them away for a day or so before you fly so they're "new". Think twice about hard plastic toys - they make a lot of noise when banged against the tray, the window, the wall...
- For the toddler: sticker books, coloring books and pens, a mix of their favorite stories and new ones. Consider buying paper-back versions - they're lighter. Silly putty is another great choice. A favorite doll or small stuffed animal. See note about hard plastic toys and noise above.
- For the slightly older child: Some sort of dvd/video player. Even if you don't normally let your child watch TV, consider getting a movie (I really like Totoro for small children less than 3) and either using your laptop or a small player.
- Electronic pictures of the family are also a favorite.
- Check out your local bookstore or toy store and get something new for the trip.
- If you're nursing
- Boppy pillow, or travel pillow, for when they're small. I've found that past about 20lbs the full pillow just takes up too much room, though - a small pillow to put on the arm rest is good, though.
- Water bottle. Chasing down the stewardess to get water is a pain - although most of them will happily give you tons of water if you ask.
- Just remember to empty it before you go through security, and fill it up before you get on the plane.
- Take-off and landing lollipops or gum (older kids). Helps with the ears, and gives your child something to look forward to and keep them occupied while taxiing.
- Consider a small backpack for your child to put a favorite toy in. Just make sure it's easy to stuff that backpack somewhere when they're tired of carrying it.
Before you leave
- Take some time to explain to your child what's going to happen. Be detailed - you're going to get up at such and such time (or get picked up from day care), we drive to the airport, daddy gets out with the luggage and we go drive to park and get the shuttle, etc.
- I missed out the bit about daddy taking everything into the airport while we went to park the car and take the shuttle. Poor dear nearly melted down because she though daddy was going with out her...
- Especially if the morning routine is going to be different. If you normally have breakfast, and this time you don't, you may get a meltdown.
- Explain the stages of take off and landing, boarding passengers, security, etc. Let your kid hand the tickets to the security person, if they're big enough.
- If you check luggage, let them know someone is going to take it. Let them see the luggage go through the scanner and onto the conveyer belt. Explain that it will be put on the plane and you'll get it back.
- If you've got an early flight you might consider taking your kids in their PJs.
- If you've got a late flight you might consider changing them into PJs during the flight so if they fall asleep... PJs also make a great back-up set of clothes.
Diaper changes and restrooms
- Most airports have family or disabled restrooms. These are a single, large room with a toilet, sink, and changing table (usually). Much easier to get your stuff into, and you have a place to put the baby down while you go.
- Some airplanes do not have changing tables in the lavatory. Really. Bring a diaper mat - at least you can sort of lay them down on the top of the toilet lid. Or use an empty seat..
- Always change and go just before you go (especially with the recently potty trained child).
- You can use the lavatory before push-back if the airplane door is still open.
Rental cars, taxis, and car seats
- Most rental car companies rent car seats. Bring your own, especially if you're traveling internationally. I've been given booster seats for a one year old, they haven't had an infant seat - you name it.
- Toddler seats/booster seats are easier to get, and a lap belt (put the shoulder belt behind them) will do in a pinch for an older child.
- Gate check the car seat if you're going to need it when you land, especially if you have an infant. Get some wheels (http://gogobabyz.com/products.aspx) and check the stroller instead of the car seat.
- Airlines do have loaners if they misplace your car seat or stroller.
- Most taxis and shuttle busses will not insist you have a car seat. It's still illegal, and just as dangerous as a car.
- Check into public transportation (busses, trains). Can you get away without driving? Does someone you know at the other end have a car seat you can borrow?
Useful things to know
- General travel
- You get at least one, usually two, free checked kid items (stroller, car seat, baby carrier) per purchased ticket
- You can gate check car seats and strollers at the end of the jetway, just before you get on the plane. They give them back to you when you get off the plane.
- You can board early. Airlines vary; usually after the first class and special-status passengers and before the general public.
- Flight crew are not covered if they injure themselves lifting your bags. Which is why they aren't offering to help.
- Sometimes you can't check in on-line with a lap baby. Expect something to go wrong when checking in, so allow extra time.
- International travel
- Lap babies (under two, not in a seat) are still charged fees and taxes. Make sure to call and add your baby (and pay the fees) before flying or you could be held up for a while. Sometimes a regular fare is the same cost (or less) so check before you buy.
- All babies and children need passports; these can take a while to get, so get them now.
- Domestic travel
- Lap babies (under two) are free, but be sure to call to add them to your record. Not all seats/rows have extra oxygen masks, so there's parts of the plane you can't sit in.
- Some airports (Chicago Terminal 2 and 5?, Dallas, Salt Lake City) have children's play areas that will save your sanity if you get stuck. Chicago's is so great it's almost worth flying through just to get to...
It is possible to fly by yourself with a baby. It's not easy, nor fun. However, people in general are extraordinarily helpful and understanding. Especially if you're a guy.
- What to bring and how to carry it:
- A small bag or backpack for things to keep on hand: diapers, wipes, a couple toys, wallet, keys, phone, tickets, snack.
- Make sure wherever you put your wallet and keys that it can't fall out.
- A wheelie bag for backup diapers, clothes, laptop. Make sure the small bag or backpack can be attached to the big bag in some way. I use a small bag who's handles can be draped over the wheelie handle.
- The wheelie should be able to fit in the bins.
- Get one with the spinner wheels that you can push in any directions, and don't have to just drag it. I have a samsonite hard sided one that I like.
- Baby sling or carrier
- Car seat on wheels (http://gogobabyz.com/products.aspx). This doubles as a stroller and a place to put the baby. OR, you can sling the baby and put the suitcase on the car seat. Either way, roll away.
- Even if you don't normally use a stroller or need a car seat at the other end, consider bringing one or the other. It will give you a place to put the baby or give you a break or hold your stuff.
- Getting on the plane
- They use to issue security passes so someone could come with you to give you a hand through security. Last time we asked they balked and said no because it "costs them money". But it's worth asking.
- If you can find a fairly empty line and a sympathetic security person they might let someone accompany you up to, but not through, the security scanner.
- Going through security is hard because you have to get everything on the belt, but you can't wear the baby through the scanner in the sling. If they have a family line, use it - the security folks will help you get everything on the belt, the laptop out, the car seat up (make sure it goes face down, with the wheels up).
- Wear shoes that you can kick on and slip on if possible. Store all jackets, belts, etc before you start going through security.
- Either board early (depends on the airline - usually after first class, ask) or be the last one on the plane (works well if you have no overhead luggage to store and an aisle seat or the plane isn't too full). Going on first lets you sprawl your stuff out - and lets you lay the baby down on the seat (put the arm rest up) while you store stuff.
- I found it easier to store the wheelie under the seat - it's nerve wracking to try to lift up a suitcase with a baby in a sling or sitting on a seat. Although I've almost always had someone offer to help (say yes when someone asks if they can help).
- Really small airplanes are too small for a car seat to fit between the aisles - you'll just have to hope that someone offers to help carry the seat.
- If the plane has an empty seat elsewhere, I can almost guarantee that the person next to you will be willing to move. If they don't offer, you can always nudge them a bit with an "I'm sorry for the baby - I'll try to keep him/her out of your way. If you want to move, I won't be offended." or some variation thereof.
- Ask just before they start boarding if there's a row with no-one in it (or two empty seats). The back row is often empty (the seats don't recline). Take the back row with an empty seat and no reclining. Bulkhead seats are another option - they don't have storage, but they do have floor space. Really nice for a squirmy, standing toddler.
- Getting off the plane
- If you gate check a stroller or car seat it may take a while to come out on the jet way, especially if it's a small plane with lots of gate checked bags. So don't be in a hurry.
For the experienced business traveler
You are going to be frustrated. Very frustrated. Your carefully cultivated routine is going out the window. The baby explodes out of his diaper just as you're about to go out the door. The car seat gets jammed as you try to wrestle it out of the car, and you watch the shuttle take-off without you. You forget about the juice box buried in the diaper bag. The kid falls asleep just before you have to get up and get on the plane. You forget the bib. Or baby doll, and there's a melt-down. Your toddler wants to stop and hop over every line on the floor. You get apple juice spilled down your shirt. Your child vomits up the entire contents of breakfast all over you on take-off - and it's a four hour flight. You miss your connection and have to keep a toddler entertained for eight hours in airport X. Your luggage gets lost and you end up wandering around some city in the middle of the night where you don't speak the language trying to find diapers.
Just take a deep breath. And just think how much *more* fun it will be when your kids are sulking teenagers who don't want to go where you're going...
Allow extra time to get to the airport and checked in. This is on top of what you normally allow (if you're like me and try to minimize time in the airport.) If you're checking bags you must be there 45 minutes before the flight. Roughly:
*15 minutes for getting the car seats out of car and into bags/onto wheels
*10 minutes for checking in domestic - sometimes you can't check in on-line or there are problems with the kiosks and you have to talk to an agent
*30 minutes for checking in international. An hour if you don't have a green card/US passport.
*10 minutes for getting through security. It takes a little longer to get everything on the belt and off the belt at the end.
*10 minutes after going through security for potty breaks/diaper changes, and distracted children who want to walk.
Try to look at the airport through your child's eyes - they think it's a great place! There's airplanes to watch, chairs to climb over and under, those "does your luggage fit?" signs are great for toddlers to climb over, around, and under, lots of people to watch, hallways to run down... This is also a great time to teach your child how to play patty cake - what else are you going to be doing?