Airplane travel with a small child is a challenge that, if handled incorrectly, can turn what is intended to be a relaxing vacation into nothing short of a ‘memorable’ travel experience for all the wrong reasons. The mere thought of traveling, especially for the first time, with an active toddler was enough to cause some serious anxiety for this first-time dad. However, after a recent trip to San Francisco, I have now experienced planes, trains, automobiles, trolleys and hotel rooms with my 20-month-old and survived with my sanity intact. So, I thought it would be a good idea to pass on some of my observations of what worked in air travel and what didn’t to other rookie parents who may be stressing ever so slightly about traveling with their little ones.
Here are my 10 observations. Please feel free to add your own by leaving a comment to this post.
1. Airline Tickets for Kids – My young son rarely sits still for more than a couple of minutes at a time, much less in our laps. Although domestic airlines no longer offer discounted children’s fares, we thought a dedicated seat in which to put his car seat would be the best way to go. You can’t count anymore on a “free” seat being available on a flight – airlines are fully booking most flights. So, we perused recent airline sales and bought him his own ticket at a great rate.
2. Car Seat or No Car Seat – We chose to use an FAA approved car seat for the flight. The good thing was that he was safely restrained in a familiar place. The biggest downside was that our son’s feet then easily reached the seat in front of him, which he felt compelled to kick repeatedly. Thankfully, the occupants in the seat on both flights were very understanding. We also bought a car seat rolling attachment, which allowed us to wheel it through the airport. This worked great once it was attached, but was extremely cumbersome to attach and detach. With a fidgety toddler to entertain, this was a bit of a pain. However, the car seat became necessary because, although we rented a car from Thrifty car rental and they do have car seats available, they could not guarantee one would be available when we arrived. What is the point of that?
3. Airport Security/Gestapo - It was a new experience navigating airport security with a toddler. We actually had to take the size 6 ½ shoes off of our 20 month old and try to coax him to walk himself through metal detector. We also had to have the car-seat and stroller personally inspected since they wouldn’t fit onto the conveyor. Lastly, we had a sippy cup of milk which we were instructed to run through the x-ray machine, then once it came through it was subjected to another test to make sure it was actually milk. Remember to add enough extra time for all these inconveniences when planning when to arrive at the airport.
4. Airport as Playground – It is was a great idea to arrive early at the airport so that we could find the children’s play area. This allowed our little guy to get plenty of exercise and wear himself out for the flight. Another success was finding a large window at the gate area so that he could watch the airplanes taking off and landing. He absolutely loved that – this was a plan that worked!
5. Avoid Late Night Flights – Scheduling one leg of the flight for our son’s mid-day nap time was great. He played at the airport, ate some lunch, visited with the other travelers, conked out just as the plane took off, and woke up when the plane landed 2 hours later with a smile on his face. In contrast, the return flight at 10:30 p.m. was excruciating. All the things that made the airport fascinating to our toddler on the flight out were the exact same things that kept him from going to sleep on the return flight. So, he was overtired and over-stimulated by the time we boarded the plane and crying in misery as the plane lifted off. It might have worked better had the return flight been at his bedtime – 7:30 p.m. – rather than three hours later.
6. Air Flight and Ear Pain – The cabin pressure only bothered our son during the decent of the return flight. Unfortunately, this happened while he was sleeping and caused him to wake screaming. He wasn’t interested in sucking on a sippy cup to pop his ears, so this was one time we wish we had a bought a binky to give to him for those few minutes (for the record, he hasn’t used a binky since he was 5 months old). Consider ear pain a reality when you travel with kids and plan for how you will relieve it – sippy, binky, bottle or breast.
7. Keep the Child Busy – Since they have to be strapped into the seat for long periods of time, it is a great idea to bring plenty of small, unfamiliar things to distract their attention. Our approach was to have a small backpack filled with interesting new items to discover. Once that had been exhausted, we had loaded a couple of kids videos (educational, of course) on my video i-pod and bought him some child-sized headphones with tiger ears. This worked great and since he normally doesn’t get to watch television he was transfixed.
8. Snacks, Snacks and More Snacks – We packed a little travel bento box for our son and kept it crammed with healthy snacks. He could eat whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, and we didn’t have to worry about a hungry toddler meltdown. This plan worked out great – no drawbacks!
9. Travel Lightly, But With a Big Baby Bag – I normally travel pretty light. However, this time was a whole new experience as we ended up packing so much extra stuff, including the full sized stroller (which worked great to gate-check) and car seat on wheels that it actually seemed well worth the $4.00 to rent one of those luggage carts to schlep it from the car to the security check in. The rest of the time I ended up being a glorified Sherpa. We used most of the kid stuff, including the new toys we packed to keep him occupied in the hotel room, but could have packed less for ourselves and him.
10. RELAX! – The airport staff, flight crew and most travelers are more understanding than we expected. We got lots of smiles and assistance on both legs of our journey, and no one complained about our screaming toddler on the flight home (at least not to us). People are much nicer than we often give them credit for. Don’t forget to ask for your child’s first “wings” or a TSA sticker – both fun things to add to your kid’s scrap book.
Now, sit back and enjoy the flight!