spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

Traveling with Babies/Toddlers: pre-trip and on-board

I have plenty of experience traveling with small children- both my kids had their passports soon after birth, my daughter has been on 62 flights and counting, and my son took his first transatlantic flight at just 3 months old.  I have never hesitated to take my kids on any trips- I believe they will do well, and 99% of the time, they do.  But it comes with preparation, knowledge of your child’s routines, and a bit of luck.  Since I believe in being overprepared, some of my trip “misc” budget is mentally earmarked to purchase drinks- not for us parents, but for our fellow passengers, should the children be absolute monsters.  I’ve only ever had to buy 1 drink- because my daughter threw up (into the air sickness bag) on landing and I felt bad for the guy sitting next to us. I literally pushed some cash into his hand and said, “Have one in the bar on me.”

Ok, let’s talk strategies!

baby on board

Babies on a plane.  Or Train.  Or Automobile.

The first (and most personal) decision to make is whether you will buy your children their own seat.  Most US carriers don’t require a ticket for a baby under the age of 2 if they don’t occupy their own seat- they’re called “lap babies” or “lap infants.”  If you want to bring your FAA-approved car seat on board for the baby to sit in, you will need to purchase a seat.  Here’s the scoop on this decision: car seats/restraining devices are not required by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) for babies under 2 years old, partially because they feel kids are much safer in the air than in a car, and requiring parents to purchase an airplane seat may lead them to opt to drive, therefore putting more kids at risk for injury.  Many people cite the overconfidence in parents’ abilities to keep hold of the baby vs. the laws of physics, and the very few turbulence injuries that have occurred, as a reason to require carseats on the plane.  Some suggest that parents who won’t spend the money or can’t afford to buy a ticket for the safety of their babies should go ahead and drive.

Uh, did they finally build that highway across the Pacific so I could opt to drive instead of fly? 

bridge to CA

I’m fine with lap babies.  My personal opinion was that my baby was safe in my arms, for the following reasons:  severe turbulence is very rare, and there’s no guarantee that they baby would be even strapped in right at that impossible-to-predict-moment; he could be in the lavatory getting a diaper change, or in my arms nursing, and then what good would that ticket do?  I put the baby in a sling, which worked great for during the flight, as he was attached to me at all times and could nurse on demand.  Note that you are required to be holding the baby in your arms during takeoff and landing, and I was made to take the baby out of the sling at those times.

That said, once the baby can walk, I think they need to have their own seat.  They will NOT want to stay in your lap once they have experienced the freedom of independent movement, and you will have to restrain them using the seat belt.  I’ve heard the argument that since kids are familiar having to stay put in their car seat while in the car, that they will not clamor to be released while sitting in their seat on the plane.  Makes sense, and has proven true in my travels.

I think parents need to determine what they feel is best for their own family.  More information:

  • Costs:

If you buy a ticket, it adds more money to the travel budget, and also means that the baby is then entitled to their own carry-on and checked bag allowance. They will earn “miles traveled” for their journey with any frequent flyer program.  Yes, you can and SHOULD sign the kids up for their own travel loyalty accounts as soon as they have a date of birth.  Since you are buying a seat, you can book it online with your reservation.

If you book a lap baby, you save money on the ticket, but you still have to pay something for that tiny passenger.  For domestic flights, it’s usually just the taxes.  For international flights, it depends on the carrier, but it’s generally 10% of a full-fare ticket in the cabin you are traveling in (economy, first, etc.) in addition to the taxes.  You have to call in to the airline directly to add the baby after you’ve made your own reservation.  Lap babies don’t earn any miles on their flight.  On Amtrak, lap babies don’t pay anything at all.

If you’re in the curious situation I was in (pregnant when I left the US, traveling back after the baby was born), my personal experience on American Airlines was as follows.  I booked my return flight online, then called to speak to an agent.  The agent entered “Boy Ourlastname” as the lap baby on our reservation, with my due date as the date of birth- they needed to complete these fields in order to calculate the fare/taxes, which I paid over the phone.  Passport information had to be left blank.  I then called them after the baby was born and before we traveled, and changed the “dummy” name and date of birth to the actual ones, plus provided his passport information.  It went more smoothly than I had imagined, and we traveled with no issues.

  • Equipment:

If you buy a ticket, you can bring your car seat on board a plane or train.  Car seats must be FAA-approved for air travel (there should be something official on the sticker on the side of the plastic panel).  I’ve heard a few horror stories about flight attendants claiming that a seat is not airplane-approved and forcing passengers to gate-check it; bring a copy of the car seat manual and the printed car seat policy from the airline website just in case.  All car seats must be installed at the window seat on a plane, anywhere on a train, and in the backseat of a rental car.

If you book a lap baby, you must check your car seat should you need it at your destination (no charge for this piece of luggage on most carriers).  Check it as regular luggage instead of gate-checking; it’s too big to fit in the overhead and you don’t want to lug it around the terminal or station anyway since you have to carry the baby.  Protect that car seat with something when you check it!  I’ve seen too many wet, stained, or broken seats come down the luggage conveyor.  I use this bag– it’s on its last legs at this point, but it still does the job. (Yikes, those reviews are terrible! But looks like there’s a new and improved version available.) Even a double layer of really sturdy XL garbage bags will protect the bag somewhat from the elements, though not from impacts.

I would personally never check a stroller to go under the plane.  I simply can’t imagine a stroller going head-to-head with a 70# suitcase and coming out the winner.  So if I take a stroller on my trip, I take a collapsible one and gate-check at the front of the plane.  You also want to protect the stroller.  There are bags and such available, similar to the ones for car seats.  After thinking about all the protection options, I decided that the easiest thing was to put the stroller’s own rain cover on it, and secure the cover with bungee cords.  The rain cover already fits perfectly, protects the stroller from most moisture, and is easily replaced should it tear.  The bungee cords keep the cover in place, and more importantly, keep the stroller from opening if it’s tossed around.  That little red tab is not going to keep it closed, you guys.  I haven’t had any issues with this method.

ready for Disney!

Ready for Disney!

Planning ahead

So, hopefully, you’ve made your decision as to baby’s ticket, what equipment to take, and how to protect it.  Now to prep yourself and the child for actual traveling.  Some tips:

  1. Book your departure times carefully.  If you have a champion napper, then try to get your travel going right abound naptime, taking check-in and security time into account. Avoid early travel combined with a full first day of activities unless you enjoy brutal meltdowns.  I personally like an overnight flight, which are abundant from Hawaii.  The kids get to stay up late to board, but settle down quickly.  And by the time the sun comes up, you are on the mainland!  We still take it easy that first day though.
  2. Let kids know what to expect.  Once my kids could follow multi-step directions, I felt they were ready to role-play airport security, train station check-in, and rental car behavior.  We would set up chairs and lanes in the living room to simulate the security checkpoint, and practice the steps required: wait your turn, move forward through the metal detector when called, stay next to mami while she puts her shoes back on.  For a train: keep next to daddy, greet the conductor when they pass through the car, stay seated unless walking with an adult.  For the rental car: the same care seat rules apply as at home, keep your feet off the doors, don’t startle the driver, etc.
  3. Be realistic.  Once you are a parent, there’s no such thing as sleeping restfully on a plane or train.  Or ever, really, amirite?  You have to be able to jump up and handle potty breaks, grab the dropped blanket again, or shush your child as they announce, “We’re going down!” to the entire airplane.  (The boy was quickly taught to use descending instead).  This point just reminds you, mom or dad, to get a good night’s rest the day before travel, and make sure you get enough to eat.  Your child WILL try your patience at some point, and if you are realistic about traveling with kids and have eaten/slept enough, you won’t freak out so much when it happens.
  4. Bring enough supplies, but don’t turn yourself into a mule.  1 diaper per hour is enough for babies, taking any layovers into account as well.  I chuck a 60-count pack of baby wipes in the bag along with a travel-size baby powder.  A changing pad is essential for those lavatory changing tables.  I like to bring 1 spare infant outfit for every 2 hours of travel, and 1 spare toddler outfit for every 4 hours of travel; be sure to include socks.  Bring some Pull-Ups or emergency diapers for potty-training toddlers, along with a foldable potty seat.  I think the most important thing is to keep the baby’s stuff neatly contained in one bag, so you always have another arm free for the baby.  If your child uses one, a pacifier clip on their pacifier is absolutely essential.  Finally, don’t forget bottles and sippy cups (sucking helps babies with any ear pressure pain on takeoff and landing, so nursing moms, have at it, too).
  5. Bring some new stuff.  Kids love a surprise toy.  Bring a few things that they’ve never seen before and bring them out at a rate of 1 every 90 minutes or so.  Even a favorite coloring book becomes special again with the addition of a brand-new pack of crayons.  My kids loved when I would pretend their stuffed animal friend needed all the same equipment they did for a trip- I would pull out a little passport, train ticket, or suitcase for my daughter’s doll “Jessica” and she would start drawing her and Jessica’s travel adventures on the cocktail napkin.
  6. Enjoy yourself!  Kids are like horses; they can smell fear.  If you are having fun, they will, too.  Imbue the whole process with the spirit of the adventure it is!
This image makes me want to mount an expedition.

This image makes me want to mount an expedition.

Time to shop!

Here are some travel products that I really love:

  • baby sling for hands-free infant holding
  • aforementioned car seat travel bag
  • pacifier clip/holder
  • disposable placemats for toddler eating
  • no, it’s not a leash, and I don’t care what you think anyway, I don’t want my kid to get lost in the airport: baby harness
  • sticker books and coloring pages
  • kid-sized headphones
  • folding potty seat
  • Tottoos (there are several different brands available)
  • your child’s favorite blanket or stuffed animal (bonus points if you label it with your name and a contact #)
  • small plastic bags for dirty diapers
  • Ziploc bags for the spare outfits (this is also a regular Packing tip).  Pack a full outfit including underoos, socks, top, shorts, hair clip, etc. into a gallon-size Ziploc.  Label if you want: “rehearsal dinner,” “Epcot day,” etc. Then throw a few bags into your carry-on and some into the regular suitcase and voila, no frantic rummaging to find a matching set.  You can repurpose the bag to keep soiled/dirty items separate from other stuff in the bag.

It takes some planning, prepwork and packing, but a fun travel time CAN be had by all.  Don’t forget the “misc” budget for drinks, just in case 🙂  Hope I didn’t leave anything out!

Includes bomb residue swabs!

Includes bomb residue swabs and narcotic-sniffing dogs.

Finally, here’s some humor for you.  The Playmobil company makes “real-life” toys like garbage trucks, police cars and farm vehicles.  I guess they also make TSA security checkpoints! The playset (shown above) is mediocre, but the comments are HILARIOUS.