- Babywear: Both through security and while boarding the plane. In both cases, it gives you your hands free to handle the luggage and keeps your little one safe. It is at TSA’s discretion if you can wear your child through the x-ray machine, but I have found if I ask politely, they usually say yes (see notes at the bottom for choosing the right carrier). TSA regulations prohibit baby wearing during take-off or landing, but not during the flight. A carrier allows you to easily get to and from the bathroom, and use the facilities. We all know that babies love to be walked and bounced, and I have spent plenty of flights walking the aisle, bouncing my son to sleep in a carrier. Once asleep, I get back into my seat, and try to sleep myself.
- Check your airline’s luggage rules. In the US, all airlines (to my knowledge) allow you to check either a stroller or a carseat free of charge, as they are considered “exception items”. If you have paid for a seat for your child, they have their own luggage allowance (they can have their own suitcase and carry-on…if you can manage it). If you are traveling with an infant in your lap, they do not have a luggage allowance. However, you are allowed to carry a diaper bag in addition to your carry-on bag and one personal item.
- Be self-sufficient: I know it’s difficult to pack for yourself and your children, but try to pack so that you can manage your luggage. It will decrease your stress and make traveling easier for you. My suggestion is to limit your carry-on luggage to two bags, one carry-on (which fits in the overhead compartment) and one diaper bag that will fit under your feet. The carry-on can have extra clothes (for both of you…sick babies rarely get sick only on themselves), extra diapers, snacks, toys, and any other items you might need if you get delayed. The diaper bag should have what you need for the flight, a few diapers, a few snacks, a few toys, etc. If it is a short flight you might be able to get away with just a diaper bag, but be sure you have enough food and diapers for a delay of a few hours.
- Don’t forget to eat: I am a big proponent of mom eating before you get on the plane. Snacks are a great way to entertain toddlers during a flight, but be sure you are all well fed; nothing makes people crankier then hunger. I find it easier to eat in the waiting area/food court then trying to eat in the tiny airplane seat.
- Pack food and drink: Medicine and liquids (milk, juice or formula) for infants and children are not under the 3 ounce rule, and may be carried on in “reasonable quantities” according to the TSA website: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/traveling-children. Let the TSA agents know you have liquids for your child; they will be screened by hand, and usually will be tested for explosives. If the liquids are in a plastic transparent container they do not need to be opened, but stainless steel containers may be opened. I usually pack a separate lunch bag, which I remove from my carry on, so it is easier for them to test it. If you are traveling with frozen breast milk, you can either use reusable cooler packs or bags of ice. Pack some extra Ziploc bags; you can get ice from flight attendants or at restaurants in the airport.
- Pre-plan your boarding: There are two views on boarding with kids: there are the people who board during pre-boarding to get settled in their seat well before take off, and there are those who would rather keep baby off the plane as long as possible. Think about what you have to take on board. If you need overhead space you may want to board earlier, so you are guaranteed space. Are you in an aisle or a window seat? It is easier to get baby settled in a window seat if you don’t have to get past two other people on your way in. (There’s debate about window vs. aisle: window gives baby something to look at, but aisle gives baby some extra room to stand up and stretch legs). Whenever you decide to board, wear your baby in a carrier while you board the plane.
- Help your child with ear pressure: Take off and landing are the hardest times for children because of the pressure change. The best way to help your child adjust to that change is for them to eat, drink or suck a pacifier. The process of swallowing helps equalize the pressure in the ears. I usually try to limit liquids the 30-60 minutes before take off so that my son is thirsty. Turbulence can cause the same pain; so keep some extra drinks and snacks around.
- Bring some toys: When traveling with an infant, you don’t need much: one or two small toys, a few books and a lovey. As they get older, keeping them happy in a seat for the duration of the flight requires a bit more planning. A few ideas: books, sticker books, small animals or dolls, crayons and paper. Keep in mind that traveling is an adventure for your child, so play on that. We walk up and down the aisle (when the carts aren’t there), and we people watch. These days, as my son is a little older, we count how many people have hats on, and how many have blue hats, etc.
- Take a trip to the Bathroom: Babies love looking in the mirror, and toddlers (at least mine) love washing their hands. We could occupy an hour of flight time in the bathroom, but I am more courteous to our fellow travelers then that. We always get a drink of water from the attendants at the back. Anything to spend a few extra minutes out of the seat is a good thing. With my toddler I try to time this as late in the flight as I can to keep him in the seat as long as possible.
- Be Polite: I know this sounds simple, but I firmly believe that you get more with honey then with vinegar. TSA, airline staff and flight attendants are not always the friendliest; but kill them with kindness.
A few other considerations:
Picking a carrier(s) to pack:
There are advantages to all carriers; think about how much space you can allocate to carriers and what your needs will be. Also consider if other people will wear your baby, and what carrier will work for all caregivers.
Wraps: Provide the greatest flexibility, allowing all different carries, plus function well as a blanket (on a chilly plane) or lovey for baby in new place. However, they may take up more room than other options.
Ring Slings/ Pouches: Definitely the smallest option, but not the most supportive if you’re carrying a toddler, and the metal rings may prevent you from wearing through security.
SSC (Buckle carriers): Provides great two shouldered support, and are favorites among husbands and grandparents, but can be bulky to travel with.
My preference has always been to take two carriers: one for quick in/outs (a short wrap or ring sling), and one for longer periods of carrying (a long wrap or SSC).
To take a stroller or not: For lots of families, baby carriers mean they can be stroller free, but for others both are necessary. Like choosing a carrier, consider your travel plans and what your needs are during your trip. While a stroller is one more thing to carry and handle, it also works as a way to push luggage/carry-ons, and is a place for baby to sit/sleep if you end up stuck someplace. I know lots of moms who travel without a stroller, but we have taken a stroller on all of our trips, in part because we tend to walk ALOT on vacation.
If you take your stroller through security, you will need to get a gate check tag from the desk, and then leave the stroller at the end of the gate before boarding your plane (side note: be sure to empty all pockets in your stroller, as things may be lost while transporting it in and out of the plane).
To take the car seat or not (and to check the car seat or not): Like a stroller, this depends on your travel plans and is a contentious issue. The safest place for your child during a flight is in a carseat. However, that does assume there is a seat for your little one. Your two other options are to gate check the car seat or to check it as luggage. It’s important to understand that luggage is not handled with care, and there is no way to know if the interior foam of a seat has been damaged, which is why a seat is also the safest place for your carseat. For more information about checking or not checking your car seat, check out this blog:
If you plan to rent a car seat along with a car at your destination, confirm and reconfirm that they have the appropriate seat. Being stuck without an appropriate car seat is a vacation disaster I have unfortunately experienced.