Doesn't everyone love air travel at the holidays? Since having a baby a year and a half ago, I've done my fair share of airplane travel and have had a lot of friends ask for my advice. Read on if you’re interested in learning what has worked for us. Traveling with a baby or toddler takes a lot more preparation and energy than traveling alone, but it is actually a lot of fun. Whether you enjoy traveling or not, pointing out all the new things at the airport and watching your little one take it in for the first time is great! Just leave yourself extra time at the airport so you can go at a toddler’s pace and enjoy it.
Choosing your gear
Each time I’ve traveled, I’ve brought a different configuration of bags and baby gear, really depending on what T was up to at that stage in his life and where we were going. It seems that most major airlines let you have a carry-on, personal item AND diaper bag on the plane (if you dare) and will usually let you gate-check a compact stroller and car seat as well (check with your airline in advance to be sure of size/measurements). I have always brought a car seat with us when we traveled (Chicco KeyFit when he was small enough and a Cosco Scenera, our lightweight travel seat, once he got bigger). The KeyFit snapped into our stroller so it was a no-brainer, but even the bigger convertible car seat fits nicely in the seat of our stroller (the Chicco Liteway Plus). See my photo above—I use a luggage strap to fix the larger carseat onto the stroller so it can’t be accidentally pulled off by little hands. I put my carry-on bag in the seat when I’m pushing it around the airport, but just remember that it is not safe to let your little one ride this way.
When T was 6 months and we traveled to Europe, I took him in a baby carrier on the airplane, gate checked his carseat and stroller, and had two carry-on bags. One to keep at my feet with all the things I needed during the flight, and one with extra items that I thought I might need (extra changes of clothes for him and for me, blankets, extra toys, snacks, etc). It sounds like a lot, but we had three flights and I wanted to be prepared for spending long hours delayed in an airport, just in case.
Now that he is bigger and heavier, I will only take one carry-on on the airplane if I am traveling alone (a lightweight backpack so both hands are free for carrying a very squirmy guy). But if it were a particularly long flight, a carry-on suitcase on spinners with a smaller bag affixed to the top of the suitcase would work too. If you are trying to pack food and diapers for a 12+ hour journey plus extra for potential delays, it is definitely easier to roll a heavy bag around than to haul it around on your shoulder while you’re running around the airport. One advantage of a rolling suitcase is that T now enjoys helping to push it around the airport too, and you can usually find a flight attendant or a friendly passenger to help you get it into the overhead compartment if you have your hands full.
Using a laundry basket to pack
Long before I leave on our trip, I start to make a list of the things I will need to pack as I mentally go through our daily routines, and when it gets to be the last day or two before the trip, I pull out a laundry basket that I carry around the house and fill it up as much as I can before packing. If I put a suitcase out too soon before leaving, T will do anything to get his hands on it and everything inside, but a laundry basket on the bed or counter doesn’t draw a single glance.
Pouches, pouches, pouches!
I’ve found that it’s worth organizing my carry-on bag so that it’s easiest for me to maneuver through security and the flight. I compartmentalize most things into pouches 1) regular travel liquids (lotion, chapstick, hand sanitizer, etc.), 2) meal items (bibs, utensils, wipes, bottles/sippy cups if necessary), 3) kid toys/entertainment, 4) kid snacks, 5) spare clothes… and whatever other items you’re planning to bring on the plane. This helps so that if your curious little one gets a look inside your bag they don’t see the treasure trove of applesauce and shiny new toys that you’ve packed for them, and just a bunch of zippered pouches instead.
I also like to have one flat pouch that I can slip into the seatback pocket the moment I get on the airplane in case I don’t have a free moment during the flight to reach into my bag. I usually put my phone, wet ones (for wiping down parts of the seat/tray when T was in a lick-everything phase), a granola bar or snack for me, a pen, and anything else I might want during the flight. This is less important if your little one has their own seat, but very helpful if they’re just sitting on your lap and you want to be able to grab your phone or a kindle while they’re snoozing in your arms.
Keeping them entertained
I try to find a variety of small, lightweight items to bring on the plane, some that are slightly more advanced than what he’s playing with at home. These items have been a hit on the airplane for him at various ages:
- Slinky jr.
- Retractable fabric measuring tape
- Lacing card (like these)
- Indestructibles baby word books like Baby Babble or Baby Night Night (Just be aware that many in this series don't have words. We prefer the ones that do!)
- Small cars or trucks
- Real metal keys
- Short videos of his friends and family that we preloaded onto our phones
Food and drink
Check with the TSA website, but you should be able to bring as much liquid for your baby to drink/eat as they need, regardless of other travel restrictions. I put all of this into one small paper shopping bag so that it is easy to pull out and show at security, although I have never been asked to. Beyond that, I split the food into smaller paper bags as well (4 pouches of applesauce and a pouch of fruit snacks to a lunch bag, for example), so that I can just pull one smaller packet out when T needs something to eat and not let him see the whole selection of what we have for the trip. This may not be an issue for most kids, but T is the type to see it all and then WANT IT ALL and that is just not a situation that I want to address in front of everyone at the airport or on the plane.
If you are looking for snacks or treats for your little one too, T would heartily recommend Plum Organics Teensy Fruits. They are tiny fruit snacks made for little ones that, while expensive, have been gold for us when we travel. I just recommend doling them out one at a time. I let T hold the whole pack once and he was done in seconds, whereas passing them to him one by one gives us at least 5-10 minutes of contemplative snack time and usually a refreshed mood when they’re done.
Bringing a carseat on the airplane
T has always been a lap child, so I usually check in in person to ask if there are any extra seats and if one can be allocated next to me. Sometimes this can be arranged at check-in, but you can check with the gate agent too. If there’s no hope of an extra seat, I check T’s car seat here so I don’t have to carry it around the airport. But if there’s a chance we’ll have an extra seat, I always try to bring the carseat on the airplane to strap him in next to me. This may or may not work for every baby—T doesn’t mind riding in the car and this has been easier for me than trying to wrestle him in my arms for the whole flight. You know what’s right for you.
Asking for help when you’re traveling alone
In my experience, people want to help you if they see you traveling alone with a baby. TSA agents may automatically help you load things onto the conveyor belt at security but if not, just ask. When you get to your gate, look for someone with a friendly face who might be the right age to have a grandchild around your son or daughter’s age. Strangers like this are lifesavers that will smile and talk to your little one while you reorganize your bag or text your husband to let him know that you arrived at your gate.
Don’t let the turkeys get you down
Most importantly, don’t let a jerk ruin your trip. If you are unlucky enough to run across a Grinch who makes a rude comment or gives you a dirty look because your toddler is crying about his seat belt or screaming his head off for hours during a long-haul flight, just know that we’ve all been there. I have at least! Just think about all the good you are doing your little person by teaching them to get out there and see the world outside their neighborhood. It helps to remember what you’re going to do when you get to your destination. I’ll have a glass (or 20) of egg nog with my feet up in just a few weeks. How about you?