How to Travel with Little Ones & Not Lose Your Mind
So you’ve made the decision: the whole family needs to get out of town. Mazel! What a great idea! Family travel can broaden your tot’s horizons and give you some much-deserved time to relax a little at your destination away from home.
The catch, of course, is you need to actually get to said sanity-saving destination, and then back again with as little stress as possible to reap the benefits of the trip away. Do things right and your trip will be one for the (scrap)books, and the actual traveling piece will be but a blip on the radar. Do things wrong and the getting to and from your destination will be all you remember.
Don’t worry, though! I’m here for you to make sure you remember only those smile-filled days in between the traveling when you look back on your trips.
All Aboard For Safety!
I would be remiss without mentioning this: the safest place on an airplane for a child is in their own (ticketed) seat, in their car seat, hooked in with the airline seat belt. In heavy turbulence children can easily fly out of your arms and hit the ceiling, they aren’t allowed to be strapped into your body carrier during takeoff and landing (per FAA regulations), and having them in their car seat hooked into their own seat means they are protected in case of anything happening. If you fly often, you might want to invest in a car seat trolley (such as this one) so you can also pull your little one through the airport in a rush. If you do this, I would highly recommend checking your stroller as your baby item (see the packing section below) to your destination so you are not finagling both. Buying an extra ticket smart, but just try to envision all that extra under-seat storage you’ll score as some consolation!
Know your packing rights, and leave what you can behind
All airlines are different so it pays (almost literally) to check online with your airline before you go and make a game plan. Go to your airline’s website directly and check their policies regarding baby items such as strollers and car seats. Ask your hotel if they might offer cribs or pack-and-plays, and reserve those (you can bring sheets of your own if that makes you more comfortable). Generally*, you can check your stroller and car seat without paying checked baggage fees (or in addition to free checked bags you may receive as part of your ticket). You may also typically gate check your stroller and get it back after the flight on the jet bridge, but be sure to check in with the gate agent before boarding to get your gate check ticket.
*Please check your airline’s page directly and do not go to a third-party website, as the airline’s rules are prone to change without notice.
Traveling with baby pro-tip: check any relevant policies on your airline in advance.
Book nonstop flights if feasible
When you’re looking at multiple tickets the additional costs of flying nonstop add up quickly. Your mind reels as you think about the extra fun things you could do with that money you’re saving if you just take that hour layover in Atlanta. Believe me, I get it. But all of a sudden that hour in Atlanta turns into 7 hours because there was a storm over Topeka. Or your flights get canceled altogether and you’re stuck without a hotel room with cranky little ones as your caffeine wears off. Without kids, it’s inconvenient when these connection problems happen, but with kids, Dante would have written it as a level of Hell in Inferno. It’s a simple equation: minimize the planes, minimize the risk. As someone who is cheap I know it hurts to pony up for the nonstops, but as someone who has also spent 8 hours in an offshoot terminal of LaGuardia with a 7-month-old, I can tell you it’s worth the extra $100 to get the nonstop flight.
Pack activities, but don’t overburden yourself
Packing activities in your purse, carry-on, stroller, and coat pocket is a solid parenting move. The trick is to pack just the right amount. As my mother–a flight attendant of 28 years–would be want to say, “never pack anything you can’t run with.” Translation: if your flights are delayed and your hour connection is suddenly reduced to 10 minutes and the terminal you need to be in forty-five gates down, you need to get there and get there fast. Don’t bring anything too heavy, big, or cumbersome to haul down the terminals. Here are a few guidelines:
- Bring a variety of favorite toys and a book or two
- Make sure the toys are small and packable in your diaper bag/carry on
- Do not bring every toy out all at once; stagger their arrival so the entertainment is prolonged
- If your child has a security toy/blanket/doll/item, keep as close an eye on that as you do your own child. The last thing you want is a frustrated you with an inconsolable little one for the rest of the day
Research your airports
Douglas Adams summed flying up in his book “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” perfectly: “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.’”
A quick Google search should help you find nursing rooms, play areas & more in your airport.
That said, airports are no longer universally the barren wastelands of boredom they used to be. Many offer indoor playgrounds for the older kiddos to burn off some energy. Often you can find private nursing rooms for mothers to pump or nurse in a safe and quiet environment. A quick Google search for your airport’s map ahead of time might make a world of difference. Some amenities to look for and find if possible:
- Family TSA security lines. Not only will you be a good citizen of the airport, but these will often move quicker than standard TSA lines.
- Nursing rooms. Sometimes these are worth it and sometimes not. In O’Hare and Midway in Chicago, for instance, these are quiet, private rooms with comfortable chairs. In Charlotte, these “nursing rooms” are literally small uncomfortable benches in the middle of the women’s bathroom (read as: hard pass). A friendly reminder for nursing mothers: you are legally allowed to nurse in public wherever you are allowed to legally be, and you are legally allowed to nurse in-flight as well. You are not required to use a cover unless it is your desire to do so.
- Play areas. Play areas in airports can not only be surprisingly fun but can help alleviate stress, burn off energy for the kids, and kill time all at once. Check out some of these amenities in Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Boston to get you started.
- Food. Keep everyone (including yourself!) fed and happy. Think of it as the grease of the squeaky travel wheel for your family.
Be nice to the flight attendants
This should go without saying (emphasis on should), but be nice to your flight attendants. They can show you where the changing tables are in the bathrooms, and also have the keys to extra water, juice, napkins, etc. If you are allowed to pre-board with your little ones, don’t feel embarrassed to thank them in advance, and continue to smile and be polite. They will appreciate it more than you know and try to make your life easier. I promise.
Do NOT forget the extra clothes
In the debate between a pair of extra clothes in your diaper bag or “just one more” toy, go with clothes for the kiddo.
Easy-on, easy-off toddler clothes are a traveling must. Save the button-down shirts for grandma’s house.
I can very much assure you the moment you forget them your child will immediately disgrace you as you pass through security with something wet, smelly, and awful over every article of clothing they have on. The easier the clothes are to get on and off, the better. Think: zippers. Lots and lots of zippers. Save the million-button outfits for when you finally arrive at Grandma’s house.
Keep calm and have fun
Our little ones can read and feed off our emotions more than we ever realize. If you’re antsy, nervous, and frustrated, you can bet your little one will be too, no matter how young they are. If you’re calm, they generally will be as well. Explain to your children (even if they’re 6 weeks old!) what’s going to happen. Explain there might be changes in plans. Explain the magic of flight.
If you’re outnumbered in the children-to-parent ratio, give older kids opportunities to take some leadership in the situation: let them pull their own suitcases, decide on the restaurant in the food court, and hand their boarding pass to the gate agent.
Just remember: when you hear the word “flying” you may think of airports, flight delays, schedule disruptions, and headaches, but your little ones still think of the simple magical word “flying.” We weren’t born with wings, and being able to fly is magical for kids. Keep calm and you might just be brought back to that first time you were able to fly through the clouds, too.
Taylor Wood is making it through motherhood with the grace of a camel on ice skates. Follow her journey at Motherhood – WHAT?!