When my husband I decided to go back East for a vacation, my first thought was how we were going to take a mid-day five hour flight with a 25 pound toddler on our lap that couldn’t sit still for more than eight minutes. My second thought was how I would do the entire trip by myself on the return. So overwhelmed with fear, I turned to my Facebook community for advice from friends and family and guidance to careful pre-planning. Here is the best of what I solicited:
- When booking tickets, select non-stop flights only. The extra cost is well worth not having to lug baby on and off an airplane or deal with more than one take-off or landing.
- If traveling with a partner, book a window and aisle seat towards the back of the plane. If your child is under 2 then you are well within your rights to travel with the baby on your lap. Airline policy is that if there is an empty seat on the plane you can take an FAA approved car seat onto the flight and place your child in the empty seat. Not buying a seat for baby is a risk you may not be willing to take. We are cheap, so we risked it, and it paid off. But had we been forced to experience a five hour flight with baby actually on our laps, I'm certain it would have been the last time we didn't spring for the empty seat. We booked an aisle and a window towards the back since middle seats towards the back are the last to go. When we arrived at the gate, I explained to a member of the flight crew that we were traveling with a baby and wanted to be certain that someone wasn’t sitting in the middle seat between us. The crew member was able to put a hold on that seat. Turns out the flight crew prefers babies in car seats too!
- Don’t travel on busy days and avoid the mid-day crowds, leave early on a Saturday morning or later at night on a weekday – but don’t do a red-eye. That’s just mean to you. Our flight flew from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, one way, leaving at 7:30 AM PST on a Saturday. This was risky because it meant waking baby to depart and then being idle for one of her most active periods of the day. But when flying west to east, you want to arrive with enough time to enjoy the destination – so we risked it. Turns out that waking baby early meant she was tired earlier as well and we managed to get a solid nap out of her towards the end of the flight. On the way back, I flew out at 8:45 PM EST on a Tuesday night. Our flight wasn’t full going over or coming back – so we had no trouble bringing the baby seat on board. And being able to have baby in her car seat meant she was way more likely to sleep.
- Make a trip to the dollar store and present new toys on the flight. I spent $12 on toys for the flight. I bought stickers and coloring books, crayons, a barrel of monkeys, a few race cars, a magnet game and couple of plastic fish. Story had never seen or played with any of these things before, so it was a total novelty and kept her entirely entertained for many legs of the journey. I waited until after take-off to present one toy at a time. She wasn’t sure what to do with the crayons – except nibble the tips. But stickers entertained for over an hour. We put them in our dollar store books, on the back of the seat in front of us, on Daddy’s face while he slept for five hours straight, on Mommy’s arms, and a few even made it into the coloring books.
- Get a NEW movie on the iPad. I downloaded three new movies before we departed and Story watched them with no sound on the iPad much to my delight. She is a pro with technology, she can unlock the screen, pause the film, adjust the volume and switch between applications. Plus, when she finally fell asleep I was able to play solitaire. Having new movies held her attention for much longer.
DAY OF TRAVEL ADVICE
- Bring an FAA approved car-seat. Gabe and I arrived at the airport two hours early with two carry on pieces of luggage, a baby bed, and an FAA approved car-seat. For 14.99, we bought this Traveling Toddler Car Seat Travel Accessory and hooked it to our carry-on luggage. When you travel with a child on your lap, they make you do the check-in in-person. They also scrutinize your carry-on luggage, so I just had Gabe stand off to the side with our carry-on bags while I checked through with baby on my back in the ERGO. They let me check one baby item for free on the way over, but they made me pay for it on the way back. Fuckers.
- Avoid the clunky pack’n’play and buy a BABYBJÖRN Travel Crib. This sucker is light weight and has a little room on the sides to pack extra diapers and load in any heavy baby books. This bed sets up in two minutes and fits everywhere, even in our tent. Story loves sleeping in it and that matters even more. I highly recommend it if you travel often.
- Don’t bring a stroller. Buy or borrow an umbrella stroller when you arrive. There is nothing more awkward then a stroller at the airport. Story rode in the back pack of the ERGO and I liked having her as close as possible when we went through security. I was able to get a friend in Philly to loan us an umbrella stroller that served all our east coast cruising needs.
- Use the family security line. LAX has a special lane for people traveling with kids and it was much faster than the others. It also allowed me to bring on 4 oz. juice boxes and 4 oz. milks. Milk is very important because they don’t have it on most planes. If you can’t get it through security, be sure to buy it before you board the flight. And pack lots and lots and lots of snacks to serve as you begin take-off. I bought breakfast and lunch for everyone in the food court before we boarded, and thank goodness because there were no in-flight meals provided or available for the flight. I could have sold my french fries for $1 each :-)
- Use your early arrival time to let baby run silly. We made it through check-in and security in about twenty minutes. For the next ninety minutes I chased Story through the airport, around sleeping passengers, down corridors, through food courts and crowded bathrooms. I made her walk from security to the departure gate and did all I could to exhaust her by the time the flight attendants called for people traveling with kids. We boarded early and secured the baby seat on the window seat of our row. Of course I still feared an unexpected passenger showing up to sit in Story’s seat, and I didn’t breathe until they closed the doors. Luckily, we were able to get an empty seat going both ways, letting the flight attendants know the deal before they start boarding is key.
- Use the aisles and let passengers and flight crew entertain your toddler. Once the plane was in the air, I let Story walk up and down the aisles a few times and visit with any other babies or children. This helped her feel comfortable and independent. Mommy bought a few extra gossip mags for the flight crew and sent baby back with the bag of goodies. Of course the crew just loved Ms. Story and went out of their way to make our trip comfortable. Story made it both ways without a tantrum or restless moment. We flew back on our own and while I was scared, we made it with no trouble. Helpful crew and passengers were key to our success.
It’s always a gamble when you fly with a child – sometimes you win and sometimes you lose your shit completely. We got off easy this time, but following the tips really helped and I hope it helps you too. I thought the trip would have its struggles, but Story was a champ for the entire experience. She waited until we got home to torture us, and boy did she make me suffer upon return. But that’s another story for another time.