Don’t panic! Family travel can even be fun!
1) Don’t panic.
Seriously. Travel with infants seems daunting as a rule. I’ve had many, many people visibly shudder when they think about having to take a baby on even a short flight. However, it’s just like any other challenge in learning how to be a parent- it can be accomplished with the right preparation, practice, and most importantly – attitude.
2) Leave it at the counter.
As a rule, you don’t need much in the airport or on the plane. Take advantage of most airlines’ generous baby gear checking policy. In the new world of ever increasing baggage fees, you can still check a stroller and a car seat for free! What’s even better- you can put other bulky items in the car seat bag or stroller bag, also for free. Think diapers, bulky toys, etc. We’ve found that on average, even with layovers in our itineraries, we don’t need the stroller or car seat in the airport while our baby is still small enough to be comfortably worn in a sling or carrier. The times we tried taking the stroller with us, it ended up just being used as a luggage cart, while we carried the baby anyway! So, ditch the extra gear at the counter and travel light.
3) Change is good.
Most people pack well for the baby on flights, but may forget about themselves. Put it this way- if baby really needs an emergency change of clothes mid-flight, you just might need one as well. Throw at least an extra shirt in your carry-on.
Be prepared for at least one in-flight diaper change on an average domestic flight. There are fold-down changers on every plane, but not necessarily in each restroom. Ask a flight attendant if in doubt. As everyone knows, there’s not much room in there, so just bring what you need for the change- not the whole diaper bag. There are also many products marketed with this in mind- like this one, that include the changing mat, and room for just a few items.
4) Timing is everything.
When possible, try to plan flights not only around your baby’s schedule, but also yours. Think about the logistics of the day and don’t set yourself up for failure. The overnight flight might sound appealing because baby may get some sleep- but you won’t! Being overtired yourself, or stressed running through an airport on a short layover, can be as bad or worse than a tired baby. Keep in mind that you’ll need to be at the airport well in advance of the flight time, so even a 9am flight can mean an early morning wake up.
5) Take the pressure off.
Babies’ ears can be bothered by the change in pressure in the cabin during take off and decent, especially on older planes where the pressurization systems may not be as calibrated. Feeding them, or offering a pacifier, will help them adjust and prevent the pressure from turning into pain. Sucking and/or drinking will also help them relax during what is usually the loudest part of the flight.
If your baby uses a pacifier, the last thing you want is for it to fall on the floor of an airplane. It will be dirty at best, and rolled off several rows away never to return at worst. We suggest getting a clip/leash like THIS one. Also useful, are pacifier ‘pouches’ for storage on the go, and wipes in case it does hit the ground. You can also use the wipes to clean the ‘touch surfaces’ of your seat on the plane when you board.
Ticket- Check. Binky-Check. Set to go!
6) Seat selection.
Seat choice is overall a matter of personal preference, but here are a few hacks and guidelines to keep in mind when traveling with a child, especially a lap infant.
First off, I should say that as a matter of safety, if you can purchase a seat for your infant and install a car seat on the plane for them, it’s preferable to do this. It’s also generally more comfortable to have a place to put the baby down, and if you’re traveling with a partner, results in a row to yourselves. However, it goes without saying that air travel is expensive, and the ability to have your baby fly for free (or nearly free) for the first two years can’t be overlooked, and many times makes the difference between being to afford the trip or not.
That said, here are some things to think about when flying with a lap infant:
-Aisle or window? In general, it’s nice to be on the aisle in case you need to get up more than usual- to walk, soothe, or head to the bathroom for a diaper change. However, if you’re planning on feeding baby in flight and want more privacy, the window may be best, especially if you’re traveling with a partner who can take the seat next to you.
BabyFlyer scores an upgrade!
-Upgrades? If you can manage it, whether by cash, miles, or status, moving to a bigger or extra legroom seat can make a big difference in you comfort level. Keep in mind though that lap infants, and people traveling with children are not allowed in the emergency exit rows for safety reasons, so main cabin extra/premium economy or bulkhead seats are your best options in economy. If you can move to first or business class, that’s even better.
-Flying in 1st? Yes, babies are (with a very few exceptions on some foreign airlines) allowed in premium classes, and you have every right to sit with them there. Fellow premium travelers generally are fine with, and even complimentary of, a baby traveling with attentive parent(s). No one expects babies to be silent the whole flight, but it’s a good idea to plan ahead and have age appropriate toys and activities to use throughout the flight- small interesting toys, even new toys just for the trip are great.
-Seat choice hacks? There are a few. If you’re flying international on a wide-body plane, most airlines offer ‘bassinet’ rows in economy, which are non-exit bulkhead seats with fold down bassinets in front of them. Calling ahead, and/or asking at the check in counter and gate may get you assigned one of these. After takeoff, the flight attendant will provide a bassinet so you have a place for baby to sleep. It’s baby’s first ‘lie-flat seat!’
If you’re flying in the US as a party of 3 – 2 adults and a lap infant- find a row that’s empty and have the adults book the aisle and window seats, leaving the middle empty. On some airlines this automatically ‘infant blocks’ that seat, meaning it will be one of the last filled on the plane. If it’s a completely full flight at boarding, and the seat does get assigned, I promise you won’t have a hard time switching with that person for the aisle or window.
Easily packed, interesting toys are essential. “Raffi the Giraffi” has his share of air miles.
7) Stay active.
As motioned above, bringing a good selection of (space-efficient, quiet) toys is important. With older kids, new toys to be given throughout the flight to keep things interesting can be a hit. Boredom is the #1 cause of fussiness, generally more even than tiredness, since on average, babies sleep well on planes. It’s the wakeful and playful times that require the planning for. Some of our favorites for young ones have been soft ‘stuffable’ toys with lots of textures, like Freddie Firefly or Peekaboo Forest, and simple but entertaining Baby Paper. Also, think about packing a few snacks for them (if they’re eating yet), and you too!
8) Get the gear.
You really don’t need to invest in too many extras to travel with a baby. A well-packed diaper bag and some kind of carrier you probably already have will get you by just fine if you’re a once or twice a year traveler. However, if you’re going to be making it a habit to head to the airport or the car rental on a regular basis, here are some things we’ve found particularly useful:
A light, simple car seat. And I mean LIGHT and simple. The Cosco Scenera NEXT Convertible Car Seat is the current choice for travel. It makes a good second car seat as it’s reasonably priced, and only weighs in at just over 9lbs! It’s FAA approved, if you do end up bringing it on the plane, and installs fairly easily in rental cars (or, you know, taxi vans in Mexico). It does come with the straps necessary to use LATCH systems, but I generally just install it using the seatbelt. I suggest practicing installing it a few times first at home, just so you’re comfortable.
Speaking of car seats, think about getting a fairly sturdy padded, car seat cover for checking the seat. These will check for free, along with a stroller. It’s not necessary to invest in an expensive bag for this purpose. Getting one of the ‘one size fits most’ bags like the Zohzo Bag works well, since it will take a beating being checked over and over. We find that it’s fairly easy to carry with the light Cosco seat mentioned above, but if you’re going to be checking one of the heavier seats, I’d recommend getting a bag with wheels.
If you are planning on taking a car seat through the airport, we also recommend car seat rollers like the Brica System, or straps that attach your car seat to your rollaboard bag. These work great if you’re planning on checking the car seat at the gate (get a light ‘gate check’ bag for this to keep it clean), or if you’re going to be taking the car seat on board. You can use the rolling seat as an efficient stroller going through the airport.
As mentioned above, babywearing is a great idea to get through an airport. Keeps your hands free, and baby close. Look for carriers that don’t have metal (like the ergo baby, or a wrap) and you shouldn’t even have to take them out of the carrier when you go through security if you have TSA PreCheck, depending on the country. In Mexico we had to take her out, but in pre-check in the US, she gets to stay put.
BabyFlyer takes a break from her busy travel schedule to hang with Freddie Firefly in the lounge.
9) Make the most of the layover.
There may be times when it makes the most sense to power through and take a longer nonstop flight, but it also may be more expensive, or impractical. Layovers can be a great way to break up a trip, and give time to get organized for the next segment. If you’ve been on the fence about getting a lounge membership, this might be the time to go ahead a do so. Lounges in the US provide comfortable spaces to hang out in a quieter setting, food and drinks, family bathrooms, and some even have kids’ rooms with toys, computer games, etc.
BabyFlyer’s ‘logbook.’ These are free upon request on AA flights.
10) Make (good) memories.
Travel with babies doesn’t have to be all worry and stress. A well planned itinerary leaves time for fun too! Airlines generally are glad to see their youngest flyers, and are in the process of reviving traditional welcome gifts- many have ‘wings’ to hand out, and American offers a “Junior Aviator Logbook” that gets filled out by the flight crew. Many international airlines offer activity books, or other mementos for kids on their flights. In the ‘above and beyond’ category – if you find yourself taking a flight with Etihad or Gulf Air, they have debuted on-board ‘flight nanny’ services to help parents keep their kids happy in flight. Yes, this is really a thing!
Remember that while the journey is important, the destination is the goal.
We’re all so busy these days that a travel day can be some of the longest time you might spend as a family without the usual distractions. A little patience and planning ahead go a long way toward making it a memorable experience. Enjoy it!