Sunday, April 15, 2012

Staying Sane on the Plane with Little Ones

Preparing to embark on a 14-hour flight across the ocean,
who's panicking?

Flying with a little one, especially by yourself, can strike fear in a mom. Recently, a few people have asked about my experiences flying, especially internationally, alone with a child. I flew by myself with Lucas nearly a dozen times before he reached age 3, which means I've seen some of the best and worst of it. I am by no means an expert, and there are braver moms than me who fly alone with not one, not two, but three or more children. Much of what I do when traveling I've learned from them. I figured I'd share my view and the things I do in case any one else is nervous about the prospect. I know I definitely was the first time. Bear with me here - this stuff might be obvious or well-known to you, but for the benefit of those new to flying with kids, or flying in general, I wanted to include info on everything I've been asked by other traveling moms.

Experienced travelers, what suggestions or tips do you have for moms new to flying with little ones?

Stage 1 - Buying Tickets

Well, first and foremost, I have to put in a totally un-provoked plug for KoreanAir. If you are flying through Asia, it's worth any extra price to fly this airline, especially with kids in tow. "Excellence in Flight" is their motto and it's for real. Their service, relaxing atmosphere, thoughtful provisions, great amenities, and overall attentiveness is unparalleled vs. the dozens of other airlines I've flown. All air travel should be like that. Anyway...

Lap baby tickets - children under 2 years

As you probably know, children under 2 are normally allowed to share a seat with a parent, enabling you to buy a single ticket. This is a huge relief to many parents, especially the way airfare is headed right now. Just be aware that when flying internationally, there are usually significant fees and taxes even on the accompanying baby's ticket. With some airlines, you don't find out about a lot of these fees until after booking. In one case, I even had to pay a large chunk of the fees at the ticketing counter when I checked in. So try to verify exactly what you will pay if you choose to fly with a lap baby, and don't just assume your final booking price is the end of it. In general, prices tend to be around 10% of the adult ticket. Beware of how this can work! Some airlines will tell you that there's a choice to pay the infant seat ticket upfront or wait until some other time before the travel date. If you choose not to pay upfront, check the policy on price calculation. I've been told that certain airlines (American being a notable one) will charge 10% the face value of an adult ticket on the day you pay, which means if fares rise significantly between the time you purchase your ticket and the time you pay the lap baby fees, you could pay a lot more for the baby ticket.

Also, with many online ticketing sites and services, it's not possible to reserve a lap baby ticket online; you have to call in or use some other method. So keep this in mind when searching online - you usually won't be able to get the full flight price until you talk to a real human.

One cool thing about lap baby tickets is that on many flights, you can try to reserve a bulkhead seat for yourself and the airline will attach a bassinet to the wall in front. This is great for small babies, so you can give your arms a break. Check with your airline for policies. Usually the bassinet is available for babies who can't yet sit up, and most airlines have an upper age limit for infants using this service. Just something to keep in mind and check into if it applies.

Lap baby ticket or separate ticket?

With a small infant or baby, I say it's a great idea, especially with that bassinet option. As you get into the toddler ages, perhaps not so much. When Lucas was nearing 2yrs, I flew with him on my lap and I really regretted it. We were way too squished. Personally I think after 18 months, most kids are too big to fit comfortably squished in one seat with mom, especially in the ever-shrinking economy-fare seats, and especially on flights longer than an hour or two. If you're also flying with an older child who will be in his/her own seat anyway, then doing the lap baby ticket for a under-2 child could probably work out better because you can use some of the other child's seat space to your advantage.

One big factor in favor of a separate seat ticket is if you want to bring a car seat on board for the child. Some moms with restless toddlers find that they get through the flight better when strapped into a car seat just like in auto trips. My son would never go for this, but perhaps it would work for you. Airlines allow you to bring any FAA-approved car seat on board for a child flying with a separate ticket. Some airlines will even let you bring a car seat on board for a lap baby provided there is an unoccupied seat to use it in (essentially amounting to a free seat for your baby), but this is heavily contingent on how booked the flight is, and you don't always know for sure if you can do this until check-in or even boarding.


  • For domestic flights, always bring a copy of your children's birth certificates, especially if you need to prove their ages for fare purposes. 
  • For international flights, even to Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean, each child under age 16 must have a passport. Here is the Department of State website for under-age-16 passports. If you need to get a child's passport and the other parent is outside the US, the requirements can seem daunting but it is possible! At this link, you can find out how I and many others in this situation have done it. 
  • If flying internationally without the child's other parent, it is recommendable that you carry a notarized consent letter from the other parent if you can. 90% of the time nobody even asks about it, but among countries party to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, officials are supposed to check that the other parent gives consent before you exit and/or enter the country with the kids. I am of the opinion that it's better to be safe than sorry, because sorry could mean secondary inspection at the immigration, meaning an hour or two of hassle at best, and missing a vital connection at worst. Here's one in English and Spanish that I drew up that you can print or use as an example to create your own. NOTE: If you will be in Canada at any time during your trip, you will need their specific consent letter, which can be found here, and you will need to get it notarized. Canada takes this issue very seriously. Some parents have reported getting through Canada just fine without the letter, or with one that wasn't notarized, but enough have experienced major hassles to make it very worthwhile to have one.

Which seats?

For a toddler, I like to get a window seat so I can let my son stand/play on the floor all he wants during the flight. And this way there's minimal bumping into other passengers and no limbs getting into the busy aisle. Even for our Korea trip, I chose the window and middle seats and we did just fine. Plus, it makes it easier to set up pillows/blankets for him during sleeping time.

However, if you have a recently potty-trained little one, accessibility for bathroom runs is probably even more important, so in that case the aisle seat might be better.

For more detailed seat-choosing, you can use SeatGuru, a site that has the exact layout of each kind of aircraft and gives you in-depth reviews of the best and worst seats on the plane.


If you have the luxury of choosing what time you fly, it obviously works well to have naptimes and bedtimes coincide with the flight. The longer your child sleeps on the plane, the easier it is for everyone. Even if it's off schedule by a bit, the humming of the engines and the in-flight cabin sounds seem to lull little ones to sleep, and they're able to get much more comfortable in those little seats than we adults can. My son always sleeps longer on planes than he does anywhere else. Just be sure to keep the child as active as possible before getting on the plane so that sleep can take over once you're settled and in the air. Some moms worry that their little one won't sleep enough. You might check with your child's doctor about suggested supplements or medicine if they become too restless and can't sleep onboard. We've never needed anything, but I know a lot of moms feel best having something in their arsenal.

Stage 2 - Checking In/Gear

Car Seats

At the check-in counter, you can usually check one car seat per child for free, even if you get a lap baby ticket for a child under 2 (check with the airline for free luggage policies, but this is generally the case). You can check it right alongside your luggage. This is what I've done when I've traveled with Lucas' car seat, because Lord knows there's no way I'm dragging that thing all around the airport when I'm traveling without an adult companion. As mentioned above, you can generally bring a car seat on board if you have purchased a corresponding seat. I'm not sure I'd have the sanity to manage a car seat plus stroller, carry-ons, and child, especially while going through the security checkpoint, but especially if you're flying with someone else, it could be option. As an alternative, if you don't want to lug a car seat onto the plane but do want to have the child secured beyond the floppy airplane lap belt, there are products like the CARES system that construct a secure harness and can be tossed into your carry-on. Another option, if you really just care about having a safety system when you reach your destination, is this car seat harness vest that a fellow travelling mama pointed out. It's also lightweight, packable, and can be used for children over 30 lbs. It's not FAA-approved so it can't be used on the plane, but especially in cases where you're traveling internationally to places where car seats are not commonly used, it can be a great tool once you arrive.

If you do bring a car seat and check it at the counter, I suggest wrapping it in an old sheet and then putting the whole thing into a big garbage bag for protection, if you don't have one of those fancy fabric bags. Just be sure to leave a way for airline staff to attach luggage tickets to it. Our Combi Coccoro convertible seat has traveled wonderfully with us and I usually arrange the wrapping so that tags can be looped around one of the plastic braces on the back.


You are allowed to bring a stroller all throughout the airport, right up to the gate, and check it there. They put it under the plane after you board, and it's right there at the gate when you get off the plane. As above, check with the airline for restrictions - some have requirements for folded dimensions and materials. You don't want to fly with your heavy-duty stroller; this is a time to use the most lightweight, compact, easy-to-collapse-with-tons-of-stuff-in-your-arms stroller you can find, which for me was either our trusty $25 Babies R Us umbrella stroller or our Combi lightweight stroller. Again, if you care deeply about the stroller, you may want to bring a bag or wrapping to protect it, but remember that this can be tricky to accomplish at the gate when you have limited hands, a child to attend to, carry-ons to keep track of, documents to show airline staff, etc. Also, some great airlines (ahem, KoreanAir) actually wrap the stroller for you before they put it under the plane.

If you're traveling with an infant, consider bringing no stroller at all, and just using a sling, or carrier. It can be much easier than assembling-disassembling the stroller at various points during travel. Just be sure the carrier is easy to remove if security personnel want it off during a checkpoint.
Love the umbrella stroller for being
lightweight and portable...
..but the Combi stroller is so easy to collapse,
has a seat that can lay flat,
and features a carrying strap to sling it
over my back.


Fare-paying children typically get the same luggage allowance as adults. Even lap babies usually get a free luggage allowance as well. Check with your airline, and I recommend using any free checked luggage allowance you can to avoid bringing things on board. While maximizing your carry-on luggage is great when you're an adult flying sans-enfants, it is not so great when you also have to manage a child/children, their supplies, gear, tickets, passports, documents, shoes, layers of clothing, etc. So check anything you can and only bring on board what is absolutely necessary to survive the flight or is just too valuable to check. If you have a preschooler who is big enough to wear a backpack, try to store a good bit of plane stuff in there, but other than that, I would try to stick to just one other carry-on bag if you can help it. One time I made the mistake of bringing a bit too much stuff, AND I was traveling with Lucas as a lap child, and by the time I got off the plane, I was so stressed out from trying to keep track of everything. Once you're on board, you're likely going to be reaching into your carry-on a lot for stuff to keep the kids busy or fed, so make sure it's easy to store at your feet/under the seat, and has compartments that are easy to reach into even if you can't fully see.

Waiting to check in

While some airlines have great, easy, electronic check-in screens where you just swipe your documents, punch a few buttons and you're done, others require you to wait in very long lines, especially for international flights. Also, even with airlines that use check-in screens, flying with children often kicks you out of the automated process and causes you to have to wait for employee assistance to finish the check-in due to gear or lap baby tickets. So be prepared that this is the first of many times when you might need to break into your Stay Sane Supply, which I will describe further down.

Stage 3- Security and Boarding

Security lines

One challenge is that you have to get the child out of the stroller and collapse it to scan when you go through security. Sometimes a TSA employee steps in and helps at this point, which is fantastic. Otherwise you're on your own. Be sure to check out the TSA "Flying with Children" website before you fly to prepare for what happens in the security line. That site details the security process, what you can/can't bring in your carry-on luggage, and the special rules that apply to people traveling with kids (e.g. we can bring more juice and such beyond the regular liquid limitations). One note: my child gets upset when he has to take off his shoes during the security check. I found that it was actually helpful to prepare him this last time, go through it with him verbally in the days before we flew so that he'd know what to expect and what to do. It can be a stressful moment there, when you're removing shoes, jackets, etc. I always have Lucas wear socks, at least for the security check, so his feet don't freeze on the bare floor. Again, be prepared for long lines in security, especially for flights during busy hours. Stay Sane Supply again...

Waiting to Board/Layovers

I like to try to get through security right away and then relax on the other side. The downside to this at some airports is that the terminal might be pretty limited once you get inside. O'Hare International terminal immediately comes to mind here. If your little ones like to watch planes take off, you're golden, but even this can get old. Some airports have a play area for kids to burn off energy, so check into it and plan your layover accordingly. Definitely make a bathroom trip as close to boarding time as possible. No matter where I am, I usually try to find a less-congested area, and set Lucas free for awhile to burn off any excess energy. "See that blue barrel? Run to it! OK now run back!" Also, I know a lot of people like to board as soon as the staff at the gate calls for anyone traveling with small children. I usually ignore this and wait so I can take advantage of more wiggle time, but if you fly with multiple children, you might want to take them up on this, so you can get everyone settled in and get all your stuff in place for the flight.
Proof that you can kill the better part of an 8-hr layover
just by running around empty benches in a waiting hall
When watching planes gets old,
you can move on to watching cars

Stage 4 - On Board/Carry-On/Stay Sane Supply

This is probably the most panic-inducing stage. Just try to stay calm about it. Your baby/child probably will cry at some point. Strange noises, strange smells, strange people, fluctuating temperatures, changing altitudes, it all adds up to a perfect storm for a small child. But if you're able to anticipate some of these obstacles, everyone can get through the flight with minimal stress. All of your tools for this stage are the Stay Sane Supply. You want to keep all of these things easy-to access, packaged into small sets so you can pull one thing out at a time without causing a breakdown when your child sees something that wasn't supposed to come out until the fifth hour of flight time. For longer flights, you may end up rotating through it all.

Infant to small toddler age

  • Fun, colorful toys are great. Chewable, tactile stuff. If you can get a new one to pull out on the plane, awesome. No matter what, it's good if you can find a way to tether any toys to the seatback pocket or tray hook in front of you so that every time baby drops a toy, it's not hitting the icky floor and disappearing under fellow passengers' seats. Use those plastic linky things, or just a ribbon connected to a clothespin. 
  • Unless your little one is entertained for long periods of time by particular board books, don't bother bringing them - they add bulk and weight that aren't worth it. Instead, consider fun paper, stickers, sticky notes, and things that can be moved around while sitting in your seat. 
  • Make sure to pack teething remedies, just in case your baby's mouth decides to start erupting on the day you travel or during your trip. 
  • Also make sure your diaper supply is well-stocked, with a backup change of clothes (possibly also one for you if you have a blowout-prone infant), a light blanket to use as a changing pad if necessary, and some plastic bags in case you need to do a diaper change without a garbage can nearby.

Toddler to Preschooler

  • iPad/tablet/smartphone loaded with kids books and fun apps is an obvious choice if available. 
  • I used to raid that bargain zone at Target and get cheap little books and random small stuff to pack as surprises into my carry-on. 
  • Another thing you might find at Target or Wal-Mart are travel games, like this Take N Play Robot Construction Set that Lucas adores. 
  • I also bring Wikki Stix. They're waxy so they stick to each other and onto the backseat trays or walls, but don't leave any residue or mess. Lucas spent one entire flight playing with those, I didn't even need to get out any of the other stuff.

  • One entertaining use for Wikki Stix

  • Finally, we love this Melissa & Doug Magnetic Pattern Blocks set. Sometimes we travel with the magnetic board and entire case, sometimes we just bring the blocks and the pattern sheets, but for our most recent flight, we did just fine with only the pattern blocks in a baggie, and we took out a few at a time to arrange into designs on the tray. 
Almost all of the above are things I only take out for flights and special trips. Otherwise they stay out of the toy rotation, so they can be new and exciting when we travel.

All ages

  • One trick I've often read about and used to a certain extent is the "surprise present" idea. You get some small, basic toys, old or new, and wrap them in colorful wrapping paper. Every now and then you pull one out and let your little one have a blast opening a surprise to find out what it is. 
  • Snacks - if they're on solid foods, pulling out small baggies of surprise snacks at various intervals during the flight can break up the boredom. As previously mentioned, you may need to dip into this stash even before you board the plane. Check-in and security lines sometimes are madness, and so are the immigration lines if you fly internationally, particularly if you arrive mid-day. Just be mindful that sugary snacks, especially early in the flight, could have pretty maddening repercussions. Also, like many moms, I believe artificial flavors and colors enhance any hyper or moody phases my son might go through, so I try as hard as possible to avoid these, especially while flying. 
  • Particularly for a non-nursing child, it's a good idea to pack some kind of chewy snack and/or a drink for takeoff and landing so you can try to keep them chewing and swallowing and prevent their little ears from popping. 
  • Also, my child falls asleep on airplanes, all airplanes (fights to sleep normally, but put the kid on a plane and he's out). This can be such a blessing, but it's also horrible when I'm forced to wake him up mid-nap so I can sit him upright during landing as requested by flight attendants. So I started bringing some ridiculous snack (like chewing gum) that he never gets to eat and only pulling it out during landing, so that he can be chewing and bribed into happiness even though I woke him up from a peaceful nap. 
  • If your little one is nursing, prepare yourself however you need to so you can nurse without hesitation on the plane. This is your single greatest weapon when they get bored, uncomfortable, scared, hungry, teething, ears popping, whatever. In fact, if you're considering weaning soon but have a flight in the near future, consider postponing at least until the trip is over. Breastfeeding made all of our infant and toddler-age flights so much more bearable. And if you're sheepish about nursing elbow-to-elbow around strangers, keep in mind that they'd be more angry to hear your hungry/uncomfortable baby screaming. I've sat next to businessmen who suddenly felt comfortable to talk about their own children and families once I started nursing Lucas. You just never know. 
  • Layered clothing for everybody to wear onboard. Even in summer, or maybe especially in summer. Those planes get cold after awhile, but sometimes while dashing through airport terminals or waiting to take off with the climate controls off, the temps rise pretty uncomfortably. So have everyone prepared for both extremes.
  • Wet wipes. No matter what age, they always come in handy during air travel!

Stage 5 - Post-flight

Try to do a bathroom stop before hitting the baggage claim and immigration lines if you can find one. Depending on the airport, it's often right there after you get off the plane and I tend to miss the opportunity. But better to take it. This way, you're not only avoiding the massive crush of people in the line from your plane, but you also don't run the risk of having to forfeit your place in the long crazy line if someone does have to go all the sudden.

Baggage claim - if possible, try to have someone pick you up from inside the airport if you're traveling with kids and luggage. Even just one extra hand to push a luggage cart or stroller can make all the difference. If you're flying internationally and have to drag your stuff through customs before exiting into the real world, airport staff should be able to help you if you're struggling. Don't be a hero, seek help for this part. You'll likely be tired, a bit ragged, and in need of any assistance you can get by that point.

And from there, you should be at your destination, ready to go take a really long nap.

Good luck and happy travels!

For more travel tips and advice from other traveling parents, check out this link at SuitcasesandSippycups, where lots of other bloggers weigh in.


Laura said...

Great guide to traveling with kids Amy!!

Jessica Mador said...

Love all your tips for travel. Your post was excellent and I had a great time reading it. The tips that you’ve shared was really incredible. I was impressed. Big thanks for sharing an amazing blog. Keep posting.


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