Frazzled parents with bags under their eyes; overtired toddlers kicking the seats in front of them; wailing infants unable to handle changes in air pressure. If you’ve ever flown on a plane, you’ve witnessed the sights (and sounds) of traveling with little ones.
Flying is tough on everyone in the family, but parents with young children have an especially difficult time. Ask any mom or dad and they’ll tell you the same thing: disrupting the routines of infants and toddlers is asking for trouble.
Air travel is fraught with stressors and curveballs. Travelers are at the mercy of weather delays, gate changes, lost luggage and a host of other unforeseen issues. But it is possible to fly the friendly skies when you have young children. Read on to find out how some simple research and a little planning can help ensure that your vacation has a smooth takeoff.
1 Read the fine print
Once you book your air travel, bookmark the airline’s website and add the phone number to your address book. You’re going to need to access information regarding checking luggage, weight restrictions, carry-on policies and confirmation numbers.
The week before your trip, you’re also going to need to double check the airline’s policies on traveling with young children. These change from time to time, so make sure your information is up-to-date.
Most airlines allow children under two years of age to fly free on an adult’s lap for domestic flights. They do, however, require proof of age, so make sure you have copies of birth certificates (as well as any other required documentation) available when you check in. If you purchase a seat for your baby, check to make sure you have a car seat that is FAA approved for flight.
If you are traveling with a child over two, you’ll probably need to pay a standard fare. However, you may be able to carry on a car seat or stroller to take with you to your destination (see tip three for the wonders of gate checking).
2 Extend your timetable
Allowing a ninety-minute window for airport arrival, check-in and security is common practice for frequent fliers. But if it’s your first time tackling air travel with little ones you’ll need to allow yourself some extra time.
Just to be safe, plan to arrive at the airport at least two hours before your scheduled departure. If you’re flying out of a major metropolitan hub, make it two and a half hours. The reason is simple: you just never know what you’re going to encounter at the airport. From toddler meltdowns to mile-long security lines to last-minute luggage adjustments, pretty much anything can happen. Arriving early allows you to overcome these hurdles without the added stress of potentially missing your flight.
In addition, it’s always nice to have some time to relax and regroup before boarding. You may have questions to ask the flight crew, you’ll certainly want to do a last minute diaper change and it’s always good to make sure you have a few bottles of water and snacks for the kids (and coffee for you!). You can also look over your items to make sure everything you need will be within reach once you get your seats.
3 Gate-check your way free
Gate-checking is a new parent’s best friend. This simply means that you can bring a larger item (like a car seat or stroller) with you through security, and check it just before you board. Obtain a claim ticket from the airline representative at the gate, and you’re good to go.
This process has many benefits. First, you get to cart your child around the airport in a stroller instead of carrying him. Second, it allows you the convenience of bringing your own stroller or car seat without having to rent one (which can be expensive). Third, gate-checking on most airlines is free! Since the item is checked as you board, there’s no risk of it being lost, and you don’t have to pay for it as a piece of luggage. It’s a win-win-win scenario.
One word of caution: some airlines have gate-checking restrictions. Check to see if you need to place certain items in a special bag, or if there are limits on the number of pieces you can gate-check. You don’t want to bid your favorite umbrella stroller farewell forever when you board.
4 Be real about lap time
The prospect of having your children fly free if they are under two blinds many a mom or dad to the reality of flying with a child on your lap. Take a moment to consider what you’re taking on. Will your one-year-old, who is just learning to walk, really want to spend three hours cuddled on your lap in a teeny tiny seat? Probably not. If your flight is long and your little one is a mover, think about paying for an infant fare, if for nothing else than some much needed extra space.
Another factor worth considering is the adult-child ratio. If you have one child and two parents, sharing lap duty is a doable option. But if you have a child per parent, you probably want to buy at least one infant fare so that you and your partner can take breaks. Remember, you’re going to want to be able to eat, drink and access your bag during the flight. Doing any of these with a little one in your arms turns even the simplest tasks into a chore.
5 Break your own rules
Do you keep your kids on a healthy, candy-free diet? Limit their screen time? Allow them thirty minutes of exercise every day in the fresh air? If you answered yes to any of these, good for you! Now accept that you may need to part with these perfect parenting habits on travel day.
Let’s face it, when people are stuck in small, crowded spaces they fall victim to captive behavior. Things that don’t normally bother people get on their nerves, and patience is at a premium. So when your little ones board the aircraft for the first time, and they’re tired and excited and hungry and don’t know what to expect, well, a few M&Ms and an episode of Sesame Street can work magic.
Allow yourself to break a few parenting rules on your trip. You’re not going to fly on an airplane every day, so it’s probably okay if you let your son watch a movie if you’re on a long flight. And with all the excitement of getting on an airplane, chances are your two-year-old won’t want to just sit back and enjoy the ride. So go ahead, reward good behavior with a little treat. Even perfect parents need a little help now and then.
Most important, don’t expect everything on your children’s first flight to go as planned. Air travel never does, and the best way to keep the kids calm and happy is to stay that way yourself. After all, you’re going on vacation, and that in itself is worth smiling about.
Pack a perfect carry-on
Parents have an edge when it comes to packing their carry-on – they are never without extra diapers, clothes and snacks! Below are a few tips to keep in mind when you’ve got capacity constraints.
• Plan on taking two carry-on bags, one small one you can easily access and stow under the seat in front of you, and a larger one to store in the overhead bin.
• Rolling backpacks or child-size suitcases are a good choice for a large carry-on, because when you’re in the terminal you’ll have enough to lug around. Your child may even be able to help roll a small bag as you get to the gate.
• Pack extras (diapers, wipes, clothes and emergency items) in the larger bag and stow in an overhead bin – with any luck you won’t need it during the flight.
• Use your smaller bag for essentials: IDs and boarding passes, a mini-diaper change kit, crayons and paper, books or an iPad (don’t forget ear buds!) for entertainment.
• Remember, children over the age of two that are traveling on full-price fares are allowed their own carry-on. Pack a small backpack with some favorite toys, books and snacks.
- If the flight is very long, it might be worth the investment to buy your child a few new books and toys, and pack them in her bag. Present the bag just as your board and she’ll be so caught up in the excitement of all the new things that she’ll be happy and occupied through seatbelt checks and takeoff!
Beth Fornauf is a freelance writer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and two young children, and looks forward to many family vacations in the future.