(Previously published on parentsociety.com, 25 March 2013 - http://www.parentsociety.com/parenting/family-travel-parenting/10-tips-for-surviving-flying-with-an-infant/)
By the time our daughter was nine-months-old, she’d flown over 42,500 miles; half of which under her own frequent flyer number. So having all this experience could lead you to believe that we are well-seasoned travelers who know exactly what we’re doing. Yeah, you could think that.
But becoming “well-seasoned” takes lots of hands, and I fully utilized any and all tips and tricks I could glean from all my traveling mom-friends and family. Combining all their suggestions with lessons I’ve since learned, I can offer the following tips for traveling with infants, if you must.
1. There’s a reason they’re called “pacifiers”
You’ve probably heard this from everyone, but having a pacifier or bottle on hand for each take-off and landing is vital. With the change in air pressure, your baby may experience some ear discomfort or even pain. Allowing, or even strongly encouraging, her to suck on a pacifier or a bottle during these times, helps alleviate the pressure in her ears, as well as the pressure you’ll feel to keep her happy and content.
2. Buy baby a seat, or at least request the bulkhead and the bassinet
When feasibly and financially possible, buy baby his own seat. It’s far more relaxing for all of you if he can ride out the journey in the comfort of his car seat, rather than your arms (but check with the airline for their specific requirements, some car seats can’t be squeezed into a seat no matter how hard you beg and plead). But if his own seat is not an option, request the bulkhead and a bassinet. Some airlines are wonderful about this and when they guarantee you the bulkhead, they mean it. And then within seconds of reaching altitude, the stewards are there setting up the bassinet for your little bundle to enjoy the trip in style. (I give high praise to British Airways, in particular, for this.) Unfortunately, this is not all airlines. We requested, and were “guaranteed”, the bulkhead on five separate flights with the same U.S. airline and never got it, and unfortunately BA is not always an option.
3. Strollers and car seats can wait at the gate
Most airlines will allow you, at no cost, to check the car seat and stroller with your luggage, or take them with you to the plane and gate-check them. The latter makes traversing airports so much easier; and in an ideal world, they’ll be waiting for you when you disembark. If your child is in an infant car seat, and has his own ticket, then take the car seat on the plane and latch it into the seat. If you’re carrying the baby on your lap, then gate-check the car seat and stroller. Do note that your gear can get pretty banged up, so you can buy a bag for them, or even use a large duffle. It’s an extra few minutes to load everything, but can help prolong the life of your gear.
4. Bring a grabby-bag full of need-to-grab items
I fashioned my grabby-bag out of a mesh wash bag and stuck a carabineer hook through it. This way, I can pre-load it with a bottle, formula and water, a few small toys (side note: check out the candy aisle for light-up spinning toys, but empty the candy first and stash the noisy toys in the suitcase), pacifiers, and burp cloths. Then, as soon as I get to my seat, I whip it out, and hook it on the seat pocket in front of me. I also stash my diaper changing kit in the pocket, for easy access. This way, all those things you’ll inevitably need just as you’re taking off, will be right there at your fingertips.
5. Give your arms a break; grab the Bjorn
Using any type of baby carrier gives your arms a welcome break if you’re holding the baby on your lap, and can help soothe any fussiness (it can also be a big help during chaotic security lines). And it’s vital for when you’re traveling alone, which frankly is not great fun but often necessary.
6. Ask for help; people love traveling babies
As you’re settling in to your seat, scope out kind stewards or other parents near you, and if needed, ask them to watch your precious little carry-on while you stretch and use the lavatory. If you see other single parents, offer to reciprocate. Also, ask the stewards which bathroom has the changing table because oftentimes there’s only one; and if you’re trekking back there with your diaper changing gear and a wiggly baby, you want to make sure you’re waiting in line for the right one.
7. Not all airlines are created equal
If you have the luxury of choosing your airline, choose one that allows extra time for families to board; recently some U.S. airlines have stopped this (I won’t name names, but a simple Google search will reveal the culprits), which is not only annoying for those of us who could use some extra time, it’s certainly annoying for those of you who now have to wait behind us.
8. Let Mr. Huffington huff and puff
Don’t fret about the obnoxious traveler behind you, whether going through security or boarding or disembarking the plane. Yes, you’re going to take some extra time getting all your bits together, putting each and every item (including the car seat and the stroller) on the x-ray belt or climbing under the seat to find the favorite binky before you deplane, but there’s nothing you can do about it so let him sigh and moan and hopefully move to another line.
During our security passes, we’ve had varied response to taking on bottles of water for formula. Sometimes they ignore them, sometimes we’re asked to open them and they perform a chemical test, other times they dump them and give us back the empties so we can refill them on the other side. As expats, I hear a lot of extreme cases, and I’ve had friends who were asked to drink their own breastmilk to prove it was safe, and others who watched in horror as security opened each and every bottle of premade formula to “check” it, rending it useless without a refrigerator. Anything can happen, so be as prepared as possible.
9. Packing the diaper bag; this ain’t a trip to the park
Bring more diapers, formula, bottles, and outfits than you think you could possibly use (including a little hat, airplanes get cold). Due to delays, missed flights, and other out-of-your-control issues, you just have no idea what may happen. If you have a little spitter-upper, include a change of clothes for yourself, as well.
10. When possible, drive
All in all, traveling with babies is not at the top of most people’s “Favorite thing to do on a Saturday” list, but for many of us, living abroad, visiting distant relatives, or dealing with an adoption, it’s unavoidable. So, best to be prepared and just load up your carry-on with extra humor, flexibility and patience. Believe me, you’ll need it!