For the past 13 years I’ve been traveling between the US and Europe on a regular basis. Since my son was born, he’s been going with me almost every time. On some trips my husband was with us to help, but on many more I was alone to take care of my now-8-year-old son on the nine-hour flights…
As an organizing and time management expert, I took advantage of those trips to accumulate a wealth of tips and strategies to make every plane trip a smooth and successful one every time. Here are some of them. May they save you some of the less-than-pleasant learning experiences I went through:
Separate seat or no separate seat, that is the question.
The first decision that needs to be made for all children under 2 years of age is whether you want them on your lap or in their own seat. As long as your child is small enough, there is no need for a separate seat, since many airlines can give you an in-plane bassinet. The airlines don’t exactly advertise the fact, but if you call the airline – and you may have to do this yourself, they sometimes won’t accept this kind of request from a travel agency – you can request a bassinet for the flight. You will then be assigned a bulkhead row seat, with a bassinet hooked on the wall in front of you. The bassinet was big enough for my 10-month old to still fit in. The hidden advantage of requesting a bassinet is that the bulkhead seat gives you a built-in play area in front of you for your baby to play, and invaluable advantage.
Once your baby outgrows the bassinet, the choice of a separate seat is much more of an open question. My personal choice was to have a second seat if I was traveling alone with my son, and to have him sit in our respective laps when we traveled with my husband. It worked well for us, but you may make a different choice. From my experience, there is no right answer at this point. Of course, past 2 years of age, this question becomes a moot point, since airlines will force you to get a separate seat for your child.
The car seat issue
The next big question, once you’ve chosen your seat option, is whether to take a car seat with you on the plane or not. If your child has his or her own seat and is less than 2 years old, FAA regulations force you to have one.
Beyond 2 years old, you are faced with a choice where both options have their advantages and disadvantages. Taking your car seat with you makes your life easier, because you know how to install it, and your child is used to it. However, a car seat is a very bulky item. If you’re traveling alone with your little one – or worse, with several little ones – it’s almost impossible to juggle a car seat, a stroller, your carry-on an wiggly little one(s). Trust me, I’ve tried…
Some other things to take into consideration: your car seat, even if FAA approved, may not fit in a standard coach seat. It might also be perfectly useless at your destination if it can’t be installed using a standard car seat belt – not all countries have adopted the LATCH system, or they may have their own version of it. My choice has always been to get a car seat at my destination rather than travel with one.
When you are traveling by plane, a sturdy, umbrella-style stroller is by far the best type of stroller to have. The lighter it is, the better, yet you want it to be sturdy: you don’t want it to break at the first opportunity, and you want it to be able to easily negotiate uneven streets and sidewalks, or even a dirt path, yet you don’t want to be heartbroken should it get stolen (yes, it happens, and happened to me). I found the Chicco umbrella strollers to be a great, affordable solution, and one of them, the Liteway, even fits infants from birth on! We bought one and it’s resisted everything we put it through – we still have it in case a little one visits our home.
Should you choose to take both a car seat and a stroller, know that there is an option that allows you to have both in one, the Sit N Stoll car seat stroller, which is FAA approved. However, I’ve seen some of those up close and personal, and I doubt that this seat would fit in a standard coach seat, so do your homework and make sure it will fit everywhere before splurging for one.
The passport deserves a section of its own because of the quirks of getting a passport for a little one. You see, you can’t just order a passport by mail, the way you can for yourself. The government will refuse to process your child’s passport application unless they are confident that you are not planning on kidnapping your child, so you have to apply in person, with your child, and provide proof that the other parent is OK with you getting the passport… This easiest is to make the passport application a family affair, and all go together to the post office or government office to file your application. Barring this, you need a notarized letter from your spouse agreeing to the passport application, or papers showing that you have sole custody. Knowing that ahead of time will save you a lot of delays – again a hard-earned lesson on my part.
While you’re at it, if you travel alone with your child or children, get a notarized letter from the other parent certifying that they know and approve of you taking the child on this trip. You most likely won’t need it, but having this document with me has avoided some less-than-pleasant interactions with zealous and paranoid immigration officers of various nationalities.
When traveling with a small child, which type of carry-on to choose is important. After trying different versions, my recommendation is a backpack – you’ll be glad you chose that when you have to bodily carry a squirming pre-schooler under one arm, while guiding the stroller with your remaining hand. A specialized diaper backpack is of course an option, but any good, slightly oversize backpack to which you add a changing pad and an insulated pouch works very well. Just make sure your backpack fits airlines carry-on size requirements, the airlines are getting stricter and stricter about it. You don’t want to find yourself having to check your carry-on in!
When filling your carry-on, take about twice what you think you will need. In other words, if you think you’ll need 2 diapers, take 4. If you think you’ll need formula for 4 bottles, take enough for 8, etc.
Make sure to include in your carry-on one, if possible two, full changes of clothes per child, and one for you. I wish I had followed this piece of advice the day my son threw up 15 minutes before boarding, and soiled both his and my clothes. I had a full change of clothes for him, but no extra pants for me, so I had to endure a slight yet uncomfortable whiff for the whole 8-hour flight (fortunately it wasn’t perceptible ahead or behind me).
Also include in the carry-on everything you think you’d need if your child fell ill: thermometer, nose pump, pain killer, fever reducer, antihistamine, etc. Depending where you go, it might be harder to get, more expensive, or simply hard to get on short notice. Besides, should your child develop an earache in the plane, you’ll be ready.
Finally, make sure to have plenty of of your child(ren)’s favorite snacks, some of their favorite toys and a few new toys they’ve never seen. Always having old and new toys and favorite snacks to give to my son is part of what made passengers comment on how well-behaved, calm and quiet my son was throughout the flights.
When he was younger (circa 2005-2007), we also frequently took a DVD player and a Leapster to occupy an extra few hours. Nowadays, most transatlantic planes have individual entertainment systems, so you may not need to take any of those, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure that your plane has individual on-board entertainment. When your child is an infant, a Boppy-style pillow may be something you want to take. It’s your choice, and a question of personal comfort, but I’ve always found that taking a sling or infant carrier on board allowed me to comfortably install my baby for sleep, and took a lot less space.
Once on location
Once you are at your destination, your small child will need two things: a place to sleep and a chair adapted to his or her size. Your hotel or friends and family may have equipment, but there is no guarantee that it’ll be as safe and sturdy as the one you’re used to. I personally never counted on finding either after my first trip, where I found myself with an inadequate crib and no high chair at all in restaurants.
One of the bed options is to take a pack ‘n play with you. This works as long as you don’t need to carry all your luggage yourself. I once had to negotiate an airport arrival on my own, and there is no way I would have been able to do it successfully had I had to carry a pack ‘n play on top of the luggage, the carry-on, the stoller and my very active then-15-month old. Besides, the airlines usually consider a pack ‘n play to be oversize luggage and charge for it as such. Having a kid-sized inflatable mattress with fitted sleeping bag offered a lot more flexibility and less bulk. When my boy was 8 months old, the sleeping bag kept him securely in bed, and the fabric let him breathe even if he had his face against it. As he grew, he loved having his own bed with him no matter where he went. No need to get him used to a new sleeping arrangement. this being said, if you want your little one confined when you sleep, and unable to just climb into your bed, the pack ‘n play may be your preferred solution.
The high chair is something we usually don’t think about – and an item I didn’t think of bringing with me the first time I traveled to Europe with my son. To my sorrow, I discovered that restaurants there are in general much less child-friendly than American ones, i.e. they often don’t have high chairs at all. Upon my return to the US, I immediately bought an on-the-go self-inflatable booster and blessed whoever invented it for the following 3 years. It takes almost no place in a suitcase, is easy to carry around, and makes you completely independent of what a restaurant, or a friend’s home, has or doesn’t have. As long as they have chairs with backs, you are set.
In conclusion – keeping your child happy during the flight
The best preparation in the world won’t make the flight easy if your child keeps crying through the flight…
Like most people, I hate it when I have to endure the constant crying or shouting of a young child in a plane, so when my turn came to travel with a small child myself, I did everything in my power to keep my son entertained and calm. I succeeded so well that until my son was 5 – at which time it apparently seems to become a given that a child will behave in a plane -, at the end of every flight passengers commented on how my son was calm and well-behaved during the flight.
The way I did this was by catering to his needs throughout the flight, no matter what they were. It was intense work during the flight, and I sometimes needed a nap once we arrived at our destination, but it was well worth it. The snacks, old and new toys were part of what kept him entertained. I also made the plane a no-food-rule zone, so that he would look forward to it, because then he could eat anything he wanted – as long as he stayed quiet. Presenting the toys one by one bought me calm time throughout the flight. When he wanted to walk (and he wanted to walk non-stop from 11 months old until he was 3), I would ask the flight attendant for the least disruptive place to do so, and then he would burn some energy there.
My son is now 8, and doesn’t require nearly as much attention as he used to. I can now read or even sleep, while he keeps himself entertained in the plane. But to this day I still travel with a couple of cheap new toys, and more than once have helped distraught parents calm a baby or toddler down and shared my strategies with them – helped by my son who seems to remember all the tricks that worked.