We’re back from Italy! We had an amazing time and over the next few weeks you’ll see several posts about our Cinque Terre hike as well as on what I learned during the Study Group in Reggio Emilia. But while I get that all sorted out, I thought it might be helpful for those of you who have upcoming summer trips to know a bit more about how we manage flights with Carys.
We’ve been very fortunate to travel to some really cool places with her over the last couple of years, and as I started planning this post I realized that she’s actually flown as many legs as she’s been alive in months. We started young…
San Francisco > Newark > London > Geneva > Washington, D.C. > San Francisco (aged 8-10 weeks; 3 legs with just Carys and me)
San Francisco > Boise > San Francisco (for a ‘last maternity leave hiking trip’, aged 3.5 months; Carys and I alone again)
San Francisco > Vancouver > San Francisco (work trip with Alvin accompanying; aged 4.5 months)
San Francisco > Kaua’i > San Francisco (last-minute vacation once Alvin realized my Starwood Platinum status hadn’t yet expired which got us a free upgrade to a 1-bedroom suite at the Westin Princeville; aged 8 months)
San Francisco > Dublin > San Francisco (hiking trip to Ireland; aged 10 months; Carys and I alone)
San Francisco > Newark > San Francisco (family visit; aged 11 months)
*Edited to add (because Alvin pointed out that I forgot) San Francisco > Denver > San Francisco (to hike from Breckenridge to Aspen; aged 14 months)
San Francisco > Newark > San Francisco (family visit; aged 18 months)
San Francisco > Frankfurt > Florence > Frankfurt > Seattle > San Francisco (Italy trip! Aged 22 months; 18 hours of travel and two connections on the way home; Carys and I alone for all legs)
24 flight legs in 22 months…
So, how do we do it? Here are our top tips and tricks…
For all ages:
- Make a packing list well in advance of the trip by imagining all the (realistic) scenarios in which you could find yourself. Don’t drive yourself crazy thinking about everything that can possibly go wrong unless you really are going to a country where basic products might actually be unobtainable, but do walk through the basic routines of your day to remember all the important elements (bottles AND bottle brushes; diapers AND wipes…). Write everything down (or keep a spreadsheet), and check things off as you pack.
- One parent does the packing, so someone knows where everything is.
- Only take as much as you can carry. Here was my set-up for flying to London and then Geneva for the Tour du Mont Blanc when Carys was eight weeks old. Backpack was checked. Red bag has everything needed for the plane. Car seat ready to be checked if there was no space on the flight; boppy pillow carried in the car seat and later by hand onto the plane when there was no room for the car seat. System worked pretty well.
By 14 months Carys had graduated to the backpack rather than the front pack for hiking, which is rather unwieldy and has to be stuffed into the enormous duffel bag. The red nylon bag (containing what we need during the flight) is in the top of the backpack and is pulled out just before the backpack is checked. Front pack still worked well for getting Carys through the airport even though she had just started walking about a week earlier.
Specific tips for flying with a very young baby:
- First-time parents never believe me on this, but take your trip as soon as you can. The younger the baby is, the easier you will find the flight and honestly, with an infant, it’s really not that hard. At eight weeks old Carys slept through most of the flight from Newark to London (our first with just the two of us!) as well as through deplaning, immigration & customs, on the Underground the entire way across London, and only woke up in the waiting area at King’s Cross demanding to be fed right as I had 10 minutes to find and get on my train before it left… Baby doesn’t cry very loud yet and the plane’s engine noise will cover it anyway, plus your fellow passengers will be more awed than annoyed because baby is still so small. If the alternative is driving (say, the 6 hours from San Francisco to L.A.) I’d fly any day, especially alone. If you’re driving you have to stop for feeds, and diaper changes, and random cries that don’t have any reason you can discern…
- The worst thing that can happen is a diaper blowout, so make sure you have enough diapers, wipes, and at least one extra set of clothes (for baby; hopefully not needed for you). Somehow the chances of a diaper blowout increase exponentially in high-pressure situations.
- I’ve never had any problems taking pumped milk through airport security, in liquid or solid forms, but the TSA staff might ask you to take it out for inspection. Don’t forget ice for your cooler.
- Request a bassinet on international flights…but have a backup plan. On that Newark to London flight I was in a bulkhead seat but the plane somehow didn’t have a bassinet in that spot even though I was told there would be one. Good thing I also had a front pack.
- Always try to take your infant seat on-board. Top-secret tip: when you book your flights, if you’re traveling with someone else (other than baby) then one of you books the window and the other the aisle in the next-to-last row (not the last one; sometimes those seats don’t recline…). That middle seat between you will be almost always among the last to fill. When you get to the airport and check your bags, just ask the agent how full the flight is. Don’t ask that agent to reserve the middle seat; they can’t do it. If the flight is full, check your car seat and put baby in the front pack – you won’t have any more luck at the gate. But if the bag check agent tells you that there is space, as soon as you get to the gate take your baby (especially if s/he is cute) up to the gate agent, put on your best ‘tired’ face, and say you’ve heard there might be space on the plane and would be possible to please put a hold on the middle seat between you? If there has been space on the plane, I have always been successful with this strategy. If there’s no space, there’s just nothing the agent can do.
- Taking the infant seat on the plane gives baby a familiar place to nap, and also frees you up from holding him/her for the whole flight. If you can’t take the infant seat, use a front pack or consider taking a boppy pillow, which will give you something to lay baby on so you can have your arms back.
As baby gets older (8-14 months), things get a bit more difficult…
- Once baby grows out of the infant seat then napping becomes harder. If you’re traveling at peak times on flights of more than three hours, strongly consider buying an extra seat so baby can nap without having to lie on you.
- Still request a bassinet on an international flight. If baby can sleep in it, then great! Otherwise it’ll at least keep him/her contained for a little while and, failing that, gets you a bulkhead seat with more legroom.
- Entertainment becomes more of an issue. We are screen-free at home and while I do permit TV watching on long-haul flights, Carys is actually not especially interested in it. I’ve also tried taking new and interesting toys but for some reason it’s the old regulars (stuffed toys) and actually my Camelbak bladder that she always comes back to (which, incidentally, makes spill-free drinking much easier).
- Mentally accept that you can’t really rest until baby is asleep. If I’m always trying to snatch bits of rest, I get frustrated when she needs attention. If I ‘give in’ and accept that the flight is all about her, I have an easier time.
- Baby is probably going to be interested in interacting with other passengers. I usually try to find a balance between letting her explore (crawling…yes it’s dirty, just wash hands before eating) or walking and not annoying the other passengers.
- Consider carrying extra earplugs to offer the people around you; baby’s crying is much louder by now. Buy drinks for the people next to and in front of you. A little goodwill goes a long way.
- Flight timing is more important than it used to be. We’ve found it’s better to get up early and take daytime flights than try to take late ones and get her to sleep.
- If baby is eating solid food, bring a little soft-sided cooler of the kinds of foods she likes at home – we do chicken, peas, carrots, bananas, and cheese.
- If I’m traveling alone then I still only take what I can carry, but if I’m with Alvin we’ll often use the stroller to get to the gate (it’s hard for me to manage the stroller plus a rolling suitcase). If we are together then I often get earlier boarding priority because I fly more often, so I get on first with the bags and secure all the bin space we need and he and Carys follow in a later group.
- I explain the next few steps at every stage of the process: “Now we’re standing in line, and in a few minutes we’re going to put all of our stuff on this belt and I’ll hold you while we walk through that machine and after that you can run around.” It seems to help orient her to what’s going on and what’s coming up.
At 15 months + it’s more difficult still…
- Consider buying the child his own seat, even if he’s not yet two. I took Carys to Denver at not quite 15 months and swore it would be the last trip I did without a dedicated seat reservation for her. She fidgeted and cried and was generally very wriggly on the way out (although ironically she slept for 2 hours of the 2:40 flight on the way back!). I wouldn’t have considered going to New Jersey for Christmas without a seat for her even though she was only 18 months at the time.
- Still try to get bulkhead seats for long-haul flights; it’ll give you the space to get out of your row without disturbing other people. Failing that, if there are three of you then get a row to yourself. If there are only two in a three-person row, I always get the middle and window seats to keep baby contained, although I was stuck in the two middle seats of a four-pack both ways on the trans-Atlantic trip to Italy. You’ll have to ask your neighbor to get up a few times but to me that’s preferable than constantly having to make sure the child stays in the seat and doesn’t start wandering the aisle the moment I turn my back.
- Make strategic choices about the toys you take for entertainment. I’ve read a lot of advice about taking new things to catch the child’s attention but Carys always prefers her old favorites, so I withdraw those from the play rotation for a few days before we leave and when she sees them on the plane she gets super excited to see them. Crayons are always a hit; if you choose the block style rather than the traditional pencil style they won’t roll off the tray table. Board books are another win, along with food like crackers that doesn’t make a mess, take a while to eat, and that she really enjoys. Our general approach to parenting requires us to be accepting of feelings and – but to some extent I let that all go on a plane for the sake of not disturbing others. I don’t bribe (“If you’re quiet, you can have a cracker”) but I do redirect (proactively offering the cracker when it seems like things are heading south).
- Baby may now be big enough that you can’t hold her without her legs kicking the seat in front. She might also want to stand on the floor in front of her own seat and when she moves around, it pushes the seat in front. On our way back from Italy the woman in front of Carys suddenly turned to me, furious, and said “Your daughter has been kicking me for the last six hours! Make her stop!” (Carys hadn’t been kicking her, but she had been intermittently standing in the space in front of her seat and I guess she’d been bumping the seat in front.) I asked the lady why she’d waited six hours to let me know and she said her husband (sitting in front of me) had said “Please!” through the gap between the seats directly to Carys – twice – I hadn’t seen it, and at 22 months old Carys was apparently too young to understand what he was getting at… Now I figure that if Carys is touching the seat in front with anything more than a finger, she’s probably annoying the person in that seat. From then on I spent time walking the aisles with her, or re-reading the 10 board books I brought with us for the umpteenth time which kept her sitting still, even if it did drive me a bit nuts. I find it really uncomfortable when we disturb other people and I was pretty embarrassed that we’d made the lady’s flight an unhappy one – but she probably shouldn’t have waited six hours to tell me. Non-parents, if our kids are disturbing you then could you please just politely let us know?
- Explaining what’s going to happen is more important now than ever. I describe the next few steps at each stage of the journey, especially during take-off and landing, and Carys likes to hold my index fingers with her hands and wait for the “big bump” as we land.
So, to summarize – take your trip, and take it now! It only gets harder the longer you wait. But even if you must fly with a toddler, it’s doable without you being the dreaded parent with the screamer.
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