Saturday, March 31, 2012

Air Travel with Small Children

*Remember when I promised all those posts on various topics?  Well, life got busy.  So--finally--here's the first one.  And, wow, did it turn out long!*

Living far away from both sides of our family, I have logged upwards of thirty-five flights since becoming a mother a little over three years ago.  For the first year and a half, these flights included just one baby, but for the last year and a half, I've had a baby and a toddler onboard.  Most recently, I've also been expecting baby #3.  Some of the time, I've been accompanied by the Mister, but for many flights, I have been parenting solo.  Along the way, I've learned a few things that make air travel with small children easier.

Dress for Success
Especially as the number of children under your care grows, you want to be sure you are dressed in a way that makes your airport experience as easy as possible.  I do not consider air travel with multiple small children a time to worry about one's fashion plate status.  I wear comfortable clothing and shoes, with a light top layer, because I usually get hot dealing with young'uns in a crowded airplane.  If I am the solo parent on the trip, I also don't carry a purse or diaper bag but opt for a backpack instead, with the flight information and documents I will need stowed in an exterior pocket, diaper bag-type items and other essentials in the big compartment, and sippy cups in the mesh side pockets.  Anybody old enough to reliably tote his own backpack also carries one, usually with his entertainment for the flight inside.  I'm careful to avoid any jewelry or accessories that I would have to remove at the security checkpoint and try to choose shoes that I can put back on quickly and easily.

Choose Your Gear Carefully
I do not travel with a big stroller unless absolutely necessary.  Instead, I use a $20 umbrella stroller for the baby and make the toddler walk.  If the umbrella stroller is lost or damaged in the gate check process, I won't be too concerned.  Plus, it's easier to navigate a small stroller through crowds and security lines and in bathrooms, and to fold up while holding a baby.  There's not really any need for a stroller bag when gate checking a stroller.  You'll leave the stroller at the end of the jet bridge, just before entering the plane, and retrieve it after the flight from the same spot.

Car seats can be checked for free with every airline I've flown, so I have never taken one on board.  I request that the ticket agent at the check-in counter wrap the car seat in plastic if I don't have a travel bag for it.  They do this automatically when it's raining, and seem happy to oblige when it's not.  If you are traveling with a child under two and choose not to buy a ticket for him {this is referred to as a lap child}, some airlines will let you take a car seat to the gate and bring it on board for free if there is an empty seat available, or gate check it, if not.  Car seats have to be installed in a window seat.  My children have never been particularly content in a car seat for long periods of time, and we've always traveled with them as lap children until the last moment possible, so I certainly am not going to lug a car seat through the whole airport for the possibility of using it.

Play pens can also usually be checked for free.  You can find the rules for your airline online.

Bring Your Documents
Depending on the airline, you may be required to present proof of age for any lap child.  I carry copies of each of my children's birth certificates for this purpose.  Some airlines (like Delta) ask that you register a lap child in advance, while for others (like Southwest), you just show up with the baby and check them in.  You may have to present proof of age at both the check-in counter and the security checkpoint, so keep those documents handy.  TSA agents usually ask children who are old enough to talk what their name is or whether their name is X and how old they are, so don't be surprised by that.

Know the Security Requirements
Some of the security rules are different when you are traveling with small children.  Look for a family lane at the security checkpoint.  Although there are rules limiting liquid and gel carry-on sizes, any kind of baby foods or liquids {including water bottles intended for use by a child} are allowed.  Breast milk, formula, sippy cups of water, juice, or milk, and baby food pouches and jars are all fine.  They do not have to be sealed.  TSA likely will test liquid and gel items, but the tests are not invasive and they don't require you to taste the item.  In my experience, the test has either been a strip of paper waved over an unsealed product or a sealed product being put inside a machine for a few seconds.

TSA no longer requires that any child under 12 remove his shoes to go through security {though Little Guy wouldn't dare skip this step, having been introduced to air travel in the old ways}.  However, many agents will make you take even a baby's jacket or outer layer off.

A child in a carrier or sling will probably have to be unstrapped from you and carried through the X-ray machine.

If your stroller, once collapsed, is small enough to go through the conveyor belt X-ray machine, that will be required.  If not, it will have to be examined by an agent.  Put your stroller through first, so that you have somewhere to put the baby and gear, as soon as you get through to the other side.

Exercise 'Em While You Can
Once you've made it through security and arrived to your gate, be sure to get a gate check ticket from a ticket agent for any items you plan to gate check, like your stroller.  Then....let the wild ones run free.  They are about to be cooped up for an extended period of time, and you will all do better if you let them have a little exercise while it's possible.  We like to climb stairs, walk up and down terminals, travel moving sidewalks, and climb window ledges to spot airplanes.  Most airlines offer family boarding first.  Southwest offers family boarding in between groups A and B.  If we have a reserved seat, we always wait until the last minute to board, because the fewer the minutes on the airplane, the better.  On Southwest, where there are no assigned seats, we do family boarding, so that we can get seats all together.

Choose Your Seats Well
My favorite airplane seats when traveling with children are those just behind the wing.  They are far enough back to not be most people's first choice {thus leaving you with the possibility of nearby empty seats}, offer enough white noise from the engines to drown out cranky children and lull them to sleep, and provide a view of the wings, which, with all their moving parts, can keep the interest of toddlers.

In a 3-seat airplane row, there are 4 oxygen masks in the overhead chamber, so you can't have two lap children in the same row.  This means that if you are traveling with two children under the age of two, you will have to buy one of the children a ticket or have one child sit with an adult in another row.

Be Prepared for the Flight
I think this is probably where my advice differs most from what I've heard other people say about flying with children.  I do not think it is best to bring a bunch of new toys on board.  Instead, I think it's best to bring a minimal number of familiar favorites that perhaps have been put away for a couple days.  The last thing I want to do is buy and tote a new toy, only to see it fall flat.  We usually bring 2 small books and 2 small, quiet toys.  I often pack a simple activity of some sort, too.  Stickers are good, and usually can be stuck to the tray tables and plastic walls of the airplane and peeled right back off.  Small cans of Play-Doh are also popular.  Usually, my boys spend most of their time rearranging the contents of the seat back pockets, looking out the window, and ripping to shreds examining the Sky Mall magazine.  Play games like peek-a-boo and patty-cake and I Spy.  Don't go overboard on toys.

I don't think air travel is the time for nutritional heroics.  Just count on the fact that your children may load up on crackers and sugar, and pack some snacks and treats.  Ticketed children must be in their seat belts during takeoff and landing, and I find that a small pouch of fruit snacks wins me very good compliance with this rule.  I also usually have an emergency stash of candy--the big guns, to be pulled out in case of delay or major meltdown.  Milk is not offered by any airline I've flown, so bring your own, if your child will need it during the flight.  {The individual serving size cartons of Horizon organic milk need not be refrigerated, so we usually pack those, along with an empty sippy cup.}  For in-flight service drinks, lids and straws are often available.  I request them for all of us, because the children are just as likely to spill my drink as their own.  Pack enough food that your child won't be miserable if you are delayed.

There is usually one bathroom on board with a changing table.  Check with a flight attendant.  If there is no changing table, I've found that it works decently {although it is heebie-jeebie inducing} to change a child on the lid of the toilet.  Wrap a dirty diaper in a vomit bag.  Bring a change of clothes for each child.  For a tiny baby, bring two.  Use nighttime or extra protection diapers for absorbency's sake, and bring enough diapers to cover a delay.

Something about the air pressure makes the water spray out the top of a sippy cup with a straw when you flip the straw up, so don't use that kind in flight.  Otherwise, you may end up with someone telling you about how she just got this Louis Vuitton purse.  And then you may spray her again, on the shoulder of her suit, before realizing the air pressure issue.  Not that that happened to me or anything.

If you are flying with a nursling, it would be great to nurse her on ascent and descent, but I have always found it difficult to coordinate the timing of all that.  A pacifier works pretty well as a substitute.  And the descent seems to be harder on the ears than the ascent, so aim for that.  Take a nursing cover or large, thin blanket, so you don't feel uncomfortable in front of other passengers.  It can be close quarters sometimes!  I once nursed Little Guy in the middle seat, between two middle-aged Army officers.  And he was quite an active nurser.  Thankfully, both my seatmates pretended to fall asleep as soon as they realized what was going on.

Don't try to lull a baby to sleep in a carrier before take-off.  As soon as you do, the flight attendant will be by to tell you that it is against FAA regulations to have your child strapped to you during take-off or landing.  And a baby who gets just a 5-minute nap is not a happy flier!  I learned that one the hard way, too.

Put on a Happy Face
Some flights with small children are going to be horrible.  Some are going to be fine.  I have yet to be on one that was just wonderful.  {It's a lot like taking them to Target.}  Most people on the plane will be understanding, or at least tolerant.  And you can ignore the others.  Take comfort in the fact that you are getting to travel with your children.  And know that it does get better with experience.

Goodness, that was a lot of talk.  Hope some of it proves helpful!  I've definitely learned by trial and error.  In just a few months, I'll be flying with three small children, and I'm sure it will be back to square one for me!


Allison said...

Oh my goodness that was so incredibly helpful. I'm flying with my two solo for the first time in May and am looking for all the insight I can get. I've never thought about picking a seat behind the wing -- and in fact I'm currently trying to change the seats I previously requested. Brilliant!

Peace, Allison (Mary Katherine Sandlin's sister)

Jessica said...

Oh I so wish I had known about covered cups with straws! I cannot tell you how awful some of my spills have been with a crazed Caleb in my lap. Next time! Thank you for the tips!

Malacy said...

Great post! I have actually started to enjoy the freqent flying alone with my two little ones. I second everything you write, especially the fewer the better rules about toys. Our last trip, Camille rejected every toy we brough in lieu of her hair rubber band, which she played with for at least an hour! Searching for dogs in Sky Mall is also a favorite of ours. It kills Charleston that I board last, but I stick to my guns and wait for the final boarding call, too. The only anxious part of our trip is when they have to put her lovie through the conveyer belt. Also family bathrooms are a god-send! Some are as big as my bedroom! I've learned, as you have, to enjoy the ride and to forget worrying so much about the people around me. They usually end up with one in their lap playing peek-a-boo!

ElissaMLF said...

What a great post, Elizabeth, with such good advice! I think the only thing we've done differently is have Amelia ride in her carseat on the plane between the ages of two and three, which facilitated her being able to sleep on the plane. If you are bringing a convertible carseat/booster on the plane, it helps to have one of those little wheelie carts that they sell in the SkyMall magazine to strap it to.

I wholeheartedly second the use of overnight diapers on airplanes for maximum absorbency, and then allow the girls to drink as much milk/juice/water as they want. I know that I get super dehydrated when I fly, and I'm sure that they do, too.

Also, I didn't know that TSA allows sippy cups of milk/juice to go through security! We have always just bought bottles of milk, juice, and water on the other side, and filled up sippies then, bringing the extra with us for the flight.

And I think I'm going to take your advice on the $20 umbrella stroller for our next trip. So far, we haven't really traveled with a stroller, just using carriers and strollers blessedly provided for our use at our destination, but I think we will need one for Ramona on our C'ville trip next month. Great idea!

The Steffens said...

Elis, I didn't know either. Elizabeth was the one who told me the filled sippy cup thing and it changed my life! Well, it at least saved me spending $5 on airport water when I didn't need to, and that is somewhat life changing to me :)