My wife and I are neither braggarts nor excessive complimenters. My son’s self-esteem will no doubt suffer for this, as we’re unlikely to shower him with praise or boast about his accomplishments to other parents. That’s just how we were raised, and we’ll do the same to him.
That being said, we are proud of our little sprog for two things. First, he’s an excellent sleeper. For this, we credit Suzy Giordano’s Twelve Hours' Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old: A Step-by-Step Plan for Baby Sleep Success, which uses feeding schedules to create good sleepers. Assuming it suits your parental personalities, her plan works.
Second, the boy can travel. At just 22-months-old, he’s already taken 25 flights, several being long-haul international. He’s happily sat through flights that would make even the most seasoned jetsetters weep into their Skymiles card, including the soul-crushing 14-hours-there/15-hours-back marathon from New York to New Delhi.
(Baby jetlag, however, is another story, for another time.)
As a former professional travel writer, I’d like to think I speak with authority for both adult and, now, kid travel. Here, then, are my eight pro tips for traveling with your infant, baby or toddler.
1) Book Ahead, and Over the Phone, to Ensure Perks
On the above-mentioned trip from JFK to DEL, our seats were in the front row of economy, which featured a bassinet that the cabin crew installed after take-off. This being a 14-hour overnight flight, that sky-rocker was critical for our well-being. Which is why we didn’t leave it to chance.
It’s a little-known secret that, with online ticketing services, some airlines block out their front-row bulkhead seats, especially on overnight, international flights popular with families. This ensures that those bassinets are put to good use.
Knowing this, we called United (months in advance, mind you) and requested that special row. With a click of the button, we had the best seats in the house. What’s more, these seats are typically Economy Plus; airlines give them to families, upon request, pending availability, at no extra charge.
For these bassinets, weight and height limits vary per airline, but 25 pounds is generally the maximum. At the time of our flight, our kid was just shy of that; he was also at the upper limit for height, so it wasn’t the most comfortable fit. Still, he got a few hours of much-needed rest on each flight.
2) Bring the Right Bag
I’m a gear nerd. Not with gadgets, but backpacks. I have a Kelty for every occasion, from the last-minute weekend to an around-the-world trek. When it’s time to prep for a flight with the kid, I dig into my pile, looking for a particular set of features.
Most times, my carrier of choice is a modest 1500 cubic-inch pack that actually serves as my daily laptop/commuter bag. The small size forces me to be economical and efficient with my choices. I don’t bother bringing a book for myself. No headphones or iPad, either. (They go into my checked bag, which I secure with TSA-approved locks.)
Instead, it’s stuffed with snacks, toys, diapers and wipes. I make a mental note of where I put everything — essential for digging around when the cabin lights are dimmed.
I’ve made mistakes. On our most recent trip, I switched to my personal weekender, a beautiful leather duffle sturdy enough to survive the apocalypse. It was a bad move — too cavernous, too bulky, too...masculine. It lacked the compartments and divisions needed to stay organized during stressful moments. On our next flight, I’ll revert to my trusted tiny Kelty.
3) Prepare Two Packing Strategies
There’s an additional subtlety to packing your plane bag. You actually need to prepare two different configurations: one for security, another for the flight itself.
Unless you have a kid, you may not know that the Transportation Security Administration makes exceptions for baby food at security. Even when the containers exceed their limit of 3.4 ounces, the TSA allows milk, formula and even snack pouches through checkpoints. (Don’t bother arguing about water — just buy it near the gate.)
Every time I’ve gone through security, I’ve been asked to remove these items from my bag for separate scrutiny. Plan ahead for this — put all of your baby’s food and liquids in a single gallon-size Ziploc. Leave it at the top, where it’s easily accessed. As you approach security, remove the bag and hand it over to the screener. If you don’t want your kid’s food x-rayed, they will hand-inspect it.
(The same goes for you and your kid — you can request a pat down. Personally, I would never let my kid step into one of those so-called “pornoscanners.”)
When you’re through security and at the gate, it’s time to repack. This time, on top, you want just enough milk, food and snacks for the flight’s first few hours. Once you’re airborne and everyone’s settled, you can dig into the bag as needed for everything else. The same goes for diapers: Have two handy, but stash the rest at the bottom of the bag.
4) Be Early and Board First
Don’t be that frantic family running through the airport. That family sucks. Get to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and settle down at the gate. If you’re in an airport that sells beer and wine at the sundry shops, have a drink. Let your kid run off some energy. Stay off your phone and pay attention. It may not seem so, but these are actually good times you’ll want to remember.
After the fat cats in First Class have boarded, it’s time for the elderly, injured and “those traveling with young children.” That’s you. The last thing you need is a fight for overhead space, so get to the front of the line. Like chefs and their mise en place, you want to prepare your seat as soon as you board. Stick a diaper, wipes, a bottle and snacks in the seatback pouch or under your seat. That, and maybe a few toys and lollipops, is everything you need for takeoff.
5) Smile Through the Stress
At the merest mention of the airport, most people automatically radiate tension. Don’t be that person. Airline personnel hold more control over your experience than you can imagine. From seat upgrades to additional security checks, they can make or break your trip at their discretion. It pays to be friendly and cordial, even in your darkest moments when your soul is about to split in two.
Case in point: On a recent overnight from New York to Warsaw, we had booked decent Economy Plus seats (see below). I tried to change our seats to the front row, but online booking was locked out. We resigned ourselves to row 12, where we had the aisle and middle seats.
As it turns out, during check-in, one of our bags was overweight. Faced with an onerous, obnoxious $125 fee, I didn’t complain. I didn’t snarl and bitch at the check-in agent. I smiled, shrugged and paid the surcharge without giving her any grief. It’s not her fault I’d packed two suits for my friend’s wedding.
To my surprise, unsolicited, the agent moved us up to the front row and blocked out the third seat, giving us the entire row to ourselves. Begging might have curried the same favor, but in my experience, airline workers just want to be treated with civility.
6) Fork it up for Economy Plus
Put simply: Always pay for premium seats. Flying Economy Plus puts you further forward in the cabin (giving you first crack at meals and drinks), gets you off the plane more quickly and, yes, features more leg room. It may burn your ass to pay Delta $69 for three more measly inches of space, but your kid isn’t much wider than that — it makes a difference. On that overnight to Warsaw, being in the front row meant having enough legroom to build a makeshift bed on the floor. Once the kid fell asleep on our laps, we put him down there — and he slept for half of the flight.
The same goes for bags. Don’t cram everything you own into the carry-on. You’ll be miserable. Check the majority of your stuff, even if it means paying an extra fee.
7) Don’t Assume the Worst Is Coming
Stressed parents create stressed kids. I’m not exactly the most Zen of individuals, but I don’t go into situations expecting the worst. Will my kid cry on take-off? Maybe. But maybe not. Will he stay awake far past his bedtime, revealing an irrational beast who won’t be calmed? Maybe. But maybe not.
Be chill. Be calm. If your kid bugs out, that’s just how it goes. Keep him fed, dry and distracted. The rest is a crapshoot.
8) Don’t Feel Bad for Everyone Else
Every parent has gotten that look in the airport: The other passenger who, upon seeing the baby in your arms, curses you. Fuck. That. Guy.
In my travels, I’ve only gotten that look from disheveled single people who have no business judging anyone else’s life decisions. They fail to realize that, when a baby is crying, no one is more stressed than the parents. Families fly, babies cry. No one wants their kid to freak out on the red eye, but shit happens. You can’t exactly take the bus to India to meet the in-laws, so let’s all just deal with it.
Some parents buy drinks for the people around them. That’s a lovely gesture — I’ve done it — but it ultimately doesn’t matter. When your baby screams, your fellow flyers want to see you trying to fix the problem. They want to know you’re aware of the noise; even if you can’t fix it, they appreciate the effort.
And anyway, anyone who flies without noise-cancelling headphones is an idiot.