Frequent fliers, we are. There is no denying it.
And for the first time I've compiled a list of travel tips. People ask me regularly for my advice for traveling with tots. And I am always more than happy to share my experiences and tips whether you asked or not. So here is what I have learned since I started traveling internationally ten years ago. And more importantly, what I have learned since I started traveling with babes and then toddlers, over four years ago.
Part I: Preparing for Travel
1. Call the airline ahead of time and request a bassinet for a child under two. This doesn't always work, but it doesn't hurt to try. I don’t care if your eighteen month old is forty pounds and twice as long as the bed that they come and hook into the wall in front of you after takeoff. If he/she is too big for the bassinet, it doesn’t matter… what you actually want is the extra space that comes with a seat at the bulkhead. (The bulkhead is the wall in front of the front row of seats in each section of the airplane). The seats in this row give you and child room to move around. Stand. Climb. Play. It makes a big difference. IMPORTANT NOTE: Please understand that it might be helpful to be a bit pushy on the phone. Just sayin’. The nice agent says that bassinets are not available? Ask again. He says you can’t reserve one until you get to the airport? Then ask him to put a note on your ticket. She says no way sista’? Then call back the next day and ask someone else.
2. Call the airline ahead of time and request a 'Child Meal' for every little person you're traveling with. The food is usually a little more kid friendly but the BEST part is that they deliver the special meals before the regular meals, so you'll have time to feed your tots and clear their trays before the regular meals come rolling down the aisle and you eat yourself. This greatly reduces the meal-time stress that can be caused by three seats, three seat-back trays, four people, four meal trays and no extra space. That scenario is recipe for disaster. Ordering child meals makes it much more manageable.
3. Call the airline again to confirm your request for a bassinet and for child meals. I try to call once or twice to double check, cause frankly, I just don't always trust what they tell me.
4. Load up on digi-stuff. If your child is prone to sitting on her rear when there are cartoons flashing in front of her face, then upload her favorite TV shows or movies on your iPod, phone, tablet, or whatever other techy device is currently in style and charge it up good. I know you're like me and probably not all that into letting your kids watch endless hours of movies and TV, but sit down and let me tell you somethin'. Are you sitting? Okay. YOU'RE ABOUT TO PUT YOUR KIDDOS ON A METAL TUBE FLYING THROUGH THE SKY FOR HALF A DAY!! Do you get it? It's not going to be a normal day so let the rules fly out those fancy airport automatic doors as you enter through them. It will be necessary to do whatever it takes to keep your sanity. If that means your son wants to watch Finding Nemo three times in a row before he feels tired enough to close his eyes and sleep the rest of the flight, then let him (true story). And rejoice that he's not terrorizing the guy behind you (who lacks a sense of humor) by tossing stuffed monkey over the seat two dozen times and then poking his head back there to ask for help retrieving it two dozen times (also true story.)
5. Bring kid friendly head phones. You'll need these so your kid can hear the movies on your gadget or on that sent-from-heaven on-demand entertainment screen installed in front of you on the airplane. Airplanes often only hand out ear-buds, which are difficult (or downright impossible) for little ones to keep in their ears.
6. Snacks! Does your toddler love eating (and dropping and smooshing) fishy crackers, raisins and Cheerios as much as mine? Okay then. Pack lots and hand them out liberally.
7. Leave (most of) the activities at home. I realize this may be a bit controversial, but hear me out. Many times, nervous traveling Moms think we have to pack a terrifyingly heavy backpack with loads of activities to keep our babies and toddlers busy during flights and layovers. But my experience has proven otherwise. The way I see it, any given activity -no matter how fancy or fascinating or new it may be- will only buy you two to five minutes (a bit longer if your kids are older). If kiddo knows that there are a zillion other goodies in the mystery bag, they are going to fly through those activities before the wheels have even left the runway. And then you have a fussy child who is angry that the bag-o-fun is empty, even if they are virtually buried in new markers, stamp kits, shiny Hot-Wheels, ponies with hairbrushes and sticker books. BUT, I have learned that if I offer NO activities, the children are content with stranger’s purses, empty McDonald's bags, big glass windows overlooking runways and water fountains (layovers) and straw wrappers, movie guides, tray tables and empty water bottles (on the plane). This last time I did pack one surprise gift for each of the kids which was fun and did keep them occupied for a little while but they didn’t get fussy later cause they knew they were just getting one special thing. But I have definitely stopped trying to pack stuff to keep them busy the whole time. I actually do keep a couple extra things tucked away in my bag in case of extreme emergency, but most often I never even pull them out. Try it. You may be surprised.
8. Dedicate one carry-on suitcase to extra clothing and other over-night essentials. Think of it as your personal insurance policy. I promise you that if you pack this bag and are prepared for an unexpected delay, then there is a good chance that the delay will not happen. But if you DO NOT pack this 'just in case' bag, chances are good that 'bad weather' (puh-leaaaase) will delay your flight and you'll be stuck overnight in a random hotel (or worse, on the airport floor) with no extra clothes, no toothpaste, no favorite hairbrush or *gasp*... no taggie blanket. The extra changes of clothes will also come in handy when:
A. Your infant daughter projectile vomits all over herself, yourself, her big brother and your husband upon landing at a stopover airport. It’s happened.
B. The airline looses your luggage and doesn't deliver it for several days upon arrival at your vacation destination. You know this happens too!
C. You just need a little reminder of your well-preparedness to retain a scrap of sanity.
Don't risk it people. It's not worth it. Just pack the bag, expect the worse and thank me later.
8. Dress for a blizzard. I don't know about you, but I think those airplane cabins can get pretty frigid on a long flight. Bring along a sweatshirt, socks, and even a scarf if you're particularly cold-blooded like me. Freezing your bootie off for eight long hours can take the whole flying-with-toddlers experience from bearable to torturous. Obviously, pack warm gear for your kiddos too.
9. Special note to mothers – What NOT to pack: Ladies, if you have a child under the age two, it’s time to stop living in a dream world. You must stop packing that cheesy Amish romance novel for the airplane and actually believing that you'll have a chance to sit back, relax, and leisurely read a few chapters en-route. If you pack that book, then what you are experiencing is called DENIAL. Friend, your days of reading novels on airplanes is a distant memory, face it. Save the space in your bag and save your disappointment at having to unpack it upon arrival realizing you hauled it through three airports and on and off three airplanes and never had a chance to read even the prologue. Just use the space in the carry-on for extra baby wipes, cause you know you're going to need those after the stewardess kindly gives your children chocolate candy bars, thinking she was being helpful.
Keep reading, if you like…