Ten minutes after clearing security on our recent trip home from Minneapolis, we were milling around the airport when a young woman stopped us.
"Excuse me," she said. “I just have to tell you that you are the most efficient parents I have ever seen go through security. You’re such a great team! And the kids were so cooperative."
We laughed, thanked her and casually continued on our way. But for a family who travels somewhere between fairly often and way too much, this compliment felt like winning a gold medal!
I had been thinking of writing a post about flying with young kids for a while, and my newly minted gold medal (whether deserved or not) gave me the confidence to do it. When friends ask for advice on the matter, I feel like I could actually give 35,000 pieces of advice—one for each foot of altitude. The truth is that flying with young kids is difficult and stressful and makes me want to vomit with anticipation, but I always find it worth the hassle when we touchdown with an adventure awaiting us.
Our list of preparations and carry-on items changes constantly as the girls leave one stage and enter another, but here is a boiled down list of general things to remember.
Book wisely: You don't typically have to buy a seat for a child under 2. That said, you need to decide whether you're comfortable holding a child instead of belting her in or whether that child is too squirmy to sit on your lap for five hours. We started booking an extra seat around 18 to 21 months depending on the length of the flight.
Some aircrafts only have an extra air mask for a lap child on one side of the plane. You must have an extra air mask, but you may not be able to determine when booking where that mask is located. The only person who will definitely know is the lead flight attendant. Several times we were seated without an air mask and had to move, but only because we knew to ask. (If you have one adult on each side of the aisle and plan to pass the child back and forth, be sure to ask if there is a mask on each side.)
We’ve been flying Southwest Airlines a lot lately. Southwest allows families to board between the A and B groups, so you don't have to worry about checking in exactly 24 hours in advance. Plus you can check some luggage for free.
If you have the option, sit near the front of the plane, so you can make a quick escape after landing when the kids are falling apart.
Make a list and check it twice: The moment you try to leave for the airport, everyone begins to fuss and squirm and needs to go potty and is nervous you’re going to leave without them. In our phase of life, we would never make it out the door with the things we need if we didn't make a list. Enough said.
Prove it: Bring your kids’ birth certificates. Some airlines require birth certificates for lap children to prove they’re under 2 years. For infants, you may also need to show they’re older than 5-6 weeks. Southwest always asks us for a birth certificate for a lap child; sometimes agents from other airlines just look to make sure the child isn’t obviously over 2. Either way, I’ve learned to bring birth certificates for both kids in case any questions arise.
Assume the worst: Okay, okay, you can't plan for every scenario, but you should carry on the supplies you need for several hours of delay (and possibly essentials for a night in a random place if you're connecting). Someone once told me to bring six times as many diapers as I thought we would need, and that's what I've always done. Diapers are nearly impossible to find in an airport. Bring several changes of clothes for puking and diaper blow-outs.
Bring drugs. I always carry these supplies for the kids: Tylenol, ibuprofen, thermometer, (and for my daughter with a peanut allergy: EpiPens and Benadryl). I kid you not, there is something about flying that makes viruses flourish into horrendous fevers and ears to become instantaneously infected. It’s like clockwork. On our last flight, Nora seemed healthy on take-off and was lethargic with fever by the time we landed an hour and a half later. So bring what you need to avoid an emergency landing.
Don't sedate: In our experience, young toddlers are the toughest age to travel with because they're all over the place, may not nap on the plane like an infant and don't yet have the attention span to watch movies or play games. On our last flight, one mom told me the flight attendant suggested she drug her toddler with Benadryl next time. Are you kidding me? DON'T. DO. IT. Benadryl works differently on young kids than it does on adults and can actually make them hyper, or exhausted and cranky but unable to sleep. I've seen it firsthand—not while flying, thankfully—and it's not pretty. It would be more disastrous to have a drug-hyper child on a plane than a regular-hyper one.
Plan for the awkward: One of the first hurdles at the airport is actually getting inside. Have you ever tried to carry multiple awkward car seats and a family’s-worth of luggage through miles of parking garage? It’s not fun. But have you noticed there are always guys standing around the curb and the baggage carousel with carts just waiting to help you check in or haul your luggage to the car when you land? (If they aren't there, you can go to the information desk and have them paged.) Our recent routine is for Jeff to drop me off with the girls, luggage and car seats. Either someone checks us in at curbside or a guy with a cart brings all our stuff in and helps me get checked in while Jeff parks the car. When we land, we find a guy at baggage claim to help us out to the car. Just keep some cash on you for tips.
Unless your kids are old enough to walk 50 miles and carry their own luggage, consider bringing a stroller. You can check it at the gate (even a double stroller) and it will be returned to you on the jet way when you deplane.
All (or most) airlines check car seats at no charge, so don’t feel like you need to lug them through the airport. Whether Pack ‘n Plays are free can be up to the discretion of the person checking you in. We’ve never had to pay to check one, but some agents aren’t so kind.
Organize for security: We all know the security line is a drag, but it’s not so bad if you’re organized. The rules are always changing, though one beautiful innovation occurred after Nora was born: you can go walk through security with an infant in a carrier (like an Ergo, not a car seat) without having to remove the baby and put the carrier through the x-ray machine. They’ll probably run the wand over you, but who cares? The baby stays asleep.
The stroller is another situation. Don’t pack the stroller full of essentials and expect to wheel it through, kids and all. You’ll need to remove everything from the stroller and either fold it up or, if it’s too large to fit through the x-ray machine, send it through the wheelchair gate to be poked and prodded. (You’ll have to take the kids out either way.) So clean out your stroller before you get to the airport.
You can bring bottles or cups of milk, formula or other liquids for your kids, which will be tested for explosives. It will take some extra time to get through security, but I’ve been amazed how helpful most security personnel and fellow travelers are when you’re struggling through with a baby or two, especially if you’re traveling without another adult. (And don’t forget to have your own liquids handy to pull out of your bag.)
Bribe shamelessly: No normal rules apply on the plane. Treats, books, games, toys and movies should be endless. Endless, people! We often buy a few new books and movies for the plane but read or watch them once or twice before the flight so the girls are excited about them. (Sometimes a brand new book isn’t popular until they’re familiar with it.) Don’t forget there will be at least around 15 minutes during take-off and landing when you’ll have to turn off electronic devices, so don’t just count on movies and games.
Protect the ears: Kids can have trouble equalizing their ears during take-off and landing, which leads to screaming and more screaming. Try to have them drink something on the way up and down; swallowing can help relieve the pressure.
Food allergies: If your children have severe food allergies, consider bringing all the food they'll need in case you can't find safe food at the airport. The last thing you want to do is feed them something questionable before you hop on the plane. We have a peanut allergy in our family, and airports are packed with snacks processed with nuts. I try to make a special treat I know will distract them for a few minutes. I also bring enough regular, nut-free food to get us through a long delay if need be. (And I have the EpiPens and Benadryl handy, as always.)
Southwest normally serves peanuts, but if you tell them at check-in they will serve something else and make an announcement to notify the passengers. You can also request they wipe down the seats and tray tables in case the previous passengers were eating nuts. (You should do this yourself if you they don’t offer.) Some airlines are less accommodating, but it’s always worth asking.
If you’re breastfeeding: You may not be used to breastfeeding in public, but too bad for the middle-aged businessman sitting next to you. It’s way easier to breastfeed on the plane than to carry bottles or mix formula. If you're breastfeeding, bring plenty of water since the flight attendants may not be able to provide it for you if the flight is turbulent. You'll be more thirsty than usual (did you think it was possible?), because the air is dry at altitude.
Run for it: Most flights we’ve taken with the girls have gone much better than anticipated. But if things start to go downhill, keep this in mind: You are not going to see your fellow passengers ever again. When you land, collect your kids and belongings and run for it. You made it, so don’t look back!
(iPhone photos. Top: Nevada fly-over. Bottom: Airport layover.)
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I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.