When traveling with children, it is important to arrive at the airport early because getting to your plane will take longer than it would if you were traveling without children. For families traveling with lap children under age two, make sure to go to the check-in desk upon arrival to inquire whether the flight is full. There is no fee to make this request, but also no guarantee that the seat will stay open. Nonetheless, many times, we were moved to a row where we could take advantage of an empty seat, and gate attendants often blocked a seat in the system or even assigned it to us so no one would take it when there were sufficient extra seats on a flight.
There are few instances where it makes sense to bring a car seat on board. You have to weigh the difficulty of getting the car seat to the gate against the potential benefit of having the car seat onboard. If you are guaranteed or likely to receive a vacant seat for your infant, and their infant seat locks into your stroller, it might be worthwhile. The car seat will have to be installed at window seat because there is no access around it. Many children sleep better in a car seat than in their parents’ lap. We have done this a few times because it always “seems like” a good idea, but basically, my babies usually prefer sitting with Mom or Dad, and it is a struggle to get the seat to the plane and then also to figure out a way to fit the seat into the overhead compartment to take advantage of the empty seat.
A car seat might be useful for a child under two and a half who is in a paid seat. If you have purchased a seat for your infant or toddler, you are likely going to want to take advantage of it, but a child under two and a half may have trouble sitting in their own seat with a belt during takeoff and landing. We have not traveled with a child between ages two and two and a half, but flight attendants have double and triple checked on my petite children when flying in a required paid seat under aged three.
We rarely check strollers during the check-in process because we find the stroller extremely useful in getting to the gate. It can be a long walk, and a stroller can also serve as a partial luggage cart to store a few backpacks and jackets underneath. I often tuck my baby carrier in a convenient spot and pull it out if our baby gets fussy or we determine it is more effective to use the stroller as a full-fledged luggage cart after relinquishing ours before security.
We do not have TSA PreCheck but understand it is a great perk. Going through security with kids can be a bit of adventure. Luckily, most airports shepherd us to the family/express line. In addition to the usual TSA rules, strollers need to be collapsed and run through the x-ray machine. It’s helpful to put your shoes in the first bin, and take the baby out of the stroller only after you have placed all other items on the belt and taken your shoes off, if necessary. If you have a non-walker with you, an adult can carry the child through the metal detector, but the child generally has to be removed from a carrier or sling. Walking toddlers are encouraged to walk through on their own, but I have been told many times that it is also fine to carry one of mine through.
My husband and I often have a brief strategy session where we identify who is responsible for which items and even assign specific items to our boys to collect. After your items come through the x-ray, open the stroller and put your baby in first before gathering the rest of your items.
Play areas are becoming more popular in airports. Our favorite was in Doha, Qatar, which had a massive indoor playground and also smaller satellite playgrounds on different concourses. My 20-month old daughter who had learned to walk at the end of the previous summer was finally steady enough to climb up a slide on her own. So, she had her first independent playground/slide experience in Doha’s airport.
Pittsburgh International Airport also has a play area sponsored by the city’s amazing Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Our kids had a blast in this interactive area. I chuckled when I noticed that it was clear that a parent had actually not designed the space that had several full and half walls obscuring the view from the stadium seating created for parents.
Boston’s Logan International Airport also has Kidport play area that is wonderful for kids and rocking chairs overlooking the planes.
If you are traveling with a stroller, make sure to check in with the gate attendant and get a tag for gate-checking. Unless directed otherwise, you bring your stroller down the jet way and leave it as you enter the plane. You may need to wait on the jet way after deplaning for the stroller to arrive.
In the Airplane
We found that traveling with babies was easier than toddlers. Our babies really liked to be held and cuddle and could get comfortable in our laps. When traveling with a baby, make sure to nurse or feed the baby a bottle during take off and landing to help prevent ear pressure.
When flying during a time where it is optimal that your kids to sleep, do everything possible to make sure that they do sleep during the flight. This may require adjusting their bedtimes in the days before you travel. Once the plane is cruising, you can raise the arm rests and have your child use your legs as a pillow and rub their backs until they fall asleep. They generally should be able to remain belted while they rest. We were really lucky when traveling from Boston to Doha because the plane had so many empty seats that my husband and two boys were each able to take a row of three seats for themselves and stretch out overnight while my toddler daughter and I shared the fourth row.
If sleeping is not an option, I let each of my kids pick a few books and small activities to bring with them. I was really concerned about the 30 hours of transit time between Cleveland and Bangalore, but the in-flight entertainment on Qatar Airlines was so amazing that I generally found that I had over packed “activities” for the flight. One book, a few Suduko puzzles, a small journal and a deck of cards is usually plenty, especially if you have in-flight entertainment or some shows downloaded on an iPad and necessary earphones. Other family favorite travel games include picking a category (e.g. food or location) and going through the alphabet in order taking turns naming an item in the category that starts with your letter, e.g. Apple, Banana, Cucumber….
If you are prepared for your airplane trip with kids, the experience will be smoother for everyone.