Most of our trips require plane travel, and plane travel requires research and preparation.
Booking flights is the first step in travel planning. Because we now need five air tickets, flight cost is a huge consideration for any vacation. Mark and I do not travel much for work and are not loyal to a certain airline, so we have not accumulated useful points on any one airline to use for vacations. We also have not mastered credit card points like Nancy. Instead, we look for direct flights that fit our schedule at the lowest possible cost. We have been able to take advantage of some great fares because of our research and willingness to drive from Cleveland to airports in Akron, Pittsburgh and even Toronto airports.
We are constantly monitoring flight costs to various destinations we would like to visit. While we are often tediously thorough when making purchases of household items (like the time we looked at dining room chairs at more than 20 different stores before we made a purchase), we are able to react quickly, make a decision and book a flight when we find a deal. Several times, we have booked a flight within two hours of finding it – even if we were not focused on a particular destination, and we regularly mull for less than a few days after we have identified a specific flight.
If you are flying with a child under age two, you likely do not have to purchase a separate seat, but you may have to pay taxes or fees. Some airlines make it challenging to add a lap child during online booking, and it may be necessary to call the airline directly to have your child added to your registration. There are a wide variety of travel websites, but I favor Google Flights, because you can easily search lowest return fares in a calendar view. Also, fares for budget airlines like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines are included, but you do have to search Southwest Airlines separately. We also monitor Travelzoo and once set aside Martin Luther King weekend for a potential trip and then took advantage of a weekend fare sale announced the previous Tuesday to fly to NYC.
Some people flying with kids try to pick a time of day that fits best into their children’s nap schedule. Our kids have never had strict sleeping schedules, and that gives us more timing flexibility than most families have while traveling. We try to find direct flights that depart from Cleveland early in the morning and return late at night to optimize our time at our destination and avoiding additional hotel costs needed for an evening arrival or morning flight home.
Before booking a flight, it is really important to review the airline’s baggage policy. It used to be standard for airlines to permit all passengers to carry on one small suitcase and a personal item and often check one suitcase as well with no fee. However, a fee for checked luggage is now almost standard, and it is becoming more common for budget airlines to charge for carry on items larger than a backpack. Domestic airlines continue to allow families to check in or gate check strollers and car seats, but WowAir permits only a free stroller or car seat for children under seven.
We recently booked a flight to New Orleans where the flight cost $83 return, and the least expensive baggage charge was an additional $42 return if a checked bag was added during booking. That is more than 50% of cost of the seat. It is important to consider baggage fees when comparing fares and also often necessary to add your desired luggage at the time of booking to avoid additional fees. Cheapflights has a great summary of airline’s baggage allowances and policies regarding children if you would like to compare quickly.
We always try to select window and aisle seats. When we needed only four seats, we aimed for two windows and two aisles in the same row. If the middle seats remain empty, we had the opportunity to spread out. Extra fees for seat selection are relatively common. While we never pay this extra fee, we always make sure to check-in online exactly 24 hours before departure. Websites like Airline Checkins and apps like Airline Flight Check-In World will check you in to your flight as soon as it is available, but I have never personally tried these services.
Packing Your Bags
If you are traveling with an baby who is either nursing or likely to lie on your lap during the flight, an inflatable travel nursing pillow is very helpful. It fits easily in carry-on luggage and is easy to inflate after boarding. Our babies (and our arms) were so much more comfortable when we brought this with us.
Before you leave for the airport, re-check your airline’s baggage size and weight guidelines and make sure your bags are not too big or too heavy. Although most airlines do allow some wiggle room, it is always safest to know that your luggage will not create an issue. Make sure you have enough travel containers of 3.4 ounces or less for any liquids that you want to bring in your carry on and that all liquids fit into one quart-sized re-sealable plastic bag per person.
Infant and child “nourishments” are exempt from TSA’s normal liquid rules, but make sure to review TSA’s guidelines on traveling with children for rules about formula, breast milk, juice and baby food. Basically, reasonable quantities of formula, breast milk (even if traveling without your child), juice and baby food typically is permitted through security, but it may be subject to extra security tests. I was asked once in London almost 10 years ago to “taste” the milk from my son’s bottle, but that is no longer common practice.
On domestic flights, identification is generally not required for children but is especially important for lap children and older teens who may appear to be over 18. If your lap child is traveling without a passport, make sure you have a copy of their birth certificate or immunization record in your luggage. Even though I don’t know if we have ever been asked for proof of age, it is not worth the risk to try to slip a two year old through as a lap child. Without proper proof of age, you might have to buy a last minute, full fare ticket for your child.
Preparing Your Kids
Especially if we have an early morning flight, it is important that your children know exactly what the “plan” is. I once explained to my boys that we were going to wake them up in the middle of the night and have them change into the clothes hanging on their ends of their beds, brush their teeth, put on shoes and get in the car. We would then eat breakfast on the way to the airport. It was going to be dark, and they were going to be tired but could sleep on the plane. And, by the afternoon, we would be eating lunch at our resort on the Caribbean. My kids woke up when they heard us getting ready and came to ask if it was time to get dressed and were extra well behaved throughout the whole journey (which even included an Ebola virus scare), and we did have a lovely lunch in Mexico.
Now that you are prepared to fly, check out Travel Tips: Airports and Airplanes before you leave for the airport.