If you’ve ever flown on Southwest airlines, then you know about their innovative and unique seating system. The way it works is you check in online for your flight exactly 24 hours before takeoff, and based on how fast your clicker finger is, you get assigned a letter and a number. A1-60 is the best, followed by B1-60. I think there might also be some C numbers, but if you get a C you might as well just sit on the toilet, or in the cargo hold. The plane is then boarded in alpha-numercial order, and it’s a free-for-all for seats. You can pick whichever one you want.
Every time I fly Southwest I think of what an interesting social experiment the whole process is. Seeing who sits where and how they choose. Obviously the window and aisle seats are taken first – but then as the later passengers board it’s fascinating to see how they select their seatmates.
Since Dan and I have been flying with Mia since she was just 4 months old – and now both kids together – we are sort of veterans at the whole Southwest seat selection process. We have an elaborate routine that involves both of us sitting in aisle seats toward the front of the plane and passing the kid (or kids) back and forth to try to deter fellow passengers from selecting our row.
Since most people want an aisle seat, they walk all the way to the back of the plane to check for one before realizing they have to take a middle seat. At this point they are already in the back of the plane and it’s too hard to come back to the front so they take a middle seat in the back. This leaves the front middle seats as the least likely to be taken. Seems counter intuitive but trust me, it works. And since nobody wants to sit with a baby, by choosing the front aisle seats we almost always end up with an empty middle seat in one of our rows (unless it’s a completely full flight), which makes diaper changes, snacks and sleeping SO much easier.
On our recent trip to Florida, however, we hit a little bit of a snag when an entire class of 7th graders boarded our flight with their ONE teacher. A middle aged man, maybe a business traveler, boarded the plane and saw the chaos that was the 7th graders toward the back of the plane. He immediately took a seat next to Dan and Lucy, smiled, and said “I know you’ve got a baby but judging by the chaos back there (he nodded toward the school group) I’m gonna risk it.”
Well played, business traveler, well played.
As it turned out, he made a good bet, because Lucy didn’t make a peep the entire flight, and didn’t even really sit in Dan’s row. He was only holding her as a front to try to get an empty seat next to him. Can’t win ’em all I guess.
Anyway, I started writing this blog post because an incredibly sweet friend of mine is due with her first baby this fall, and she saw my ridiculous overshare of photos from our recent trip to Florida, and sent me a message asking about traveling with little kids. As I started to answer her, I realized, this would be great for a blog post. So here it is…my top tips for traveling with babies on a plane.
- Plan Ahead
I’m an organization freak so I start planning for a big trip a couple weeks in advance. I start by making a packing list for myself and each kid by going through our plans for each day of the trip and think of all the things we’ll need. Then as the week goes on, anytime I use something that isn’t already on the list, I ask myself if I need to add it. By the time the week is over and I’m ready to actually pack, all I need to do is follow my foolproof (and time tested) list.
2. You’ve Got Mail
When you’re traveling with kiddos, clothes is the easy part. They are super small and you can pretty much pack an entire wardrobe in one bag. The tough part is the gear. Diapers, wipes, sound machines, baby monitors, pack ‘n plays…the list goes on. In order to keep the chaos (and overstuffed suitcases) to a minimum, I mail as many things as I can to our destination. Shipping is free on diapers.com orders over $35, and the same is true at Walmart and other big box stores. On our recent trip to Florida I ordered all our diapers, wipes, snacks and a Rock and Play and baby swing and had them delivered to my grandmother’s house ahead of time. You could also have your stuff shipped to a hotel, if you call and let them know it’s coming, they will hold it for you. If someone is picking you up at the airport, you can even have a carseat shipped to them so you don’t have to deal with checking it or hauling it through the airport. The Cosco Scenera is only $50 and has great safety ratings – making it an excellent option if you go the “mail it” route. If you’re especially cheap (like me) you can even return most of the gear (pack n play, swing, sound machines, car seat) before you head home, as long as you use it lightly.
3. Fly Smart
We almost always fly Southwest because of their unique seating system that allows us (usually) to get an extra seat in between us, and also because you can check 2 bags for free per person. Car seats and strollers can also be checked (or gate checked) for free on most airlines, which I highly recommend. We brought a carseat on the plane with Mia once and it was a huge hassle and NOT worth it. I know some people say it’s safer to have a kid in their carseat on a plane but my philosophy is if the plane crashes, a carseat isn’t going to do jack shit anyway so why bother. For smaller babies, I found bringing a bobby pillow on the plane was helpful both for nursing, and also for giving them a comfy place to sleep. For bigger kids, a rolled up sweatshirt can double as a pillow – and an ipad, some snacks and a few sensory toys can buy you a decent amount of quiet time.
4. Timing is Everything
Timing your flights is key to a successful trip, but the right time depends on the kid. We like to fly at night because after a little iPad time, some snacks and a maybe a Benedryl or two, the kids usually pass out. Other people like to fly early morning before their kids get overtired. Overtired on a plane = nightmare. This one might take some informed guessing and trial and error before you decide what works best for you. Layovers are another thing to consider. If you’re flying at night, a direct flight is ideal. If you’re flying during the day, sometimes a layover provides a good break to get some energy out, eat some food, change diapers, etc.
5. Carry, Carry On
We already discussed checking the carseat (btw – never rent them at your destination – they are usually gross, old, and oftentimes not even available, leaving you in a serious jam), but most airlines also provide you the option of checking, or gate checking your stroller (either way you’ll want to get a carseat/stroller bag to put it in to protect it from weather, rough handling, etc. We used this one from Amazon). We’ve done both and I think checking it upfront and directly to your final destination is the way to go. While gate checking the stroller allows you to use it in the airport, it also means trying to juggle a baby and bags while folding it up on the jetway, AND it requires waiting for it on the jetway after you get off the plane. If you have a connection this can cause you to miss your next flight. Trust me, I know. My favorite way to travel with a baby is in a wrap or carrier. It leaves your hands free to eat, read, mess around on an iphone and carry other bags. It’s also way less bulky, making it easier to navigate a crowded airport – no elevators needed.
6. The Diaper Bag
Speaking of other bags, the diaper bag is probably the hardest thing to pack on a airplane trip. You don’t want it to be too big or heavy, but there’s a lot of stuff you’ll need. A backpack is a great way to keep your hands free – but I like to take my regular diaper bag because it’s already mostly stocked. If you have a toddler I recommend packing a separate (small) backpack for them that includes snacks, a coloring book or two and some brand new dollar-store type toys. The excitement of the new toys usually makes them last longer than the same old stuff they’re used to. Some of my favorite airplane toys include a mini etch-a-sketch, toy phone, stickers and mini play doh containers.
In addition to the toys and snacks the toddler is carrying – here is what I pack in the diaper bag:
Twice as many diapers as you think you’ll need (maybe its the pressure change, or just murphy’s law or something, but in my experience airplanes are like laxatives for little kids. You might even go with overnight diapers for the plane to minimize changes. If you think airplane bathrooms are small, trying changing a toddler in one. LOL.)
A bazillion wipes
Hand sanitizer (not usually a fan of this stuff but airplanes are gross)
Birth Certificate…and your ID/passport, etc. (if the kid is under two and flying as a lap infant, you’ll need their birth certificate to fly domestically, passport for international travel)
Burp cloth and light blanket (can double as a nursing cover if your not comfortable nursing in public)
Bottle and milk or formula if you’re not nursing (you can bring breastmilk and formula in any reasonable amount through security if you are traveling with your baby)
Tylenol/Benedryl (only use it if your child has had it before and your doctor has given the ok! Sometimes these medications can make kids hyper instead of sleepy, and a crowded airplane is a horrible place to find out)
Chapstick (airplanes are dry dry dry – and kids can feel it too)
Pacifier (if your kid takes a pacifier, even if only a little bit, bring it because sucking is critical to help their ears during take off and landing)
Extra Outfits (for you and the baby…nothing like sitting in a poop stained shirt for 4 hours)
Gum (for you, obviously not the baby)
Phone and charger
iPad if you have one
I also make sure to dress in layers – both me and the kids – because airplanes and airports tend to have dramatic temperature swings, and I sometimes bring a boppy pillow on the plane to help with nursing and making baby comfortable while sleeping. If your toddler is wearing sandals – bring socks – or be prepared to hear “my toes are cold” 750 trillion times.
Air travel with kids is always an adventure and no matter how prepared you are, shit can hit the fan, literally and figuratively. But just remember – when your kid is screaming their head off for hours on end, everyone else has their headphones on. It’s worse for you then it is for them. And most of them have been there, they understand, and they only want to help. If someone is being particularly bitchy, buy them a drink and make them feel like an asshole.
You’ve got this – supermama!