Guest Contributor, Amanda Emmerling, of Toddling Traveler, shares her lessons + tips for flying with little ones. Read through to ensure that you are prepared for take off!
With my first completely solo flight coming up with my son (and as a toddler, nonetheless!) I’ve been thinking a lot back to the flights we took with him before he turned 1. His first flight was at 7 weeks and we’ve definitely learned a lot since that first flying experience. And I like to think that he’s learned to enjoy it more and more too, since he’s looked happier each time he’s flown in his “pre-flight” pictures below : )
I’ve always loved flying and will choose it over driving any day, both before I had a baby and now that I have one. There’s something relaxing to me about just showing up and having someone else take you to your destination. I still get excited every time I go to the airport, but that relaxation factor definitely changes a bit when flying with a baby. Like all things baby related (and just like you heard me say before if you read my post on surviving long car rides) it definitely gets easier each time. And although each experience flying has been different as our son grows and develops, feeling more prepared each time definitely helps keep any potential nerves in check.
Read on below for our tips leading up to and during the entire flight experience.
Even before you book your flight, there are a number of things to think about, especially given that many airlines have slight variations in their policies and processes for flying with an infant. For that reason, I’d recommend consulting the airline directly, either by calling customer service or visiting their website, to confirm any of the items below that you aren’t sure about:
Ticket Purchase: Some airlines (our favorite US airline, Southwest, being one of them) require you to call customer service to either add your baby as a lap infant or book a seat for any traveler under 2. If you can’t find the option to book for an infant on-line, call the airline directly. It’s usually a quick and painless process.
Lap Infants: Children under 2 are typically allowed to be brought on as a lap infant, typically at no charge or a significantly reduced rate (in the case of some long-haul/ international flights.) Even if you’re flying with your baby as a lap infant, you still need to have them added to your reservation with a confirmed ticket, and the process for each airline varies in how this is done. (See below for additional considerations regarding a lap infant vs seat purchase.)
Age Verification: Varies by airline. Most request to see a copy of the birth certificate for children under 2 if you’re flying to a destination that doesn’t require a passport. I always travel with a copy of our son’s birth certificate just in case.
Baggage Allowance: Many airlines allow you to check a carseat and stroller at no extra cost, even if you’re taking your baby on as a lap infant. This tends to vary for discounted and international airlines though, and it isn’t always the case. Be sure to familiarize yourselves with the policy prior to your flight as many airlines charge higher fees if you wait to add additional checked bags when you get to the airport.
Pre-boarding Policy: In my experience, all US airlines include family boarding as part of their pre-boarding. Check in advance, especially if you’re one of those people who gets to the gate just before boarding. It makes the boarding process a lot less stressful, especially if you’re flying an airline that doesn’t have pre-selected seats.
Seating Selection: We typically choose the back of the plane to be less disruptive, in case our son is especially noisy, and also so we’re closer to the bathrooms. When my son was a newborn and I was nursing, I liked the window seat for privacy, but when he was an older baby and would get restless I liked the aisle seat to be able to easily get up and down. Tip: If you’re on a longer flight, ask the airline whether or a bassinet is available, and make sure you purchase a seat that allows for one to be used if you want opt for one.
Flight Time: Take into consideration your babies sleep schedule and try to work around that as much as possible. The last thing you want to be doing is going through security during their nap or bedtime.
Frequent Flyer Number: If you decide to purchase a ticket for your baby, be sure to create one on the airline you’re traveling with. It’s never too earlier to start earning points for those flights! And many airlines have family sharing programs that allow parents to transfer points to themselves or their kids.
Deciding Between Lap Infant + Seat Purchase
I’m not here to go into detail about how purchasing a seat is safer than having an infant on your lap. There’s a lot of research out there, including from the Federal Airline Administration (FAA) indicating that purchasing a seat for your baby and having them strapped into a car seat is the safest option. That said, it’s perfectly legal to hold the baby on your lap and it’s a personal decision based on what your comfortable with. Given how safe flying typically is relative to driving, we’ve done both with our son and I personally have never felt unsafe having him on my lap, but we’ve also been lucky in that our flights with him have been relatively smooth to date.
If you’ve already decided you’re comfortable with the lap infant option and are open to either, consider the following when making your decision, in addition to safety:
Time of the flight: If it’s over a nap or bedtime we started purchasing a seat as he got older, since napping on Mom or Dad was much less likely to happen.
Cost of the flight: I’m more likely to purchase a seat if it’s a cheap flight “just in case”
Age, size and mobility of your baby: It’s a lot tougher to hold older/ heavier/more mobile babies on your lap (but still totally doable.)
Whether or not you’re flying with reinforcements: It’s no surprise that flying with a lap infant is much easier if you have someone else to share in the holding and keeping the baby entertained. Now that my son is a little older and I have a few solo flights coming up, I feel more comfortable with him in his own seat than on my lap. That way we both have enough space and I’m not breaking out in a sweat between all the holding, entertaining and lugging our stuff around.
Flying with a Lap Infant? Keep in mind that most airlines don’t let you have two lap infants in the same row, and you may be reshuffled if your seats are booked that way in error. If you choose to hold your baby on your lap, just don’t attempt to buckle them in the seat with you whatever you do! Tip: Always be sure to ask if there are open seats if you did not purchase a seat for your baby; airlines typically give priority to lap infants to allow you to bring the carseat on with you.
Purchased a Seat for your Baby? Make sure you have a car seat that’s FAA compliant (it’s typically clearly visible on the carseat labels.) Non-car seat Child Restraint Systems (CRSs) are typically not suitable for babies under 1 (and even older) based on minimum age and weight requirements. Keep in mind that car seats are typically required to be at a window for safety reasons as well; another thing to check with the airline on.
What to Do with Strollers and Carseats
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To date, we’ve always traveled with both a stroller and car seat when flying to our destination. With all the change you’re exposing a baby to with travel, there’s something comforting to me about having them in the carseat they’re used to (and so far it’s been much easier for us than renting or buying something at our destination.)
When flying with a carseat and/or stroller, the primary options typically are to:
Check either your carseat and/or stroller at the gate (our primary choice)
Check your carseat and/or stroller at baggage check when you enter the airport (baby wearing is recommended if you take this approach)
Bring both/either onboard with you (if you have a stroller that can fold small enough to go into an overhead bin)
Rent a carseat and/or stroller at your destination (I personally haven’t done this before and therefore can’t recommend a company, but there are many out there if you check online!)
As noted above, the first option is our preferred way to travel with a carseat and stroller. When our son was an infant and using some form of stroller that worked with his car seat we always opted to take both the car seat and stroller through the airport with us and check them at the gate upon boarding (unless we purchased a seat- in which case we would still bring both to the gate and just check the stroller.) We did this primarily for ease of transporting the baby and all of our stuff through the airport, plus this allowed us to ensure we had the car seat with us in the event that we were were bringing our son on as a lap infant and there were open seats available on the flight.
The Baby Trend Snap N Go Universal Infant Car Seat Carrier is our favorite stroller/carseat frame for all things baby travel. It works with any infant car seat, it’s easy to use, folds flat and is inexpensive, so I was never that worried about it getting damaged from our travels. (Note: Contrary to the name, it doesnt actually snap, it just clips around your carseat; something to definitely be aware of before purchasing if that makes you nervous.) You can always bring your every day travel system/ stroller with you when flying, but with all the other stuff that comes along with traveling with a baby, lighter has always been better for us and most travel systems are on the heavy side. We also fly without our infant carseat base to further lighten our load. Although it made me a little nervous installing it with just the seatbelt for the first time in a rental car, the reality is that the base is only for convenience and doesn’t make the carseat any safer.
Consider purchasing bags for your carseat and/or stroller so they can’t get dirty and scratched. We use the J.L. Childress bags for both our carseat and stroller. There are several more expensive options available, but we found that this is perfect for checking them. There are other versions that are padded to further protect your car seats that also allow you to use them as a backpack. While I haven’t yet tried the padded style, we tried using our regular gate check bag as a back pack and let’s just say we’ll do everything we can to avoid carrying that heavy infant car seat through the airport again. Tip: When checking at the gate, we just put the stroller and/or carseat in bags before we board and drop them off before boarding the plane. Be sure to get a gate check tag at the desk before boarding so you’re not scrambling to get everything together as you’re trying to board.
Prefer baby wearing? If you’re flying with a lap infant and don’t want to drag the stroller or the carseat through the airport, this is the way to go. I know many people who do this so they’re completely hands free with the baby and only have to worry about carrying a diaper bag. Even though I will use my Ergobaby 360 through the airport at times, given my earlier point about having a carseat at the gate just in case a seat is available, I still like to have everything with me just in case.
Thinking about renting a car seat with your rental car? After reading numerous reviews from people getting expired carseats through their rental car company, I would just recommend to proceed with caution on this one and be sure to question the rental car company on their policies related to car seat rentals; primarily if they’re reused after accidents or expired, both of which would void the warranty. Also worth noting that some lightweight car seats that are great for travel like the Cosco Scenera Next costs less than the average weekly car seat rental, so it may be worth purchasing a light and inexpensive car seat just for the purpose of traveling.
Note: Since my son has gotten older/ bigger and we no longer use the infant carseat everywhere we go, we purchased the Cosco Scenera Next carseat with along with the Go-Go Babyz Travelmate to easily pull it through the airport with our son in it. My niece tested it out and loved it. Review to come once we have a chance to use it!
Going Through Security
If you’re bringing food or bottles with you for the baby, let the TSA agent know when you’re going through security
Anything over 3.4 oz will likely be tested for chemicals; most TSA agents will not test the liquids if they’re under this size (if you want to avoid this, an option is to break the liquids up in smaller amounts)
Let the TSA Agents know you have liquids/baby food and keep it in a separate tray if possible
Be sure to ask the TSA Agent to change their gloves before testing your items (all of them have been happy to do this in the 30+ times I flew with breastmilk with or without my baby)
If you have an ice pack, make sure it’s completely frozen or it could be taken from you. We love the PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag since its a cooler and freezer pack all in one, and I’ve taken it through security many times with no issues.
Everything including a stroller or carseat needs to go on the belt and through the scanner
Hold the baby when you’re walking through the scanner; babies can’t stay in a stroller and even if you have them in a baby carrier, they will need to come out of that as well
Consider checking your luggage so you have less stuff to carry through security and the airport
Be sure to read the TSA Procedures on Traveling with Children for more information
Take-off and Landing
Use a bottle, nurse or offer the baby a pacifier to avoid ear popping. Will didn’t take a pacifier except with rare exception, and short flights always worried me. If the baby is taking a bottle or nursing upon takeoff, make sure you don’t start it too early. Our son once drank his entire bottle before the plane even took off, so definitely wait until the plan is literally taking off to avoid them finishing too soon. To date, we haven’t had an issue with our son’s ears during those times when he didn’t suck on a pacifier or bottle to relieve the pressure, but every baby and every situation is different, so we still try to get him to as much as we can!
In-Flight: Products & Tips We Swear By
Use hand sanitizing wipes to clean the entire space so you don’t have to worry about the baby touching everything the whole time.
Bring small toys that don’t make noise. We usually put them in a small reusable bag that zippers in a diaper bag or carry-on so we can easily access the toys or point them away as needed. Our favorite in-flight toys for a baby are:
The First Years Stack Up Cups since they’re compact and come with a link to hold them together when you’re on-the-go
Infantino Stick & Spin High Chair toy (suctions to the tray to entertain baby without worrying about them throwing it
Little Squirts Bath Toys (sans bath) since they’re small and easy for baby to hold or chew; plus they’re easy to clean off and come in a large pack for backups in case they’re lost or several get dirty at a time.
Pack food if you’re baby has started solids. Feeding Cheerios or puffs one by one will go a long way in terms of killing time. Bring meals from home if they’re starting solids so you don’t need to worry about finding something in the airport.
Take into consideration bottle feeding times and bring extra milk and/or formula (if you aren’t choosing to nurse on the plane) in case of delayed flights or extra time waiting on the tarmac.
Bring something comforting like a lovey/ stuffed animal if your baby will be napping (but be sure to wash it after your trip!)
Aiden + Anis Muslin Swaddle Blankets are my favorite for all types of travel since they’re lightweight and easy to pack several.
Ask the flight attendants to bring your drink with a straw and lid to save you and that little babe from any major spillage.
Diaper changes on a plane are a mild form of torture given the size of the bathrooms. And to be completely honest, we typically use overnight diapers and avoid changing unless absolutely necessary (parents of the year over here!) So I don’t have much to offer here other than good luck : ) Be sure to check with the stewardess about what you should do with a soiled diaper. They often prefer to throw it away in their garbage bag for collection versus in bathrooms that aren’t emptied quite as frequently.
Bring Ziplock bags just in case, whether it’s separating dirty toys, dirty clothes, or dirty diapers, I always keep the on hand regardless of the method of travel.
Finally… Take a Deep Breath and Remember
It is OK if your baby cries or fusses. They’re human, and they need to get to their destination just like anyone else! It’s only temporary; try to just take a deep breath and stay calm enough to soothe that baby.
Don’t be afraid to accept help. Flight attendants (and other passengers) are typically more than happy to cuddle that sweet baby or help you with your bags if you need it.
Try to prepare as much as you can. Make sure your diaper bag is ready and fully stocked with the items you need to access during the flight (including extra snacks in the case of delays and a change of outfits for both of you- just in case!) Consider using a backpack or something hands free for your diaper bag that will make it easier to get through the airport.
But accept that you can’t control or anticipate every situation. That diaper blowout our son had on the descent into Phoenix? Totally didn’t plan for that mess to happen. But babies are unpredictable and we all survived.
Have fun! Tell the flight attendants and your nearby passengers that it’s your baby’s first flight, take pictures, and try to look at the flight as another experience that’s part of your destination.
What helps when you take a flight (or long drive) with babies? Let us know in the comments!
Amanda Emmerling with Toddling Traveler
Amanda Emmerling lives north of Pittsburgh with her husband Frank, son William (Will) and a huge dog named Sydney. She recently left the corporate world to spend more time with her son and created Toddling Traveler with the intention of inspiring families to travel with little kids; something they love to do as a family. The blog covers family-friendly destinations, tips for traveling with babies and toddlers, and ideas for family fun for little ones in their hometown of Pittsburgh. You can follow Toddling Traveler on their blog at www.toddlingtraveler.com, Instagram @toddling_travelerand Facebook at Toddling Traveler.