Editor’s Note: This story was first written in 2011 and last updated in 2020.
“No, we can’t have a snack yet.”
“Please don’t run through the security line.”
“You don’t have to take your shoes off anymore.”
I can sense those travelers who fear my active 3-year-old as we head toward the airport security line.
If you’re not lucky enough to get into a child-free section of an airplane, I promise you have nothing to fear from me. As we approach the X-ray machines, my child and I go into guerrilla traveling mode.
I’ve packed almost everything we need into my hiking backpack, the contents of which I lay out on the conveyer belt: the computer with Sesame Street episodes, a snack bag including two 8-ounce milk boxes (I alert security officials to the milk, which doesn’t violate the 3-ounce liquid rule because it’s for a small child) and jackets, belts and shoes.
I carry her through the security screening machine – she cries when I try to get her to walk – and we wait for our things to clear security. A security official waves a magic wand over the milk. We get dressed, pack, fill up our water bottles and get to our gate on time.
You, too, can survive your flight and earn brownie points from childless travelers. Asyou head to the airport, here are a few of my family’s travel-tested suggestions to have a better trip.
Don’t be that parent
Please decide now that you will not be that overindulgent, coddling parent who thinks her child is more important than everyone else on the flight. It’s not true. Please don’t act like it by changing a diaper on the tray table (it’s happened) or handing squeezable yogurt to a child who will squirt it at his neighbor.
Decide you won’t ignore your child, either. Your pre-children travels with a Starbucks candy coffee and a crisp new magazine are over. You do not get to read a book or have a glass of wine while your child runs into the drink cart. Your goal is to get your family safely from Point A to Point B with the least amount of disruption to other passengers.
Start preparing now
A week before our departure, I make packing lists for my child and for me split into carry-on and checked baggage. (I check as much as I can.) Then I see if I can actually carry it all because I know I’ll be carrying everything that isn’t checked at some point. See my printable packing list.
Everything on the carry-on list must be useful for the flight – snacks, diapers, entertainment, change of clothes and vomit bag – or hard to replace like my driver’s license. I assume a huge flight delay without access to drink or food, a potty accident and a vomit incident. I don’t pack anything that can make a mess.
Heading to the airport
Print your boarding passes at home (mobile boarding passes don’t work if your phone is dead). And don’t head to the airport without checking with your airline to see if the flight is on time. It could be a sunny day at home and storms halfway across the country have delayed your flight. Want to clear security and hear that news?
Head to the airport early. You can nurse or change diapers anywhere but you can’t race through an airport with an infant to catch your flight. Now that my child can walk, we still get there early. I always check my luggage as soon as I can, curbside if possible.
Get a gate-check tag for your stroller at the gate (although some airlines now make you check it with your luggage). Don’t assume there will be a pre-boarding announcement for people who need it. Ask. But if you can fit everything under the seats in front of you, wait to board until the plane is almost full. Why put your kid in a confined space until you have to? Change the diaper or go potty right before you board.
Flying with baby
When I first flew with my daughter after she turned 3 months, I dressed her in the cutest, pinkest one-piece footie outfit ever. (Footed means no socks or shoes to lose in flight.) I introduced her to every flight attendant I met. “It’s her first flight!”
It paid off. The first class flight attendants handed us three bottles of water after meeting her. They also told me which bathroom had a changing table and let us get up to change her diaper when the seat belt sign was on (FAA: There was no turbulence).
Breastfeed, bottle feed or use a pacifier on takeoff and landing. It helps their poor little ears. And if you’re breastfeeding, wear dependable breastfeeding shirts and pack a good shawl or blanket to cover yourself up. And when all else fails, your child is more important than showing your boobs. Also remember to bring enough food to deal with the hungries that always hit breast-feeding mamas hard.
Now my daughter carries her own backpack, which contains a sweatshirt, change of clothes, a few toys and an empty water bottle. My backpack has the snacks, books, her favorite shows on my computer and a coloring book. I place wipes and extra vomit bags in the seat pocket in front of me, just in case. We make a bathroom visit before I take off her shoes (so she doesn’t kick anyone). Then we start our fun afternoon of eating, drawing and watching movies. (Only if she’s engrossed in a movie or asleep do I pull out a magazine.)
If you have older kids, you are not off the hook. They tend to regress during flight, whining about things they know how to handle at home. Sometimes they didn’t get enough sleep before an early morning flight or their ears hurt or you let them have too much sugar. Dial back your expectations and ensure they have enough to eat and whatever electronic gadget they need for entertainment. Older children have even been known to cuddle.
When it all falls apart
When your kid is screaming or peeing through diapers or vomiting all over you, it’s hard to believe you will survive. Yet I’ve had both of the scenarios listed above happen on one flight, and I am still alive. What counts is that you make an effort to limit the damage.
If your child is a screamer, apologize to the people around you in advance and hand out earplugs (one friend packs them for every trip). Buy seat neighbors drinks or expensive airline cheese plates.
If your child poops, pees or vomits onto you or your seat and you have a partner with you, one of you should take the baby and the diaper bag to the bathroom. The other person should get out the wipes and trash bag and clean everything up. If you’re alone, clean up the mess so your child can sit in a clean spot when you’re done cleaning her up.