Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Air Travel With Children

Traveling with children

I wrote this a few years ago, but nothing much has changed.

People who know us and know that we travel a lot with our children sometimes ask us for some hints as to what to take and how difficult is it. You see my wife’s family lives in Italy and I have older children from a previous marriage living far from us. In the last year we have traveled from San Diego with our 4 and 2 year old children twice to Italy, once to Tahiti and once to New Zealand. Our two little ones have been traveling with us mainly to Italy once or twice a year since they were just a couple of months old.

So what are the secrets to easily traveling with babies and toddlers and what about all the advice generally given. What works and what doesn’t? That is what I hope to answer is this short article.

First one must consider that age of the child. As children change so quickly over the first few years so do their needs and manageability when traveling. Also consider the length of the trip number of stops, and the possibility of getting stuck in an airport or overnight somewhere.

Now let’s get started. Stroller, car seats, backpack, toys, books, etc. which to bring and which not, depends upon where you are going and what will be available when you get there. If traveling by car at your destination, you have to bring the car seat. We bought a big nylon duffle bag to put two in and checked it in as baggage. But now when traveling to Italy we have the grandparents supply them when we get there, same with the stroller. You will need it, if you need it at home so either bring yours or have one available at your destination. The good news is that you can keep your baby in the stroller right up to the gate of most airlines. Then they will stow it in baggage for you and deliver it back to you just as you get off the plane. But be sure to mention it when you check in so it has the proper tags. You will either get it tagged at the counter or at the gate counter. It depends on the airline. Then you can use it while waiting to board.

With a young baby every parent already has the basics for the flight packed in that trusty diaper bag – diapers, pacifier, bottles, formula, wipes and changes of clothes. Not much more is needed for the trip other than enough of everything for the anticipated time in route. The breastfeeding mom has a bit of an advantage here as she does in all the other good things about breastfeeding. For babies on formula the powdered kind is most convenient as it is light and easy to pack. Bring some bottled water to last through the airport wait and then on the plane you can ask for a bottle of water and ask the flight attendant to warm the mixture up for you. Flight attendants are most helpful for a couple of reasons. One is that they want to make you and your baby comfortable, the other perhaps more important to them is that if you your baby is happy (meaning quiet) the other passengers are also happy. One can sometimes see the fear in the eyes of passengers near you as you approach with that cute yet potentially screaming little bundle of joy. And they will sometimes thank you at the end of a long flight in which you have made the heroic effort to keep your baby happy and calm.

How do you do you keep your baby calm during the flight. It starts at the ticket counter. You will have seats already assigned, but the airlines on international flights generally reserve seats behind a bulkhead for passengers who are either handicapped or traveling with an infant. In fact these bulkheads usually have a place for a small baby bed to be used during the flight. So as you check in tell them you would like the bulkhead row. Insist on it in a nice way. Getting to the airport early helps here as these seats are only given out at the airport on a first come first served basis. Bulkhead rows will have more legroom and no one in front of you reclining their seat all the way back. They become in a way your private space, usually having enough room to let the kids stand up and move about a bit without bothering anyone else.

If your baby is less than two years old you don’t have to buy her a seat and will have to hold her in your lap during take off and landing. An odd rule here is that US airlines are not allowed to give you the seatbelt for your baby that would attach to yours but others, British Airlines for example, do. If you can afford to buy that extra seat you can bring your car seat along for the baby. We have never done this but once our kids were over two and we had to buy the seat I have to admit that it was much more comfortable.

The most troublesome part of traveling with a small one is the take off and descent for landing as the air pressure changes can cause pain in sinuses and ears if not relieved. The easiest way of relieving the pressure with a baby is to have her nurse during these two times. So a bit of timing with feeding is useful. The pacifier is also helpful. One can also consider with a doctors advice giving the baby a bit of decongestant or a nasal spray like Afrin. Other passengers have told us that messaging the neck just below the ears is helpful. In spite of all your efforts your baby may still be uncomfortable and cry during these periods. You will just have to comfort him as best you can and know he will feel better in a few minutes.

During the flight, what about all those toys and things that most travel advisers suggest you bring to keep the kids occupied. We tried that a few times and generally they just end up making a big mess, in your seats, and on the floor. The attention span of these little ones is too short for the toys to really be of use on a long flight. So be very selective. Don’t burden yourself with backpacks full of dolls, toys, and coloring books. You will already have to much to carry on and off the plane and don’t forget that when you return you will no doubt have more to carry than when you left. A couple of books and a favorite doll, soft toy and blanket just to give some sense of security, is about the best you can do. So what does one do when the kid gets cranky and bored; well it’s difficult. Most international flights now have tv entertainment which works pretty well for those a little older. For the baby it’s mostly a matter of drawing upon the tricks you use everyday, play with them, sing, caress them, carry them around the plane. Making the circular trip around the aisles works pretty well for part of the flight and gives you a good excuse to get up and move around. Don’t be afraid to get out of your seat and take advantage of the entire area of the plane you have access to. When food is not being served you can stand for a while in the areas near the exits or at the end of rows where the flight attendants hang out. Let them look out the little window in the door, or perhaps talk and play with a friendly fellow passenger.

Hopefully they sleep as much as possible. It can help to arrange your trip for a time when they usually sleep. With kids a little older a bit of antihistamine should make them drowsy. Try it at home to make certain that it doesn’t have the opposite effect.

You won’t be able to sleep or read like in the pre-baby days. But hey you’re used to that by now. You and your spouse can take turns. Working together, patience and the knowledge that the flight does have an end will see you through.

Your reward is the pleasure your children and distant relatives will have in being able to maintain the family connections. Our children are fluent in Italian and English and it’s such a pleasure to see them playing with their Italian cousins as if they were playing with kids down the street. I believe that these experiences at this early age will have a lasting benefit in mental development and awareness and understanding of the greater World around them. Or if just traveling on a family vacation to distant islands, your own experiences can be so much greater when you can share them with those you love.


  1. You know, you should send this article to SlowTrav.. it's perfect! I'm not too worried about our upcoming flight as it's just 3 hours and Alexander is so big by now, I'm more worried about what he will think about those endless walks on Rome's streets...

  2. Thanks for the advice I will do it.

    Just promise him Gelato if walks fast.