This guide includes everything you and your partner need to know to fly domestically with a baby while keeping everyone involved (and your wallet) alive and happy.
When I moved 3000 miles away from home I was well aware that it meant I’d be doing a lot of flying. In the first couple of years after I moved I was flying by myself and it wasn’t bad. A carry on and my sunglasses was really all I needed.
Then, a few yeas later I met my husband. Great! I welcomed the company. He is easy to travel with. Plus, when the plane banks for an extended period of time (more than 5 seconds) he lets me know we aren’t spiraling out of control to our death. I have flight anxiety. Can you tell?
Soon after our wedding I got pregnant and it hit me for the first time…at some point, we’re going to have to fly with an infant. The very thought had every hair on my arm standing up. I mean, I like having a travel companion but I prefer the kind that can control their bowels and won’t scream for hours on end. And no more catching up on my shows in flight. Instead, I’ll have to work diligently to keep the pin in a baby shaped grenade. Not to mention all the crap it takes to keep them happy and alive.
Our son was 10 months when we finally hauled him out to California. And we did it for the least amount of money we could have spent while maintaining our sanity.
We aren’t the type of people to waste money on one use items, unless it’s absolutely necessary and there are no other options. And, since we don’t plan on flying with our son more than once or twice a year, we found alternatives to all that expensive junk like backpacks for car seats, a car seat dolly, etc. With some research, it was virtually painless to get all of us and our stuff from Pennsylvania to California.
How did we manage to pull it off? Easier than you think!
So, what does it take to fly drama free with a baby?
No, not Benadryl. Or whiskey. Or any other infant substance abuse suggestions (yeah, people actually suggested these things to us). What it takes is…
A Little Planning
Make sure to give your trip some good thought. Here’s what we took into consideration when deciding on a time frame.
Try to plan for the best age for your baby. On most airlines, your baby can fly at 2 days old. But, you’d have to either be insane or not have a choice to fly with a 2 day old. We decided on a 6-10 month range. Our reasoning? He’d be old enough to enjoy playing with his cousins but there’d be less of a chance of him walking. I’ve heard walkers are harder to get to sit still for long lengths of time.
Aim for good weather. Better weather means less travel delays and cancellations. You don’t want to sit for a 6 hour snow delay with an infant do you?
Decide what items you will pay to check. Of course it’s easier to check everything. If you can afford it then go for it; I’m not judging. But, because our budget it tight, we tried to find a way around paying for checked bags. In the end we checked one bag, the largest, which we used that one for the infant car seat base as well as my clothes.
Prepare for a time change. If you need to, start acclimating your baby a few weeks before the trip. Do this slowly, by adjusting their bedtime in 15 minute increments, over the course of 2 weeks or so (depending on how large the change). You don’t need to cover the whole change, just as much as you can. It will help the transition.
It Takes Booking Flights That Make Sense
Weigh different options to balance budget and comfort.
Know what a good price for your destination is. And, start looking several months in advance. Usually the best price is 4-6 weeks before but every once in a while you can get a deal sooner. If you know what a deal looks like you can snag it. Check travel sites periodically to get an idea.
Book well in advance, if you find a deal. This will often allow you to choose better seats towards to front of the plane. Easy on, easy off.
Decide on lap or seat for baby. Although most airlines allow a lap infant up to 2 years old, you may want a seat for your baby, depending on the length of your flight. Not only is it safer, it will allow you some breathing room of your own. If you do decide to go the lap route, make sure you have some way to secure your baby, like a wrap or harness carrier, for turbulence and take off and landing.
Note: honestly, I spent some time looking for a good article to include here that gives information on safety measures you can take to keep a lap baby safe on a plane and I didn’t find a whole lot which tells me it probably isn’t safe. I wouldn’t recommend it, even though it is sooo much cheaper. I’ve read too many stories of babies becoming projectiles during severe turbulence.
Decide what time of day to fly. I’ve heard that red eye flights are good with kids because they sleep most of the way. But, we were not willing to chance that with our son, even if he is a fantastic sleeper. The idea of him not sleeping had my stomach in knots. If he’s not sleeping then neither am I and neither are most of the people surrounding us. No way. Not worth the chance. So, we booked flights during the day. Early morning to be exact.
Consider upgrading for more legroom. If budget isn’t a concern.
Prepay for checked bags. It will save you time later.
Try and avoid connections. Depending on where you fly, it usually doesn’t cost any more (sometimes less even). Because who wants to load a baby on a plane more than they have to.
It Takes Packing Know How
Being a smart packer helps tremendously. Here are some tips to help keep you sane when it comes to packing.
Keep it as simple as possible. As parents, we have a tendency to over pack for our children. Stop! Ask yourself two questions: Do I honestly believe I need to bring this? And, what is the worst thing that will happen if I don’t bring it? If you don’t think you’ll need it but you know your baby will lose their mind if you need it and can’t provide it, please, bring the damn thing. If you think you’ll need it but you’ll be mildly inconvenienced if you don’t bring it, save the space and leave it.
Consider leaving bulk diapers and food at home. To save space in your luggage, bring what you need to travel and buy the rest at your destination. Just make sure it’s not outrageously more expensive, or even unavailable, on the other side.
Organize, organize, organize the diaper bag. Use pouches or bags in various sizes to keep everything organize in the diaper bag. Use separate pouches for food and related items, toys, extra clothes, diapering, you get the idea. That way you aren’t wading in the sea of crap in your diaper bag and on a cramped plane to find that spoon.
Make diapering as easy as possible. Place diapers, wipes, cream and an extra change of clothes in a pouch with a wrist strap so you aren’t carrying a large diaper bag and baby through a narrow aisle to the bathroom.
Have extra clothes and diapers available. But, that doesn’t mean they have to be in your diaper bag taking up space. Put what you think you will actually use (plus an extra or two) into the diaper bag. Then a few extra in the rolling carry on in the overhead bin.
Don’t forget you’ll need extra clothes yourself. You know, for spit up, blowouts, drool and whatever else. I kept an extra shirt in my personal bag. And again, to save space, I kept an entire extra outfit in my son’s carry on just in case.
Roll and cube. Rolling is just smart packing. It keeps your clothes wrinkle free and makes them as small as possible for packing. And, using packing cubes keeps everything organized. Roll outfits together and place into cubes that way you don’t have to pull out 3 cubes to complete and outfit. Cubes can be pricey and I’d suggest buying good ones, like eBags, if you decide to use them. But, if budget is a concern, you can get by just fine without them. Or you can buy them little by little over time like I did. I need them because my brain becomes chaotic if I am not overly organized for big tasks like traveling.
Here is a good article on different packing methods.
It Takes A Ton Of Junk
Although your luggage will be different, this list will give you an idea of what you might need. We put a lot of thought into what pieces we used and how to manage it to make it as easy and cheap as possible. You want to use luggage and items that have the most functionality when traveling with kids. Here’s what we traveled with:
My Personal Item (Tote Bag): okay, it was my son’s diaper bag that I used as my personal tote. Why? Because we decided on another bag for his diaper bag while traveling (explanation below) and because it’s large and has stroller clips for hands free carrying. It was crammed full so it did cause the stroller to tip when we took my son out so we had to watch that.
2 Backpacks: my husband and I each packed a backpack for our own use.
Diaper Bag (3rd backpack): I decided to use my Samsonite backpack as the diaper bag because it has so many compartments. An organized mom means an efficient mom which means happier baby and a happier plane. And, it happens to have a trolley sleeve that slips over the telescoping handle of our luggage. I highly suggest!
2 Carry On Suitcases: one for baby and one for my husband. We purposely carried our son’s luggage onto the plane in case we needed anything out of it while in flight, like an extra set of clothes or more diapers.
Large Suitcase: the only item we checked. By prepaying for the fee it saved us a little extra time. We only had to weight and tag it.
Infant Carrier and Base: We decided to bring the infant carrier and base instead of his convertible seat. The reason was because we would have needed to spend money on a way to transport the convertible seat through the airport, like a car seat backpack, instead of just slipping it over the handle of our luggage like we could with the carrier. Again, we’re not into one use purchases. And because, even though he was a bit cramped, he was still within the height and weight guidelines for the infant carrier. The added benefits were how much easier it is to install on the plane (belt goes over instead of behind and through) and the attached sun shade which we used during his naps. It kept him nice and shielded from light and distractions. We used a portable sound machine to drown out unwanted sounds. The base went in the checked bag. It was too bulky to attach and carry around the airport. And, even though you can, we didn’t feel comfortable using the infant carrier in the car without the base.
Umbrella Stroller: we used this to transport the baby around the airport and California. We decided to bring the umbrella stroller instead of the one that the infant carrier clicks into. Mostly because the other is so bulky and heavy. Getting that through security didn’t sound appealing. And we were certain it wouldn’t have fit in the trunk of the rental with all our luggage.
Baby Bjorn: We used it to get through security and then we used it again to board the plane. It made each task so much easier.
And It Takes Knowing How To Navigate The Airport With All That Junk
My husband and I each wore a backpack. The third, the diaper bag, we slipped over the telescoping luggage handle. The two carry on suitcases were connected using a leather belt, to form a suitcase train. We slipped the handle of the infant car seat carrier over the telescoping handle of the luggage, on top of the backpack (after we checked the large bag and made some adjustments that are not shown in this picture). This left my husband a free hand to get the large suitcase to the checked bags counter. My son was pushed in the stroller. My personal item (diaper bag I used as a tote) was attached to the stroller with the stroller clips and the Baby Bjorn was placed in the stroller bin until needed for security and boarding. The stroller was gate checked, for free, once we were on the plane.
If you’re curious how to connect suitcases, I found this video the most helpful.
Tip: Make sure you place the car seat over the luggage or it can drag on the ground when you roll your luggage. Yeah, that’s something we learned the hard way.
It Takes Being Security Check Savvy
Make your trip through security as easy and painless as possible.
Get there early. Seriously! Don’t put unneeded stress on yourself by being late. As first time parents, my husband and I underestimated the amount of time it takes to get our son out the door. We make this mistake all the time. And we did it on vacation too. We had about 30 minutes to get through security with all our stuff and a baby, having never done it before. I had no fingernails left by the time we got to our gate. And I didn’t have time to grab a coffee or pee before boarding.
Know the rules. There are a lot of things that are allowed when traveling with kids that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed. For instance, did you know, if under 12, you don’t have to have kids take their shoes off? That just saved you a 30 minute argument if you have 3 year old. You can find TSA’s rules on traveling with kids here.
Speaking of rules, you may need I.D. for the baby. TSA’s website says that you don’t need it if the baby is traveling with a companion within the United States. But, some airlines require it anyway. So, double check. Usually a birth certificate is sufficient.
Check your toiletries. If checking a bag, put all unnecessary toiletries (everyone’s, not just yours) in that bag. It’s one less thing to pull out and put back. You’ll already have your hands full in security. Trust me. Keep one small bag of necessities like diaper cream and Tylenol for the plane.
Use a baby carrier or wrap. To get you and baby through security and on to the plane as easily as possible.
Know how to fold the stroller. Your stroller will have to go through security. If you don’t use your umbrella stroller often, make sure you know how to fold it before you get to security. You’ll embarrass yourself otherwise. Another thing we learned from experience.
Keep it simple. Wear sandals or slip ons, no belt, no jewelry that you have to take off.
Have everything out and ready. Before you get in line, get all the small items that have to be screened separately (toiletries, tablets, phone, etc.) out and place them in an easy to reach location like the front pouch of your carry on.
A Pre Boarding Checklist
- Did you go to the bathroom?
- Did you change the baby?
- Do you have enough water for bottles (if bottle feeding)?
- Did you nurse (if breastfeeding)? Those nursing pods are much more comfortable than a cramped plane seat.
- Got your coffee and food?
It Takes Having a Solid Plan For The Plane
Okay, moment of truth. You’ve made it to the airport, through security and somehow managed to get you, your baby and all your stuff to the correct gate. You are at the correct gate right? Now it’s time to board.
Pay attention during the boarding announcements. You’ll want to take advantage of the opportunity to board first when they announce families with small children can start boarding.
If you can get away with it, put the car seat in the middle seat. So you each have access to a needy baby. That way one of you can nap or read while the other one takes their turn tending to the baby. But, just be aware that some airlines, or flight crews for that matter, can be more strict than others and may make you put the seat at the window in case of an emergency deplaning. And whoever has the stronger bladder should sit by the window. It’s can be a tight squeeze past the car seat.
Note: even though he isn’t forward facing age, we positioned our son forward facing because we had monitors in the headrests of our seats and we wanted to take advantage. Even with no sound, the TV kept him interested for a long time which allowed us to conserve the batteries of our personal devices.
Know How to Install Your Car Seat. Some car seats can present a problem with the belt (you can buckle the seat belt but unbuckling it is a different story). Here is a good article on how to install a car seat on a plane and overcome the belt issue if it applies.
Put A Cork In It Before Take Off And Landing. Offer a pacifier, bottle or boob so that those little ears don’t build up too much pressure. Keep in mind that because of safety concerns, some airlines and flight crews will ask that you have your baby secured during take off and landing.
Keep that baby happy! Use those books, tablet loaded with offline shows, snacks, toys, portable sound machine, pacifier, bottle, boob, walking the aisle (without clogging it up for other passengers or crew), tickling, singing, etc. And use a portable sound machine for nap time.
Tip: in addition to bringing a few of your baby’s favorite handheld toys, try buying a new toy or two just for the plane. The new toys might help keep them occupied longer.
And Finally, It Takes Patience, Flexibility And Staying In Touch With Reality.
And Maybe A Drink Or Two. For you, not the baby. Seriously though, the reality is that every child is different so all you can do is be prepared. Travel can be rough, especially with kids. So, have a plan and go in with the understanding that you may need to adapt. You’ll make it. I promise! Unless you are flying alone. If you are flying alone with a baby, scrap all this advice, pay to check everything and may the universe have mercy on you.
That’s it! Okay, it’s a lot, I know. But, everything with kids is a lot right?
Have fun! You’re on vacation.
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