A version of this post was first published on Angela’s family travel blog 4 For The Road in 2012.
I’ve traveled enough by air as a solo parent with my son Max to know that no one looks forward to a long plane flight with a toddler— unless you’re some rich sheik flying on Gulf Air using their sky nanny service; in which case, you can stop reading right now and enjoy the rest of that yummy basboosa and coffee.
Since we are no such sheik, here are a few real tips that can make the trip more bearable. You won’t find this advice below in most travel guides (I checked!) and it should be adjusted according to your parenting ability, bench press limit, and moral compass. Please, enjoy.
1) Ingratiate yourself with your seatmates immediately. Or as I call it, “damage control”. Take a deep breath, give them a huge smile and introduce yourself and your child, so that your first real conversation won’t happen when your toddler dumps a full box of crackers on their crotch. Break the ice, compliment their hair, give a wink and joke, “If my kid bothers you too much during the flight, I’ll take him for a walk outside.” Ask if you can buy them a drink. You will need as many allies as you can muster, and a helpful (or at least not hateful) seatmate is priceless.
2) Your diaper bag should be a backpack, and should be your only carry-on (besides your kid). Have you ever tried to board a plane holding a squirming baby with coats draped over your arm, one finger gripping a plastic bag with snacks and magazines, and a large carry-on bag tangled with your purse, both slung over your shoulder? First of all, airplane aisles were designed for teenage European boys’ hips. Without both your hands dedicated to holding your kid in a vice-like grip, some businessman sitting in first class will get a swift baby kick to the throat and end up spilling his plastic cup of merlot on his polo shirt and khakis. Your shoulder bag will inevitably slam into the faces of every sucker already smugly sitting in an aisle seat on your way up to seat 29F.
3) Don’t overpack your carry-on. I used to bring bags of cheese, candy, the hardcover Harry Potter series and like 3 changes of clothes. And that was just for me. I’d pack stuff for the baby too, but I don’t quite remember what those things were. Then my bag would overflow as I dug around for my chapstick, and a cascade of Skittles would roll down towards the front of the cabin.
In all seriousness, bring only what you absolutely need. Aside from the essentials like low-sugar snacks, milk, diapers (estimated at 1 diaper per 2 hours of travel time), wipes, medicines, and an extra outfit, you have to keep your kid entertained. I’m here to plead with you…
4) Avoid bringing games or puzzles with a lot of loose, moving pieces. If you do, I guarantee you will leave the plane with only half of what you brought on. In fact, you may as well pack it in a bag labeled “Offerings for the Airplane Diety.” Your kid will chuck crayons and markers on the floor, legos will end up lodged into your arm flesh, and a few puzzle pieces will mysteriously disappear into unknown folds of your pants, which will fall into the toilet the next time you sit down (see #7). If you insist on anything with little pieces, might I suggest things that are self-adhesive? Stickers, a roll of painter’s tape, fake moustaches? Anyone? And that being said, for the ultimate in portable modern entertainment…
5) Invest in or borrow an iPad or Android tablet with interactive apps and downloadable short videos. One slim device is far preferable to jamming books and games onto an already-busting and heavy diaper bag. You also need the right apps — ones that can keep your toddler occupied but not zombied out. Some of Max’s (and my!) favorite apps include Zoo Train, Elmo Loves ABCs, Memory Train, and PlayHouse. I downloaded a full season of Ni-Hao, Kai-Lan and a couple of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse episodes, and that usually does the trick.
6) If your toddler drinks cow’s milk, buy it fresh at the airport, or pack tetra-packaged milk. Tetra-packaged milk defies all laws of logic and can be drunk while riding a camel in the Sahara. It’s the greatest. If you pour your own milk from home into a sippy cup or thermos and pack it, when you hit the security line they usually will allow it since it’s for the baby, but they will still have to test your liquids. It’s an extra step that will add more wait time for your already fussy toddler.
Also, have you ever had a sippy cup full of milk leak or explode in your unwashable leather bag? I’d say the resulting smell is akin to finding your bag under a wet pile of jock straps in the Yankees locker room. Avoid the mess and just buy fresh milk or other beverages at whatever food court you pass, or throw a couple of those tetra packs in your bag — but don’t place them back into your bag once you open them. Seems like common sense, but how many parents can claim common sense while wrangling toddlers? Also, most flights these days do not carry milk on board, since it’s highly perishable (thus expensive for the airline).
7) Don’t be afraid to ask the flight attendants for a little extra help or attention. Believe me, they’d rather look after your toddler while you speed-pee in the 2′x2′ sweatbox they call a lavatory than deal with the annoyed passengers in line waiting for you and your toddler to finish playing Twister with the toilet and sink. You’ll emerge maybe 10 minutes later, and will certainly have destroyed the bathroom. So when in need? Ask. Nicely. Giving your toddler an extra package of pretzels is a small price for a flight attendant to pay, to avoid a severe meltdown and potential emergency landing.
8.) Stop your self-pity, and look around. Last month on our flight, I internally lamented the cruel, unjust destiny of being a single parent on a cross-country flight with my nap-refusing 18-month-old boy. Then I looked across the aisle.
A woman was literally trying to lasso her toddler with the long end of her seat belt as he was climbing over the seat in front of them, grabbing that passenger’s toupée, screeching, “Nice kitty!” My eyes traveled downwards, and I saw that mother was about 5 months pregnant. And sweating, profusely. “Wow, maybe I’m not that bad off,” I thought.
Then behind her, I noticed a swollen, full-term pregnant lady wedged in the middle seat between two maniacs: a head-to-toe-pierced goth college student scented with mind-bending patchouli who was falling asleep on her shoulder, and a man watching a movie with noise-cancelling headphones, but gaffawing loud enough for the cockpit to hear. I half-expected to see amniotic fluid flowing down the aisle any minute. And then behind that lady? Charlie Sheen. You get where I am going with this.
9) Exhaust your kid, then board the plane as late as you can. I ignore the whole “pre-boarding for families” racket because I want my kid to get all his ya-yas out before we are trapped in a stale-aired, enclosed metal tube contraption with no easy exit. Seriously! Every last second of freedom counts. Some airports are extremely kid-friendly. Portland, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago all have play areas that are sponsored by local children’s museums, and Seattle has an amazing aviation-themed area. Orlando features a 3,000 gallon aquarium in the food court. Take advantage of these structured facilities — even arrive early if you want to! I also bring a few party balloons to blow up for some calorie-burning playtime (for both myself and my child), and they can be popped and discarded before boarding — no muss, no fuss. Relish that open space while you can; I measure the physical comfort of any given area by whether or not I can do high kicks. You cannot do high kicks well anywhere on a plane. I learned that the hard way.
10) For the love of God, buy your child his own seat on the plane. Before they turn 2, children are considered “lap-infants” and can fly free — on your lap. Last month, Max was 18-months-old, and I was 34-years-cheap. And apparently 34-years-delusional, to think he could fall asleep easily in my arms like he used to do at 5 months! If he was in his own seat he could sleep comfortably and for long stretches. And I know this sounds terrible, but I’ll say it. It’s nice to be able to strap your wiggling kid down and not have to hold him for hours at a time. If straight jackets were legal or humane, I would use them. Think of it this way — the money you “save” in keeping your kid on your lap will just go towards the cost of chiropractic and mental health services that you’ll end up needing after the travel ordeal has come to a sore and weary close.
11) Book flights in 3-4 hour legs. We flew across the country from San Francisco to Richmond, but had a layover about halfway through, in Dallas — a kid-friendly airport (see #9). De-planing gave us the chance to buy milk and hot food, go to a human-sized bathroom, and do some high kicks. (Strangely, that makes us sound a bit homeless.) Those that advise you to just fly direct and “get it over with” must surely have more endurance and also, access to stronger tranquilizers.
12) Take advantage of the family-with-kids security line. Don’t feel bad or apologetic for taking a long time going through. Rest assured, the twenty-year-old chippy in line behind you giving you stink-eye and sighing dramatically will one day have kids of her own, and know your same pleasure and pain. (I should know, I was once that chippy!) Pack extra ziploc bags for rearranging any carry-on liquids for the baby. Be extra patient, agreeable, and kill the TSA agents with kindness. You will be amazed at the difference that makes!
13) Make sure you are traveling in maximum comfort. If you feel good, you will have more energy and bandwidth to focus on your child. Then things go smoother, and everyone’s happy! I wear Crocs because they rule — easy on and off at the security line, and comfortable for miles. My sweatpants may not win any style awards, but I will take that over exposing my mama muffin top and losing circulation in my legs wearing designer skinny jeans. And scheduling is key: avoid toddler travel while you have your period, are in the middle of a diet, or during the Duke-Carolina game (or all 3, in my case).