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A Survivor’s Guide to Air Travel With Multiple Young Children

Feb05

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I stepped off a plane less than 12 hours ago. I stepped off of that plane with two small children in tow, successfully resisting the temptation to abandon their tushies somewhere along the way. There was that nice family in the terminal in Atlanta. Or that comfy pile of unclaimed luggage in customs.
Needless to say, I am EXHAUSTED. And in no shape for confronting your Major Life Problems or Assorted Hair-Related Crises. So instead, I present a list of the stuff that came in super-handy during our little jaunt across international waters.
1. The Traveling Toddler Car Seat Travel Accessory
We looked at dozens of uber-clever “solutions” for traveling with our car seat. Stroller frames, zippered covers, backpack carriers, etc. We had two basic needs: a) We were not bringing a separate stroller, and wanted to use the car seat as airport transport. And most importantly, b) We were bringing a LOT OF STUFF ALREADY, and wanted something lightweight and easy to assemble and disassemble at security lines and gates. In the end, we went with the most basic-looking option: a strong, adjustable strap that attaches any LATCH-compatible car seat to any small rolling carry-on suitcase. Put the kid in the seat and roll them merrily along. Done.
I was nervous about our choice (I mean, come on, $14.99? You’ll pay more than that for an airport sandwich). But oh, this thing worked brilliantly. We adjusted it at home, on a trial run (which I highly recommend), then simply snapped it all together curbside at the airport in a matter of minutes. Our intrepid Samsonite wheelie bag (in which we’d packed our spare “massive climate-change” wardrobe) became a stroller. When we were able to score a seat for Ezra (he was an “infant in arms” but on two out of four planes we got a seat for him), we simply wheeled him down the plane aisles, miraculously clearing the seats even in his massive Britax. He slept in the seat through BOTH of those flights. When he had to sit on our lap, we gate-checked the seat and went on with just the suitcase, and the Travel Accessory stayed hooked onto the seat.
Multiple times we were approached by highly jealous parents who had checked their car seats, only to be confronted with a half-empty flight and no suitable child restraint, or who were carrying seats backpack-style in addition to wrangling a toddler. One pregnant woman got on her iPhone to add it to her baby registry right then and there. Multiple thumbs up!
2) Ergo Carrier
This was my lifesaver on my last trip — solo, with just the baby — and lo and behold, it came in just as handy this time. Once we arrived in Jamaica, gate-checked items were not returned to until we cleared customs and got everything else at baggage claim. This meant parents had to navigate the maze of an airport and a MASSIVE line at Immigration without their strollers or car seats or restraints or aaaaeeeeiiiii. Totally not a situation we planned for…but I’d tossed the Ergo into a carry-on at the last minute, unsure of whether I’d need it or not, but OHTHANKGOD is all I can say.
3) Sony Children’s Headphones
Noah was EASY to please on the flight. My laptop and a DVD kept him happy. Throw in a bag of mini-pretzels and a cup of apple juice and he thought air travel was pretty much the greatest thing since the school bus. We’ve had problems, though, with headphones in the past. Ear buds don’t stay in and regular adult-sized ones slide off. These headphones say they are sized for 8 years and up but they fit Noah (4 years) perfectly. His head does trend toward the upper end of the percentile chart, so if you’ve got yourself a 95th percentile noggin, you could likely use these well before age 8 as well. (We ONLY use them for travel…regular use of headphones for little kids is not a good thing, obviously.)
4) NotToys
Ezra, on the other hand… OY VEY, HE WAS A CHALLENGE. I deeply regretted our decision to save money and not buy him a dedicated seat. (We paid a percentage of our tickets because it was international travel, and kind of misunderstood the ticketing agent, who made it sound like it was simply a discounted seat, but still a seat. IT WAS NOT A SEAT.) When he was in a seat, strapped into the Britax, he was a dream. He ate a snack, drank some juice, charmed passerbys in the aisle, fell asleep. When he was on our laps, he was a nightmare. A squirmy, whiny, shrieky nightmare who wanted to climb and kick and throw Cheerios at the people in front of us. (If you’re traveling coach with a toddler on your lap, here’s a tip: REQUEST BULKHEAD SEATING. It sucks having to stow your stuff overhead, but it is waaaaaay better to only have a wall in front of you for your child to torture.) We’d brought a zillion and one toys — nice toys, cheap toys, new toys, old toys. Noah didn’t need them, and Ezra didn’t want them. Unless he could throw them. Things he did like: plastic cups, beverage stirrers, airsickness bags, laminated emergency instructions, tearing pages out of the SkyMall catalog.
In summary: Buy a seat, ask the flight attendants for any free crap they can spare, use the space for toys in your carry-on for headache and anti-anxiety medication instead.
5) Chewy snacks
The ear thing. Oh, the ear thing! We had sippy cups ready to go for take-off, hoping to get the boys drinking and swallowing at the right time…only we misjudged the timing EVERY. TIME. and the cups were empty by the time the actual ear-popping started. Ezra would suck his thumb if given his lovey, but on our flights out they both complained of earaches at various points. On the way back we inadvertently solved the problem with a big bag of juicy, chewy raisins. Easy to dole out as needed, encouraged lots of chewing and frequent swallowing, healthier than candy or gum, AND nothing you’ll need to arrange after the security folks make you dump out your sippy cup contents. (This only happened in the States. I’ve been allowed to bring milk and formula along, but was told to dump their water this time. Jamaica had no problem allowing children to bring their juice along.)
5) Overpriced alcohol.
Yeah. You know what? When that beverage cart comes along and you’ve successfully gotten both children through security and elevators and trams and interminable waits and onto a plane and somewhat happy and quiet and maybe even asleep and contented? Spring for the $5 beer or $7 cocktail. YOU’VE EARNED IT.

Related:
How To Fly with a Young Child
Traveling with Kids: some fun & helpful products


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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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23 Responses to “A Survivor’s Guide to Air Travel With Multiple Young Children”

  1. Anonymous Feb 05 at 2:54 pm Reply Reply

    Two dvd players. Oh yes. We brought ours and borrowed grandma’s. One for the four year old, one for the 2 year old. Also love the Go-go Kidz Travelmate for the baby, since we like to check as many bags as possible. (3 kids under four + 2 adults = not enough hands).

  2. bethany actually Feb 05 at 3:15 pm Reply Reply

    Because we’re a Navy family and we don’t live anywhere near any grandparents, my daughter (now 5 1/2) had flown a dozen times or more by her first birthday, and has flown almost as frequently in the years since. I can fully and whole-heartedly second everything that Amy suggested. The Traveling Toddler Car Seat Accessory didn’t exist when she was younger, but we bought a folding rolling luggage rack at Wal*Mart for $12 and would strap her toddler carseat to it with bungee cords, which worked perfectly. The rack was easy to fold and stow once on the plane.
    Also, I cannot recommend enough that you BUY A SEAT for your baby/toddler whenever possible. Kids are accustomed to having to sit still while they’re strapped into their car seat, and it’s much easier on everyone that way.
    The only thing I’d add to this list is: maintain your sense of humor! It will keep you sane if you can laugh at yourself. :-)

  3. Laurie Feb 05 at 9:24 pm Reply Reply

    I am totally buying the headphones. On my last flight I had prepared by buying an entire season of “Yo Gabba Gabba” on iTune but I failed in the headphone/ear bud department.
    My one suggestion for not toys toys for the toddler set is stickers. They’re quiet and you can stick them on the air sickness bags, sky mall magazine, arm of chair, parent… anything.
    Thanks Amy, and welcome back!

  4. Mom101 Feb 06 at 12:06 pm Reply Reply

    I’m so glad you mentioned the chewy snacks. It’s a godsend, really. We had some fruity whatevers but when they ran out (on the landing, of course) we tried to switch to gum that someone offered us. That was a laugh riot, watching my 4 year-old wince while trying to chew gum. You’d have thought I gave her a dish towel.

  5. Kate Feb 07 at 7:44 am Reply Reply

    Thank you, thank you for this article! Traveling on a plane in April with our will-be 16 month old, and I probably wouldn’t have even thought about how to carry the carseat until the day before we left, which would have been too late. Luckily, my mom did tell me to go ahead and buy him his own seat (and luckily Air Tran has affordable enough prices that we could do that).

  6. Karen Feb 07 at 11:46 pm Reply Reply

    Milk and formula but please pour your water out lady with the screaming kid.
    Really, what is wrong this country?

  7. stacy in europe Feb 08 at 3:14 am Reply Reply

    Thanks for this! We’ve got 2 International 8+ hour flights coming up in May with our then-14 month old. She’s already got her own seat! I was not even going to attempt to not only put to sleep in my arms (hahaha), but then HOLD a sleeping 14 month old for any amount of time. Yeah right. Overtired and upset squirmy baby, er, no thanks. It’s going to be hard enough to convince her to quit looking around and close her eyes while she is in her own seat, I fear.
    We will be figuring out the car seat situation, and we will be buying small earphones! :-)
    And the alcohol tip? Priceless! Maybe I can try to butter up someone for some free drink vouchers…who gives those out??? (seriously, who gives those out)

  8. Lisa M Feb 08 at 10:42 am Reply Reply

    Perfect timing…thanks.
    I’m traveling to visit my dad next month with no husband (he gets no vacation time, and we didn’t want to take a double hit of airfare and losing a week’s pay) and two VERY active boys.
    I already warned my dad to have lots of wine on hand for my arrival, but maybe this survival guide will help, too.
    At least I know to bring raisins, now!

  9. Rachel Feb 08 at 11:23 am Reply Reply

    Thanks for this! I’m traveling solo with a 2-year-old next month and already stressing out about it. T

  10. Tiffanie Feb 08 at 11:54 am Reply Reply

    Amy, you are spot-on as always!
    We flew to Hong Kong when our daughter was 17 months old (that’s 22 hours there, and another 22 hours back!) and I’m ALL for the car seat strap — we got stopped everywhere with folks asking about it.
    Also, ALL for buying a seat for the child — unless they’re still in non-squirmy infancy, there’s no way to expect them to sit still and midway over the Pacific Ocean, you’d be willing to pay twice the amount of the seat for a break.
    And A’s favorite toys on the plane was a plastic beverage cup, little fuzzy pom-poms from the craft store (to put in the cup and then take out), and stickers.
    The only other thing I can add is that on long flights it’s important to keep hydrated — water, juice, and lotion on exposed skin since it can get so dry.
    We also brought ear plugs to distribute as a goodwill gesture to those around us, but thankfully never needed them!

  11. Susan Feb 08 at 3:27 pm Reply Reply

    I second the Ergo – as a generally wonderful baby accessory, but also as a lifesaver in airports. I used it in Honolulu as we used the stroller to balance the car seat and the ginormous bag of toys I brought to entertain Snackbox for seven hours, and then again in the Alamo line in Lihue – where he FINALLY fell asleep after twelve hours of travelling. His favorite toys? Plastic cups and straws, and my empty $5 beer can. Oh yes, the crinkly metal was quite a hit, until my husband made me take it away from him because “people are looking at us!”. Yeah, they looked at us a lot more once he started to holler.

  12. Kathleen Feb 08 at 3:35 pm Reply Reply

    Thanks for the raisin suggestion – I wouldn’t have thought of that one! I will send my love love love for the traveling toddler- so simple, so useful… as are the drink cups.
    I am surprised that the iphone didn’t make the list?

  13. Amy Feb 08 at 3:43 pm Reply Reply

    my 11 month old daughter and i are traveling by plane tomorrow and I wish I would’ve seen this in time to get the sit n stroll! It’s our first flight just mommy and baby and I am nervous! I’m gonna make notes for future travel plans to get the sit n stroll! Most of the other things besides nottoys, don’t apply yet as I can’t give her chewy snacks or headphones yet, but I will be passing along your article to my sister! She’s going to be traveling to Hawaii in June with my VERY VERY active nephew!

  14. Jessica Feb 09 at 2:11 am Reply Reply

    I just endured a 16 hour long-haul flight with my 2 month old, by myself. No matter what tools or tricks you have, it is hard to bare. The worst part is the looks you get from the people around you. My tips are:
    1. A baby carrier…the baby bjorn was a life saver…especially when it took 2 hours to get theu customs.
    2. A small changing pad. I have the JJ Cole diaper & wipes pod and it made life easier. Sitting in a bulkhead seat, I was able to keep it with me by shoving it in with the magazines. It held a couple diapers, the changing pad and wipes. That way I didn’t have to go thru my bags every time I needed to change my baby’s diaper.
    3. If breastfeeding, pump a couple bottles ahead of time for take off and landing. This solved the problem for his ears.
    4. When in doubt, hide in the bathroom for a while! It helped me not feel like people were staring at me while my baby was crying.

  15. Rachel E. Feb 09 at 6:29 am Reply Reply

    Have taken 2-4 transatlantic roundtrips a year since my eldest was born nearly 6 years ago,… so a bit of advice for really long flights.
    DVD yes, but 8 hours of screen time is a bit excessive. Definitely also take some good, easy to pack toys:
    – crayons or felt tips and some paper
    – a little jar of playdough and some playmobil dolls (they can use the playdough to make furniture, toys, etc. for the dolls)
    – card games, like Uno, go fish or old maid
    – a magnetic scene board with magnets (i.e. a jungle scene with Diego magnets, to let them tell their own stories).
    Books are good too – older children can often be persuaded to read stories to younger non-reading siblings.
    Finally, if you can possibly do without a stroller on the way to the US, do it. With a delivery-at-aircraft stroller, you WILL be the last person off that plane – and the last person in that long long line at immigration. Use a carrier or sling, it’ll save you loads of time – and give you a realistic shot at making your connecting flight.

  16. abby Feb 09 at 4:22 pm Reply Reply

    I once received a cocktail as a goodwill gesture from parents with a screaming baby who were sitting next to me. I thought that was awesome!

  17. Thank you for this! I have now traveled several times with my 3-month-old and couldn’t find much information before our first trip.
    I second the motion to splurge for the extra seat. I’ve done both now, and arrived SIGNIFICANTLY less exhausted when I wasn’t holding her for hours on end.

  18. stacy Feb 12 at 3:08 am Reply Reply

    if Rachel E. is still playing along — should we check the stroller then? We will need it in TX, but we change planes in Atlanta (International flight). I don’t mind the Ergo solution for the airport, and we will have her car seat with us.

  19. ClumberKim Feb 12 at 2:14 pm Reply Reply

    If you are renting a car at your destination, rent the car seat too (Avis or Hertz doesn’t charge if you’re a AAA member). We use the CARES harness on the plane. Weighs a pound and works like a dream.
    Gonna go check out those Sony headphones next. We’re flying to London next month….

  20. Kathy Feb 12 at 3:39 pm Reply Reply

    I will be traveling 1st time with a toddler. What is the procedure if you do not take a car seat and when you arrive at your destination what do you do when you have to take a Taxi to your hotel?

  21. Terri Feb 16 at 8:23 pm Reply Reply

    The solution to the earphone is the itouch. When we have two, I will have 2 itouches. I got one for my 18mos old and it was well worth it. You can throw it in your purse, no DVDs to keep track of, and it can withstand some pretty good falls.
    I also second the Ergo and the seperate seat. Even with husband in tow, the Ergo was great when I did not want to deal with her screaming.

  22. Melissa Feb 20 at 5:01 am Reply Reply

    Great tips! I travel frequently with my 2 toddlers and am getting ready to do it again next month. Its never something I look forward to but I always feel like superwoman when its all over.
    I would say one thing about bulkhead seating…on a 747 with the big movie screen, I have a hard time getting them to settle for sleep. The light is bright and changing constantly. And with the bathrooms right there, there are people moving around right near you the whole flight. I found the extra leg room wasn’t worth the hassle of no sleep! And you don’t get the extra under-seat storage for stuff. But if you travel light and your kids will sleep anywhere/through anything, this won’t bother you.

  23. Themoira Mar 03 at 3:12 pm Reply Reply

    I will be traveling with a ten month old this summer, and one of the things I am most nervous about is diaper changes. I can barely get myself in those tiny bathrooms, how on earth do you change a diaper on a squirmy infant?
    Do most convertible carseats fit in the airplane seats? Is there a way to check if ours will?
    Thanks, Amy! This column has been so helpful!

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