I feel like I need to be EXTREMELY specific with the title of this blog post, because while we've successfully traveled a number of times with Elise, any recommendations I make are based strictly on our experience. Being that "our experience" only includes one child who has only just reached one year, you should probably take this with a grain of salt. Maybe a spoonful of grains, in fact. Nevertheless, I shall proceed, while acknowledging that whenever we have more than one child and we travel with said children, I'll probably need to blow this up and start over.
Here we go!
If at all possible - logistically, financially, or otherwise - aim for a flight that coincides with nap time or bed time. Unless your baby will not sleep except in his or her bed at very specific times, getting her to sleep is by far the easiest way to "enjoy" the flight yourself. It often means very little sleep for you as the parent, but it also means that you're not wrangling a crying baby for 5+ hours, or however long you're traveling for. Given those two options, I personally prefer the former. I can sleep when I'm dead, and if my kid isn't screaming, I won't die of embarrassment as a result of the trip.
If you aren't able to choose a flight around a regular sleeping time, Godspeed. You will likely still make it to your destination in one piece, and you will hopefully never see anyone who was on your flight ever again. Dignity by obscurity!
For US domestic flights, many airlines do not require identification for your baby if you are traveling as a family. However, some do, so make sure to take a look at the airline's policy before you leave. To play it safe, bring a copy of your baby's birth certificate to ensure that you won't have any trouble.
If you're traveling internationally, your baby will need a passport. In addition, if you are traveling with your baby internationally and without your spouse, you might be questioned at the border since they're on the lookout for child abduction. Upon returning from France, the Icelandic border control guard let me through THAT TIME, but informed me that if I were to ever travel internationally with Elise and without Chaz again, I should bring along a note from him saying that he had given his blessing. I assume that would have been true the other way around as well, if he had been traveling with Elise and without me. Otherwise, I SMELL THE PATRIARCHY.* Personally, I'm not sure forging a note would cause that much moral distress to someone who was already abducting a child, but evidently it makes all the difference.
* Please note the sarcasm.
Trying to decide what to do about a car seat is tricky, and depends on what you will be doing upon arrival to your destination. My preferred method is to not bring one and travel entirely by train, but that isn't usually doable in the US. If a car seat is necessary, there are a few different methods you can use:
- If you're renting a car, you can rent a car seat as well. Rental car companies usually have both infant and toddler car seats, and we've used this method successfully before. However, it's not the cheapest way, since you typically pay by day.
- You can bring your own car seat. If you go this route, you can choose to either bring the seat on the plane (if your baby has his or her own seat, or if you're using it as one of your carry on items), check it when you check in, or gate check it. I know there is some concern about what happens to car seats in the cargo section of the plane and whether they get too abused to be safe, but I personally am not too worried about that after finding that my stroller did just fine in the belly of the beast.
- If you work out transportation from the airport to wherever you'll be staying, you can buy a cheap car seat on Amazon and ship it to your destination. This might work well if you plan on returning several times and have a place to store it when you're not using it.
WHAT TO BRING ON THE PLANE
For starters, bring your spouse. It makes hauling all your stuff significantly easier. It also means that you can go to the bathroom at the airport (or on the plane) without strapping your baby to your back while simultaneously dragging your luggage and/or trying to get through security while everyone behind you in line wonders what the heck is taking you so long.
Glad we've got that covered.
Spouse or no spouse, bring a stroller and a baby carrier. The stroller is great in the airport (after security), and the carrier is the BEST thing to have on the plane, especially if you've gotten your baby to sleep. Gate check the stroller so that you have it right away when you land, unless you don't. In the event that you don't, you still have your carrier, so it's not the end of the world.
Other things that I've found useful include toy/pacifier wipes for when toys (that your baby loves to stick in her mouth) inevitably fall on the ground, Purell wipes to somewhat mitigate the ingestion of germs that live on every single surface in the plane, snacks upon snacks upon snacks (since the airline will only give you pretzels if you're lucky), and an empty sippy cup. I like to fill up Elise's cup in the airport water fountain after security so that I don't have to depend on the flight attendant coming around with what must be the smallest imaginable bottle of water.
I also like to bring a few toys and board books, since they don't take up too much space and will entertain Elise for at least a few minutes. For the toys, I'll often bring a pacifier clip so that I can attach them to Elise and reduce the number of times I have to think about how many germs they picked up from the surfaces around us. Her O-ball was a particular hit when we went to France.
Lastly, diapers and wipes are obviously necessary. However, I usually adjust my changing supplies containment method while flying so that everything I need is all in a gallon ziplock bag. I bring between five to seven diapers (depending on the length of the flight), which is more than generous, but keeps me well within my comfort zone. I also include my package of wipes, hand sanitizer, and several sandwich-size ziplock bags so that I can dispose of any particularly smelly diapers without offending the next bathroom visitor. Having it all stored inside a gallon bag means that I can just grab it from my carry-on backpack and hoist both it and my baby down the plane center aisle without whacking people in the face with a giant diaper bag. I also don't need to wrestle with it in the closet that doubles as the airplane loo.
Oh, and make sure you bring your own survival tools. Dark chocolate is an absolute MUST.
GETTING YOUR BABY TO SLEEP
I mean...do whatever is necessary. You know your baby the best. For me, that looks like strapping Elise into the baby carrier and going to stand in the back of the plane to rock until she conks out. If she's tired - and so far we've mostly worked out flights so that she is tired by the time we're on board - she'll go to sleep fairly quickly. The only downside of this method is that you may or may not be in the travel path of the flight attendants getting minuscule bottles of water for other passengers. Eventually they will get tired of you having to move every time they come back and will tell you stand in the corner, which is actually preferable to standing in front of the bathrooms, which is where they had originally told you to stand. This process will also likely be smoother on international flights with more space in the back and often times more merciful flight attendants.
This section could more accurately be "how to avoid having your baby cry during takeoff and landing." The trick can be found on probably every single traveling-with-babies blog post on the internet. Feed that tiny human both on the ascent and descent, and the ears will not cause you issues. Nursing, pouches, water, juice boxes, and even pacifiers in case of snack-less dire straits will do the trick.
Crying at other times is most likely due to feeling uncomfortable, being overtired, needing food, or any of the other hosts of reasons babies cry when they are not on planes. If discomfort is the culprit, try changing the diaper. While it is possible to change a diaper in your lap or, if your child is big enough, while she stands between your knees, use your best judgement when it comes to the content of the diaper. In other words, if it's going to be rather pungent, proceed to the nearest plane bathroom and bring along your ziplock bags. I definitely dreaded changing in the bathroom the first time, and then I realized it wasn't that bad. It gets a bad rap, but as long as there is a changing table (and by golly, there SHOULD BE), it's not really that much different from changing your baby on a changing table at home without a changing pad. Speaking of which, make sure you bring a travel changing pad. If you don't, paper towels make an effective, albeit non-squishy alternative.
Congratulations! You made it through the hardest part! Now you just have to collect your stuff and get off the plane. If you're in another country, you will have to go through customs and get your passport stamped, but since you're not a criminal and the reason for your visit is obviously vacation, that's no big deal. My only note of import: make sure to take a good look around you before you get off the plane to verify that you haven't left behind anything of value. Or anything at all, for that matter. This last step used to be something I barely considered, because I'd usually put away anything that I took out when I finished using it. With a baby, many more things ended up outside of my luggage and didn't get replaced immediately, so the risk of losing something increased significantly.
BITS AND BOBS
Jet Lag: it's a beast, unless you've done the red-eye thing. If you did an overnight flight, three cheers for you! You should be just fine. If you didn't, well...just make it past the first two days or so, and you will survive. Just prepare yourself to be very tired and try to keep as "normal" a schedule as possible so that you adjust naturally.
Useful Items: if you've gone somewhere international, don't bank on having high chairs in restaurants. Get yourself one of these before you go and you will be so so so so glad you did. If your baby is eating solid food, these will also turn you into the restaurant's favorite patron, since you're clearly not expecting the restaurant to clean up after your kid.
Ideal Age Range: this is probably a personal preference, but I really liked traveling around 9 months. It was nice to have an interested, yet non-walking baby who was eating enough food to sample things while abroad, but didn't want to do all the things herself. 12 months was much harder due to the walking/independence, but was still totally doable. Traveling at 5 months was also a little nerve-wracking, but only because we hadn't done it before. So my recommendation is around 9 months, but opinions are not fact. There you have it.
Sleeping Arrangements: I have yet to travel with a pack and play, but I have transported a Dockatot and am happy to report that you CAN squish that into a large suitcase. However, there's no way I'm bringing something that large on a long haul trip, so at least while we were in France, I just co-slept. It was much easier than any other option. But! If you don't want to do that, hotels often have cribs or pack and plays, and if you're lucky, the family you're visiting on the other side of the country will have one available thanks to other, now-older grandchildren. Finally, if that hadn't been possible for us, this thing (or any of the similar ones) would have arrived on my doorstep faster than I could use the "Buy With One Click" button on Amazon. That button is dangerous.
Diapers/Wipes: While I do bring as many wipes as I can comfortably fit, I like to bring just as many diapers as I need for the first day or two and then buy more when I get there. This philosophy worked out particularly well in France, where it turns out that grocery store diapers were superior and significantly less expensive than Pampers. I wish I could get them here.
So there's all my advice! Go forth and explore the globe, fellow parents! Then come back and tell me what else I should have included. May your children be less wiggly for souvenir photos than ours.