Traveling with small children is certainly not as fun as without them, but unless you have unlimited babysitting the alternative is to not go anywhere, and that is a lot less fun than taking your kids with you!
New parents will probably gasp in horror at my next suggestion, which is that the golden age of family travel is before your child’s second birthday, but hear me out. Children under two travel for next to nothing if they sit on their parent’s lap. Once your child turns two, however, you will have to buy her an almost full-price plane ticket (the child discount ranges from a zero to about a hundred bucks off, depending on the airline) and pay for more expensive accommodations because your kid won’t fit in a travel cot anymore. That’s when family travel really gets painful!
Here are some tips and tricks to make air travel with kids more bearable:
1) Schedule the flight to coincide with nap time
If you have any choice in the matter, schedule the flight for a time your child is likely to be asleep. Airplanes are not made for kids (or humans, for that matter): they are cramped, you have sit still, strapped to your seat like in some sort of sadistic bondage scene, not to mention that every surface is teeming with germs. So the more time your child spends unconscious, the better it is for everyone. Your kid will be more likely to fall asleep around nap time, especially if you tire them out at the airport (see #6).
N.B.: Some irresponsible people suggest drugging your kids with antihistamines, but I, personally, would never advocate giving drugs to children, only parents.
2) Strategic seating
As tall people know, where you sit on the plane is everything, and many use Seat Guru to get the best seats in the house. If you have kids, this is even more true. The ultimate jackpot for parents of under 2’s is the bulkhead seat, or the seat just after a wall or cabin divider that has no seats in front of it. Normally, on long-haul flights bulkhead seats come with some sort of bassinet attachment (this varies a great deal, depending on the airline), where your little one can sleep and thus free up your arms. Even if your toddler is too big for the bassinet, you should still aim for the bulkhead row because they generally have more legroom, and your kid will happily play on the floor between your legs (yes, that’s really gross, I know, but just try to stop them!). Obviously, bulkhead seats are in great demand, so call the airline to request yours as soon as you make the reservation, and keep reminding them throughout the check-in process.
If a bulkhead seat is not available, on short-haul flights, for example, an empty seat is a pretty good consolation prize. My strategy, which has a decent success rate and costs you nothing, is for the two adults to choose the aisle and the window seats during online check-in (this won’t work at the airport), leaving the undesirable middle seat empty. Then you cross your fingers and hope the flight isn’t full, because those middle seats are the last ones to fill up. We still do this, even though our daughter is old enough to have her own seat: she gets the window seat, one parent gets the aisle, and the other sits in the other aisle seat across the aisle.
3) Leave the baby gear at home
While most airlines allow you to take 1 or 2 pieces of baby equipment with you for free, you’re much better off leaving as much as possible at home. That’s because you’ll have to lug it around, and with the baby, you have at least one less arm available than you thought you did. Do NOT take the following items with you (unless you have a very good reason, and even then!):
- Travel cots: Most hotels have one lying around somewhere. Give them a call to check before you book your room. I’ve even had a hotel in Greece buy a brand new one for us when they realized they didn’t actually have a travel cot!! If you’re using Airbnb, ask the host. Often, if it’s advertised as a family-friendly listing, they’ll have one because they have kids of their own or they can borrow one from friends.
- Stroller (if your kid is under the age of 1 or so): When our daughter was portable, her dad carried her around in an Ergobaby. We were spotted by a Frenchman in Lisbon, an incredibly picturesque city with seven hills, unevenly paved streets, and long, winding stairs. We overheard him saying to his wife, who was pushing their kid in a stroller, “Now, why didn’t we think of that?” A stroller will only be a nuisance if you’re anywhere that has bumpy terrain. Forget about going for a hike!
I won’t make any pronouncements regarding car seats, since we don’t drive and therefore have never had to deal with car rentals. Generally, we take public transportation and taxis, which don’t require car seats in most places.
What you should take instead, if you have a baby, is a supply of diapers and baby food to last the entire trip, unless you’re going to a big city. Baby food and diapers can be very expensive in remote locations, as we found out when we ran out of diapers during the last few days of our trip on the Greek island of Tilos, and a pack of very cheap-looking diapers cost at least 3 times what we would normally pay back home. As for baby food, it sometimes comes in exotic flavors or combinations that may not be to your baby’s liking. The best part of this approach is is that, by the end of your trip, the food and diapers will be gone, and you’ll have lots of room for souvenirs (or smooth, Greek rocks in our case)!
4) Carry-on Tips
This is what I always put in my carry-on bag:
- Something old, something new: An old favorite toy that your child sleeps with for comfort, as well as a new toy, game, book, or activity to keep them busy. If your kid is anything like mine, the longest time they spend with a toy is when they first get it. Leverage the toy’s novelty value for a few extra moments of peace!
- An iPad full of games/videos: I think the main reason my kid has grown into a happy little jet-setter is because she knows she can watch unlimited movies on the plane (less so in real life). Before she had a long enough attention span for cartoons, it was educational games on my iPad. Anything by Toca Boca is fantastic, and a lot of their apps, or at least the trial versions, are free!
- Food: Like adults, kids get really whiny and annoying when they’re hungry, so I always have a ready snack in my bag to avoid having to buy something unpalatable and over-priced at the airport. Also, it turns out that on most airlines, under 2’s who don’t have their own seat, don’t get their own meal either. At best, they’ll get strange-looking baby food they won’t eat anyway. So now I pack several ziplock bags full of finger foods: hardboiled eggs, cut up veggies like carrots and cucumbers, an apple or two. I usually also clean out the fridge the day before and make mini frittatas in a muffin pan. Apple sauce pouches are a big hit too!
- A change of clothes: Extra clothes for the kid is a no-brainer, but think of yourself too. If, like me, your reflexes aren’t very fast and your hand isn’t big enough to catch a heave of vomit, chances are you will be subject to at least some collateral damage. Marinating in vomit is no fun, so bring along at least an extra top for yourself.
5) Airport recon
Airports are usually pretty good for kids, if you do your homework. Singapore’s Changi airport, for example, has a giant slide, coloring stations, a koi pond, and a butterfly garden, and that’s just what we saw in our terminal! Changi is really exceptional, but most airports will have some sort of indoor playground to entertain kids before boarding. To save time, it’s a good idea to look up online what kind of facilities the airport has to offer before you get there. That way, you can head straight to the playground to tire out your kids for the plane (see #1).
It gets better!
Unfortunately, no matter what precautions you take, there will be moments when you wish you could parachute off the plane, leaving your screaming child behind. About 2 hours into an almost 24 hour trip to Australia with our then 14-month-old daughter, I remember asking my boyfriend whether he’d leave me if I stayed behind in Dubai (our layover) for 2 weeks instead and caught up with them on the way back. That trip was so traumatic that I didn’t want to go anywhere with my daughter for another 5 months, which is probably a record for me. But the next flight, to New York, was almost pleasant, and it has only improved since then. Our 4-year old is now constantly asking where we’ll be flying to next (pssst… the Canaries)!