The Bird’s Word Blog
Navigating the Airport with Children: What You Need to Know
You’re lugging a backpack that seems to be filled with rocks while your purse strap slowly strangles you. Your stroller and suitcase are rolling in two different directions, the baby is hungry and the big kid is whining about having to walk. You’ve got a booster seat balanced on your head like a basket of exotic fruit while you slowly nudge the baby’s car seat across the floor with your foot. Yet, somehow, you’re making forward progress through the airport. And then… ah, yes… the smell of a freshly filled diaper begins to waft through the air, right on schedule.
Don’t let the logistics of traveling with kids squelch your wanderlust before you’re even out of the airport. Whether you’re a solo parent or you’re with your partner, flying with children will never match the ease of your child-free jet-setting days. But don’t despair; it’s possible to plan ahead and streamline your airport routine to minimize stress.
There are two factors to consider when it comes to making travel plans with kids: the logistics of actually moving children and their voluminous, bulky gear through the airport and onto the plane; and strategies for keeping kids entertained and comfortable in the TSA line, while waiting for your flight, and on the plane.
Consider renting gear
If you’ve got a little one who still uses a car seat or booster, you may want to look into renting it at your destination rather than lugging it across the country (or the planet) with you. On the plus side, you’ll save yourself some serious time digging in your car’s sticky, crumb-strewn crevices to uninstall your car seat and then feverishly attempting to install it on the plane while a line of passengers piles up in the aisle behind you. The drawback is that your child will have to fly either sitting in your lap (if they’re under 2), or in a seat without a car seat.
If you do decide to rent a car seat or booster seat at your destination, be sure to inspect it for cleanliness and working parts, and check the date of manufacture on the label. Don’t use any seats that are more than five years old. Most car rental agencies offer car seats for rent, but if you don’t need to rent a car, check out Baby’s Away or Google baby equipment rental options in your destination. Local outfits can be found in just about every city.
Think ahead for in-flight safety
If you decide to bring your car seat, make sure the label says, “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.” If it’s not FAA certified, you will have to check it. Backless booster seats generally are not FAA certified, so you’ll have the option of either checking it (for free) or sacrificing your precious underseat or overhead compartment space for it.
If your car seat or booster isn’t already irredeemably filthy, you may want to buy a car seat bag for its sojourn in the grimy belly of the plane. Or, ask the ticket agent for an oversized plastic bag to put it in, which works just fine.
Booster seats and car seats are bulky, awkward items to carry through the airport in addition to your other luggage. You can make it easier on yourself by strapping a booster seat to the stroller using hook-and-loop ties, or buying a simple t-shaped strap to attach your car seat to your rolling suitcase.
Make time for tangents
Leave at least 30 minutes earlier than if you were traveling solo; more if you have a young child who will need to walk under his or her own horsepower at any point at all. Children are terribly short legged and notoriously incapable of hurrying when you need them to most. And, of course, there’s always the dreaded eternity in the bathroom stall with a kid who swears they’re trying to make something happen while, to all appearances, they’re just swinging their legs and singing the theme song from Spongebob Squarepants. Cushioning your airport arrival time will help eliminate that tiny existential scream that threatens to bubble up when you’re debating the moral implications of physically prying your toddler off a public toilet before the fait is accompli.
Drop it like it’s hot
If you can, check your luggage. It’s worth every penny to divest yourself of as much weight as you can before you trek across the airport. In fact, on low-cost airlines, it’s sometimes less expensive to check your luggage than it is to bring a carry-on. Keep with you only the bags that qualify as “personal items”—a purse, diaper bag or backpack small enough to fit under your seat. Messing with the overhead compartments while holding a baby or dealing with a car seat is a hassle you should avoid if you can.
If you’ve got a stroller, you’ll obviously need to keep it with you in the airport, but you’ll be able to gate-check it just before you board the plane. Gate checking is one of the most underrated travel deals, by the way. It’s a free opportunity to avoid lugging your bulky items onto the plane, and it’s delivered to you right in the jetway after you disembark. You’ll want to remove any loose attachments (like trays and drink holders) before you entrust it to the baggage handlers. A stroller bag can help keep it clean and in one piece. Or, have we mentioned how much we love hook-and-loop ties? They can help make sure the stroller is as compactly folded and secured as possible.
Don’t forget the entertainment
Pack each kid their own backpack stocked with age-appropriate activity books, favorite toys, and bribe-caliber snacks that will keep kids happy and act as eardrum relief when the plane is climbing or descending. If screen time will keep your child occupied while waiting or during the flight, load some games, movies or shows onto your phone or tablet and feel zero guilt while they veg out. There are plenty of inexpensive, well-reviewed kid-sized headphones to choose from.
For a baby, a flight can mean hours cooped up in a stroller or car seat. If you’ve got a layover or time before your flight, head off a meltdown by setting them free as much as possible. Since airport carpets are not known for their sanitary qualities, a lightweight beach blanket can create a clean makeshift play space—or, in a pinch, a diaper-changing station.
As much as we may think of airports and airlines as impersonal monoliths, they’re made up of flesh-and-blood humans who have put courtesies in place to ease the pressure on traveling families. Choose the TSA line for families with strollers; it will generally be shorter than the line for the general population. Be aware that children under 12 are not required to take off their shoes while going through security. And if you’re offered the option of boarding your plane early to get your kids settled before the rest of the passengers get on, take it.
And finally, try not to worry that other passengers are giving you the stink eye if your baby cries or your big kid is having a less-than-perfect day. Do your best, obviously, to keep your children content and occupied, but most people are actually pretty understanding of the struggles parents go through. And once you’re finally onboard your flight, seatbelts buckled and coloring books or tablets blazing, allow yourself a happy sigh of relief. And then prepare to do this all over again, but in reverse, when you get to your destination.
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