This is third and final entry in a series on flying with children without losing your ever-loving mind. Prior installments stress the importance of bribery and the joy of insanely detailed checklists.
Last May, my husband got tapped for a big-deal work thing out in Boston, and the only downside to his big-deal work thing in Boston is that the dates overlapped with a long-planned week in southwestern Florida. So he flew off to Boston and I flew our kid and our stuff out to Florida.
The photo at left depicts everything I schlepped around a long-term parking lot at 6 in the morning. The big duffel bag held all of our family's stuff for the week. The backpack at the right was the sole carry-on bag I elected to schlep; Trixie's insulated lunch box was clipped to the front. The carseat in the middle obviously carried the most precious cargo: Bunny, without whom my daughter would refuse to move. So she sat with him too.
As I was hauling things in and out of the car while keeping up my end of the conversation with Trix, I felt like I was schlepping everything we owned. Looking more objectively at the whole thing now, I see that it was actually a fairly light packing job. And that sums up the key to packing for any trip with the kids: Go light.
After the jump, I'll explain how to pack lightly with a toddler, and toss in the rest of the best practices for flying with the shorties. Spoiler alert: Many of them involve money.
Know people. The first time I traveled solo with my daughter, she was going to be hanging with my mom for a few days -- and my mom didn't have any baby gear. Why would she? Her youngest baby was 36.
Fortunately, my dear friend Michelle was willing and able to lend Mom a pack-and-play and an exersaucer. All I had to fly out was our booster seat.
With the Florida trip, we were even luckier: the house my brother arranged for us was owned by a grandparent who did pony up for kid stuff, so we had a crib and a booster seat already waiting for us.
Ship ahead. Rather than schlep diapers all over the place, if I know where I'll be staying and I know someone's around to receive packages, I'll ship an order of diapers to my destination. I've also done it for food -- those squeezy packs of fruits may be ruining the family dinner if the NYT Trends section is to be believed, but they're handy for snacking on the go in unfamiliar places when you can't accurately judge traveling times or emergency pit stops.
Your child is not going to be deprived if you don't bring All The Toys. Or, as I like to think of it, if my kid is happy playing with a set of measuring cups and two soft books, why the hell would I need to bring other toys? (Or really, even buy them?)
Also: Many travel articles will tell you that your kid will love it if you pelt them with new and unfamiliar toys while on the flight. Perhaps this works for other kids. It does not work for mine, as she is the type who handles unfamiliar situations (i.e. sitting on a flying metal tube for hours at a go) only so long as she has many familiar things to which to cleave.
So, know your kid before you drop a ten-spot on cheap imported crap at Target.
That tip above is possibly the only frugal tip I have for traveling with kids. This is because I believe that your sanity's often worth a little extra cash. Which is why I recommend ...
Book a separate seat for your kid, even if she's under age 2. Obviously, there are exceptions -- you're flying with a tiny infant whom you can wear in a sling, you're on a flight that's maybe an hour long. But if you're going cross country, pony up for your kid's seat. You may as well get used to the cost of flying with kids early on.
The extra seat is so incredibly handy. You don't have to gate-check your car seat, so you can use that to either store the mountain of amusements you'll be whipping out to keep the kid distracted, or you'll be using it for storing your kid. After going through the circus of security screening (more on that anon), tot-wrangling at the check-in gate, trying not to leave things for too long lest they be blown up by the TSA, etc. ... having a blissful 120-minute window in which your arms are your own is the difference between a manageable flight and the flight from hell.
Check bags. Just do it. I know it's practically an Olympic-level event in the frugality games to see how much crap you can store in a carry-on, but seriously? Planes are not roomy, you do not have the luxury of devoting 100% of your attention to re-tetrising your stuff after you pull one thing out, and it is just so much more pleasant if you do not have to juggle more than two or three items (including a kid) when you board and deplane.
About security: Wear your kid if you can. If you're bopping up to the TSA agent with your kid strapped to your front and your carry-on on your back, you're in and out of the screening in five minutes. (Also, people love to help when you're trying to get the Ergo re-fastened.)
My friend Erin -- she of the engineer sister and herself a parent of three kids under age 5 -- says this is how she rolls: She wears her littlest one in a front sling, puts a carry-on on her back, then carries the bucket car seat. I took her advice when Trix was a baby, and it was great.
I've also worn Trix in an Ergo, then had the car seat on its little rolly cart with the carry-on in the seat.
The point is to always have at least one hand free at all times.
And my final advice for the plane itself:
When your child sleeps, that is when you ask the flight attendants for drinks or food, read and zone out, because you are ON when your child is awake. The flight attendants I've had -- on Virgin or Southwest -- are really good about coming by when the child is sleeping.
And yes, I do hit up the flight attendants for food and drink, even when it's not free. This goes back to packing light. I'll make sure my kid's needs are provided for -- I've read enough horror stories about flights where there was no milk for sale -- but I'm an adult, I get abstract concepts like "delayed gratification" and "natural consequences," and so I take my chances that I'll be able to get a snack box and a Diet Coke in the air.
If you are flying with your partner/co-parent, do the one-on-one-off system. This comes from my genius friend Kate, who uses it with her spouse: During long flights, have a system where, for one hour of the flight, one parent is on active kid duty and one parent can Swim In The Lake Of Me. Then switch. Do as often as needed. If your child naps during your hour on duty, the clock gets paused, and it starts up again after the child wakes.
The name of the game is "Keep your child calm and happy," not "Impress your fellow passengers with what a consistent hard-ass you are." Although we have fairly strict limits on the amount of screen time our kid gets and we don't do a lot of processed foods, you can be darn sure that Trix gets access to as much Signing Time and goldfish crackers as she'd like on a cross-country flight. Also: we don't bother with headphones. First, my kid won't wear them. Second, every other passenger on the plane typically is wearing them, so none of my fellow travelers are ever at risk of learning that down on Leah's farm, there is one red rooster, one red, one red, one red rooster ...
But the top dictate for traveling with children, with or without a partner, at any age:
Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead.
I get that not everyone thrills to lists and logistics -- so I hope that these posts can provide a planning framework for your safe and happy travels au bebe.