Flying with Kids: from start to finish

To many, the thought of traveling with kids can seem like a daunting task. Below is an outline we have created in hopes of making this first part of your vacation easier. This may seem like A LOT of information and you may be thinking not only do you not have time to read this, but you most certainly won’t remember everything. It’s okay. These are just pointers and everyone’s experience is different. Not everything may apply to you and your family. Hopefully the outline format will make it easy to view only the information you’re looking for.

If just a few things help you out, then we’ve done our job. 🙂

I broke the process down into these steps:

  • Booking Flights
  • Checking in at the airport
  • Security
  • In the terminal
  • Boarding
  • Take off
  • In flight
  • Landing and De-boarding
  • Baggage

Booking Flights

  • When booking flights for the first time for a trip with your baby, there are a few things that will be different than when you’ve previously booked
  • Children under two (not two and under), do not need a ticket
  • When booking with a child under two, you will need to specify that you will be traveling with a “lap infant”. Usually, there is a drop down when you are booking.
  • Although this child does not have a paid ticket, their information (full name and date of birth) will need to be provided.
  • Children two years and older will need to have a ticket purchased for them
  • There is no discount for the child’s ticket
  • The child’s full name and date of birth will need to be provided
  • Always pick your seats when booking your flight. Some airlines do not offer this, but if yours does-do it.
  • If not, by default, most airlines will put families traveling with children in the back of the plane. If this is something that doesn’t bother you, great! For me, I prefer to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible. There are a few reasons for this, which I will dive into further down on this page.
  • When booking, you will not need to specify what baby gear (car seats, strollers, etc.) you’re bringing. We’ll get into that shortly, too.
  • You do have the option of buying a seat for the infant and bringing a car seat on the plane. In my experience, I have never done that but have seen other families. I’ll get into that when we review the boarding process.
  • If you’re flying somewhere that nonstop and flights with layovers are options. I would suggest the nonstop flight. Sometimes people think having two shorter flights would be better than one long flight because it will give the kids time to move around in between flights. In my opinion, choosing a flight with a layover is setting yourself up for potential disaster. Travel time and day will be much longer. You have to budget in time going to another gate or terminal in between the flights. If your first flight is delayed, you may miss your connecting flight and end up begin stuck at a random airport, missing out on valuable vacation time. Your second flight could also be delayed. Oh, there are so many things that come to mind. If you can avoid a layover, avoid it!

Checking in at the airport

Sometimes, this can be a stressful part of flying with kids. Recent changes at many of the large airports have kiosks made it this way.

In the past, the kiosks were for people traveling without checked bags or, if you did have bags, the kiosks would provide your boarding pass and then you’d have to go do the desk to have your bags weighed and tagged by someone from the airline.

WELL, those days are gone. And, I have to admit, I’m not happy about it.

At most large airports, you’re not responsible for checking in, printing your boarding pass and luggage tags, and tagging your luggage yourself. If you’re traveling alone for business or with adults, it wouldn’t really be a big deal, but with kids, it is. Here are our suggestions

  • Be sure to get to the airport with ample time to check in. The last thing you want to do is be dashing through the airport, re-enacting the Home Alone scene
  • Before leaving your car in the lot or starting to walk into the airport, have everything easily placed or divvy up the carrying of luggage to everyone in your party so everyone can easily walk and one person isn’t overloaded with stuff. Taking a couple minutes to organize this will be well worth it! One place that’s great to store smaller items before you check your luggage is your stroller. In the past, I wore my baby on me and piled up all I could under and in the stroller. That way, I could push the stroller with two hands. (The majority of my traveling with kids has been alone. Post coming soon on that!)
  • When you find your airline, be sure to read all the signs to make sure you’re in the correct line. So many times, people waste time thinking they’re in the correct line, only to be told by an airline employee they need to go somewhere else. If you’re even unsure, just ask. You won’t be bothering anyone. And, sometimes, if you get an employee that’s been in your shoes before, they may help you by bringing you to a shorter line or going the extra mile.
  • Once you’re where you need to be, chances are you’ll be waiting in some sort of line. It’ll feel like a juggling act with luggage, car seats, strollers, and, oh yea, the kids. What I’ve found works best is to have one spouse watch the luggage and kids and the other have the IDs ready to go for when you get to the machine, so no one is fumbling through your wallet when you get up there (AKA how my family has been, only with tired kids at our feet).
  • When you get up to the machine, you will have to confirm your reservation. Usually, you can use the confirmation number provided by the airline or can swipe your license or a credit card.
  • Ticketed children, ages 2-17, do not need an ID
  • Sometimes you need a birth certificate for lap infants. I say sometimes because I’ve only been asked for one a few times. To be safe, bring a copy of their birth certificate.
  • You will then be prompted to confirm who you’re checking in, if you have bags, etc.
  • Now, if you weren’t happy with the seats you chose when booking, I’d suggest looking up to see if there are more preferable seats available. There may not be, but sometimes you can get lucky and switch some things around.
  • What we found to be the trickiest part for checking in online was where do we specify the car seats we are checking? Each airline seems to be different on this. Some are clear and give you step by step instructions on this. Others, make you go through the steps like you’re checking luggage and then you specify at the last step. When booking, if you’re unclear, try to flag down someone that works for the airline to ask. We’ve gone through the whole process before, just to be told we did it wrong.
  • You do not have to pay to check car seats.
  • When you check your car seats, they’re going go get thrown around with luggage, possibly left outside in rain, snow, etc. I’d strongly suggest buying a car seat travel bag.
  • This is the one we had this Jeep version, available on Amazon for less than $20. It’s universal and should fit most car seats. Pro-tip, if you have some random things that you need to travel with but don’t have room in your suitcase, shove it in your car seat bag.
  • Sometimes, people may wait until the gate to check your car seat. We did this our first time traveling with a baby and I consider it a rookie mistake. If your infant car seat is snapped into your stroller and that is where your baby always sits when in the stroller, keep it that way. If your baby is sitting in the stroller seat and you’re carrying around the infant car seat separately, that is when you should check it. The way I see it, if it’s something you can check and won’t have to carry around the terminal, check it! Many I see now have straps like a backpack. Although I don’t have first hand experience with those, I can imagine it would be a huge help. Car seats, especially toddler/convertibles ones, are so awkward and heavy to hold.
  • If your airline makes you tag everything, read the instructions on the stickers on how to attach to your bag. It isn’t as simple as it seems. Trust me, I’ve done in wrong a few times.
  • Once you find the belt, hand off your luggage and car seat(s). I would not recommend checking your stroller at this point. Although it is free to check, you never know what can happen while you’re waiting for your flight and having your stroller can be a godsend.
  • Wave goodbye to your bags and you will see them at your final destination!
  • You will also feel a bit of relief as your load has been lightened. For me, I can now cross that off my list and focus on getting to the gate.
Luggage is checked, heading to security!

Security

This is something that varies from airport to airport. Sometimes, the line for security can (seem) miles long and other times you can walk right up. Of course if you’re traveling during the holidays or other busy times, lines most likely will be long.

  • If you or someone in your party as TSA precheck, anyone 12 and under can go through precheck with you, without having it themselves. Children who are 13 years or older and any other adults, need to have their own precheck
  • Not familiar with TSA Pre-Check? Here’s some more info. If you travel often, chances are you already have heard about it. For the cost, how long it lasts, and time saved it’s well worth it. However, this is not offered at all airports. The website has a list of these. If ones of these is your ‘home’ airport, it may not be worth it.
  • You will need to have your boarding passes and IDs ready.
  • When you get to the podium, the TSA employee will check and scan both.
  • After that, you will not need your ID again and won’t need you’re boarding pass until you’re boarding. Put them somewhere safe!
  • It’s good to have a plan of action ready for once you’ve zigzagged through the lines and get to the checkpoint.
  • Each person in your party should be aware of their belongings to make sure whatever they put on the belt, gets grabbed and not left at security. Certain airports can have chaotic and loud security.
  • Children under 12 and adults over 75 do not have to take their shoes off.
  • You will need to take your shoes off, so if you’re carrying a baby, wear shoes that are easy on and easy off.
  • Belts, wallets, coats, keys, phones, etc. will all go through the belt so try to check yourself for all of this. The large bins are great to fit everything, like a fun little game of Tetris.
  • Phones do not need to be taken out of bags to go through security. However, laptops and some tablets do. To be on the safe side, always take those out and put in a bin, before you’re asked to.
  • Diaper bags and all its contents are a necessity. You can bring whatever you need to travel with your baby. Just be aware that certain things may need to be checked by TSA and your bag will be pulled aside. A lot of times, TSA will see the diaper bag and ask about it’s contents before you put it on the belt. Take out any liquids. Again, these will probably need to be checked.
  • I have had baby wipes, formula, and baby food all flagged, causing my bag to be searched further. It isn’t a big deal and usually only takes a few minutes. You watch as they examine your bags.
  • If one of your children is carrying a bag of their own or a toy/stuffed animal, be sure to make them aware that they’re going to have to put their bag on the belt to go through the machine. A few times, my toddler was NOT happy about doing this and there were some tears. I found making it fun, like telling them their item is going on a trip or something, makes it a little easier. Sometimes you can see the screen that shows what’s going through the belt, my kids love to glance and see the inside of the bags as we are passing through.
  • Strollers also need to go through security. Smaller strollers can be broken down and pass through the machine. This never was the case with our single and double strollers. They always needed to be checked by hand by TSA. Let an employee know the stroller doesn’t fit through the machine. They will have someone take the stroller from you, bring it to the other side of the machine and check. Be sure that all compartments and pockets in the stroller are empty. This usually takes a couple minutes.
  • Children do not go through the body scan machines. They will go through the old school metal detectors. TSA employees will guide you in the right direction. If your child is old enough, they can walk through themselves. Or, if they’re too little or too nervous to walk through, you can carry them.
  • Once through, make sure all your items are through, grab them, load up your stroller with your gear and head to the gate.
  • You’ve officially gotten to the terminal! Are you exhausted yet? 😉
  • In our experience, the airports with the longest lines for security of JFK and Orlando (MCO). The shortest are Westchester (HPN), West Palm Beach (PBI) and Los Angeles (LAX–This may have been a recent fluke at LAX, but security was broken down for like 10 gates. We were amazed. JFK and MCO, take notice!). All the other airports we’ve been to are somewhere in between.

In the Terminal

Depending on the airport, sometimes you will have to take a tram or monorail to the gates. As with everything, just follow the signs and you’ll get there no problem

For me, once I get through security and to the gates, the first thing I like to do is find our gate. I’m not sure why, but I just like to see it, make sure the board is correct, and then I can focus on what to do before it’s boarding time.

Hopefully, your flight will be on time and you’ll have time to maybe grab a snack and quick bathroom run or diaper change before it’s time to board!

But, let’s be real, that isn’t always the case. Your flight can be delayed. It isn’t fun at all, but there’s nothing you can do so you have to make the best of it.

  • Infants: They can be the easiest in this situation. Since they basically eat, sleep, and poop, they can sort of be kept on their schedule and can be easily entertained by being pushed around in their stroller. Pro-tip: if your baby drinks formula, have the formula powder already measured and scooped in the bottle before you board. That way, when you need to prepare a bottle while in flight, all you have to do it add the water, shake it up and you’re good. Learn from my mistakes. Trying to measure out formula with a fussy baby on my lap, while confined to a small seat, trying not to make a mess, is not fun. I also have a tip regarding this is the boarding section.
  • Toddlers: They can be tricky in these situations. If your toddler is starting to walk, they may be happy walking up and down the hallways of the terminal. Sure, it may be exhausting for you, but it may wear them out so they’re sleepy for the flight. For toddlers that are at the age where they just dart. It’s hard to keep them contained. They may be happy walking around the terminal, looking at the windows at the planes, or playing with whatever toys you have on hand.
  • Preschoolers: Watching the planes come in and out from the window could be tons of entertainment for them. You could talk about where you think the plane is coming from or going to, who is on the plane, if they’re going somewhere warm, etc. When we’ve had delays and our plane is sitting at the gate, my kids have found it fun to watch the luggage loaded to see if they spot ours. Exploring the terminal and reading the screens at all the gates to see where the flights are going is always exciting too. Coloring books are always good to have on hand, as well as small quiet toys like cars, figurines, stuffed animals, books, etc.

While waiting at the gate, go to the desk for two things:

  1. To let them know you have a stroller that you need to gate check. They will tag your stroller, usually with a hot pink tag, that will have your last name and flight number on it. You will be given a carbon copy of this to keep.
  2. To ask if they do pre boarding for anyone traveling with small children. Most airlines do this. I have found it’s helpful to ask at the desk, even if you know they do this, so they’re aware someone is traveling with children. I have had instances that they did not specifically pre-board travelers with small children.

Boarding

It’s time to get on the plane. Hooray!

I’m not sure what it is, but every time they announce they are going to begin boarding, everyone immediately needs to stand, push their way to the front, and basically get in the way. I’ll never understand that. Airlines have a process in place to make boarding as simple as possible.

When you hear the initial announcement, listen closely as to when they are boarding anyone traveling with young children. This is usually after first or business class and military. Sometimes they specifically announce people traveling with children under two, sometimes it’s anyone with strollers, and other times it is a more broad annoucment or anyone needing extra time to board. Either way, be sure to board then and not wait until general boarding and this is why:

  • You will need to gate check your stroller. Some airports you leave at the top of the ramp, some have spots along the way. However, most times you will have to leave the stroller at the bottom of the ramp, immediately before you step on the plane.
  • Gate checking the stroller includes collapsing the stroller and leaving it to be picked up.
  • When you pre-board, there are less people around, making this process easier
  • Be sure to check your stroller to make sure you’ve taken everything out, including the baby 😉
  • I have seen people use bags to protect the stroller while being gate checked. Personally, I have never done this for a few reasons. Mostly because putting the stroller in the bag is, at least, a two person job. So, if you’re traveling alone, it’ll be almost impossible to do. Second, the gate check tag will have to be put on the bag. This means it’ll have to be all bagged up and ready to go, prior to boarding. If someone has found a stroller bag that can easily be put on and carried with one hand, let me know! I’d love to share the info and test it out.
  • As mentioned earlier, here is a tip for anyone traveling with a baby that may need a bottle made with formula during the flight: When you step on the plane, if there is a flight attendant greeting everyone, ask them if you can have a bottle of water for the baby’s bottle. Usually, the water is at room temperature. Even if you’re not sure you’ll need the bottle or not, just get the water to have just in case. Anything is possible and better to get before you’re seated and can’t get up. Of course, if your airline charges for water, I’d suggest buying a bottle while in the terminal, preferably at room temperature.
  • Once you have found your seat, it’s time to get settled in. Boarding early makes this much easier.
  • Try to pack bags that can fit under the seat in front of you. That way, when you need something in flight, you don’t have to worry about getting it from the overhead bin, while juggling a baby.
  • If you have other little ones that have their own seat, get them settled in too.
  • If you’re flying an airline that has TV, be sure to have their headphones ready to go. We have always purchased the headphones that go over the head from the dollar section at Target for our kids and they work great. I cannot find them online to provide a link, but they’re usually most of the year. They’re also cheap, only $5, so if they’re left behind or lost (yes, we have done this too), it’s not a big deal. They come in different colors so kids can pick their favorite and there’s no confusion between siblings.
  • If you are bringing a car seat or booster seat for the plane, now is the time to install. Usually the lap belt will go through where a seat belt would for infant or convertible car seats. As mentioned earlier, I have never done this myself, but have seen other families. Usually, they need assistance from a flight attendant on how to install, which can take some time. Second, some airlines have wide seats, while others tend to be more narrow without much room between the seat in front of you. If you car seat is bulky, you may want to take that into consideration when deciding to bring it on the plane or not. Also, I have seen families struggle trying to install a car seat, all while other people are boarding, just to find that the seat doesn’t fit and they’d have to gate check it. I’m not sure how often that happens, but they were frustrated and annoyed by it, and I wouldn’t want someone else to have to deal with that additional stress.

Take off

This part was always most daunting for me when my kids were between the ages of 18 months or so until about 3. Trying to tell them they need to either sit still on your lap or stay belted in their seat is impossible, as they don’t understand. I wish I had an easy answer for this. I’ve done it all….snacks, singing, playing, bribes, toys. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. My best advice for this is to stay the course. You may end up stressed and sweating because trying to hold a toddler down in basically the equivalent of wrangling an alligator, but it’s for their safety and will too pass.

In Flight

I know it sounds cliche and you may not believe it, but oftentimes, kids will sleep on the plane. Maybe it’s the white noise from the engines, maybe it’s nap time, or maybe they’ve exhausted themselves from fighting sitting still during take off, but it has been known to happen.

Notice how I didn’t say they always sleep? Because then I’d be lying.

If you child does doze off, ENJOY IT. Sit back, order a glass of wine, watch some TV, read a magazine, doze off yourself, or just stare into space and embrace the quiet (can’t tell you how many times I’ve just done that).

In flight, the TVs are a lifesaver and offered by most airlines. However, don’t bank on it. We’ve had flights that the TVs didn’t work and weren’t told until we were about to take-off OR just your TV doesn’t work. Pro tip: if this does happen, they will usually offer some type of travel voucher for the inconvenience or a free drink or snack. If your TV is the only one not working, tell a flight attendant. They may be able to move your seat. However, sometimes that my be to the back of the plane (I will touch on that shortly) or separate from the rest of your party. Sometimes that just isn’t an option. They will usually offer a travel voucher for you. If they do not, you should ask. What’s the worst they’ll say? No? This has happened to us on Jet Blue and we have received a credit in our travel bank because of it.

In the booking section, I mentioned how I prefer not to sit in the back of the plane. Reasons for this are mainly because of in flight. Being in the back can be convenient if you have a little one that’s potty training and constantly “needs” to use the bathroom. I totally understand that. However, when you’re in the back, everyone else that has to use the bathroom is heading there too. We all know sometimes there can be unpleasant smells from the bathroom throughout the flight. The second downfall about begin close to the bathroom is often lines tend to form. This means people will be standing in the aisle right next to you (sometimes over you), bumping into you, etc. If you’ve finally gotten you baby to sleep and someone accidentally knocks into and wakes the baby up, you’ll be livid. Also, the noise may keep little ones up. However, my number one reason has nothing to do with any of this. The further back you are in the plane, the more bumpy your flight will be. Some people do not mind it, but I do.

One fun thing to do in preparation for your flight is to have your kids pick a few of their favorite toys to bring on the plane. These toys should be small enough to fit in your carry-on bag. The number one thing about these toys, if they should be quiet. Nothing is more annoying than hearing a toy make the same obnoxious noise for hours on end. I have also gotten little toys prior to our trip that our kids don’t know about and bring them out on the flight. That way, they’re a fun surprise and (hopefully) will keep them occupied for longer than an old toy.

Some toys we would suggest are:

  • matchbox cars
  • books
  • action figures
  • other figurines
  • small stuffed animals
  • baby doll with bottle
  • magic ink books

Toys we do not suggest:

  • Anything that makes play music. Even if you can turn the noise off, you know your kid will keep turning it on
  • Crayons or markers. This does not apply to older kids, but I thought it was a great idea when my son was about 2 or so. Wrong! He thought it was great to color everywhere EXCEPT the paper.
  • Things that make noise to use. I know this sounds weird, but sometimes you don’t realize a certain clicking or random noise a toy makes until you’re sitting on a full plane and that’s all your hear.

I’m sure you’ve noticed I haven’t mentioned a tablet, iPad or phone yet. That has always been my very last resort. Mostly because our kids don’t have their own devices and I really don’t want mine broken. If that’s what you prefer, go for it. I do not judge. Just be sure to have headphones, in case they’re watching a show so only they hear it, not the whole plane. It can also be hard to take it away from a happy toddler once it’s time to power down all devices. Prior to traveling, download some movies,

Landing/Deboarding

Yay! You’ve started your initial descent!

Time to clean up any mess you’ve made, throw away wrappers, put toys away, etc. If it’s clear out and you have a window seat, show the kids. This can be a fantastic distraction for our sweet little angels that don’t want to sit still and be buckled in during landing.

Once you’ve landed and are done taxing, time to get off the plane!

And here’s the final reason I prefer not to sit in the back of the plane, because you’re the last people off the plane. Everyone getting off the plane can be quick and easy, other times not so much.

Have a game plan with who is going to carry what getting off the plane. Be sure to check all seat back pockets, underneath seats, etc. to make sure nothing has been left.

Once you step off the plane, your stroller is usually right there or is being brought up. If you don’t see any gate checked things, ask the flight attendant. Certain airports bring gate check items to the top of the gate. I’d say those are the exception and not the norm.

Baggage

This process is basically the same as all flights you’ve taken pre-kids. Just be sure to double and triple check that you have everything. Car seats that you checked with your luggage will be at the carousel

You did it!

Now that you’ve reached your final destination, it’s time to relax and enjoy your trip!

I hope to expand my posts to focus on traveling alone with kid(s), must have items for your carry-on, packing tips, and much more so stay tuned….