This time of year often brings with it holiday travel to see friends and family but the prospect of flying with children in tow can be daunting. If you have been following my posts since last year you may remember the two-part blog series that I wrote about how to survive traveling with a nursing infant. If you missed them you can still go back and read them: part one and part two. A year later I’ve found that my infant has grown into a very independent toddler and with that has come new challenges.
This past week my family flew to Virginia to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding and I personally tested some of the advice that I was given about traveling with a toddler. I want to pass on the ones that were the most helpful to us. I ended up flying home without my husband as he had to go directly to Chicago for a work meeting so traveling solo with my son meant I really put these tips to the test!
Tip #1: No longer a lap child
The number one difference between traveling with a toddler versus an infant is that airlines require you to purchase a seat for a child over the age of 2. When traveling with a lap child you are required to show a birth certificate to prove your child’s age but once over the age of 2, a birth certificate is no longer required because he or she must have his or her own paid seat.
Tip #2: Car Seat or Not?
Now that your child must have his/her own seat on the plane you have another big decision to make. Will you travel with your child’s car seat and will your child sit in it on the plane? Up until now, I have always opted to gate check my son’s seat but in light of the fact that we had to buy him a seat for this trip I saw no reason why he shouldn’t sit in it during the flight. Some would argue that taking the seat on the actual aircraft is too much of an inconvenience and not worth the hassle but I saw it as a twofold benefit – 1) I would not have to worry about baggage handlers mistreating our seat and 2) My son would be safer and contained during the flight. My son actually likes his car seat (most of the time) and it was a big load off of my mind to know that he was strapped in securely and I didn’t need to worry about him wiggling out of the seat or fidgeting overly much during the flight. This particular flight was fairly short but my guess is that had the flight been longer, my son probably would have slept. My son almost always falls asleep in the car which most of the time is a blessing. The only downside is that there wasn’t a lot of room for my son’s long legs and I have to admit that he kicked the seat in front of him until he settled down. I apologized to the unfortunately passenger in front of him and luckily the person understood. Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can control and I’m fairly certain that my son would have tried to kick the seat no matter what. The best I could do was try to minimize how much he did it and to constantly remind him not to.
Tip #3: Navigating the Airport
Up until now navigating the airport had been fairly easy. I have always baby worn my son though security and the airport to prevent him from running off and to avoid the bulky stroller. This time however, I had his car seat to carry and did not have my husband to help me. I have to admit that this prospect was a bit daunting to me. My son is no longer “light” to carry around and his toddler car seat does not fit on his stroller. I was not at all confident in my ability to lug his heavy convertible car seat plus my son (because if I let him walk he would run from me) and my carry on bag with his snacks and pull-ups in it clear across the airport to our gate. After giving the issue much thought and equal as much research I decided that the solution was to use a “car seat caddy.” Unfortunately these handy devices are not cheap. I was fortunate enough for borrow one from another mom in one of my local mommy’s groups for this trip but after seeing how awesome it was I fully intend to purchase one for our next trip. It will be well worth the expense. Basically like an infant car seat caddy… the device allows you to attach a convertible car seat to it which allows you to push or pull the seat rather than carry it. The bonus is that you can also use it as a stroller by securing your child into the seat and the model that I borrowed (the Zoomer by Lily Gold) folded up flat to fit in the overhead bin on the flight. Without this handy piece of equipment navigating the airport would have been a zillion times harder. On one leg of the trip I wore my son on my back in a toddler Tula that I borrowed from my local babywearing group. This made going through security a breeze (see my posts last year for details on that) and kept my son calm. To lighten my load I stuck my carry on bag in my son’s car seat and using the Zoomer was able to push his seat and my bag very easily through the airport to our terminal. When we landed in Virginia we found that we needed to take no less than 4 elevators and 3 trams to get to the baggage claim. Boy were we glad that not have to lug everything that far by hand! On my return trip my son insisted on sitting in his car seat and being pushed through the airport so I pushed him while carrying the carrier and my bag but it was still far easier than carrying everything without the travel caddy.
Tip #4: Installing a Car Seat on a Plane
If you decide to take your car seat onto the plane for your child to sit in the info on this tip is super important and I admit that I never would have thought of this if it hadn’t been mentioned to me by a fellow mom. Firstly, make sure that your seat is FAA approved. Most are but there a handful that are not. The last thing that you want is to find this out in the midst of trying to get it on the plane. If your seat is approved there should be a sticker on the actual seat as well as info in the seat’s manual. I opted to take my manual with me just in case I needed to argue with a flight attendant. It’s also important to decide if you will install the car seat forward facing or rear facing. Legally, my son CAN sit front facing (by our state’s weight and height restrictions) but we are choosing to keep him rear facing in our car as long as possible. That said, we decided to allow him to face front on the plane for easy for installation – those rows are narrow! Keep in mind that if you are going to do this, you may have to change the strap position on the seat. When a child rear faces straps must be behind the shoulders but front facing they should be above. If you need to change the strap configuration it may be easier and less stressful to adjust them at home prior to travel and use a different seat to travel to the airport if that is an option. Lastly, ask for a seat belt extender! This may have been the most valuable piece of advice that was given to me. An airline seat belt is unlike that of a car. To release the belt, the top of the metal buckle must be pulled up and if the buckle ends up in the plastic belt path of the seat or at the back of the seat, it may be impossible to pull the buckle up to release it once the belt is tightened. I shared this piece of advice with my husband prior to travel but after getting on the plane he insisted that we didn’t need one. He was convinced that he would be able to release the buckle upon landing. Guess what happened when we landed? He couldn’t get the buckle open. It took THREE flight attendants to get our seat unbuckled from the plane. I was sure they would have to cut the belt or force us to leave our car seat. I was in full on panic mode and you better believe I wanted so scream “I told you so!” at my husband. We were lucky and an attendant with small hands was able to free our seat but if we had needed to make a connecting flight there is no doubt in my mind that we would have missed it. Do not let this happen to you! Insist on a seat belt extender (which I did on our return trip)!! It does take a bit more finagling to install the seat with the extender but if adjusted correctly, the extender allows for the buckle to be at the side of the seat where you can easily release it upon arriving at your destination. It’s also worth noting that you should plan to install your car seat in a window seat. Car seats are not allowed in aisle seat because they can block the drink carts from passing through and the middle seat tends to be the smallest. Installing your seat in the window seat gives you the greatest chance of success. I also highly recommend putting up the arm rests before you install it as it give you a little bit more wiggle room.
Tip #5: Entertaining a Toddler in Flight
If you have a toddler you have probably noticed that they are much harder to keep quiet and entertained than a baby and their attention spans can be awfully short. Whenever we travel, I always allow my son to pick out a few favorite toys to take with us in my carry on bag but this time I also opted for some electronic entertainment. I know that some try to avoid electronics whenever possible but I will do almost anything to get my son to behave on a plane. We bought my son some foldable headphones (which were easy to put in my bag) and loaded up my old iPod with his favorite kids songs. (Side note- if you haven’t heard of the Laurie Berkner Band I highly recommend checking out her YouTube channel (Linked) – My son loves her!). I also downloaded a couple of my son’s favorite movies onto my phone as a back-up plan just in case I needed an emergency diversion. Don’t forget to bring plenty of travel friendly snacks! Our go to favorites are goldfish, animal crackers, and applesauce pouches!
Overall, the key to successful travel is to be prepared. Don’t leave plans to the last minute and make sure that you have all of your proverbial ducks in a row before you go. Travel with a toddler can be relatively painless and dare I say fun. I hope these tips make your holiday travel a little easier. Want to learn more? Check out these websites for more info: https://www.wanderluststorytellers.com/best-travel-car-seats-faa-approved-car-seats/, https://csftl.org/leaving-on-a-jet-plane-the-csftl-guide-to-safe-air-travel-with-children/, https://csftl.org/on-the-road-again/. Don’t forget to check last year’s posts for info about traveling with a nursing infant (links in first paragraph.) Wishing you and your family safe and happy travels this holiday season and beyond.