Over Christmas, we flew round-trip from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska – and then drove from there to Salcha (and back!). As many of you know, I was born and raised in Alaska and we visit go there to visit my family for Christmas once every two years. This was our first time flying with a toddler (she was 5 months old the last time we did this trip) and I was also several months pregnant. Overall, Melanie did really great during each of our four flights plus the two eight+ hour car rides but I did figure out some tips and suggestions for traveling with a toddler and I'm sharing them with you!
1. Allow yourself TONS of time. There were a lot of legs to this journey. First, we had to drive from San Antonio to Austin, unload at the terminal, park the car in long-term parking, ride a shuttle, check bags, do security, do a bathroom/diaper change break, eat, and board (and that was just for the FIRST LEG). That is A LOT to do and takes forever with a toddler so give yourself a lots of time to do it. That also goes for connecting flights – anything under an hour layover just isn't worth it. Give yourself lots and lots of time to do everything.
2. Do the fewest number of legs (different flights) as possible. Getting on and off the plane (and trying to manage terminals) is a huge hassle. Even if you have a red eye, your toddler will inevitably wake up during this time which can be tough for everyone. If you can do your entire journey in one leg then do it! We couldn't but went ahead and managed to book to each trip in only two legs (one from Austin to Chicago and then Chicago to Anchorage then Anchorage to Denver and Denver to Austin on the way back). It was nice to have those long stretches of trip where Melanie could really settle in a sleep. Plus, it made for less juggling all the stuff and ourselves on and off the plane and fewer running-around-the-airport-trying-to-find-the-next-gate issues.
3. Accept the kindness of strangers. We flew during the holiday season so there were lots of lovely people who offered to help us in a million little ways. From the gate attendant who offered Melanie stickers to the baggage people who gate-checked our bags all the way through to our final destination for free – the helpful people just came out of the woodwork. Yes, you will get the people irritated to be traveling with a baby but there will also be a lot of people happy to hold a door for you or pick up a dropped toy. Thank them profusely.
4. Nurse or pacify at take-off and during landings. This is a biggie! A toddler's ears cannot adjust to the changing altitudes so they need to suck on something to “pop” their ears. Nursing, bottlefeeding, or sucking on a pacifier/lollipop during take-off and landings help them do this. Melanie had never had a lollipop before so the first leg was a bust doing this since she couldn't understand exactly what she was supposed to be doing it. So, I ended up nursing her for the take-off/landing for the second leg. After spending time with her cousins, she was able to do the lollipop thing for the return trips. Just do whatever it takes to help them pop their ears.
5. Use a cart and a car seat carrier. I strongly encourage you to use both a luggage cart (available at the airport for like, $3) and a car seat carrier. Planes allow you to gate check car seats and carriers for free (though, be warned, they are not gentle to them!) – just ask for a special orange check tag at the gate counter before boarding. We ended up using the cart to schelp our bags around prior to our flight (we ended up gatechecking everything but our personal carry items, thanks to a helpful airline employee). The car seat/carrier combo was AWESOME. It allowed us to take her car seat with us (and not have to worry about buying or renting one in Alaska) and she loved being in it. Like, she'd willingly climb in every chance she could. We even kept the carrier attached to the car seat when it was gatechecked with no issues (although you will need to separate them when you go through security.
6. Go easy on potty training. We were in the middle of potty training but decided to take a mini break for the flights. She wasn't far enough along for it to cause her to backslide and using Pull-ups was a hell of a lot easier. During layovers and long breaks, I'd take her to try going potty but didn't stress out about it when it didn't happen. Honestly, I had better things to do with my life (like throwing up all the time from morning sickness) and, again, it was just easier.
7. Try to book a whole row. If you can, book your family in one whole row and put your toddler in the middle seat. This allowed us to help each other and tag team parent as needed. It also ensured that Melanie wouldn't be able to touch (or be touched by) other passengers. She could also get down on the floor and play without me stressing out about it during the flight. It was really nice actually.
8. Understand what happens at the security checkpoints. I was a pro at security checkpoints pre-kid. But it all changed once I had Melanie! For one, there's just a lot more stuff to organize on the conveyor belt and it can be tricky to remove/put on your shoes (or in my case, boots) with a toddler. Also, your car seat and carrier has to go through the conveyor belt or you get to have it thoroughly inspected by TSA (which takes some time). One cool thing is that now, families get to skip the full-body scans and patdowns – you just walk through the metal detector one at a time. We did this by sending my husband through first, then Melanie, and then me (she's a runner and this worked best for us). Be sure to remember that all bottles need to be empty and, if you bottle feed, DO NOT premix the formula.
9. Relax and unload whenever possible. Whenever you can, stop and chill. Lots of terminals these days have indoor playgrounds and they are GOLD. Turn your toddler loose and rest. Often times, these are conveniently located near kid-friendly restaurants and bathrooms. Find a seat these and CAMP OUT. It gave Melanie a chance to get her wiggles out while we got a chance to regroup and rest. We'd take turns watching her and napping or stretching our legs. It was great.
10. Dress in layers and for comfort. This is especially important if you're nursing and/or traveling from one weather zone to another. We traveled from 70 degree weather to minus 10 degree weather and I was still nursing twice a day so I skipped the fancy clothes and opted instead for leggings, a loose tank top, a button down shirt, and a scarf. I kept Melanie in her pajamas then changed her into leggings, a T-shirt, cardigan, and easy pull-on boots once we were through security. I also packed our winter gear in our carry-ons so there was no chance of us landing in Alaska without the proper gear (if the airline lost our luggage).
11. Just check your bags. I know, I know. It costs extra money but seriously, the $25 dollar fee is WORTH IT when you have one less thing to worry about. We were hauling our clothes, some kid stuff, and lots of gifts so I packed all the big/heavy stuff into boxes and checked those. Then we just carried on 3 bags with clothes and winter gear and a backpack for Melanie. I plan to do this for every long-term vacation we do.
12. Whenever possible, fly while they sleep. We purposely booked red eye flights and I'm so glad we did. Melanie completely slept through two of the four flights and napped during the others. She did wake up for the layovers but that's just my kid. It was awesome to just relax and let her sleep in the seat between us. It really cut down on the entertaining the toddler time.
13. Embrace technology. Instead of doing a party and lots of gifts for Melanie's second birthday, we decided to invest in a good Samsung Galaxy tablet and great, kid-friendly case for her future travels (like this trip to Alaska and an upcoming trip to Walt Disney World). We also budgeted for multiple app and movie downloads and honestly, it was all worth EVERY SINGLE PENNY. For most of the trip, she chilled out on the floor by her seat and enjoyed the movies and apps that I'd predownloaded at home (we did not pay for WiFi for this trip but are thinking about it for we we travel to Disney World).
14. Stop a lot when you're driving. So, we flew in and out of Anchorage but needed to finish our trip in Salcha (which is an hour north of Fairbanks). That meant that once we landed, we picked up a rental car and drove another eight hours. Yes. We did that. And then, on the return trip, we had to drive from Salcha to Anchorage (in a straight up snow storm) which took nine+ hours. And, you know what? It actually wasn't that bad. We did both legs during Melanie's normal sleeping times so she dozed nearly the entire time. We did make a point to stop a lot and let her get out to run. We even had a family snowball fight somewhere on the side of the Denali Highway at 10PM at night! Just give yourself time and don't count on technology being able to entertain your toddler the whole time.
15. Just remember, “And this too shall pass”. Whatever happens, just remember that this layover/flight/car ride/trip will eventually end and you will never have to see these people again. This was what I had to do for each take-off and landing. Melanie HATED being buckled into the seat and would seriously scream at the top of her lungs the entire time. It was awful but I tried everything and eventually just had to hold her down and deal. So, breathe deeply. Massage your temples. Force a smile. And repeat until you're back home.
Do any of you have experience traveling with a toddler and want to add your tips?