A few years ago, we flew from Austin, Texas to Fairbanks, Alaska (and back!) to visit my family for Christmas and allow many of them to meet Melanie for the first time. It was also Melanie's first flight ever and our first time flying with a baby. So, trial by fire for all really. Overall, Melanie did really well on all four legs of the journey but I learned a few tips and tricks that may help others flying with young babies.
Here are my Travel Tips for Flying Long Distance with a 5 Month Old Baby
1. Allow yourself TONS of time. We had to drive from San Antonio to Austin, unload at the terminal, park the car in long-term parking, ride a shuttle, meet up again, check bags, do security, do a bathroom/diaper change break, eat, and board. That is A LOT to do and takes forever with a baby so give yourself a mountain of time to do it. That also goes for connecting flights – anything under an hour layover just isn't worth it with a babe. Just 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 baby 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 paid a little extra (like $100) to do each trip in only two legs (one from Austin to Seattle and then Seattle to Fairbanks then the opposite on the way back). It was nice to have those long stretches of trip where Melanie could really settle in and 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 grandparents going off to see grandkids and we had tons of people offering to hold Melanie. And, since we were on a plane where they couldn't run off and I could see them at all times, I took people up on it. Melanie loved the distraction of new people, they loved snuggling a baby, and I appreciated being able to rest my arms for a period of time. We also had lots of people in the terminals offer to help us – like the amazing Delta skycap who lugged all my bags into the terminal and up to the baggage counter even though I was flying on Alaska and didn't have any cash for a tip. 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 baby'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 during take-off and landings help them do this. If at all possible, try to schedule feeding times around your flights. We did this and it worked beautifully. I would wait to nurse her until they announced that the cabin doors were closing/the plane was ascending/decending and it seemed to work out perfectly. The only time we ran into trouble was when one of our flights was super delayed after we had already boarded. I held off and held off until Melanie was screaming so loudly, the pilots were concerned. Finally, I gave in and nursed her. She was full and sound asleep by the time the plane took off and didn't have a single problem with her ears so I'm guessing asleep must work, too!
5. Use a stroller and a carrier. If you only have one leg and don't plan on using a stroller at your destination then just strap on that carrier and go. But if you're like us and you have a couple of plane changes in huge terminals then use both. Planes allow you to gate check your stroller for free (though, be warned, they are not gentle to them!) – just ask for a special check tag at the gate counter before boarding. We ended up using the stroller to schelp our bags around while I carried Melanie in a front-facing carrier but I'm so glad we had that stroller for the few times she would lay in it. It was just nice to have our hands free of a baby and our bags. I also used the carrier to get Melanie on and off the planes and would only take it off once we were settled into our seats. It worked great.
6. Change diapers often. I'm a cloth diaper user but for ease, I went with disposables for this trip and made sure to change her often. Honestly, it's because I couldn't figure out how to change her on the plane (in our seats seemed gross but doing it in the airplane bathroom on those tiny changing tables seemed overwhelming). So instead, at every layover I would change her diaper at least once. If it was a long layover then I did it at the beginning and then again right before boarding. It was just one less thing to think about.
7. Try for an extra seat. If you can afford to buy an extra seat (i.e. the whole row) then DO IT. If you can't, here's how we managed to have a row to ourselves nearly every flight while only paying for two seats. First, when we bought our tickets, we selected an aisle seat and window seat in the same row and left the middle seat open. No one ever wants to sit in the middle seat so those are always the last ones to be booked. That worked on three of our four flights. The fourth flight was pretty booked so when we got on the plane and everyone had boarded, we just worked with our fellow passangers to rearrange a few rows so that we could be in our own row. Also good to note, people are much more willing to move from a middle seat to a window or aisle seat so, if for some reason, you are not in the same row and trying to be – use your willingness to sit in a middle seat as a negotiating tool.
8. Understand what happens at the security checkpoints. I was a pro at security checkpoints pre-baby. But it all changed once I had Melanie! For one, there's just a lot more stuff to organize on the conveyer belt and it can be tricky to remove/put on your shoes (or in my case, boots) with a baby strapped on you. Also, your stroller has to go through the conveyer belt – yeah, we didn't know and ours almost didn't fit! One cool thing is that whoever is carrying the baby skips the full-body scan and also doesn't get a patdown – you just walk through the metal detector. Be sure to remember to include your baby's toiletries in your quart bag. If possible, get TSA-Precheck before you travel – it's worth every penny to keep your shoes on and bags packed!
9. Relax and unload whenever possible. Whenever you can, stop and chill. Take the baby out of the carrier, lay them on the floor, and relax. Grab some coffee, take your time, and rest. We had one very long layover in Seattle on the way back and I made the executive decision to leave the terminal and visit the USO for several hours. It was AWESOME. We napped, ate, cleaned up, and still got back through security and made it to our gate in plenty of time.
10. Dress in layers and for comfort. This is especially important if you're nursing. We traveled from 70 degree weather to minus 10 degree weather and I was exclusively nursing so I skipped the fancy clothes and opted instead for yoga pants, a nursing tank top, a cardigan, and an infinity scarf. I dressed Melanie in a onesie for the car trip to the airport and then changed her into jammies for the flight. On the way back, she wore her jammies for the flight down and then changed into a onesie in Austin. I packed our winter gear in our carry-ons.
11. Just check your bags. I know, I know. It costs extra money but seriously, the $25 a bag fee is WORTH IT when you have one last thing to worry about. We were hauling our clothes, some baby stuff, and lots of gifts so I packed all the big/heavy stuff into boxes and checked those. Then we just carried on 2 bags with baby clothes, winter gear, and a diaper bag for Melanie. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
12. Whenever possible, fly while they sleep. We purposely booked red eye flights and I'm so glad we did. Melanie completely slept through three of the four flights and napped during the other one. 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 (if it's not booked, many airlines will even let you strap your baby's seat in for free) or in the carrier. It really cut down on the entertaining the baby time.
13. Your baby may be free but they must have a ticket. Most airlines do not charge anything for a lap infant (under 2 years) to fly. However, they DO require that you register the baby on the flight's manifest and will add their name to your ticket. Also, because you're not buying an extra ticket – no extra bags. You can only carry-on the number of items for each ticket you purchase (not including the stroller/car seat) so plan accordingly.
14. Use a travel stroller system. We have this one and OMG was it worth it! I didn't have to fiddle with worrying about or carrying around a separate stroller and car seat. Just pulled the seat from the base in the car, put it on the stroller, and away! Nice to not have to hassle with extra stuff.
15. Just remember, “and this too shall pass”. Whatever happens, just remember that this layover/flight/trip will eventually end and you will never have to see these people again. Breathe deeply. Massage your temples. Force a smile. And repeat until you're back home.
Do any of you have experience flying with a wee babe and want to add your tips?