Five travel tips to make flying with small children a breeze…or at least manageable enough that you don’t give them up for adoption upon arrival…
By: Bari D. Wald, Mil Spouse and Air Force Reservist
It sounded like a good idea at the time… “Yeah honey, lets go home for the wedding and that way we can be there for our friends AND take our 6-week-old home to meet the family.” This decision was made in 2017 when I was about two months pregnant and my husband Dan was asked to be in our friend’s wedding in California. We did the math; my unborn son would be 6 weeks old and our daughter 19 months. Yeah…that’s right folks, flying with small children, 2 under two, from Okinawa, Japan to California. Sounds like a great idea, what could go wrong?
Fast forward to April 2018.
You see, we are experienced travelers, as is our toddler. Before turning 1 she had been to Taiwan, Mainland Japan twice, and the states. She was a little world traveler and it was always easy to take her places. However, that was before she turned 1, before she could walk, before she could wreak havoc for 11 hours on a flying tube in the sky. I guess I’m being a little melodramatic. She didn’t exactly wreak havoc, but she sure didn’t stop moving, playing, whining, being curious, throwing things, refusing to sleep, you know, typical toddler things which become magnified when you are stuck in the sky with no where to go. Add that onto caring for a 6-week-old that constantly craves human touch and hates to be put down, and we had quite the ride. Door-to-door our travel evolution took 20 hours and do you think we got any sleep?
Not. One. Minute!
Our evolution went something like this: leave our house on base in Okinawa, drive 30 minutes to the airport (Baby slept, toddler cried on and off because she was “ALL DONE!” with being in the car seat, after only 10 minutes), check into our first flight… with all 8 pieces of luggage (yeah, over-pack much?), fly 2.5 hours to Tokyo, quick layover (almost miss our flight because my infant son’s reservation was separate and they couldn’t find the ticket), fly 9 hours to Los Angeles (death flight and it’s 11 hours on the return!), get baggage (again, all 8 pieces!), go through customs, get on a bus to the rental car station (me holding both kids and my husband and the bus driver lugging all our stuff onto the bus…oh and did I mention no one offered to help him or give me a seat for my toddler as she flailed around screaming and the baby cried?), unload from the bus, wait for rental car, load rental car, drive 2 hours to Santa Barbara. When we finally pulled into the driveway of our AirBnB, I literally had tears in my eyes. We had made it, without killing each other, or a kid, we had made it!!!
So if this trip sounds familiar or you may be facing one similar in the near future, I’m hear to tell you that you too can make the dreaded trip overseas, or PCS flying with small children a bit more manageable by following these tried and true travel tips.
Tip 1: Go unpack all that crap!
Before you even leave your house, go unpack all that crap! OK, so we had 8 bags… 2 car seats, 3 suitcases, 1 diaper bag, and 2 carry-ons. We came back with 10 pieces but that’s another story. My advice to you… pack your bags, then go unpack 75% of what you packed, you won’t need it! What I learned on this trip is that you don’t need to pack a hair dryer now-a-days, every place we were at provided one, if there’s a washer/dryer you WILL do laundry and most likely wear the same things over and over again, rent the dang car seats, don’t lug yours around, your daughter doesn’t need every color hair bow in the rainbow on the trip, your infant son doesn’t need 15 onesies and matching pants. Oh, and mom and dad don’t need 5 pairs of shoes or 20 T-shirts to choose from. Less is more, and I’ll be taking my own advice when we PCS next year! So go now… go unpack!
Tip 2: Think of your travel in terms of phases
My husband and I are both military. He is active duty and I’m a Reservist. So naturally, we’ve both been to boot camp. We’ve both played that mental game of just making it to the next meal, or phase, or day until we finally made it to graduation. That’s the same mindset you have to take when flying with small kids. Think if it in phases. For us, we broke ours into three phases.
- Phase 1: Get to Tokyo
- Phase 2: Get to Los Angeles
- Phase 3: Get to Santa Barbara
Each phase has it’s own trials – check baggage, go through security, board the plane, get settled, manage the flight, etc. You just need to focus on that one phase and not think about the rest, and it will mentally make the travel easier. You’re “chunking” your trip into manageable bite-sized pieces. Also, with the completion of each phase, you can pat yourself on the back and it gives you that extra confidence boost to mentally make it through to the end.
My husband and I literally fist bumped after each phase. We were in this hell together and making it through together. We were exhausted, but quite proud of ourselves.
Tip 3: Pay for the help
Paying for help came in very handy when we made our way back over the pond on our return flights. We stayed at a hotel near the Los Angeles airport the night before our flight and paid the bellhop to bring our bags up, store the ones we didn’t need, and to get us a car service for the morning so we didn’t have to deal with the free shuttle and getting all of the luggage on-and-off amid a rush of other passengers. The car service took us right to the level of the airport we needed to be at, and our driver found an airport baggage service to bring all of our bags to the counter. This made life SO MUCH EASIER! Yes, it cost extra in tips and fare, but it was well worth the sanity of my husband and I before the long trip home. You may not find this in other countries, but take advantage of it in the states.
Tip 4: Get the bulkhead seats
We requested the bulkhead seats for multiple reasons: to have more legroom and also to get the bassinet for our infant. We bought our toddler her own seat (you think I wanted to hold that
monster, I mean loving little girl for 11 hours? Ha!) and we each had a seat. Fortunately, we were in a row of 4 and 1 of the seats was empty. This allowed us to spread on out and have as much room as possible. Crayons, books, stuffed animals quickly took over the bulkhead area and we didn’t have to make sure not to encroach on the other passengers space since it was just us. Hopefully, you will have the same luck and will have an open seat next to you. The bulkhead also allows you to get up and walk around, use the restroom, etc., without having to ask anyone to move. If you sit flanking your little ones, you also create a play zone for them to play on the ground if they want, and they can’t escape because you are on each end.
Tip 5: Get organized
Make sure your carry-ons are well-organized so in a moments notice you can pull out the snack, toy, diaper, or baby bottle before one of your littles has a stage 4 meltdown. We split our bags up as follows: our diaper bag had diapers, wipes, and change of clothes for the kids, and formula. My husband’s bag had all of our toddler’s toys (distractions), and snacks for her. My bag had any extra adult stuff we needed such as a laptop, headphones, etc. Our system worked very well. We knew which bag to go to for what we needed and were never frantically looking for something.
So there you have it, 5 travel tips to make flying with small children a bit easier. I said a “bit” easier. It still won’t be easy and you’ll walk by all those childless travelers leisurely sipping their wine and reading a magazine or watching a movie uninterrupted and you will long for those days of travel. During a particularly stressful time of your travel you may look at the emergency exit and ponder jumping out because you know you will at least get some rest on the fall down to earth (I kid!), and finally, you will know without a doubt, that basically everyone on the plane is thankful they aren’t you! But who cares, it’s times like these that build character right? Now go travel!