If the whole idea of traveling with babies and toddlers is foreign to you, I recommend Travels With Baby. It is a thorough discussion of traveling long distances by car and plane, with tips for overseas trips. While I learned a lot from this book, I most appreciated the discussion of *why* you should travel with kids, or, more appropriately, why not? An infant will need to be fed, diapered, and helped to sleep just the same whether you are home or away, but the scenery change can do a world of good for parents who enjoy travel. All you need for travel with kids: careful planning and knowing that unexpected things will happen along the way.
For now, I will just detail our efforts to prepare to fly with a 3 year old and a 1 year old.
Why Take Your Car Seat
If we were traveling to a place where we could use public transportation the entire time, we would not bother with the hassle of traveling with car seats. We would get CARES restraints, which are smaller and easier to pack (but only for use on airplanes), and be done with it. I love this idea so much that our next vacation may be planned specifically to use public transportation the entire time!
Most of the places to which we travel require a rental car. Only one friend of mine has told me about using a rental car company's rental car seat, and it was expensive, old, and not taken care of. You can also rent car seats from independent companies like Travel Babees (go to Google and search for "baby rentals" and the name of your destination city). Both options can be expensive for a week or two, and weighed against the effort of traveling with car seats, it is easier to put in the effort instead of the extra money.
Also, TSA recommends using a car seat for kids under 40 pounds. Allowing infants to sit in a parent's lap is a concession only related to the costs of buying that extra seat. The blog TravelWithYourKids.com has a great discussion of car seats on airplanes. Not all car seats are FAA approved, so find out about yours before your travel- it will be printed with "This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft" if it is approved.
How To Travel By Airplane With A Car Seat
Last fall, we mounted our Britax Marathon car seats with one Go Go Kidz Travelmate and one Traveling Toddler strap attached to a rolled carry-on. The travelmate worked so much better that we ordered a second one, and had it shipped to us during our trip. The trip home was far easier!
We now travel with two travelmates, and backpack carry-ons for each of us, one large suitcase for the adults and one large duffel bag for the kids. The travelmate + car seat combo work as a great strollers, but you need to practice putting them together and taking them apart.
Our car seat airport drill:
- Out of the car, attach travelmate
- Wheel boys through check-in and security line
- At security line, fill a bin with shoes and jackets, another with electronics and carry-on liquids, then take travelmates off car seats
- Put car seats on conveyor belt, seat side down; stack travelmate on top of car seat, wheels down (they won't fit through xray while attached unless your car seat is smaller than ours)
- One of us is in charge of the boys at this point, while the other makes sure everything fits through the xray machine
- On the other side of the machines, pull the car seats to the end of the unloading area, and move bins aside so others can pass by
- Reattach the travelmates (doing this quickly takes practice), strap the boys in, and put their shoes back on, then gather other stuff
- When it is time to board, have the kids sit in their seat down the gangway, then walk onto the plane while holding the car seat overhead- the travelmate wheels are too wide for most airplane aisles
- Once at the seats, kids stand in front of the middle seats. Remove the travelmate, stow it overhead, and strap the car seat into the window seat (TSA how-to video- you won't have half the room they show, though!)
- When the flight is over, let the aisle clear before trying to get off the plane. While waiting, unlatch the seatbelt (expect this to be trickier than it was to install the seat), attach the travelmate, and carry the car seat out overhead while the kids walk.
- Kids can ride in their car seats through baggage claim and on to the rental car area. Remove the travelmate, once again, to put the car seat in the car. Stow the travelmate in the trunk until it is time to leave.
It may sound like a lot of hassle, but we prefer hassling with the travelmate compared with chasing youngsters around the airport and not having our nice car seats for the plane and rental car. When we only had one child, we did try gate checking the car seat with Jason in our laps on the plane, but we still had to carry the car seat around and risk it getting damaged by the airline bag handlers- not fun.
Planning and Packing
The packing list we use for ourselves hasn't changed much since we've had kids. Our packing list for the boys has to address clothes, sleeping, eating, and play, and most of it was packed in a checked bag:
- Clothing: up to 4 outfits each in the checked bag, 1 outfit each in the checked bag, 3-4 pairs of pajamas, 5 pairs of socks each, 5 pairs of underwear for Jason, 2 days worth of diapers/wipes for Jackson (we buy more at our destination to save luggage room), and an extra pair of shoes, if needed.
- Sleeping: sound machine, monitor, bedtime books, lovies
- Eating: toddler flatware, straw cups, bowls, crackers, larabars, fruit
- Playing: Books (The Adventures of Polo was great for the plane ride- an enchanting, text free story!), a few legos, cars and trucks, and any toys I'd be happy were lost
- Emergency planning: age appropriate fever reducer/pain killer and thermometer
- Skip Hop backpack- ours are the zebra and doggie- so cute, and the perfect size for us
- travel water
- a change of clothes (so important!)
- smaller books
- a travel size magnetic drawing board
- a few toys that are large enough not to get lost in seat cushions or roll 3 seats behind you
- Pack everything that you can *days* ahead of time
- Have a checklist of things to do the night before and the morning of your trip
- Take extra snacks on the plane, and pack a few snacks in your bags
- Plan to do laundry along the way, unless your trip is just a few days; otherwise, with diapered or recently potty learned kids, you can run out of extras without even noticing.
- A hanging laundry bag can help keep dirty laundry all together, especially tiny toddler clothes, and this one packs very easily.
- Find a vacation rental for trips 4 nights or longer (we're happy with HomeAway). To save money, make sure your hotel reservations allow last minute cancellations, then look for unbooked vacation rentals the week or two before your trip- most of the time, you can get deep discounts for last minute bookings.
- Know that you will take stuff that you won't use, and want stuff you didn't bring. The more you can plan ahead for your destination (what you will see and do, how you will get around, what you can borrow from family or friends), the more you can minimize over and under packing.
We live an hour from the airport, and airport parking is incredibly expensive, so we take a bus to the airport. We take the bus that will arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes ahead of time, preferably a full 2 hours. When we have to park at the airport or return a rental car, we (ought to) aim for a full 2.5 hours.
We check our suitcases with the skycap right at the airport drop off sidewalk. The small tip or fee for this service is worthwhile when traveling with kids- a buck or two per bag can save a lot of time compared with the longer lines inside. If we take a stroller, we use a travel bag or gate check bag.
I described our airport drill, above, for physically getting through the airport and onto the plane. Whatever gear you have with you, it is important to plan how to get through each stage. The most important thing is to remember to keep it lighthearted. Your kids will be unhappy if they know you are stressed and if you spend the whole day barking orders. Things will go wrong, you might even miss your flight or forget something very important, and that is okay- you will survive, and it will teach your kids about how *you* handle disappointments and changes of plans.
Remember Your Children's Perspectives
Talk to the kids ahead of time about everything they will experience; your librarian can probably recommend a few books about traveling. Remember that no matter how many times you have traveled with your kids, they still might find something frightening, but staying calm and making sure they know what they should be doing now, and what is happening next will go a long way in helping them cooperate with the process.
When you child cries for home while you are away, acknowledge that new places can be scary, these beds aren't as comfortable, and how nice it will be when we do go home. Then start asking about the rest of the plans for the trip: would you rather see the zoo tomorrow or the beach? Should we go to the museum in the morning or afternoon? Would you rather nap in the car or in the hotel? Giving them a say in the matter will help them feel empowered as they think about the rest of the trip.
Once you get home, try to capture your ideas of what went well and what could be improved for next time- your own lessons learned. If you only travel a couple of times per year, you really won't remember your previous frustrations while you are planning every detail of your next trip.
Here are my notes:
- While we went through the hassle of taking an umbrella stroller, we actually never used it, but we wish we had a second Ergo carrier- Both boys did great on our backs, they get to see more, and our arms and backs don't get as tired. I've already started combing through craigslist to find one.
- Since Daddy would be working most of this trip, I didn't bring my nice camera, but I really regretted it over the weekend when we were all together in some fun and beautiful places.
- If we could get ear protection for the boys, they would sleep far better on the plane- every announcement from the pilot woke them up completely.
- A 6a flight is totally out of the question. We've decided having a layover is far better than waking up to be at the airport at 4a.
- We really should plan some travel that won't require car seats at all.
Please share your travel experiences or anxieties. I write ridiculously detailed descriptions because I learn so much from those details of others.