When Jim Wang and wife Martha flew to Taiwan with their infant six years ago, they had no idea what they were in for. Their baby wasn’t even a year old and hadn’t yet discovered he could walk, Wang says. What was the worst that could happen?
Unfortunately, their baby refused to sleep the entire journey, and Wang had to walk the length of the plane to keep him busy. In the meantime, he “just about lost his mind.”
“It was a nightmare,” he said, and an extremely long one. If he had to do things over, Wang says he would have probably just stayed home.
Skipping the entire thing may sound good if you’re facing a long flight with a baby or several kids, but it’s not always feasible. Maybe you’re desperate for a real vacation or need to travel to see family. Whatever the reason, flying with babies is sometimes inevitable.
Many family travel pros say your flight doesn’t have to be miserable. There are strategies parents can use to make the experience relatively painless. If you know what to prepare for — and what to avoid — flying with an infant can even be seamless.
1. Consider buying your baby an airline seat
While most airlines let children ages two and under share a seat with a parent (sometimes for a small fee), you do have the option to buy them a separate seat. That’s one thing Wang, who writes about personal finance and frugality at Wallet Hacks, wishes he had done differently.
“We would’ve considered spending the extra money to buy a seat so we could use a baby seat that he was familiar with and stood a chance at sleeping in,” he says. (See also: Why Southwest Airlines is the Best Domestic Airline for Families)
2. Bring out the screens
Another big fail the Wangs admit to is not bringing along any screens or digital entertainment. Yes, even a baby under the age of one may be entertained watching a movie or cartoon — at least for a while. Even if you have a “no screens” policy at home, a long flight is a good reason to reconsider — at least for the day and for your time in the airport.
“It’s not good to put such a young kid in front of a screen, but for that special circumstance, I would’ve buckled,” Wang says. “Since it never occurred to us, we didn’t have anything prepared so we couldn’t even give in.”
Corinne McDermott, founder of the blog Have Baby Will Travel, agrees that technology is a must if your baby is old enough to care. “The tablet is your friend,” she says.
3. Plan your flights around the baby’s sleep schedule
McDermott says another important consideration is what time you travel. And if you’re able to pick among several different flights, you should tailor your schedule around your baby’s natural rhythms.
“Try to book your flight for a time your baby is likely to sleep,” she says. With this strategy, you may let your baby squeeze in their nap while you’re in the air.
You could even consider a red-eye flight that takes place overnight. But if you opt for this option, you should try to follow your baby’s regular sleep schedule as much as possible. For example, have your baby change into pajamas, brush their teeth, and read them their normal bedtime stories.
If this doesn’t work, you should “try to book for when your baby will be most cheerful,” she says. If your baby is always crabby first thing in the morning but good by 10 a.m., for example, keep that in mind when you’re booking your trip.
4. Bring stuff to do
While this might seem obvious, bringing stuff to keep your baby entertained is a stellar idea — even if you expect them to sleep. McDermott suggests stashing a few toys and books out of sight before your trip, then bringing them out on the plane as a surprise. “Your baby or toddler will be happy to see old favorites while en route,” she says.
Depending on the age of your baby, old-school fun like crayons, blank sheets of paper, and a travel Etch-a-Sketch could be lifesavers. If your baby is a small infant, bring their favorite mobile, a boatload of pacifiers, board books, and whatever else your baby loves.
5. Dress for success
Since the temperature on planes can be so variable, you need to think about how you dress your baby before you leave for your trip, says writer and editor Melissa Mayer of Why Not Let’s Go. Frequent flyers know that some planes tend to be hot while others can be overly cool. “Babies are temperature-sensitive and you don’t want to be unprepared,” she says.
The solution? “Dress your baby in layers and have a blanket in your carry-on so you can cool down or warm up your baby if and when necessary,” says Mayer. The blanket will also help provide comfort and block the light when it’s time to sleep.
6. Make the airport experience as easy as possible
While flying with your baby is a big part of the travel experience, you’ll also need to spend a few hours in the airport each way. This part of the trip can be important since it can set the tone for the rest of your journey.
Sarah Hirsch, founder of the blog Well-Traveled Kids, says she believes upgrading to services like TSA Precheck and Global Entry can be worth it to avoid long lines at the airport. While you can pay for these benefits outright, keep in mind that there are several travel credit cards that offer TSA Precheck and Global Entry as a cardholder perk.
Also, be prepared for TSA screening. “If you are boarding with liquids for the baby, put those on the belt before your luggage so they can be tested while you are getting your bags and stroller through security,” says Hirsch.
Also, take your stroller in the airport and gate-check it before boarding the plane. This is better than checking the stroller with your luggage since you’ll still have access to it while you’re waiting in the terminal for boarding.
7. Bring a fully stocked diaper bag
Last but not least, make sure you are fully prepared for any typical day with your baby. This includes bringing extra clothes, bibs, diapers, diaper cream, and wipes. “I’ve been stuck on the runway for hours and happy I had extra supplies,” says Hirsch.
You should also be prepared to change a diaper or two on the plane. This may have to go down in your seat since not all planes have a changing table. Also remember that diapers can and do fail — often at the worst times. “My infant always had a blow out when the plane took off,” says Hirsch. As the saying goes, better safe than sorry.