Saturday, June 27, 2009

First Hand Tips On Flying Solo with A Baby/Toddler...

So guys, this is a GUEST HOST post from my hubby. He flew solo with Jim from Atlanta to D.C. for a weeklong trip. He did a lot of research and planning before he left, but still learned some hard-won knowledge by doing. Feel free to send any questions/comments to him through the comment section and he'll try and answer them.

Note, this list of tips is kind of long, so there is a "key notes" section at the very bottom if you just want to skip to the bulleted list...

Easing Your Travels:
To buy a seat or not buy a seat - that is the 1st question... I chose to buy a seat so my tips are based on my experience... I read up online and many, many people give great reasons it is well worth it to buy a seat for baby. It gets them off your lap, let's the seat do the restraining, gives them a comfortable and familiar place to sleep, keeps them safe during turbulence, and you have your seat with you when you arrive (doesn't get lost or mangled in baggage claim).

Travelling with baby is like going to a strip club in one way: you're going to need a lot of $1 bills. Useful for tipping when you need help, for renting an extra luggage cart, skipping lines and buying water from a machine, etc.

Buy your trip-long staples at your destination. There's not much reason to carry 40 diapers and a full block of wipes across the country. Locate the Babies-R-Us, Target, Wal-Mart, grocery or whatever before you go. Bring directions on paper, and (if you have a smart phone/PDA) electronically.

If you're renting a car, might look to see if the rental company is on airport property - makes it a little easier. If not (mine wasn't), you'll likely ride the shuttle and have on-the-bus/off-the-bus wrangling to do. You brought the $1s for the cart and the tipping, right?

Before bringing baby-gear like pack-n-play, bouncer, stroller, high chair - realize that on most airlines you have to pay to check each bag (or every bag over 1). Each piece of baby gear counts as a bag! In most cases, it is about the same $ to buy new or consignment when you arrive. Check with your family/friends too, they may have gear you can borrow.

There are baby-gear rental companies in larger cities!! Check with Google PhD and type in "rent baby gear (the city)", you won't believe the number of hits you'll get. In many cities they will meet you at the airport with the goods, in other's they will deliver it to the place you are staying. You COULD set it up for the day before you arrive, if you are staying with family/friends. No need to waste your precious vacay time with delivery/setup.

If you're making multiple visits to this locale, you want to consider buying an umbrella stroller and a crib you can leave behind (unless you're visiting us, in which case you can use ours). I picked up the $20 "Especially for Kids" stroller from Babies R Us in DC and thought it was tremendously well-engineered for the price. (this one: http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3420851 ) No place to put the diaper bag (wrapped the strap around the handles once the kid was in to counterweight), but otherwise, an excellent spare stroller for the price. Raved about it all weekend.

Before you go, locate a kid's urgent care near your destination, and the nearest kid-friendly ER (they really do have special tools and techniques for dealing with kids - you want a kid facility). Good to have these ready and hope you don't need 'em. Might check with your pediatrician for advice on this.

Packing for The Plane:
Pack in carry-on extra clothes for you and for baby in case you have an on-plane or in-airport wet/poop/sick-event. And carry-on a small/thin towel. As Douglas Adams said: "Everyone should know where their towel is".

Don't pack much more food, wipes or diapers than needed for the flight and a short delay. A kid can usually get by for 3 hrs with 1 extra diaper/bottle. Don't overload yourself...

Pack some plane snacks for yourself, and realize you might not have time for a bite yourself, migh get stuck at the airport overnight or on the plane on the ground for hours. Plan for enough diapers and wipes. The airline/airport should be able to provide an extra beverage for the kid, but kid snacks, grown-up snacks can help get you through.

Bring empty quart- and gallon-size ziploc bags in carry on. Useful for parking wet trash, containing ripped-open bags of Goldfish, keeping loose snacks off the floor, all kinds of stuff.
Brought a nite-light, didn't use it. Brought the baby monitor, came in handy.

Bring empty bottles/sippy cups! Rememer, a bored baby can drink bottled water (provided by your steward) and entertain themselves for 15 mins. :)

Packing for Baby:
If you think baby might play in the water, bring some swimmer diapers and a suit, and one for baby's chaperone. (voice of experience - I didn't, found a new spray park at my boyhood playground)

Baby has the same luggage rules as Mommy or Daddy if baby has a paid seat. Baby's car seat is a carry-on item, that makes the diaper bag the "personal item". Those rules are on United - check with your carrier.

At the end of your trip, if you have extra stuff to send back (we did - big toy from Grandpa), you can pay to check it as additional baggage often more cheaply than you can ship it, and it will (is supposed to) arrive with you. United was charging for each checked bag when we went (no bag allowance at all).

Car seat:
If the kid's as mobile as Jim and you can afford it, get him a seat on the plane and fly baby in the seat. Would've been very rough with Jim on my lap and a neighbor (VERY rough). Our Britax Marathon fits in a standard airline seat (even with the BabyGo wheels attached - great!). They were worried about turbulence on one of our flights, and that struck me as a great reason not to be trying to hold the kid in my lap.

Your seat must have an "approved for use on aircraft" sticker before you can use it on the plane. The Marathon is, most other major brands are, but check it out first. It's also a good idea to have a copy of Advisory Circular 120-87A from the FAA which defines what you can take on the plane, car-seat wise. Good to have the facts handy if you get in a beef with plane staff.

Helpful FAA Info:
http://www.faa.gov/passengers/media/childsafety.pdf
http://www.carseat.org/Legal/FAA-AC120-87A.pdf

If you're taking a seat (and it's not a baby-bucket carrier), get the GoGoKidz BabyGo wheels - it's a perfect match for the Britax Marathon, and fits a number of other seats as well. About $79 at BRU and it made it so I didn't have to drag the seat around (heavy, lotta walking) and the kid, AND a stroller. The BabyGo handle stretches way out (I'm 6+ ft tall, no stooping!), and I was able to slide a laptop case onto the handle, and "net" the diaperbag to the handle as well. The wheels make the car seat an airport stroller and they work fantastic.

"net" for the diaper/carry-on bags: visit a motorcycle shop and get a helmet-size bungee net. Cargo nets you get for a pickup truck are too big to be helpful. A helmet-size net is very handy, can strap down an extra bag to your luggage or the kid's seat/stroller to free a hand or shoulder.

Putting the seat in the plane: if you're attaching rear-facing, the guy/girl in front of you won't be able to recline. If you're putting it in front-facing, make sure you're in a row that can recline (rows ahead of exits don't). This got me big-time on one leg of the journey! Check SeatGuru.com for info on your seat.

Each car seat is different, but for the Marathon, make sure you ask the gate attendant to have the stewardesses get you a belt extension - makes forward-facing installation of a convertable type seat much easier. You want to attach the extension to one end of the belt, recline the plane seat, thread the belt through, tighten, then bring the plane seatback up.

It takes time to install that seat, and it won't roll down most airplane aisles (has to be carried empty above the seats). A stew should be able to help with this. All this means you're now in the "people who need a little extra time with boarding" group. Get to the airport and to the gate plenty early and set this up with the gate attendant (as well as getting the belt extension set up) so you have time to do this.

On the trip up, Jim sweat/wet/pooped (a little) through his clothes and into the seat and we rode around in DC with a blanket in place in the seat for him to sit on. Doing this over, I'd put a receiving blanket in the seat, with a plastic bag under it, to make a waterproof disposable layer for the trip. Good, cheap and easy-to-install insurance.

Getting Through Security - leave plenty of time:
Most convertible-stype car seats (including our Marathon) won't fit through the X-ray machine, and require a hand-search. I thought it was that the wheels were attached, but no, it just won't go. Count on extra time for hand-search.

You may already do this when you fly, but if you've got a backpack or some other carry-bag, set up before you get in line, have all your metal, coin, electronics, stuff you'd normally throw in the plastic tub tucked into your carry bag BEFORE you get in the security line. Have your ziploc bag of liquids/gells, ID and boarding pass out as long as you need 'em. You'll have extra time wrangling the hand-search for the seat, and you'll have to carry the kid through the metal detector, so you want to be doing as little disassembly of yourself as possible.

Note, they'll want kid's shoes off too, not just your own.

If you're carrying formula, there are some special relaxed restrictions about it, but it makes sense to get to the airport early and check it out before you get to the security checkpoint. You may have to declare it if it's in a diaper bag.

Kid's meds and saline, toothpaste, etc. are all "liquids or gels" and you may forget (as I did) to pull them out and bag 'em and present 'em. "Graduates" carry-meals are in cardboard boxes, which made me forget that they're effectively tubs of "liquid or gel". This caused a delay on one leg as they took extra time taking the diaper bag apart and re-x-raying it several times before they told me what they were looking for.

Once You're through security - remember:

  1. Get milk* (or water to make formula) in a reclosable container on the concourse.
  2. Get with the gate agent early about extra time to board.
  3. Ask the gate agent to have the steward get you a belt extender if your car-seat needs it.
*Burger King and Starbucks each provided milk on my trip. BK had theirs in a container with a screw-on lid, Starbucks provided a cup, which took up my free hand as I boarded the plane - tippy and messy. Being plenty early at the airport allows you to pick and choose. Remember the airport services close pretty early if you're on a night flight.

Boarding:
If you're on a long-haul flight, you probably don't have to deal with this, but: to get on my CRJ-700 plane I had to walk down steps to the tarmac from the gate, then up steps to the plane with Jim. I hadn't thought about this possibility and came to the top of the steps with my carry-on set up on the car-seat wheels and Jim strapped into the seat. Would've done this differently. Had to look around before someone would help both times. Eats into your "extra time to board". (which for United in DC turned out to be about 10 seconds extra time - gate agent was a jerk).

The car-seat won't roll down the aisle of the plane, so one of you (or a steward(ess)) must carry it over the seats. If someone offers to be kind at the steps to the plane and offers to "help you" with the car seat, make sure the helper doesn't try to gate check it while your back is turned (happened to me at Dulles this trip). People don't automatically realize you're trying to bring the seat into the passenger compartment.

You spend a lot of time getting in, seated, installed, settled. This means you probably want your own luggage to be quickly stowable. I took a laptop and a day-pack, as well as Jim's diaper bag. Lesson learned: I could put stuff under the seat in front of Jim in the car seat, but couldn't easily access it in flight. Oops...

Jim was a mess during boarding, scared at the trip down to the tarmac, up to the plane, the noise, the strangeness, but settled down once we got him in his seat and once I sat next to him. The stew on the flight to DC was a lifesaver - helpful and kind.

Flying:
You need to have a bottle ready for takeoff and for landing. Letting the kid suck the bottle helps equalize the pressure. Wasn't a big deal for Jim (but we did use the bottle). None of the ears/screaming nightmares you hear about. If your child has been sick recently, good idea to see the doc (or at least call) to make sure the tubes are clear enough to fly without ear damage (Jim had a regularly scheduled checkup a couple days before the flight). I pushed the bottle as the plane left the ground, but could've waited a few minutes. Someone said "let your ears be your guide". I agree with this, but also suggest you watch for signs of discomfort that you don't feel. Noted ear-pressure right after takeoff to get-out-of-town altitude, not much change for a while, then a good bit of change as we topped out to cruise altitude.

Saw a suggestion online for "ear filters" that slow the pressure change. Doc thought Jim didn't need 'em at his age and in his shape (15 mo and healthy, no recent colds).

To do the takeoff bottle, you'll need to get milk or make formula or get water or something on the concourse after you've passed security.

When they do beverage service on the plane, ask the stew if (s)he can return with a little bit of water (or milk, if you're lucky) in time to make a bottle for descent. If not, get extra water during beverage service. Helps to have a clean bottle/sippy handy to hold this. Same drill with bottle on descent: you'll start to go down as soon as you hear them dial the engines back bigtime, but you won't need the bottle for a few minutes.

We flew up at 6AM and back at 9PM, so I got away with only one new toy for the trip up. Jim didn't sleep 'till the end of the first flight. I'd brought 3 new toys (a car, a little cushy ball, a blow-up beach ball) and 2 books, but we only hauled out the cushy ball. I looked at my watch to allocate our time (90 minutes in the air, distracted with takeoff and bottle for the first third, playing with the cushy ball for the next third and a little more, playing with my iPod, asleep and then occupied with the bottle for descent.

I brought a laptop with some kid-videos and a DVD, but didn't get it out. Had my hands full and no space. If you're on a long-haul and have a screen in the seatback ahead of you, and you can get a kid's video, this is probably quite helpful.

Jim wanted to kick and push off on the seat back of the person in front of us. I spent a lot of time asking/helping him not to do so.

Arriving:
You know those people who use porters in airports? You just became one. You still have some of those $1 bills, right? You didn't use them ALL yet did you?!?! Heh... Trust me, these guys are worth it - by this time you and baby will be wired, tired, cranky, or all three - you'll be so happy to see their shiny porter-caps bouncing through the crowd that you'll feel like you've just spotted a long-lost friend.

Key Notes:
  • Bring lots of $1 bills for tipping
  • Your kid's car seat counts as a carry-on item and may count as a checked bag if they don't have a seat - it isn't necessarily a "luggage freebie".
  • There are baby-gear rental companies in larger cities!!
    Before bringing baby-gear like pack-n-play, bouncer, stroller, high chair - realize that on most airlines you have to pay to check each bag (or every bag over 1). Each piece of baby gear counts as a bag!
  • Make a friend of your steward(ess). (S)he is going to be enormously helpful on the plane, from getting the seat down the aisle, to getting you settled, to providing a distraction if you need it, to making sure you've got milk/water for landing.
  • Pack in carry-on extra clothes for you and for baby in case you have an on-plane or in-airport wet/poop/sick-event.
  • Get the wheels for your car seat - $ well-spent.
  • have a bottle ready for takeoff and for landing
  • When they do beverage service on the plane, ask the stew if (s)he can return with a little bit of water (or milk, if you're lucky) in time to make a bottle for descent. If not, get extra water during beverage service.
  • The car-seat won't roll down the aisle of the plane, so one of you (or a steward(ess)) must carry it over the seats.
  • For the car seat - consider bringing a blanket, and a plastic bag to put under it, to make a waterproof disposable layer for the trip

That's more than a little info, but I hope this helps. Questions? Ask away...

1 comment:

erin m said...

Thank you for your thoroughness! I have flown with my 12-month old on almost twenty flights to date and all your tips are very accurate. After so many trips, I have the difficult parts (security, boarding) down to a science. The only thing I would add is that you can easily order diapers, wipes and formula (plus so much more) from diapers.com and they can drop-ship with free shipping to your destination. It's worked perfect for me every time.

I am just now flying solo with my daughter in a Britax Marathon next week and picked up some new insight from your post. Thanks!