In the spirit of Thanksgiving travel (and if you have to brave the airport crowds during the Thanksgiving week, you are probably not feeling too thankful about it), I was asked by ABC News Now to give my tips for flying with a child under two. You can watch the ABC News Now video or just read the tips below (or both). I’ve taken four flights with my son: NYC-Florida at nine weeks, Florida-NYC at 12 weeks (here’s a detailed account of that flying with a baby experience) and then more recently roundtrip NYC-Lisbon when he was 11 months old.
If you’re willing to spend the money, it’s best to buy your baby under the age of two his own seat. While children under the age of two can fly for free domestically on the lap of an adult, I would urge you to buy a seat if you can afford it. For any child under 40 pounds, sitting in their own car seat that is securely fastened to the airplane seat is the safest scenario because it means they will be properly restrained during takeoff, landing and turbulence.
Also, when a child is sitting in their familiar car seat, there is the best chance that they will sleep during at least some of the flight. And if it’s an overnight redeye flight, there is a good chance that they will sleep for the majority of the flight — my 11-month-old son did from New York City to Lisbon, which was fantastic. I read my Lisbon guide book and watched Bad Teacher and Hangover 2.
And if you’re not purchasing a seat…
Make sure your child stays under two for both legs of the journey. If you’re not purchasing a seat for your child, make sure that both legs the flight will be completed before they turn two. That’s right, if your child turns two while on your family vacation, they will not be allowed to fly back as a lap child and you need to buy them a seat. You don’t want to get stranded – or even worse, forced to purchase an expensive last-minute ticket for your child at the airport!
Bring a birth certificate. Southwest requires that parents bring birth certificates for children under two. That’s because even if you bought your child a ticket, they give discounts for children so they want to make sure that your child is the age that you claim. It can be hard to tell if a child is under two the closer they get to their second birthday. In general, traveling with a copy of your children’s birth certificates is a good idea, especially if they have qualified for an age-restricted fare.
Not boarding right away can be good thing. Not so long ago, families with children always got to board first as a courtesy. Now, they often board third – after first class and members of the frequent flyer program. While this can feel frustrating, try to look at this in a positive way – your children have more room to move around in the gate area than they will once they have boarded the plane. It can easily take 30 minutes a full 737 to board, and you don’t want your kids on the plane any longer than they need to be.
Are families with children more likely to get stuck in the back of the plane? It might feel that way, because families tend to be among the larger groups traveling and it’s easier to find vacant seats together in the back because the front seats get reserved so quickly. I don’t believe that the airlines are purposefully putting families with children in the back though. One good thing about sitting near the back is that you’re near the kitchen so you can get drinks, ice and napkins easily.
Getting seats together as a family. When we were flying to Lisbon, I purchased the tickets online for myself, my husband and our baby. But then when it came time to select the seats, I couldn’t find three together. As soon I finished the online transaction, I called the airline (Continental) to see what could be done. I explained my situation that we were traveling with a baby and sure enough they found three seats together. (I also learned that a carseat can only be placed at a window seat – they have this rule to make it easier to evacuate the plane in an emergency.) My advice is to book your seats online but then follow up with a phone call as soon as possible because it is in their best interest to help you out.
For some airlines, you may end up paying extra to sit together – for example, maybe all that’s left on a Jet Blue flight are seats with extra legroom or a Big Front Seat on Spirit. So whether you want to spend extra to sit together is up to you — and may depend on the length of the flight and the age of the children.
Keep liquids cold with the barf bag. If you’re traveling with a perishable item like milk, breastmilk or formula, you can keep it cold without too much hassle. Ask the stewardess for a few cups of ice and then pour the ice into an airsickness. Place the bottle in there, and it will stay nice and cold. Those bags are really designed not too leak – on our flight, all of the ice melted but the bag didn’t leak at all, and the formula bottle stayed very cold – almost too cold!
Gate-check your stroller in a bag. You are allowed to check a collapsible stroller that is under 20 pounds at the gate. Don’t worry – most umbrella strollers, which are the kind that you’re most likely to travel with anyway. You can just hand them the stroller, you don’t have to put it in a bag but I would recommend doing so. Many of the stroller companies make bags especially for their strollers, but they can be over $50. JL Childress makes an affordable bag – it’s what we used. It’s a simple, red nylon bag and it’s around $15. So it offers some protection but not as much as a padded bag. But I’m happy to report that our stroller was unharmed. They also make carseat gate-check bags.