Dear Dr Dad, I’m traveling alone with my 16-mo next week and I’m so nervous! Any tips?
Why yes, I have over thought this, I’m so glad you asked!
I break down plane travel into segments. For example, here are the segments when taking a Wingz/Uber/taxi:
- From apartment to curb
- Airport curb to check in desk
- Check in desk to security
- Security to the gate
- Gate to seat
In each segment my configuration is a little different.
Apartment to curb
This is all about getting the luggage down to the car, and keeping kiddo constrained and safe while I’m installing his car seat. Before he could be relied upon to wait, this segment looked like:
- Car seat in stroller
- Kid in car seat in stroller
- Carry on backpack on my front
- Osprey (backpack) duffel on my back
- Pulling roller bag
When we got to the car, I would take him out, take the car seat off the stroller, buckle him back into the stroller to keep him secure while I was installing the car seat, then buckle him into the car seat in the car and deal with the rest of the luggage. Another option is we stick the kid in the back seat loose/free/unrestrained until the car seat is installed, but for us that would add a layer of complications upon need for extraction from the wilds of the back seat, so I prefer to keep him in the stroller. At this point it only takes me two minutes to install the Costco Scenera Next.
Airport curb to check in desk
This segment is all about being able to focus during check in. I’ve still got all the same bags, so it looks identical to how we got to the car. My kid has a bad habit of falling asleep in the car on the way to the airport, so I often detach the car seat from the car and put it on the stroller without waking him or taking him out. Usually we travel with the Mountain Buggy Nano which has a strap intended for securing a car seat. I can attach that without waking him.
Off we go to check in!
Usually we stop at a kiosk to print boarding passes, then go to a desk to check bags. We’re pretty mobile in this configuration (pushing stroller, pulling roller bag, backpacks on front and back) so it’s not too hard to navigate lines.
At the check in desk, I check the duffel and the roller bag. Then we step aside for a reconfiguration!
Check in through security
This segment is all about getting through security without anyone running away!
- Kid on back in a carrier (or when he was younger, on my front in a carrier)
- Backpack in stroller
An aside to sing the praises of NEXUS or any other trusted traveler program:
We were flying back from Minneapolis after Passover and despite arriving 2 hours early for a domestic flight, we still almost missed it. Unlike Seattle, where they try to manage security lines by at least indicating where the line ends (airport employee holding a sign on a stick), Minneapolis had lines so long and so indistinct that they actually overlapped each other. I asked to go into the priority line but they refused. An hour later we got back to that priority line entrance and I begged. (Truth: I took away my son’s snack so he would cry, then truthfully fretted that I had no water to make formula for him.) They let us in. Then somehow we got flagged into the employee line. Without those two jumps, we would absolutely have missed our flight.
Meanwhile there was an entire TSA PreCheck checkpoint that was totally empty. Not just a shorter line, but an entire checkpoint!
It was at that point that I resolved to get into a trusted traveler program.
There are 3 options in the US: PreCheck, Global Entry, and NEXUS. Even though it defies logic, NEXUS is the cheapest, doesn’t charge for kids, and actually includes the benefits from all the programs.
Don’t believe me? Check out the Trusted Traveler Comparison Chart.
At the time of writing, NEXUS is $50 for 5 years, and while you do have to enroll your kids, you don’t have to pay for them. Compare this to PreCheck, which is $85 for 5 years. (With PreCheck, kids 12 and under can go through the PreCheck line if they’re with an adult who has a PreCheck indicator, but 13 and up need their own enrollment. I can’t easily tell if you need to pay for them.) Global Entry is $100 for 5 years.
The challenge of NEXUS is that you need to do an in-person interview at a Customs and Border Protection office, and those offices are generally located near borders or ports. So, if my only option were paying a little more for one of the other programs, but getting to use shorter lines and keep my shoes on, I would absolutely pay a lot more than the $15 difference. Shoes on = priceless.
As aside to the aside: way before we got enrolled in NEXUS, I was traveling with my then-infant strapped to my chest. I had to take my shoes off and we needed a secondary inspection of his bottles. I was shuffling along with my shoes untied, trying to stuff everything back in my bags, when a TSA agent suggested I tie my shoes. I’m a big guy to begin with, and had a 5-month-old in a front carrier; there was no way I could reach down and tie my shoes.
“You should really tie your shoes, sir.”
“I will, as soon as we’re through.”
“Sir. You need to tie your shoes. Now.”
“Do you need me to tie them for you?”
“… yes. Yes please.”
And then the agent tied my shoes for me.
Back to the checkpoint. With PreCheck privileges, computers stay in, shoes stay on, life is good.
If you’re traveling with milk, formula, baby food, pouches, thickened water or milk, etc., let the agent know. In my experience, pretty much anything you say is for baby is fine.
Put things on the belt in the order you’ll need them in in order to reassemble everything.
- Stroller – they’ll want this to go through x-ray, and I’ve been impressed with agents’ ability to completely disassemble my strollers even when I’ve pretended the seat didn’t come off
- Car seat, face down – so make sure it’s been emptied of blankies, binkies, etc
- Milk, pouches, snacks, etc – I keep all of this in a lightweight bag, or in a cooler
- Backpacks, the rest of your carry on, etc
Assuming your carrier doesn’t have metal parts, you don’t need to take it off or take baby off. I use buckle carriers like Kinderpack and LilleBaby and have never had to take him out. The TSA specifies that children will not be separated from parents. https://www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures/traveling-children
Best of all, having a baby attached to you means you go through the metal detector, not the backscatter x-ray! You will likely get your hands swabbed though.
Once you get through the metal detector, then start reassembling everything. Stroller comes out first, then put the car seat on it, then start looking out for the rest of your belongings, and get ready for the secondary inspection of the milk/food/etc. This is done in different ways at different airports, but often they’re testing the vapor for volatile compounds? I think? They don’t touch the milk.
I keep baby on my back until we’re walking away from the checkpoint.
A note about strollers: this will not be news to those of you using wheelchairs, but it is not at all obvious how to navigate many airports with a stroller. The elevators are often outside of the regular route. For example, at SEA, at the South terminal, you need an airport employee to let you out from the train area into a secure area in order to access the elevator. Leave yourself lots of time as you’re figuring it out.
At the gate I check in with the gate agent to get gate check tags for the stroller. My kiddo sits in his car seat on the plane, so that doesn’t get a gate check ticket. When you buy your baby a seat, be prepared to explain, affirm, and prove he has his own seat at every step of the way.
The gate area is a great place for baby to expend some energy while you fold up the stroller and put it in the stroller bag. The gate check tag goes on the bag, not on the stroller! The first few times we traveled, I took him down the jetway in the stroller and then needed to fold it up and get it in the bag at the bottom of the jetway. I really don’t advise this. It’s stressful and as soon as your baby learns to crawl, there he goes.
To get down the jetway, I need to carry baby, car seat, stroller in bag, backpack, and whatever other carry on. The first time I traveled with my infant, I had planned this all meticulously, but forgot to account for the coffee I bought. Finish your coffee!
A walking toddler is obviously a game changer for this stage, if you can get him to go in the right direction.
Getting Onboard and Installing Car Seat
This is actually the most stressful part for me. Even after learning to walk, my kid didn’t want to walk, he wanted to be carried. The aisles are narrow, so as I made my way down the aisle with my extremely wide load, I knocked into every single seat. Now that he can walk, he does so extremely slowly, and tries to get into virtually every row
before our own. If a flight attendant offers to hold the baby while you install the car seat, do it.
Keep in mind that if you’re boarding during pre-boarding, you’ve got a lot of time.
You should probably review the in flight instructions.
A Word About Picking Seats
First, make sure your car seat has an FAA sticker, and that you know where it is. Gate agents and flight attendants are often not super familiar with use of car seats on board, so it behooves you to familiarize yourself with the rules and your rights to use them. Car Seats for the Littles has a great overview on plane travel with children.
The FAA has requirements around the use of car seats on board. In particular, a car seat is not allowed to block egress, not allowed in an exit row, and not allowed behind an exit row. See section 19 in advisory circular 120-87C.
If you’ve got a rear-facing car seat, this almost always mean car seat next to the window. If you’ve got two kids in car seats, this usually means window and middle, but you could make an argument for window and aisle.
One time I installed our seat in the window position and everything was good and we were pushing back from the gate when three flight attendants appeared with a manual, having realized fairly late in the game that car seats were not permitted in the row behind an emergency exit row. They asked the entire row behind us to swap with our entire row. I handed baby to a flight attendant, our bag to the poor unrelated lady sitting next to us, tossed the car seat into the row behind, installed it in two minutes, buckled baby in, all while we were taxiing. Stressful!
Surviving the Flight
If you have any luck at all, your baby will be lulled to sleep by the engine noise and just fall asleep.
If you are not lucky, you will spend the next few hours entertaining your tiny hoodlum.
Now is a good time for screens, snacks, post-it notes, painter’s tape, cups, stuffed animals, whatever. Walk up and down the aisle and let baby make faces at people. Go to the bathroom and stash him in the sink while you try to pee.
It’s okay. This flight will not last forever. Every minute that goes by is a minute closer to your destination. Do what you have to do.
I used to get really stressed about grabbing everything/everybody in time to meld into the line of people exiting the plane.
One time we had a really terrible flight. We were all the way in the back of the plane, baby screamed for hours and finally fell asleep as we approached for landing. My plan was predicated on him walking off. I had to wait for everyone to get off anyway, so I waited until the last minute to get him up. But because everyone else was already off, the flight attendants and even pilots were eager to help with the cute (now awake and grumpy) baby. Our stroller was already waiting in the jetway. I loaded everything up and the pilot pushed the stroller while I carried (now awake and cute) baby. Immigration was deserted. Our bags were already waiting for us. Basically, everything took exactly the same amount of time as if we’d exited promptly and waited at each stage for stroller/immigration/customs/bags/etc.
Ever since then, I take my time getting off the plane.
We stop for a diaper change in the concourse, where the bathrooms are nicer than at baggage claim, plus we’re not burdened by our checked baggage.
Reverse the Process
Yup, do it all in reverse.
That’s basically it! You can do it! It will be okay! You don’t need to apologize for your kid being a kid!