I’ve been on exactly one round trip on a plane with Quinn since he reached toddlerhood, and I understand that in no way makes me an expert on the topic of air travel with a toddler. However since Quinn and I survived our trip to Michigan and the child was freakin’ amazing on all of our flights, I’m sharing my experience with you.
Since Q and I went on this trip all by ourselves, several of my tips and tricks are for a parent flying solo with a little tot. But if you’re lucky enough to have your spouse (or any extra pair of adult hands) with you on a flight with your toddler, I think you’ll still find this helpful.
Warning: This post is very long – I’m talking like five posts in one – but pay attention, peeps. This is all Very. Valuable. Information.
Seriously. Bookmark this shit.
Getting through airport security
I spent many nights lying awake and playing out the whole airport security thing in my head. I practiced multiple scenarios in my mind step by step for weeks. Hence the not sleeping. Anyway, my spinning paid off in this case because getting through security was a breeze. Here’s how I did it by myself.
I kept Quinn in his stroller while we checked our bag and got our boarding passes. Then we pulled over to the side, and I hoisted Quinn onto my back using our Boba baby carrier. Having a carrier that allows you to carry the baby on your front and your back is crucial. Luckily, Quinn loves riding on my back. We don’t have to do it often, so the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. If you’re not used to getting the toddler onto your back by yourself, I recommend lots of practice at home in front of a mirror.
The second critical thing to have is an umbrella stroller that that you can easily collapse and unfold with one hand. With Q on my back, I collapsed the stroller and put it onto the conveyer belt first. That way it would be the first thing that came through on the other side of the x-ray machine, and I could put Q into it while I gathered the rest of our stuff.
Obviously, wear shoes that you can easily slip on and off without untying. The baby can leave his shoes on. Pull out your liquids, milk, medicine and other items you need to claim and put it all into the bins. No need to rush with all this. I know the people behind you will be sighing heavily and tapping their very important feet, but they can wait. Rushing and getting all panicky will just make you flustered and you’ll take even longer. And this advice is coming from someone who is an expert in rushing and getting all panicky and flustered. I even let a couple of people who were traveling much lighter than I go ahead of me.
Once I got everything onto the conveyer belt, I slipped Q out of the Boba carrier, put the carrier in the bin, and carried Q in my arms through the metal detector. I heard that some airports will let you wear your baby in a carrier through security, but I didn’t know if we’d have to go through some special pat down if we did that, so I didn’t bother asking about it.
You’re allowed to take as much medicine, baby food, milk, formula and breast milk as you need for the kiddo. I brought a small thermos of milk, and the TSA guy took a small sample of the milk and tested it. For what, I don’t know. But I saw the dude put on clean gloves and open a brand new syringe to draw the sample. Oh, yes. You know I watched all that action very closely. On our way home, they didn’t even sample the milk in Detroit, so maybe it depends on the airport. Or how long the line is. Or how lazy the TSA dude is feeling that day. Who knows.
To stroll or not to stroll
Many people advise against gate-checking a stroller and dealing with it in the airport, but if your toddler is as busy and squirmy as mine, a stroller is necessary for toddler containment. As long as that stroller is moving, Q is usually content. As I mentioned, I recommend a light, umbrella stroller that you can easily collapse and unfold. You want one that is durable enough that it won’t get completely mangled in the baggage hold, but not an overly expensive one because it will come out with a few scratches. Here’s the one I used.
I was tempted to use one of these awesome gate-check stroller bags that are specifically for this purpose. If Hubs had been traveling with me, I would’ve used one. But it would have been too hard to wrestle the stroller into the bag with Q on my back, and who knows where he would have wandered off to if I had let him loose while I did it. So I forewent the stroller bag for this trip.
Chasing a toddler through the airport
I didn’t keep Q in the stroller the whole time we were in the airport. Once we bought our six-dollar bottle of water and arrived at the gate, I set him loose. The germophobe in me barfed a little as I watched Q crawl all over the floor and climb on the seats, but I let him do it. I thought he should get his wiggles out as much as possible before he was confined to my lap for the next several hours. I really wanted to wipe down every single seat at the gate with an antibacterial wipe (and you know I brought a shit-ton of those with me), but I kept the crazy to a minimum and resisted the urge.
Quinn loved watching the airplanes from the window, so I let him climb over the seats to get a good view. Seeing the amazement in his eyes was worth the contamination. (Sort of.)
Boarding the plane
To board the plane, I put Quinn back in the Boba carrier, but I carried him in the front of me so I could carry our backpack on my back. I put our tote bag in the stroller while we waited in line. Once we neared the end of the jet way, I quickly collapsed the stroller with one hand, dropped it off, and grabbed the tote.
I chose an aisle seat so I could easily get up with Quinn when I needed to. I threw our backpack and Boba into the overhead bin and put the tote under the seat in front of us. I immediately whipped out the antibacterial wipes and scrubbed down all the tray tables and arm rests in our row. (Luckily no one else was seated in our row yet.) I also gave Quinn a good wipe down after touching God-knows-what in that airport. (I can only contain the crazy for so long, people.)
Bring your own kid food
All that spinning and worrying before the trip led to being waaaay over-prepared. I only needed a fraction of the food I brought. But hey, I guess it’s better than not having enough. In the tote bag, I packed a medium-sized soft cooler. TSA will let you bring those blue ice bricks on the plane, so I was able to keep Q’s milk thermos cold all day. Q’s in love with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches these days, so I packed a couple of those. I brought his favorite snacks (string cheese, blueberries, etc.) and some new snacks that he might find interesting in the event of a total meltdown (Goldfish crackers).
The kid loved the Goldfish crackers, so he ate those during takeoff. Since the crackers made him thirsty, I had no problem getting him to drinking water from his sippy cup. All that chewing and swallowing must have worked because Quinn’s ears didn’t seem to bother him at all.
On the second leg of our return flight, I ran out of Goldfish crackers, so I offered him raisins instead (his new favorite thing). I figured since they were a little chewy, raisins would be great to munch on during takeoff and landing. This also worked great. Quinn pretty much ate his weight in raisins and never once complained that his ears hurt.
Disclaimer: Use the raisin trick at your own risk. I paid for my brilliant idea the next morning when we went out to breakfast with Hubs and Quinn’s diaper exploded. I knew raisins would make him poop, but HOLY SHIT! That was nasty.
Get a tablet. Fork over the cash and get a tablet. Even if you’re one of those people who say “MY child doesn’t watch TV,” or “MY child doesn’t use electronic devices,” or “MY child never sees me use a cell phone or laptop,” shove your rules you-know-where just for one day and buy a damn tablet.
Quinn doesn’t watch a ton of TV either, but when he does, he is enthralled. So Hubs loaded up the Samsung Galaxy he got for his birthday with episodes of Sesame Street and Yo Gabba Gabba. He also downloaded some toddler-friendly apps. Quinn was captivated, happy and quiet.
We bought Q these headphones by Kidz Gear, and we practiced with them a bit before the trip. Quinn is the kind of kid who refuses to keep a hat on, so I didn’t know how well he would like these. But he surprised us and happily wore the headphones.
I waited as long as I could before pulling out the tablet on each flight. I brought along some new toys for him such as a travel DoodlePro, a Thomas the Tank Engine sticker book, and a magnet maze thingy. I pulled them out one at a time to get as much use out of each one as possible.
Quinn's fascinated with his own reflection, so the front-facing camera on my phone kept him occupied for a while, too.
I also made some picture flash cards and had them laminated. Quinn loves to look at his picture books and ask what each thing is, and he’ll point to the correct object when you ask him to. So rather than bring that gigantic book on the plane, I made a few pages of my own using Power Point. I printed them at home and got them laminated for pretty cheap. Those kept his attention for quite a while on each flight, and it was educational. Win, win.
If you’re interested in the flash cards I made, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send them to you. You can just print them out as-is, or use them as ideas to make your own.
Napping on the plane
I prepared myself for the strong possibility that Quinn would not nap all day, but Quinn once again surprised me and napped on Every. Single. Flight. Holla!
Our sleep time routine at home involves Quinn laying on my shoulder and holding onto his lovey while I sing “You Are My Sunshine” about 537 times. His nursery is totally dark (blackout curtains) and totally quiet (only white noise from a sound machine), but I did my best to reenact our routine on the airplane.
I put Q into the Boba carrier and held him in front of me. We brought his lovey with us, so he cuddled with that. I walked with him to the back of the plane where the flight attendants sit and asked if we could hang out back there for a bit. They were all very nice and even turned the light off for us. I sang softly in Quinn’s ear, and though it took him a little longer than usual, he eventually fell asleep on my shoulder. If I didn’t have the Boba, my arms would’ve fallen off.
Then I was able to walk back to our seat and slowly sit back down. Hubs had the brilliant idea of putting the e-book I’m reading onto my phone. So I easily whipped my phone out of the seat pocket and read for ninety minutes while Q slept on me. By the time he woke up, I could barely turn my neck, but it was totally worth it.
When we were getting off the plane, everyone around us commented on what a good boy he was. I’m not trying to be smug here. The look on my face is one of bewilderment and immense relief.
I kept a small bag inside our backpack with just the diapering essentials in it: two diapers, wipes, diaper cream, hand sanitizer and a changing pad. That way when you change the baby, you’re not hauling everything you own into that tiny airplane bathroom.
On Southwest planes, there is a changing table that folds down in the bathroom at the front of the plane, but not all planes have this. Sometimes you have to lay the baby on the floor in the bulk head. If you’re lucky enough to have an empty seat in your row, you might be able to use that. All of those options are disgusting, but you do what you have to do.
I made sure I changed Q’s diaper right before we boarded each flight. Since the longest leg of our trip was less than four hours, I figured he would probably be okay until we landed unless he pooped. I slathered the diaper cream on super thick in case the diaper got really heavy, but it didn’t. (I love you, Pampers.) AND… he didn’t poop on the plane. Not once. Hallelujah.
Bring some plastic grocery bags with you to put the diaper in, even the wet ones. Some airlines don’t want you throwing diapers away in the bathrooms and will ask you to bring it out and throw away up front.
When you have to pee
One of the bazillion things that had me spinning about this trip was worrying about what I would do if I had to pee on the airplane. You always hear how important it is to stay hydrated while flying, but hydrating means peeing a lot, especially if you’re also trying to stay caffeinated, like me. (I love you, Red Bull.)
The idea of holding Q on my lap while I peed totally grossed me out. The idea of letting some stranger who just happened to be sitting next to us hold Q while I peed totally freaked me out. The idea of asking a flight attendant to hold Q while I peed sounded like the only plausible option, but not every flight attendant was friendly (although most were), and I only wanted to use that as a last resort.
In an attempt to avoid the whole situation, I peed right before we boarded each flight. Airport bathroom stalls are often larger to accommodate luggage, and the handicap stalls are really freaking huge. So I waited for the biggest stall to become available and hauled Q and all of our crap in there with me. ( an ideal situation, but neither is holding it for twelve hours.) Yet another reason to bring the stroller with you in the airport.
The joy that is the baggage claim
I did my best to pack all of my and Quinn’s stuff into one bag. The good news is I totally did it. I made everything fit into one bag. Whoo hoo! The bad news is the bag was over 50 pounds. Doh! So I took out a few things and shoved them into a second backpack that I also checked. Plus, we had two carry-on bags and the stroller.
Figuring out how to haul a giant roller bag, two backpacks, a tote bag, a stroller and a toddler through the airport by myself posed a significant challenge, one which I also replayed in my head a million times prior to the trip. Hubs recommended the use of straps, hooks and bungee cords, which totally worked. (If you got a problem, yo, he’ll solve it. I love this man.)
When we arrived at baggage claim, I put Q in the stroller for toddler containment while I grabbed our bags and tied them all together. I set the tote bag on top of the roller bag and secured it to the extended handle with a bungee cord. I used a big hook to attach the backpack to the same handle. I then put Q back in the Boba and carried on my front, and I put our second backpack on my back. Then I collapsed the stroller (see why you need a stroller that’s easy to collapse with one hand?) and tied it to the roller bag with a giant buckled strap.
Have I mentioned that I stand a whopping 5'1"? I looked ridiculous pulling all of that behind me with a baby and backpack strapped to my short body. I was a spectacle. People stared. I got over it.
Renting a car
When the rental car shuttle arrived at the curb to pick us up, the driver jumped out and grabbed my bags for me. He was able to keep everything attached together, and he put it all in that special cage that’s usually reserved for golf clubs.
I chose Hertz because I’m a Gold Member and I could just walk to my car and leave without waiting in line. However, that was not the case upon arriving in Detroit. The toddler seat I asked for was not in the car, so I put all our luggage in the trunk, put Q in the stroller and wandered up to the Gold Service desk and found… no one. So then I waited forever in the regular line. I finally get to the front and tell them my problem, and then I waited forever for someone to bring the toddler seat.
By this time, my toddler, who had been a total angel all day, had finally had it. We were exhausted, hungry and cranky. (I hate you, Hertz Rental Car.) When the guy finally arrived with the seat, he just tossed it in the back and started to leave. Oh, hell no! I waved him down and asked him to install it for me, and he did. The look on my face must have scared him, which says a lot considering we were in Detroit.
Moral of this story: call ahead and make sure your toddler seat will be waiting for you. I actually did call ahead, but it rang forever and eventually went to voicemail. Then the outgoing message said the mailbox was full, and the system hung up on me. Jerks!
Upon returning the rental car at the end of our trip, I pulled into the stall and asked if someone could me with my luggage. I explained that I was traveling alone with a toddler, and it would be great if someone could put everything on the bus for me. They did me one better. The very nice lady got on her walkie-talkie and called a guy over. The guy drove us to the terminal, dropped us off at the curb and took all of our bags to the curbside check-in for me. (Didn’t even have to bust out my straps, hooks and bungee cords.) Wow. That was some phenomenal service. (I love you, Hertz Rental Car. You have totally redeemed yourself.)
Moral of this story: Ask for stuff even if you don’t think you’ll get it because you actually might get it and then some.
Sharing a hotel room with your toddler
Quinn and I shared a hotel room during our stay. This was not as bad as I thought it would be. We spent most of our time at my mom’s house and out and about with family and friends, so we were really only there for sleeping. A couple of days, it was over one hundred degrees, and the room where Quinn napped at my mom’s house didn’t have air conditioning. So we ended up back at the hotel for some of his naps, and I was really glad that we had the room.
Of course, I wiped down the whole room with antibacterial wipes, but I know I can only do so much. Once again, I was forced to give into the contamination and let Q crawl all over the hotel room floor. Bleh.
I asked for a travel crib when making the reservation, and Hubs called again to confirm that it would be in the room upon our arrival. Even though it looked brand new (the hotel was less than a year old), I still wiped it down. And I brought my own pack-n-play sheets. (Speaking of, checking out this quilted one!)
Hubs also made sure I got a small refrigerator in my room. They were first-come-first-serve, and we weren’t checking in until late that night. So Hubs called the morning of our arrival when he figured they would be getting the rooms ready. He explained that I needed to keep our son’s milk cold, and they put a fridge in my room while Hubs was on the phone with them. Awesome.
The first night was rough. After a long day of traveling and the time change, Q was not happy to be in such an unfamiliar place. But after a couple of nights, Q started to feel more comfortable and would put himself to sleep in the crib, just like at home. The downside was that if I stayed in the room where Q could see me, he wouldn’t put himself to sleep. So I went into the bathroom, spread a towel on the floor and sat. Yes, this germophobe sat on a bathroom floor. In a hotel room. (*shudder*) So if you're staying in a hotel room with a toddler, bring
a haz mat suit something to do while you're camped out in the bathroom. .
The housekeeping staff at this particular hotel was very nice. One morning, I saw one of the housekeepers as we were leaving, and she told me that they took extra care with our room since there was a baby in it, which I totally noticed. She told me to let her or the front desk know if there was anything extra that I needed, and that I could put in a request with the front desk to have my room serviced at a certain time as to not interfere with Q’s nap. Again, all stuff I didn’t know I could ask for.
Okay, I know that was a doozey of a post, but it’s all valuable stuff, right? If you have any tips for traveling with a toddler, please leave them in the comments below and make this page even more bookmark-able. Thanks!
(See also Air Travel with a Baby.)