I should have been thrilled. We were about to take our first vacation as a family, and we were flying to the Caribbean. But what I felt, above all, was dread. Would my 14-month-old, Campbell, have a massive meltdown? Would he throw up? Would my husband and I need another holiday after enduring airport hassles, flight delays, and annoyed fellow passengers?
While Cam slept for most of our four-hour flight from New York to St. Maarten, the return trip was another story. We waited an eternity in a packed terminal to board our plane, then we spent another hour parked on the tarmac. When we finally got in the air, the extreme turbulence made poor Cam throw up not once but twice. I was grateful when we landed -- and I learned a lot of good lessons for next time.
Timing is everything
If you can swing it, fly on the least traveled days (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday). Either take the first flight of the day (these have fewer delays) or go at midday (these flights are usually the emptiest). Avoid late-afternoon and evening flights, since delays are more common and young children tend to be at their crankiest. If you can, stick with relatively short plane rides -- limit flying time to four hours or less, says Princesca Ene, author of Traveling with a Baby. Choosing a nonstop flight is a no-brainer (if you can find one that's affordable), since long layovers can make even the most mellow child crabby.
If your child is under 2, you're not required to purchase a seat for her. But for safety reasons, the FAA strongly recommends that you strap your baby into a car seat. Nearly every parent wrestles with the "Do I purchase a separate seat?" question. And the simple answer is: There is no simple answer. While many moms decide to hold an infant in their lap and hope for the best, those with squirmy toddlers may find investing in a separate seat is money well spent. Or you could try option three: Don't buy a ticket for your child, then -- with car seat in tow -- find a sympathetic-looking agent at the gate and see whether you can be placed next to an empty seat. (If the flight is full, you can simply check your car seat.)
Flights are more packed than ever these days, so make reservations early to get the best seat selection. If you're booking online, buy directly from an airline's Web site rather than a travel site or you may not be able to reserve seats in advance. Ene suggests you book toward the back of the plane, since it's generally closer to the bathroom and empty seats are more common there. (On the flip side, sitting up front requires less schlepping through narrow aisles.) If you plan to nurse, book a window seat so you'll have a bit more privacy. Flying with your spouse? Take the window and aisle seats in a row of three. Middle seats fill up last, and if a passenger does wind up between you, he'll likely bend over backward to switch. One last tip: At check-in, ask whether you can switch to a bulkhead row (these can't be pre-reserved except for disabled passengers), which will give your toddler a bit of floor space once you're in the air.