Taking a trip with a toddler is no vacation if you're not properly prepared. Here's what to do, in the air or on the road.
- Travel off-peak. This varies with the route and the season, so ask the airline which flights to your destination fill most slowly. You'll have a better choice of seats, and the plane is less likely to be packed. Avoid flights with long layovers or late-night connections.
- Reserve seats when you book. Though final seating assignments aren't guaranteed until check-in, prebooking ups the odds of getting your preference. (Keep in mind that a car seat can be installed only in a seat next to a window.) On your departure date, be sure to arrive early enough to ensure that you get your choice. Remember that the coveted front-row seats with attachments for bassinets are assigned first to families with younger babies, so your chances of snagging these are slim. Also, many airlines such as United save the best seats for business travelers and frequent fliers.
- Bring your child's car seat. "Unrestrained children have been seriously hurt during air turbulence," says Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson Kathryn Creedy. As a result, the FAA recommends that children under 2 be buckled into a car seat while flying. Although a child that age who has a seat of her own (as opposed to being held on your lap) pays 50 percent of an adult fare on major U.S. airlines, the extra cost is well worth it.
- Preboard the seat, not the baby. Although airlines no longer officially preboard families, most will do it on request. However, preboarding adds an extra 30 to 45 minutes of being cooped up with a 1-year-old. Have the person you're traveling with claim the seat and stow the bags, then wait until the last moment to board with your child.
- Check your stroller at the gate before boarding. That way, the crew will have it waiting for you when you get off the plane.
- Adjust your toddler's nap schedule so he will sleep on the plane. This means knowing your child's patterns: Some kids will sleep if they've skipped their naps; others will remain awake (and cranky) from overtiredness. Though some parents give their kids antihistamine syrup before a flight to promote sleepiness, resist the urge. It's never a good idea to give any kind of medicine to a healthy child.
- Dress your child in easily removable layers. Airports and planes can be hot one moment, freezing the next.
- Be on the alert for ear pain. If your child has recently had an ear infection or a cold, get your doctor's approval before flying. The change in cabin air pressure may cause pain, but swallowing or sucking on a bottle or Sippy cup usually solves the problem. Offer a drink at the first sign of discomfort.
- Keep drinks close at hand. Flying is even more dehydrating for children than it is for adults, so make sure they get plenty of fluids.
- Change diapers in the rear. Wide-body and newer planes have large fold-down changing tables in the lavatories, but U.S. airlines still fly many older planes that do not. In that case, ask a flight attendant if you can use adjoining empty seats in the back of the plane as a changing area.
On the Road Again
- Time it right. Toddler car travel presents fewer challenges than flying. But that doesn't mean your child won't get cranky, overtired, or carsick. To make a road trip go as smoothly as possible, start out close to your child's regular naptime so she'll sleep for part of the journey.
- Entertain your child. Even the most independent toddler cannot amuse himself for hours. Consider sitting beside him if another adult is driving.
- Limit driving time to six hours a day. In addition, make stops at safe, well-populated rest areas every two hours so you and your child can recharge.
- Protect your child from the sun. Apply a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher, and keep back windows shaded.