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.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of a well-stocked carry-on bag. Wind-up toys, crayons, board books, and comfort objects will help keep your child diverted and prevent tantrums. "I buy a bunch of small, inexpensive toys and don't let my kids see them until the flight," says Karen Kline, of San Carlos, California.
Pack loose items in clear plastic bags so you can grab them quickly, says Ericka Lutz, author of On the Go with Baby. Also tote along a day's worth of diapers, baby wipes, and an extra set of clothes -- for your little one and for you. When my son threw up all over my sweater, I said a silent prayer of thanks that I'd brought along a backup. And don't forget food: Many airlines no longer serve meals. So pack plenty of healthy kid snacks, such as crackers, Cheerios, sliced fruit, and mini bagels.
Control airport chaos
Arrive early, because everything takes extra time with a toddler, says Vicki Lansky, author of Trouble-Free Travel with Children. Many major airports have a play area and a nursery (the latter usually has a changing area, rocking chairs, a microwave oven, a fridge, and sinks for cleaning), so pick up a courtesy phone and track these down.
Don't be in a hurry to get on the plane, even if the airline invites you to board first. The less time a baby spends in a confined airplane, the better. Try this alternative: Have your spouse lug the gear onto the plane early, then stay behind at the gate with your child until the last minute.
Slide through security
Ask whether there's a family-friendly security lane, which can reduce your wait time and stress level, and wear slip-on shoes so you can kick them off easily. If you're carrying milk or formula, let the security agent know (these liquids are permitted, along with jarred baby food and yogurt in 3-ounce or smaller containers). Bring a compact stroller that folds easily, and be prepared to carry your baby through the security checkpoint. Once you're clear, you can push your child all the way to the gate, check the stroller there, and get it back at the gateway as you step off the plane at your destination. Also keep in mind that airport regulations are in constant flux these days, so call your airline or visit the Transportation Safety Administration Web site (tsa.gov) for an update.
Avoid airborne hassles
Nurse your child or give him a bottle, a sippy cup, or a Binky as the plane takes off and descends, since swallowing helps prevent altitude-related ear pain. For diaper changes, head to the bathroom (you'll get dirty looks if you do it at your seat). Most restrooms have a pull-down changing table above the toilet. "In case there isn't one, I bring a large pad, close the lid, and put my child down on that," says Lara Bair, of Arlington, Virginia.
If your little one spits up frequently in the car, ask your pediatrician to prescribe an antihistamine (motion-sickness meds aren't safe for kids under 2). If she becomes queasy during the flight, turn the overhead vent toward her face; the cool air may help her feel better. Make sure you have an airsickness bag handy. And if she vomits, ask the flight attendant for help with cleanup. Most flights can offer a kit that contains a cleaning solvent, a disinfectant, and an odor eliminator.