Author’s Note: I am posting this blog on the eve of driving with our three children 1100 miles to Texas. Today we did a trial run of a three-hour round trip, and that was just to board the dog. A lesson quickly learned — buy Dramamine for everyone! Unlike last year, this time my husband is home to help me pack and make the trek to the Lone Star State. That being said, it is a little shy of midnight, and we have just finished packing! My conclusion is, whether you fly or drive with kids, packing is a b*tch, probably harder than the actual travel part. At least in a car one is not limited by airline restrictions, but the packing part is still brutal. This blog is specific to airline travel; perhaps I will have some car travel tips later on if we survive this road trip!
As the holiday freight train roars ahead to Christmas Day, many of us prepare to travel through the air to celebrate with our loved ones. Last year I faced the daunting task of flying from Florida to Texas, with three small children, alone. Alone, as in, I am outnumbered three-to-one. From my experience I have some ideas to increase your chances of arriving at your destination with your sanity intact and all members of your family present and accounted for.
Travel tip #1: Do not wait until the last minute to pack. And by last minute, I mean the day before your trip. If you have multiple small children, there are all sorts of considerations, such as clothing needs, personal hygiene items, baby utensils, diapers and wipes, to name a few. Not to mention a travel crib, bedding, a Boppy pillow and anything else you use on a daily basis. I heeded this advice, and my bedroom became a staging area for our trip for a few weeks’ time. I’m not kidding when I say that packing for my holiday trip was the most stressful part. Despite my best efforts to organize ahead of time, the clock struck midnight on the eve of our journey, and I realized I hadn’t even packed a suitcase for myself yet.
Travel tip #2: Pack your diaper bag strategically. You might even need two diaper bags if traveling with a baby or several small children, and most airlines will not count the diaper bag toward your carry-on quota. Of course, you have only two arms, so packing lightly for the plane is preferred. I like to clean out my diaper bag before traveling, getting rid of the used tissues, half-eaten granola bars and random toys that snuck their way in. By now we know to pack a spare outfit (or two) for a baby or young child in case of a diaper blowout or potty mishap, but a prepared mom should also pack an extra outfit for herself.
I learned this lesson the hard way after my then baby girl decided to regurgitate the gallons of milk she had been drinking on me several times as I sat next to a prim businessman. I truly felt like Greg Focker when I rolled into SeaTac. My freshly blow-dried hair, made-up face and crisp black shirt gave way to wild frizz with beads of sweat pooling on my face with the distinct stench of baby throw-up. On the next flight I would know that a fresh shirt, baby wipe to the face and a little water to tame the fly-aways can have me looking fresh as I deplane.
Tip #3: Use flight times and layovers to your advantage. In my experience, the best time to fly with children is in the morning. They are alert and happy. Airport delays increase as the day goes on. The best flight for me leaves mid-morning, allowing me time to get to the airport and feed the kids breakfast before we board. I try to time a layover around lunchtime to refuel the kids with food and do a diaper change. I like about a one and a half hour layover with small children if during a mealtime, as it gives you enough time to eat, use the restroom and let the kids run around a bit before boarding the next plane. Beware of the thirty-minute layover in a huge airport like Atlanta or DFW. You will have trouble making your next flight, especially if you have to get on an airport tram or train.
Coming back from Christmas last year, I thought 35 minutes in Houston’s smaller airport would be doable since I was familiar with its layout, and most of the gates are close together. I did not take into account a delay out of Austin, which almost had us missing our flight in Houston. Which takes me to the next tip…
Tip #4: Rely on the kindness of strangers. As we approached Houston after our delayed departure from Austin, and I contemplated missing my connecting flight, gathering up all the luggage, and sleeping in an airport hotel and doing it all over the next day, I started loudly voicing my concerns. A Good Samaritan couple and their son grabbed our bags and children and escorted us to our next gate. The gentleman explained that his wife used to travel solo with their children overseas to visit him, and they knew how hard it could be. Luckily for me our next flight was delayed, so with a little help and a little luck, we made our flight.
Many travelers remember the days they had small children, or they are simply kind and want to help out. In my experience, most people are helpful and gracious as opposed to rude when you are traveling with little ones. I even had several random adults pick up my kids and let them sit with them for a bit while I caught my breath. Normally we wouldn’t hand our child over to a stranger, but on an airplane, you take the lifeline that is thrown your way.
Tip #5: Bring activities and provisions (and sometimes kids’ leashes)
These days many parents are concerned with their children’s screen time on devices like smart phones and tablets. When stuck on a plane with children, sometimes those rules fly out the window. Last year I brought every device I could think of – a DVD player, an iPhone, a kids’ tablet, plus those old-fashioned real paper books! Dolls and a special stuffed animal to travel with are good options too – just don’t bring any toys with small pieces or anything too large. As a bribe you could promise your kid a new stuffed toy at a layover’s airport shop. This will kill time and provide an incentive for good behavior.
Also pack plenty of snacks and drinks. You never know when you will end up stuck on a tarmac for two hours. This did not happen to me, but I wanted to be prepared just in case. My kids are always hungry, so I just kept throwing goldfish, graham crackers and baby puffs at them. If you keep feeding them, they can’t complain that they are hungry. I also recommend bringing your own sippy cups, so you can fill them up for free at the airport’s water fountain, instead of spending a fortune on bottled waters, which also take up more space.
The godsend for me was two kids’ backpacks with leashes attached. I swore I would never be the parent walking a kid on a leash, but that was before I had to keep track of three wild children during a day of three airports. I made the backpacks seem like a special treat, and my oldest son loved his “big boy” backpack, whereas my one-year-old son enjoyed his soft doggy one. My five-year-old daughter relished “walking” her younger brother as well. The whole scene was quite comical.
The leash also came in handy on the airplane, as my one-year-old could walk up and down the aisles while I sat in my aisle seat and held onto the other end. He also made friends this way and hung out with a few other passengers to give me a break at times. Walking the aisle worked great for my toddler, except for on the flight with the stern flight attendant who reminded me each time the seatbelt light came on. At that point I had to become a human straitjacket around my son as he screamed at the top of his lungs and tried to break free. Which brings me to the last tip…
Tip #6: Know that the flight will eventually end. No matter what happens on that plane, no matter how loudly your kids cry or scream, no matter how dirty and disheveled you are by the end, know that the flight has to eventually end, and at some point your kids will go to bed and you will get a hot shower. And the flight will one day be a distant memory that you can laugh at for years to come. Just don’t think about the return flight home.