This is the second in a series of posts designed to help new moms and dads manage the joy and occasional treachery of air travel with a new baby. The first with tips on how to research and book your flight can be found here, and the third which covers strategies while in-flight can be found here.
So you’ve taken the plunge. You’ve purchased airline tickets and you’re committed to air travel with your infant. We commend you for your bravery! Now what? Should you you pack your bags? Oh dear. Have we stumbled into a hornet’s nest? Some skittish newbie parents approach this portion of the experience like they are never coming home, jamming everything possible into their bags (or paying for extra luggage), while trying to prepare for every possible unpleasant situation under the sun. Some go the other way, casually ignoring logistical considerations like packing and getting to the airport in the hopes that these items will miraculously take care of themselves (the alternative is just too terrifying). Honestly, both of these are rookie moves. You’ve got this. True, your days of throwing everything into a bag and racing to the airport an hour before takeoff ended the day you brought junior into this world. But you’re going to be ok. Embrace your new parent status and relax. These packing and airport logistics tips from your friends at CheapAir will make your life infinitely easier.
1. Don’t overpack.
This will sound counterintuitive. No doubt you have already had conversations with other new parents about how much STUFF is required to just get out of the house with an infant. The gear, good Lord the gear! Yes, while true that you now have a stroller and diaper bag as appendages (and they are as crucial to your survival as opposable thumbs, human), the good news is that a little advance planning will be your friend. First of all, if you’re visiting family someone will have a washer and dryer. The year is 2014. You do not need to bring five outfits per day (though you will want to allow for every wardrobe photo-op for your adorable bambino while packing, you’ll be cursing yourself later, when you’re dragging fifty pound suitcases through the airport). Bring comfortable onesies, socks, and extra burp cloths and call it a day. You can roll them up in your checked luggage if you don’t want to bring an extra bag for baby, or you can bring a small rolling bag to check or carry-on. Our go-to strategy for packing is to carry-on baby’s bag and make sure you stow a change of clothes for mom and dad on-board as well (you’ll hear why later).
If you’re going to be staying in a hotel and you’re the kind of person who prefers structure and serenity upon check-in, send a box of toiletries and diapers ahead of your arrival by a few days to your attention (guest). When you check in, the staff will have all of baby’s faves already waiting for you. Again, our preferred go-to is a bit more freewheeling. Unless this is an international destination (or your little tyke has very sophisticated toiletry tastes found only at specialty online retailers), you’ll usually be in shouting distance of a drugstore when you land. We just make a Rite-Aid, CVS or Target pitstop after landing and pick up all the essentials. Whatever you don’t use, you can just leave with grandma or the hotel staff.
Properly packing the carry-on is CRUCIAL. Yes, you can bring small, reasonable amounts of liquids through security (good for formula-fed babies), but it’s pretty much up to the discretion of the TSA agent what his or her definition of “reasonable” is. Again, think of yourself schlepping extra stuff. Don’t overdo it. Keep it all together in your diaper bag so the agents don’t have to root through your carefully packed carry-on. Bring a diaper for every hour of travel planned and then throw in a few extra just for good measure (in case of delay). That’s the rule we always use, and it has never done us wrong. If baby has a woobie/favorite blanket, that goes in the carry-on. Make sure you have two complete changes of clothes for the little man or lady and a change of clothes for you and your significant other. This is strictly for emergencies. Parents usually overpack for baby, but forget themselves. If junior spits up on you as the flight is taking off, you do not want to be sitting in a smelly shirt for the remainder of the flight (and your seat mate will thank you). Don’t get crazy with wardrobe options. A big unisex t-shirt that either of you can throw on, a pair of jeans for dad and a pair of leggings for mom can easily be rolled up and stowed in a carry-on. Don’t forget to stow few gallon-sized plastic bags that will hold soiled clothes (how fun!), in a side pocket and you’re ready for whatever poopy/pukey emergency might come up! It’s glamorous, we know. One last thing – airplanes are cold. Bring a little hat and make sure baby is dressed in layers so you can keep him/her comfortable and snoozy.
What else do you need? A car seat, for sure. True, rental car companies will upsell you on one but why pay for it when the airlines will let you check yours for free. It’s a bit of familiarity for your baby, and you won’t have to worry about some other kid’s germs. More about car seats and baggage allowances here. If your baby is small enough and you’ve been baby-wearing pretty much exclusively, you may not need a stroller at all. But if you’re at all on the fence about bringing a stroller you really should just go for it. You can check a collapsible stroller at the curb, or you can even bring it all the way to the gate. We like to carry baby and load our mid-size stroller up with all of the carry-ons while traversing the airport. It really works out well. You may also want to travel with a portable crib for sleeping, but you will need to check that and pay for it just like any other piece of extra luggage.
2. Have a parking strategy in place.
Some people advocate going the airport drop-off route, but unless you have an extremely solid and reliable plan for pick-up on the return flight, we prefer to park and have our car at the airport when we arrive exhausted, and ready to just be home. Hanging out waiting for a ride is the last thing you’ll want to be doing on your return. The most economical long-term parking is usually off-site however, so be prepared to allow for extra time. A good rule of thumb is to add an hour or two over what the airline suggests for your flight. Yes, that’s a lot. You’ll need it.
3. Relax about security.
Seriously. Even though you might be stressing about this most irritating part of modern travel, generally speaking TSA agents are never more friendly and accommodating than when you’ve got little ones with you. Larger airports will even have a “family” lane that agents will steer you towards. Use it. Agents manning that area will be friendlier, and more helpful.
4. To pre-board or not to pre-board? That is the question.
Some airlines no longer even offer pre-boarding for families, which on the surface seems like the worst possible news to give a nervous new mom and dad. But think about this. How much do you like sitting on an unmoving plane while the flight crew gets everything in order? Now imagine how fun it is for your baby. It’s only if you’re traveling with massive amounts of carry-on that this might still seem attractive. And if you’ve been paying attention, you’re traveling relatively light.
Now you might be saying, “Are you crazy? I don’t have assigned seats and we want to sit together. This is a disaster!” But au contraire! If you’re traveling with your partner, one of you should board with your carry-ons to set up camp while the other parent stays in the airport with baby, stroller and diaper bag. Make sure you let the flight attendant know that you’ve got a baby and second parent boarding later. Trust us. This works.
If you are lucky enough to have assigned seats, the baby-toting parent can stay in the airport until last call for boarding. We say this is hands down the best way to approach boarding and mitigate the tedium of sitting on an unmoving plane.
One more tip that will seem a bit outré when you’re booking the flight: Consider NOT sitting with your significant other, especially if you’re flying across country or an ocean. Here’s why. It gives both parents a break. We’re trying to minimize the pain of traveling with an infant and we think our strategies will go a long way to mitigate any problems, but if baby is having an off day? You can pass the little one back and forth between two different parts of the plane over the course of a flight. This gives baby some much-needed variety in people/stuff to look at and interact with, and it gives your partner a break. New parenting is hard! You can read a book, drink a cocktail or have an adult conversation when you are sharing the work of flying with your infant. It will also buy you some goodwill with passengers in two parts of the plane. It’s a little unconventional, but we swear by this secret tip.
Next up, keeping your cool on the flight itself. Once you’ve made it onto the airplane, Part 3: In-Flight Coping Techniques can make the ride less bumpy for you and your little one. If you are in the early stages of planning and booking, we have some great tips to guide you through researching and buying your airline tickets in part 1. Please feel free to comment and/or ask questions via email at Ask@Cheapair.com. We love hearing from our readers and customers.