Plenty of parents have written about plane travel with wee ones, and I’m grateful: I learned a lot from their experiences. An international flight is so daunting I feel like contributing to the conversation. My daughter’s godmother lives in Ireland, and last fall we took a two year-old in a plane ride over the ocean. What an undertaking!
You get an extra checked and carry-on bag with the price of the toddler ticket so it’s difficult not to overpack, but here is the most crucial piece of advice I have for you: bring as little as possible, both on the plane and in your luggage. On an international flight you will be lugging your belongings all over multiple airports, through security multiple times (up to four times if you don’t have a direct flight), and tucking all that stuff into small areas on various planes.
I kept it to a minimum, but made sure to have something new for each set of flights. In other words, on the way to Ireland she had a new book, coloring book, set of crayons, and activity, plus one familiar toy. Likewise for the return flight. So imagine my disgruntlement when she barely looked at her toys! Planes fascinate children, especially on their first flight. Between the window, the tray, the in-flight movie and the seat buttons, the toys did not get much action.
It will take more time to get through Security than you expect
Even our “minimal” amount of stuff was too much; I think we had ten bins. (Some of this was coats and shoes). There’s always something difficult for the kid at Security — lines, strangers, parental stress levels, etc — requiring extra patience and gentleness. Being able to slow down to respond to a toddler’s need is better than having the kid escalate into a tantrum; plan for that. (And good luck on layovers; we had to run for it in Chicago and barely made the last call for our flight.)
To that end, managing a lovie gives the kid a job at Security. Gobo Fraggle went to Ireland with us. We told her that he would need to take a “special ride” in the bins at Security, and let her pick his bin, put it on the conveyor belt, and wait for him to come out. With the kid occupied, we managed the rest of the stuff. Plus, people in line around us melted at the adorableness of a tiny child managing her toy through Security, and thus cut us some slack as we wrangled our endless piles of stuff.
Bring the right snacks
Baby food is allowed through security, which includes those disposable puree packets. Put the pouches in a 3-1-1 bag. (Note: you can take liquid meds such as baby Tylenol in its original container without having to repackage it, but it should be unopened and in a 3-1-1 bag.) I made sure to declare everything in advance, and no-one seemed to care about my items. I took my chances with home-packed snacks in Ziplocs, and those passed right through security as well.
Water bottles, however, are often questioned and even confiscated; it’s better to bring an empty container and fill it once past Security. Don’t forget a sippy cup/bottle for your kid; mine often wanted her drink in a familiar cup rather than the container in which it was served. Juice boxes are not as good a choice as they seem: many of them are lined with foil, which blocks the X-ray machine. Friends of mine were told they had to either drink from each juice box (thus rendering them impossible to carry without leaking) or throw them away.
If you have questions, the TSA’s list of prohibited items is kept updated, and also allows you to search by name to see the rules for a particular item.
There are small things you might not think of
- Kids with ear tubes have zero trouble on planes. Kids without ear tubes might need to nurse on takeoff/landing, or have an object that makes them swallow (pacifier, bottle, lollipop). My kid didn’t need the lolly, but it was a good bribe to get her happy for takeoff and landing.
- When you’re talking about flight lengths of 6+ hours, move your bodies as often as you can. Walk around during layovers. Help the kid walk the aisles of the plane when you can. Take her with you to the potty. This makes time in the carseat less difficult.
- Make sure that the house is clean when you return. It feels great to come back to calm and peaceful spaces that have clean sheets on the bed.
- Triple check any substance that might mold/mildew while you’re gone. I had a crazy-making level of vigilance around this issue and I still missed things, resulting in one scary kitchen mold incident and a nasty mildew mess in my shower.
Don’t check your carseat
For a domestic flight, buy a cover to protect the seat and check it (or see if you can rent one on the other end; some car companies do). For an international flight, use the carseat on the plane. Be warned: it will be a royal pain in the behind. The carseat is heavy; US airports charge for those carts on wheels (Irish airports don’t); most carseats won’t fit in the X-ray machine and have to be hand-checked, causing more of a delay at Security; your kid will probably want to play with it at the most inopportune times.
It will be worth it once you get on the plane. Some airlines require the carseat to be placed by a window, which can get you better seats. And it’s invaluable to be able to strap the kid in a seat that will restrain her. My daughter made it about four hours into each flight before getting insanely restless; I would not have been able to keep her in a regular airline seat. Be warned: the carseat may enable a child to kick the seat in front of her. It’s still worth it not to have to fight over the fasten seatbelt light. (Though in moments of desperation when she refused the seat I held her on my lap. I figured that if it’s allowed to transport an infant that way, the flight attendants wouldn’t give me too much trouble. They didn’t.)
That’s what’s worked for me — how have fellow toddler-toting parents successfully traveled?