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The Short Guide to Traveling with Babies

Name one of the most dreaded things any traveler can face on a long airplane ride? You guessed it ­ a crying baby! What could be worse than sitting next to that bawling, unhappy, little critter? Being its parent! Flying is a necessary evil if you must cover long distances. Unlike some things that can only be left to chance, there is a lot that can be done so you and your baby survive the flight in better form and hopefully spare your fellow travelers an earful!

Baby Walcutt
Baby Walcutt
In preparing for that first flight, you can break your trip into 3 stages: Before you Book the Ticket and Leave Home, At the Airport and On the Plane.

The first stage is probably the most important step in preparing for a successful flight. Before you book your tickets, you need to RESEARCH everything baby­related to your flight. Some airlines do a great job handling the needs of adults but really come up short when babies enter the equation. An example of this situation can be found in comparing Korean Air versus Northwest. In my experience with KAL, the stewardesses are friendlier towards children, more helpful in arranging for basinets, filling bottles and even providing small playthings without being asked. Northwest, although very professional, is very strict in regards to basinets, playing on the floor and have been generally a lot less accommodating than what we would have liked. Some questions that should be addressed are:

  • What are the requirements to get a basinet? (A basinet is like a crib that hangs on the bulkhead or interior wall of the plane.)
  • What can I do to guarantee a seat in front of the bulkhead?
  • Do they provide baby/child­oriented snacks or toys?
  • What is the age limit for babies to ride on your lap?
  • Do they offer check in services through the internet? If the airline does offer pre­checking, you can reserve your bulkhead seat without having to arrive at the airport too early.

For additional information, do some research on the web to compare consumer comments on the various airlines. Once you have found your airline, book your tickets and reserve those bulkhead seats.

A second thing to research relates to those bulky, every day items you need to care for your baby. Examples of these items would be diapers, cans of formula, etc. Many articles on traveling with babies suggest that you only take enough for your airplane ride and buy more when you reach your destination. This is a very good idea if you will be able to purchase the same products at your destination. However, if there is even a question regarding whether or not stores at your destination will have the same brand of baby formula or diapers, you definitely want to carry everything with you. This is especially important if you are traveling internationally. The last thing you want to experience on your trip is a baby who would rather starve than eat his new formula or finding out that the local diapers produce a bright red rash! Plan on calling ahead to local stores or researching through the Internet to validate the availability of the necessary items.

Another thing to do before you leave home is to mind your packing. Now that you have done your research on your bulky items, you still need to pack your suitcase and carry­on with everything you need. As you well know, babies need a lot of gear. Decide intelligently what you should and should not take. Keep in mind the weather you can expect ­ both the highs and the lows ­ and whether you can do laundry as you travel. Do you need to take the stroller or can you make do with the backpack? Although it is better to err on the side of bringing everything you need, remember that you will need to carry all the luggage and your baby at the same time.

You will also need to plan what to pack in your carry­on bag. If your baby eats formula, pack enough formula and bottles for your flight plus a little more. The same idea applies to diapers. Depending upon the age of the baby, it is often a good thing to bring a variety of their favorite snacks. Giving your child snacks at regular periods can help relieve the boredom of the flight. Lastly, bring a number of their favorite toys. Try to bring toys that are not too noisy for the sake of your fellow travelers nor too big, as you still need to carry everything in your carry­on bag. My daughter has a squeaky book about a little lamb. Reading that book during take offs and landings keeps her in our laps, compliant and calm.

The second stage in flying with your baby is the airport! It is recommended that you get to the airport two to three hours early for a number of reasons. The first reason is to check in and secure the bulkhead seats. Unless you were able to pre­check your bulkhead seats, you will need to check in early enough to reserve your seats.

A second reason for an early arrival is you need extra time to get through security. Since I started traveling with my daughter, airport security scrutinizes everything more than ever. For example, metal cans of formula look like potential bombs and usually require visual verification, meaning lots of unpacking/packing. In addition, the baby has just one more pair of shoes to remove and put back on in getting through the security checkpoint.

The last reason for arriving early is to take advantage of early boarding. It may not be much fun to board the plane early and spend time in your seat, however, boarding early will give you one distinct advantage. You will be able to claim all the storage space you need closest to your seat. Boarding late and being stuck with several overhead bins that are not exactly close to your seat will eventually prove troublesome on a long flight when you need to quickly grab diapers, wet wipes or toys and have to move down the aisle to get them. It is at these times when Murphy’s Law dictates that the drink cart will be in your way, making your quick grab impossible.

The last stage of your journey is what to do on the plane. Since you boarded early and secured the closest overhead bins, it’s time to talk to the flight attendants. Although the attendants will be very busy, ask for your basinet as soon as you can. Some airlines don’t carry basinets on board the plane so someone might need to get one from airport storage before taking off. Talking to the attendant up front also gives you a chance to “make a friend”. As you will probably be bothering your attendant on a regular basis, a friendly attendant is usually more helpful than only a “professional” one.

One final note regarding take offs and landings. Even the best traveling baby has difficulty and discomfort during these times since they don’t know how to relieve the pressure in their ears. Doing your best to keep him or her occupied and busy in your lap is the most effective way to minimize his or her announcement of discomfort to everyone on the plane.

Flying with your newest family member will not be a cake walk but taking time to plan and prepare for the flight can be the difference between an enjoyable (tolerable) and a nerve­wracking experience.

Brandon Walcutt is a father, university professor, and budding travel writer based in Seoul, Korea. The research for this article was conducted through numerous international flights with his baby and through interviews with expatriate families.