As a pediatric hematologist-oncologist with a focus on resource-limited countries, I knew my family and I would be doing a lot of traveling. My wife and I felt that, if blessed with kids, they would go along on the ride with us. Two years ago, we welcomed a beautiful daughter to our family. So far, she has been on 30 flights and has flown almost 80,000 miles. This does not make us experts in traveling with kids. Anyone that thinks they have mastered traveling with children has probably not flown enough with children. We have, however, learned some valuable lessons along the way that we are happy to share.
In this 2-part series, I will share our advice on pre-flight preparations and, in a future post, the in-flight care of a child. This is aimed for those traveling on long international flights but many of the principles may still be applicable for short domestic flights. Since our daughter is only 2, we have yet to learn lessons for older kids – but give us a few years!
- Choose the right airline. In traveling so much, we have learned to appreciate airlines that are “kid friendly.” Recently, “kid-free zones” have emerged for some airlines. This makes kids sound dangerous and that would not make me feel welcome as a parent. Talk to friends about their experiences. Individual experiences may vary widely, but you may see patterns emerge. If you have options, I would recommend going with an airline that has higher overall customer service ratings.
- Book the right itinerary for your family. If your child is a light sleeper, consider booking a flight during the child’s day time. If a sound sleeper, overnight flights may work better as the child may provide you with a peaceful flight full of sleep. The worst feeling is when your child is crying during a night time flight and everyone else’s flight is no longer pleasant.
- Choose the right seats. If traveling with small children (<6 months, <20 pounds), you may be able to book bulkhead seats that have extra leg room and a flip down bassinet or bouncy seat. These can be a double-edged swords though as you will have to wake your sleeping baby to take them out once the seat-belt sign comes on. Do your best to avoid sitting near the lavatory as the opening/closing of the door and the super sonic toilet flushing could disturb your child.
- Know your baggage options. I am not sure there is anything more confusing than the ever changing, often ambiguous and occasionally contradictory baggage allowances. Check to see if your stroller can be gate-checked and delivered to you on the jetway after the flight, or if it must be checked to your final destination at the gate. Same goes for the car seat. On international flights, even lap infants under 2 years may still have a small baggage allowance. Know the rules for your airline and take advantage of them.
- 3 words: interline baggage agreements. Interline baggage agreements are partnerships between different carriers which allow you to check your bags to your final destination even if changing airlines during your travel itinerary, and may help you save on your overall baggage fees. Slogging through an airport with your children and carry-ons is bad enough. Don’t make it worse by having to collect baggage and recheck to your final destination. A word of caution: 2 airlines may have an interline agreement, but just because they do it does not mean your baggage will interline. Your flights must be booked on the same ticket and not as separate purchases. Take caution when booking with online booking sites as your itinerary could be purchased as separate tickets.
- Liquids. The US and several other countries have adopted very strict policies on liquids in carry-on luggage. There is leniency with children (though you will go through additional scrutiny). The liquids may be tested using test strips. In some airports, you may be asked to sample the liquids including breast milk. Research the airports you are traveling through (even transit airports as you will still likely go through security to get to your connecting flight) so you can be prepared. One liquid rule that seems universally enforced is no liquid medications over 90ml or 3 ounces without a prescription. If you plan to take liquid acetaminophen or ibuprofen, it is best to get a prescription from your pediatrician. We have trashed brand new over-the-counter bottles at security and have heard from others with similar experiences. Baby liquids are not required to be in quart size bags like your personal liquids; however, we find that keeping the baby liquids in gallon Ziploc bags (all together in one place) allows us to breeze through security a little easier so that we aren’t holding up the line to dig around the diaper bag. In general, families will need to allow for some extra time to get through security.
- Layovers can be your friend. In our experience, short layovers on long international journeys do not allow adequate time for the child to unwind and the parents to catch their breath. We often build in at least 7 hours to an extra day or two into our itinerary during transit. Extended layovers have led to incredible memories including taking our daughter to Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey and letting her swim in the Persian Gulf. By taking a break between flights, we are all fresh to complete our long journey.
- Transit hotels can be an oasis in the airport. Transit hotels, available at many international airports, can feel like checking into a 5-star resort after a 14 hour flight with a crying baby. A nap in a soft bed and a hot shower can recharge you and your children. If we have a layover of at least 4-6 hours, we book a transit hotel if available. Many charge hourly or day-use rates. Intra-terminal transit hotels (usually requires going through transit security but are most convenient) are typically more expensive.A more economical option is leaving the airport and booking a nearby airport hotel at a day rate. The downside is leaving the airport (which will require a pass through immigration) and having to repeat the security and immigration processes for the next leg of your journey. Hotels can fill up fast so book these when you book your flights.
Knowing the questions to ask is the most important step in planning to travel with your child. In my next post, I will tackle strategies for keeping your precious angel from turning into the “Incredible Hulk “during a long journey.