Recently, I told the story of Todd Walker, an American Airlines passenger who was sitting next to a mother and her two young children, and who got "the whole toddler experience," as we might euphemistically say.
Walker decided to react to the chaos with kindness, and the details of the story about how he helped out fellow passenger Jessica Rudeen with her children went viral.
As it happens, my wife and toddler daughter and I flew recently from New York to Aruba for vacation this month--heading down on JetBlue and back on United. While I was once a very frequent flier, pre-parenthood, this was only the second time we'd taken her on a plane.
So I had the combined experience of hundreds of flights when I was a bit younger, as a frequent flier who would feel a lot of trepidation if I was ever seated near a family with young kids--and also as a parent and relatively rare flier now, who scoured everything I could with my wife on flying with a very young child. Here's what we learned--how to make flying easier on you, your toddler, and your fellow passengers.
1. Make it a fun adventure.
Our story has a happy ending--two in fact. At the end of both flights, my daughter exclaimed the exact same thing to me: "Daddy, that was so much fun!"
No, there are not many adults who feel the same way after half a day in row 38 just ahead of the aft lavatories. But toddlers are appropriately amazed at the fact that we can cram 300 people into a pressurized metal tube and transport them to a completely different climate in a matter of hours.
So the advice here is to find your inner kid, and share their awe and excitement over the trip. If they sense that your overall attitude toward flying with them is that it's a big, fun adventure, they'll be more likely to emulate you. That just makes everything easier.
2. Devote the day, and arrive early.
Ah, my life as a single guy--and then as a married but childless one. I was always all about catching the ridiculously early vacation flight at the last minute back then: the 4 a.m. wakeup, the 5 a.m. airport arrival, the 6 a.m. departure--all to be on the beach by noon.
With a toddler, forget about it. Chalk up Day 1 and the last day of your trip as costs of doing business, if you can afford to. Dedicating the day, and thus both avoiding last-minute rushes and sticking close to a child's regular schedule are like gold for improving their comfort and attitude aboard.
Of course there are times when you have may no other choice: Maybe you're a parent who absolutely has to take a child on a redeye flight in order to be home in time for work, or maybe an inconvenient flight time is the only one that works financially. But all other things being equal, the more buffer time you can devote to travel, the more comfortable you'll all likely be.
3. Think through the terminal.
Pre-kids, I would rarely consider what airports were like in making travel plans. My main consideration would just be how long it would take to get there: Reagan National over Dulles or BWI, for example, when I was living in Washington, D.C.
But, with kids there can be more to think through. The mini-play space in the terminal while waiting for our JetBlue flight at JFK was a godsend, for example. And I happily shelled out $6 for a luggage cart--which is insane, but hey--rather than try to drag three people-worth of luggage through the terminal.
4. Big smiles for the the flight attendants.
I've seen more and more people lately recommending buying a big bag of candy to curry favor with flight attendants when you board a plane and will be flying in coach.
I've never had the opportunity--or maybe the courage--to do this. But we encouraged our toddler to smile and say hello to all the flight crew as we boarded, and the reaction we got rivals anything I can imagine a bag of M&Ms will do for you.
On JetBlue, this really paid off, in the form of a flight attendant who was fantastic, friendly, and helpful--and who even volunteered to carry our stroller (more below) and one of our carry on bags to the jetway when we arrived.
5. Bring the car seat.
I've seen other parents recommend against this: but oh yes, I say bring your car seat aboard. Just make sure it's FAA-approved--and perhaps even print out the page on the FAA's website that talks about approval (that's the link you just passed), along the airline's child seat policy, and the manufacturer's description of your seat.
The reason: We didn't have any problems, but I saw other forums where people said flight attendants didn't seem to understand the idea of putting kids in a car seat on a plane. It's by far the safest way for a toddler to fly, for the same reasons that you don't just sit them in a regular bucket seat in a car. Plus, you'll want it if you plan to travel by car at your destination.
Of course, this means purchasing a ticket for your child, versus holding him or her in your lap (which is allowed, on most airlines, for children between 14 days and two years old--obviously check your airline). Maybe that's cost prohibitive for some people, and I'm sympathetic. But, it's a risk: there's very little chance you'd be able to hold your child tightly enough in the event of really bad turbulence.
6. Board first, exit last.
Almost every airline gives some level of boarding priority to families traveling with small children. Take advantage of it.
Even setting aside that you're likely to be desperate for overhead bin space, you'll want the extra time to get that car seat settled, and get your toddler simultaneously comfortable and excited before the plane fills up.
At the end of the flight, just accept that you probably want to be last off the plane. You have a lot more stuff to gather than people traveling without kids: including the car seat, and maybe even a foldable stroller that's certified for storage in an overhead bin. Much better than gate checking, if you can pull it off.
7. Sit in the back.
True, when you're flying sans kids, most people would rather be toward the front of the plane. But if you're not flying business class or first class, and if you're not unfortunate enough to be so tall that you need to be in economy plus to be comfortable, you're better off in the back.
Combine this with the early on/late off rule from #4 above, and the fact that you don't have other people piled up behind you, waiting to get by, can make the experience more palatable. Also, sitting in the second-to-last row on both JetBlue and United, we were surrounded by other families with small kids.
Maybe this was a matter of families simply having to economize and take the last seats, but it worked out.
8. Plan as if there will be no food.
This one almost seems too obvious--except that even though my wife is super-organized, we kind of got caught up in it. We presumed that since we were going to be on a five-hour international flight, there would be some way to purchase food.
And yes, there were snack boxes for sale on JetBlue. However, they served from the front of the plane on back, and it's hard to tell a toddler that she'll be able to have a strange lunch she's never tried before--but she has to wait 90 minutes first, after we reach 10,000 feet and the flight attendants make their way through rows 5-37 before reaching us.
Fortunately, we had a lot of snacks, and my daughter didn't really mind having Goldfish crackers and almonds for lunch. But we probably shouldn't have presumed we'd be able to buy, say, a turkey and cheese sandwich for her aboard. Whoops.
9. Plan as if there will be no in-flight entertainment.
JetBlue had a decent seat back entertainment system. My daughter had brand new kid-friendly headphones, and since we're the annoying kind of parents who normally don't give her much screen time, the idea that she was able to sit for 30 minutes and watch an episode of Puppy Dog Pals was an amazing thrill for her.
It was so amazing in fact that even when she decided she didn't like the way the headphones felt on her head, she nevertheless kept watching the video like a silent movie.
United only had their in-flight app, which is interesting enough, except that infrequent family travelers like we are didn't actually realize this would be the case until we were aboard. That meant a mad rush to try download the United app, and get it set up--all before the door closed.
10. Plan as if there will be no nap.
Life for new and new-ish parents revolves around their children's naps. And maybe there will be a nap; I hope your toddler is still napping.
But really, plan as if there won't be. Mostly that means that if you're the type of person who normally sleeps on planes yourself, those days have gone by for you. At least until your kid is a bit older.