Flying with kids is never easy, but a little preparation before the flight can go a long way.
For a lot of us, flying is already nerve-wracking. But flying with a baby is a hundred times harder than flying alone. First, there's the gear that you have to bring. Then, there's the limited space issues. And then, there's the baby itself. Will she sleep? Will he cry? Will your seat mates understand or just give you dirty looks? In one year, I've made a total of three transcontinental trips with two babies and three short jaunts from LA to San Francisco. Here's what I learned along the way.
Pack what you need, and then some. I once heard about a family with a baby getting stuck on the tarmac and running out of milk and diapers. Ever since then, I've always packed a carry-on with enough food, snacks, toys, and diapers in case we get delayed either coming or going. This will make your diaper bag bulkier and heavier than you'd like, but it means you won't have to hold a screaming baby with an overflowing wet diaper on the tarmac. You should also pack an extra pair of kids' clothes, especially if you have a toddler, as there will be at least one major spill while in-flight.
Bring a dish towel. When I first started flying with a baby, I would bring not just my own big pack of baby wipes but also a few sheets of paper towels in case of major spillage. But I've since upped my game and carry a dish towel as well. It proved especially useful on a flight from New Jersey to Los Angeles when my daughter got sick just before landing. Luckily, Virgin America also gave us a special biohazard kit so that we could clean up the mess on our own.
Pay for extra legroom. If you can afford it, upgrade to a seat with extra legroom. It makes holding a lap child much more comfortable, plus there's more room on the ground for your bulky diaper bag. You can even lay the baby down on the ground on top of a blankie. Though airline regulations state children are allowed to sit on your lap until they are two years old, we suggest buying a seat for your kid if they are over 18 months old, especially if it's a longer flight. That way they can sit in their own seat, play with their toys, and if you're lucky, take a nap.
Charge up your gadgets before the flight. You might be able to survive if your phone or tablet is on low battery life during a flight because you can always read a magazine or watch TV. But for a toddler, you better have that iPad or portable DVD player charged to its full capacity before the flight.
Prepare for the worst of TSA. Inconsistent TSA searches are a reality for families, especially when baby food and bottles of milk are involved. Once, at LAX, a TSA agent stripped all the labels off my to-go bottles of baby formula, saying that the machine couldn't test the bottle through the labels. (That was new.) Be sure to factor an extra 20-30 minutes at security into your travel times.
Get your gate-check tickets first. After you make it through security, go straight to the gate and get your gate-check tickets for your stroller or car seats or both. Then, you can let the kids play and burn off energy. As for what to check and what to gate-check, I still haven't found the magic combination. But usually, I gate-check at least one stroller and then regular check the car seats. (Some parents fly with car seats but I haven't done that as I dread having to lug the car seat through security.)
You don't have to board at family boarding time. After first class and priority boarding, airlines typically give families the chance to board before the rest of the plane. This can be great because it gives you access to the overheard compartments and gives you a chance to get settled in without feeling rushed. However, if you've got a squirmy baby or an overactive toddler, boarding before the rest of the plane just means you have to sit in a tight space for a little bit longer. Depending on your child, you may want to wait until the last possible moment to board.
Feed the baby during takeoff and landing. This is a tried and true tip for flying with babies. Make sure to breastfeed the baby or give them a bottle of milk or a sippy cup of water at takeoff and landing to help their small ears adjust to the plane pressure. And anytime you notice the pressure getting rough on your own ears, be sure to give the baby something as well, even if it's just a pacifier.
Bring both toys and treats. I usually buy my daughter small little toys before our trip and break them out on the plane. A plane ride is also a great time to break out some special treats like lollipops. The first time my daughter ever had a lollipop was on descent into LAX last fall. She went from screaming and crying, "No seatbelt, no seatbelt!" to telling everyone around us "I have a lollipop! I have a pink lollipop!" in just a matter of seconds.
Know that the flight will end at some point. When I fly cross-country now, I try not to look at my watch until I am really desperate. There's nothing worse than looking at the time during a flight and realizing only an hour has gone by and you've still got four more to go. While I, and everyone else who's ever flown with kids, can give you tons of advice on what to bring and what to do, there's not much you can do when the cabin door closes and the plane pushes away from the gate. So just make the most of what you brought on board with you and pray that your little one doesn't have any major blowouts, spills, or meltdowns. And that your seat mates are parents, too.
This article originally appeared on Jaunted.com in 2013. It has been updated.