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When Sam and I started traveling a lot, something we heard frequently was, “Good for you! Get it in now before you have kids!”
The obvious implications were that A) travel is something you can ever actually get out of your system. Which, considering I’m usually looking up flight deals on Skyscanner while we’re still on a trip, is about as realistic as having ample legroom and a gourmet meal in economy class. And B) that travel with a baby is impossible.
We weren’t ready to accept either of those assumptions. Though we knew we would likely change a lot about how we traveled once we had a baby, we had no intention of quitting altogether.
So, when Claire was born we decided to dive straight into the deep end. She went on her first international trip (to visit my family in Canada) when she was nine weeks old. She has now visited 10 countries and taken 26 flights (and been on several road trips), and she’s not even one year old. She’s napped on a beach in Turks and Caicos, road-tripped Scotland, ridden a carousel in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris, and taken a river cruise along the Danube in Budapest. Not too shabby for someone who still doesn’t know how to use a fork.
I’ll be honest. There were plenty of moments when we wondered if we were crazy. There have been some tears along the way—and not all of them were Claire’s! But travel is important to us, and we know it will give her a richer, more well-rounded life.
Now that we’ve had some experience, we have learned a lot of things that make traveling with an infant easier. These are our best tips and tricks for traveling with a baby!
Things to Know and Common Mistakes People Make when Flying with a Lap Infant
- Some airlines may have age restrictions. When traveling with a very young infant, check your chosen airline’s guidelines for any possible age restrictions. From what we’ve seen, most airlines allow all but VERY young babies (we’re talking days old) to fly. That said, just because your baby can fly doesn’t always mean she should. More on that in the next point.
- Get approval from your child’s pediatrician. Always get the okay from your baby’s pediatrician before travel. And remember that travel to certain parts of the world can pose additional health issues worth discussing with a medical professional. We chose not to fly with Claire until she had her first few rounds of vaccinations. (I know some families choose to do an expedited vaccination schedule due to travel plans.) We also decided to avoid traveling to countries with a malaria risk until she’s a bit older.
- Your baby DOES need a plane ticket—even if he’s sitting on your lap! One mistake people make quite often when flying with a baby is assuming a lap infant (a child under age 2) doesn’t need a ticket. But, because of safety regulations, taxes, etc., your baby will need to have a ticket and be listed on the flight manifest. It is always a good practice to make sure your baby has a ticket before you arrive at the airport (especially for international flights. More on that in point 4!).
- Lap infants are not necessarily free. Another misconception is that children under age 2 fly free if they are classified as a lap infant and don’t have their own seat. While this is sometimes true for domestic travel (at least within North America), lap infants are not usually free on international flights—though their tickets are significantly cheaper than the adult fare. We have been charged everything from 16 USD to more than 100 USD to take Claire on an international flight as a lap infant. Often the only charge is international taxes, but some airlines also charge a percentage of the adult ticket price. For that reason, we always recommend purchasing a lap infant ticket as soon as you buy your own ticket to get the best possible rate.
- You may have to reserve your lap infant ticket over the phone. In our experience, many airlines don’t allow lap infant reservations to be made online—even when booking the adult tickets online. We have no idea why, and we find it quite frustrating! So be prepared to call the reservation line (and probably wait on hold).
- If YOU need a passport for your trip, so does your baby! Though this point may seem obvious, it is something many parents overlook. Yes, your baby needs a passport for international travel! Be sure to apply for your baby’s passport well in advance of your trip. (We knew we would be traveling internationally while Claire was still very young, so we sent in her passport application as soon as we had her birth certificate and social security number. We also paid to expedite the process.) For Americans, you can find out more about applying for an infant passport here. Also keep in mind that children younger than 16 are only eligible for five-year rather than 10-year passports.
- …or you may need to show your child’s birth certificate. For domestic travel, some airlines require parents to show their baby’s birth certificate before flying (Southwest Airlines is a stickler for this.) Showing the baby’s passport is usually sufficient on international flights.
- Lap infants do NOT necessarily get an equal luggage allotment. When planning your trip, keep in mind that lap infants are not necessarily allotted as much luggage space as someone flying on a paid ticket. Be sure to verify the luggage restrictions with the airline so you don’t end up getting upcharged for baggage at the airport.
- Certain items are permitted at no extra charge. That said, certain safety items are permitted at no extra charge. These items include a car seat and stroller. (We have never seen a case where these items weren’t included at no extra cost). Note: Pack n’ plays and other infant travel beds are often not exempt from typical baggage fees.
- Infants aren’t allowed to sit in certain rows. Most airlines have restrictions on where infants in arms (or even older children) can be seated. Typically, infants are not allowed on exit rows or the rows directly in front or behind the exit rows. Some airlines also prohibit infants from bulkhead rows (but many do not). And, usually, only one infant is arms is permitted per row.
- Red-eye flights are a good option. There are several schools of thought on this subject, but we fall strongly into the red-eye-loving one. Because red-eyes (overnight flights) mean sleep. And sleep means a lot less time entertaining a tiny human in a seat so cramped you can barely cross your legs. We have flown on two red-eyes with Claire so far, and they are easily our favorite flights we’ve taken. That said, the major downside to your baby sleeping the whole flight is that when you arrive bleary-eyed and ready for a nap, your baby might not be! So—as with everything in life—it’s all about tradeoffs.
- Apply for Global Entry. If you plan to take even one international trip per year as a family, we recommend applying for Global Entry so you can breeze through customs lines in five minutes or less. For real. Because the last thing you want after a long flight with a baby is to stand in a customs line so long it makes the DMV look like the county fair. We have used ours three times so far and our only regret is not getting it sooner! The application process is fairly simple. Just fill out an online application here and then, after you receive conditional approval, complete the interview by scheduling an appointment at your home airport or when you clear customs in the US or select Canadian cities on your next trip. An added perk is that Global Entry includes TSA precheck, so you can save a lot of time at security as well. Global Entry cost $100 for five years. One more important note on Global Entry: your baby will need his or her own Global Entry account in order to go through the special customs line with you.
- Get TSA precheck. If you only travel domestically, it might be worth applying only for TSA precheck, which will help you get through the security line quicker. And unlike Global Entry, children age 12 and under can use the TSA precheck line as long as the adults accompanying them have been approved for TSA precheck. It costs $85 for five years.
At the Airport Tips
- Arrive early. Though it’s always smart to arrive early for a flight (2-3 hours depending on the airport), plan to add even MORE time when traveling with a baby. We have had lots of unexpected delays when traveling with Claire (we recently got stuck at the reservation desk in Paris for a full hour because the airline employee could not find her ticket in the system), so having extra time is worth it simply for the peace of mind.
- You may have to check in at the airport. On that point, another good reason to arrive at the airport early is because you may not be able to check in for your flight online in advance (especially on international flights). Be prepared to wait in an additional check-in line.
- Ask a gate agent about empty seats (and taking your car seat on board). If you are traveling with a lap infant, always ask a gate agent if you can be seated beside an empty seat. They are usually happy to accommodate if there is any availability! On a long-haul overnight flight from Atlanta to London, the gate agents moved Sam and me to a row with an empty seat for Claire, and it ended up being the easiest flight we’ve ever taken with her!
- Request a bassinet seat on long-haul flights. For long-haul flights, request a bassinet seat. Most bigger airplanes have one or two bulkhead seats where a little bassinet (travel cot) can be installed for your baby to use. Having the bassinet can be a real life-saver on overnight flights. We got a bassinet seat on a flight from Atlanta to Europe, and Claire slept in it almost the whole way! Just be warned that these bassinets are usually offered on a first-come-first-served basis, which is why I always request it on the phone when reserving Claire’s ticket, and then we try to arrive at the gate early to be sure we are at the top of the list.
- Ask and ask again (politely)! One of the most important lessons I’ve learned while traveling with a baby is that it never hurts to ask, and persistence pays off. Many airline employees are either unsure or misinformed about policies regarding infant travel. We’ve found that, if we have a specific request, it is worth being persistent and asking multiple people. For example, when we were flying from Atlanta to London, we asked if we could take Claire’s car seat on board since there was an empty seat in our row. The check-in counter staff said no. Multiple gate agents said no. The flight attendants said yes! And what could have been a rough flight ended up being so much more pleasant, because Claire slept for seven hours straight in her car seat! You just never know until you ask (the right person). Of course, it’s important to keep a good attitude and maintain a pleasant demeanor. Not only are you less likely to be granted a favor if you lose your cool, but it’s also, well, not cool to be a jerk.
- Pay attention to “family” lines. There are often separate lines at check in, security, and sometimes even customs for families traveling with young children in strollers. Be sure to keep an eye open for that, as they are often (though not always) shorter and faster. I also try to make eye contact with the employee managing any airport line to be sure they see that I am traveling with a baby in a stroller. On several occasions the person has moved us to a special family or priority lane that we didn’t realize was there.
- Gate check a stroller (and ask for a gate check tag prior to boarding). We always gate check our stroller so we can continue to use it in the airport after clearing security and during layovers. Some airports are like mini-cities, so you don’t necessarily want to be stuck toting around a 20-pound baby for three hours! We also make sure to ask for a gate check tag as soon as we get to our gate to avoid causing a logjam once the boarding process begins.
- Take a stroller cover. And on the topic of strollers and car seats, we recommend traveling with a cover you can use when gate checking to avoid your stroller or car seat getting dirtier and germier than necessary. We use this one (though we have had to replace it a few times).
- Always travel with a baby carrier. Though we prefer to use our stroller through airports (since Claire gets heavy very quickly these days!), traveling with a good baby carrier is a must for several reasons. First of all, they are super convenient for going through security (since you aren’t allowed to keep your baby in a stroller). Second, in Europe (and probably other regions as well), gate checked strollers are typically checked through to the baggage claim at your final destination. So having a carrier is super handy during long, stroller-less layovers, customs lines, etc. For younger babies, soft carriers like the Solly wrap are great (light and easy to pack when not in use). For heavier babies, a structured carrier like the Beco Carrier is a good option.
Packing tips for Traveling with a Baby
- Pack light. Just because you’re traveling with a little person doesn’t mean you need to pack a ton of stuff! Though it seems counterintuitive, when traveling with a baby, it is super helpful to pack light. The last thing you will want when you’re already carrying or pushing a baby around is a bunch of bulky suitcases and gear to lug through airports, on trains, or down cobblestone streets. When traveling with Claire, we prefer to take only our carry-on bags (even on long international trips).
- Always have a change of clothes accessible. Babies are messy, and you never know when disaster will strike. Always keep a change of clothes (for your baby and yourself) easily accessible in your carry-on. (Even when flying carry-on-only, I like to keep an extra onesie in Claire’s diaper bag so I don’t have to worry about pulling my suitcase out of the overhead bin and rifling through my packing cubes in the cramped airplane aisle.)
- Buy diapers/wipes at your destination. One of the best ways to cut down on bulk is to travel with only enough diapers and wipes to last through the first day or two of the trip and then buy more in the destination. People have babies everywhere in the world, so unless you are traveling to a remote jungle, you will easily be able to find the essentials anywhere you visit. (Though we don’t recommend buying diapers in an airport if you can avoid it, because the prices are often sky high!)
- Do laundry. Rather than packing enough clothing last your whole trip, pack enough for roughly one week and then plan to do laundry at your destination. Lots of apartment rentals have a washing machine. We also travel with little Tide detergent packets we can use to wash clothes in the sink in a pinch.
- Don’t pack lots of toys. When traveling with babies, don’t bother packing a ton of toys. At that age, everything can be a toy. I brought a small selection of toys for Claire to play with on our flight from Scotland back to the US when she was six months old, and the one thing that kept her entertained was…the plastic water bottle the flight attended gave me with my lunch.
- Do pack snacks. If your baby is eating solids, packing snacks for the flight is essential. We didn’t pack any on a long flight home from Paris, and we very much regretted our mistake when Claire had a meltdown during a patch of turbulence that kept us in our seats with our seatbelts on. Since then, we pack little snacks she can feed herself when she starts getting restless. (We do “puffs” or freeze-dried yogurt drops. Nothing too messy.)
- Get the Doona stroller. So, this isn’t really meant to be a packing/gear list. But the Doona stroller has been so amazing for travel with a baby that I had to mention it. What makes it so great is that it is a car seat that quickly and easily converts to a stroller with the push of a button. So rather than packing a stroller and a car seat, you can just pack the Doona and have your bases covered. Even better: it is FAA approved for use on airplanes! It is hands-down the best baby item we’ve bought, and we can’t imagine traveling without it.
On the Plane Tips
- Wipe down everything. Airplanes are pretty much germ cesspools. So, to avoid Claire coming into contact with more germs than is strictly necessary, the first thing we do when we get on the plane is wipe down everything she might touch—the tv screen, armrests, seatbelt, window, safety card, etc. –with a disinfectant wipe.
- Zipper sleepers are the perfect travel uniform. I know your baby has a million adorable outfits and you want to show them off to the plane full of people. But the key to travel days is to keep things simple. Our go-to outfit for Claire on travel days is zipper footie pjs. They make for easy diaper changes—even in cramped airplane lavatories—and we don’t have to worry about losing socks or booties along the way.
- Walk the aisle. Sitting in the same spot for hours is boring, so don’t be surprised if your baby gets restless! If Claire starts getting cranky, one of us will typically get up and walk the aisle with her until she calms down. On bigger planes, there is often some space to stand and walk at the back.
- Keep diapering supplies handy. All airplane lavatory are equipped with change tables. But changing diapers in a tiny airplane bathroom is never easy. To keep things simple, keep the diapering essentials—wipes, mat, diapers, ointment—easily accessible within the diaper bag or even in a smaller cloth tote bag. That way you don’t have to squeeze a bulky diaper bag into the lavatory with you.
- Feed baby on takeoff and landing. It’s worth noting that the air pressure changes during takeoff and landing causes some babies intense ear pain. To help your baby feel more comfortable, consider feeling or offering a pacifier during takeoff and landing. That said, Claire has never had a problem with the air pressure changes so far.
Tips for Choosing Accommodations with a Baby
- Apartments are (often) a better choice than hotels. When traveling with Claire, we prefer to stay in apartment rentals (our go-to booking site is Airbnb). Apartments are typically much homier and more spacious (something we especially appreciate now that Claire is mobile). We also like to have a kitchen so we don’t have to drag Claire to as many restaurants or keep her out too late.
- Book accommodations with two bedrooms. If your baby typically sleeps in her own room at home, it’s a good idea to book accommodations that allow her to have her own room on the trip as well. After many sleepless nights in hotel rooms or cramped studio apartments, we have started booking mostly two-bedroom apartments, and she has started sleeping a lot better.
- Ask if your accommodation can provide essential baby gear. Rather than hauling heavy or impractical baby gear halfway around the world, we always message our Airbnb hosts and ask if they can provide a baby bed or other essential baby gear (like a high chair). Most hotels or apartment rental hosts are happy to oblige. Since we only stay in places that will provide, at minimum, a crib, we always message an Airbnb host prior to making our reservation to confirm they will provide one. We have only had one Airbnb host so far who has said no.
- Ask about stairs/accessibility. When traveling with a baby, and especially with a stroller, staying on a fourth story walk-up that doesn’t have an elevator is probably not ideal (we know this from first-hand experience!). So, whenever possible, ask about accessibility and try to stay on a lower floor if there is no elevator.
Tips for Breastfeeding While Traveling
- Remember, breastfeeding is a natural part of life all over the globe. Mothers breastfeed their babies everywhere in the world, so don’t be too uptight about feeding your baby anywhere you go! It is a natural part of life, and no one will bat an eye. I’ve nursed Claire in every destination we’ve visited and never once received negative attention.
- If you are uncomfortable feeding your baby in public, invest in a good nursing cover. Babies, especially young babies, need to eat, and they don’t always wait until you’re in a convenient or private location to voice their impatience! I know that many breastfeeding moms are totally comfortable feeding their baby in public. Way to go! But if you prefer a bit more privacy (like I do), it’s worth investing in a good nursing cover. I have used a cover like this one when feeding Claire everywhere from Caribbean beaches to Canadian shopping malls to bakeries in Paris. It is especially useful on airplanes when privacy is not an option!
- Download the Mamava app. Many airports (and some malls, zoos, aquariums, etc.) have designated lactation rooms available to nursing mothers who would like a quiet, private environment in which to feed their baby. My favorites are the Mamava lactation pods that are scattered through most major US airports. Simply download the app to locate one closest to where you are. Not only do they add privacy for nursing, but they also offer a quiet respite from the crazy airport terminal.
- Relax your feeding schedule. For mamas who typically feed on a schedule (rather than on demand), it’s a good idea to relax that schedule during flights, and even for the first few nights of a trip or while dealing with jet lag. We have always been fairly scheduled with Claire’s feeding times at home. But we switch to feed-on-demand during travel for the simple reason that breastfeeding is typically the fastest way to calm her down! So, if we are on a flight and she is obviously getting tired and cranky, I go ahead and start nursing her even if her next feeding isn’t *supposed* to be for another 30 minutes. She typically conks out immediately!
- You can bring breastmilk/water through security. Liquid restrictions in carry-ons don’t apply to breastmilk (or water, for formula-feeding parents). The TSA permits parents to carry on a “reasonable amount” of breastmilk (even if it goes over the 3oz limit. Though I made sure to store mine in bags of 3oz or less just to be on the safe side.) So if you’re a pumping mama, don’t worry about taking your breastmilk stash with you on the plane!
Tips for Making a Travel Itinerary with a Baby
- Prioritize and expect to do less. For people like Sam and me who typically jam our days full on vacation, it goes against our nature to slow down and work in some downtime. But when traveling with a baby, cramming every day full of activities will likely end in everyone becoming tired and cranky. Instead, we determine one or two things we MOST want to see in a day and then play the rest by ear. Sometimes having some down time in the apartment makes for a better experience than trying to hit one more cathedral or coffee shop. (We also like to include at least a few hours of rest/napping in the apartment per day, typically during her nap time.)
- Stay more than one night. While heading to a new city every day or two might be reasonable for adults, it becomes a lot more challenging when traveling with a baby. To minimize the time we spend packing up, in transit, and adjusting to a new bed/cot, we aim to stay a minimum of 3 nights (though preferably 4 or more) in each location.
- Don’t stress about the schedule too much. At home, we keep Claire on a consistent sleep schedule. But on many of our trips—especially trips that involve a significant time change (3 or more hours)—we find that just getting any sleep is a win. So sometimes, rather than forcing a nap in the pack n play at our apartment, we let her doze in the stroller while we are out and about. At the end of the day, you do what you have to do. And that’s totally okay.
- Mentally prepare for jet lag. On that note, if you are traveling to a destination that involves a time change, realize that your baby may have a harder time adjusting to a new schedule than you do. While Sam and I have typically been able to shake off jet lag in a few days, we’ve learned that Claire takes much MUCH longer to adjust. And while there are some ways to encourage her to adjust faster—like getting plenty of sunlight in the day, trying to limit her daytime sleep, etc.—for the most part, we just have to grit our teeth and buckle down for some rough, sleepless nights. (In Paris, she woke up at 2 a.m. every morning and proceeded to play for two hours before falling back asleep.) Of course, every baby is different. Yours might be a cherub who always sleeps like a charm (in which case you should stop reading this post and buy a lottery ticket because you’re luckier than a leprechaun). But we’ve found the best strategy is to emotionally prepare for the worst and drink lots of caffeine.
Final Tips for Travel with a Baby
- Prepare for people to touch your baby. One of the hardest parts of traveling with a baby for us so far has been dealing with the fact that so many strangers want to touch her! Not cool, people. So to cut down on the unwanted attention—especially when she was really little—I would often wear her in the Solly wrap when we were in public or drape a blanket over her stroller. I also kept disinfectant wipes handy at all times.
- Build in some time to recover at home. I know this can be hard to do if you have limited vacation time, but it’s super helpful to have a day or two cushion time at home before returning to work or school. Travel with a baby is exhausting, so having some time at home to catch your breath after a trip is always helpful. (On a related note—don’t be surprised if your baby’s schedule takes a while to regulate after a trip. And for families who sleep train, don’t be surprised if you have to “re-train” your baby somewhat if the sleep conditions on your trip varied greatly from what they are at home. But, in our experience, things will eventually go back to how they were before. It just takes patience. A lot of patience…)
- Remember that no one is as concerned about your baby as you are. I saved this tip for last, because I think it’s the most important. Typically, the thing parents stress about the most is that their baby will get cranky, cause a scene, and everyone on the plane/in the restaurant/at the hotel will get upset…and possibly say so. I know that has always been one of my biggest fears. So if your baby is fussing (or more than fussing) on the flight or in a public place, keep a few things in mind:
- Continue to do something. Travel is exhausting and even the sweetest babies get upset at times. Most people understand that. What they want to see is that you (the parent) are actively trying to soothe the baby…even if your attempts are futile. Try breastfeeding or a bottle. Take a walk down the aisle. Pull out a new toy. Because even if your attempts don’t work, your fellow passengers will be much more forgiving if they see that you are actively working to rectify the situation.
- It’s an inconvenience, but not the end of the world. Yes, listening to a baby cry on a flight is frustrating. Especially on a night flight. But most people will put on their headphones or cram in their earplugs and ignore it. Because that’s what adults do.
- You will never see those people again. When things get really bad—like when Claire had a total meltdown six hours into our flight from Paris to Philly while the seat belt sign was on—I remind myself that even if everyone on the plane hates me, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like I have to go to my seatmate’s family reunion or play on a softball team with the business person behind us. We likely won’t see them again after we leave the plane.
- Most people are very understanding. That said, even on Claire’s worst flights we’ve never gotten negative comments from other passengers. In fact, we often get the opposite! Many people comment that they are so glad we are showing her the world at such a young age and commend us on how well she is doing. Everyone was a baby once and most people will have a baby of their own at some point. So, you may be surprised by how much grace people are prepared to give you!
Traveling with a baby can be challenging—but it is definitely doable. And the experiences you have while traveling as a family will be special memories you will never forget. Happy travels!
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