Tips for flying with a baby (or how not to smell like roadkill by the time you arrive)


So I decided to pack up Elizabeth when she was two months old, get on a plane, and fly across the country. Call me crazy but it was the quickest way to get to Phoenix and we had some really important business there! Anyway, we made it about 30 miles into our 2,500 mile journey – approximately to the runway at JFK – before she puked all over me and proceeded to cry her face off for the next two hours while we were then delayed and continued to sit on the runway. And when I say “puked all over me” I mean all. over. me. I brought an extra shirt in my carry-on, just in case, but I hadn’t anticipated the volcanic eruption of projectile vomit that necessitated an extra pair of pants and bra.

Let’s just say that I smelled pretty ripe by the time we arrived at midnight local time and looked like a wild animal – my hair was a mess, my shirt was half on/half off from our last nursing session, and of course Elizabeth woke up screaming with a vengeance by the time we arrived at the rental car counter. The guy working the night shift did us a solid and used his car rental powers to give us his employee discount, plus upgraded us to a really nice SUV. But I’m pretty sure he would have done anything to get rid of the crazy lady who smelled like roadkill and her screaming, smelly spawn at that point.

This being my first time traveling with the baby, and solo to boot, I learned many lessons very quickly. Some things I did worked out (like shipping things to my destination ahead of time); other things left much to be desired (like why the hell did I bring 3,000 onesies?). If you’re getting a plane with a baby, here’s my advice:

Before you leave:

  • Look up the airline’s policy before you book a ticket. Many airlines offer discounted infant seats so you can bring your FAA-approved car seat on board instead of flying with the baby in your lap.
  • Cut in half what you plan to bring. Lay out what you want to pack ahead of time. Cut it in half. If you are going somewhere that has a washer/dryer…. cut it in half again. Seriously – take as few things as you could possibly need. The less you have to carry, tote around, and retrieve at security or the baggage claim… the better. Bring only a couple of your child’s favorite toys.
  • Do a dry run. I had never used our car seat without the base, but was not bringing the base on the trip. The day before we left, I practiced putting it in (and taking it out) of my car at home with the shoulder belt. I also practiced rolling my suitcase (full of our crap) while pushing the stroller before we left. I was glad I felt comfortable doing these things because I was pretty frazzled by the time we landed and didn’t have much mental capacity left. I was glad to know “it worked” beforehand.
  • Make sure you have all your essentials and don’t sweat the rest. Chances are you can purchase anything non-essential that you might have forgotten at home once you arrive at your destination.
  • FedEx! Send out what you won’t need until you get there – like all the OTHER diapers and wipes you’ll use – ahead of time.
  • Take only one carry on. JUST ONE! And pack an ENTIRE extra outfit on there for you and some layers for the baby in case temperatures fluctuate between the airport, plane, etc. I also put everything in clear plastic bags – from onesies to pacifiers – in case they searched us going through security. Security agents are constantly touching tons of things, so when they paw through your bag they won’t come into direct contact with your baby’s pacifiers, clothes, etc.
  • Track your flight before you leave. You don’t want to arrive too early!
  • Pick your travel outfit wisely. Pants with big pockets to stash stuff, slip on shoes, you know the drill. All those tips about how to get through security quickly become way more pertinent when you are trying to get through with a baby.
  • A note about expressed breastmilk or formula/baby food. You can usually bring these items as a carry-on in unlimited amounts. Check with the airline first.

At the airport:

  • If you are traveling solo, assume you will be doing everything yourself. A lot of fellow travelers are parents themselves, and were even in your shoes one day. They will likely take pity on you and offer help, but you can’t count on anything. If you assume you have to do everything yourself, that second set of hands from a kind stranger sitting next to you is a welcome relief, but not necessary.
  • Hand wipes and sanitizer. All the time, on everything. I’m not a germophobe until I walk into an airport. I wiped the hell out of everything I touched and wherever I put the changing pad down. We made it through the trip and neither of us picked up any bugs.
  • Anticipate delays. Bring enough diapers, wipes, etc. in your carry-on for a potentially long haul.
  • Wear your baby. I really like using the Ergobaby for traveling because it has the sleeping hood AND a pocket for your things you need to have accessible. They will make you take the baby carrier OFF when you are going through security, but I put Elizabeth in the Ergo while I broke down the stroller and car seat (which also need to go through the x-ray machine), then sent the Ergo through the machine while I carried the baby. By the time we got to the other end of the line, the car seat had come out and was ready for her to sit in while I gathered the rest of our belongings.*
    • *This lovely story is from when we went through security on our return trip. Our voyage through security before we departed? Horrible. Not only did I lose Elizabeth’s blankie, but I also had to shove her under my arm like a football (Elizabeth, if you’re reading this one day: I’M SORRY) while I broke down the stroller and car seat with one hand which is umm next to impossible because I didn’t realize the entire stroller had to go through the x-ray machine. Let’s call that a “lesson learned.”
  • Gate check your stroller. For most airlines you can check the car seat/stroller travel systems at the gate. Having use of your stroller through the airport is awesome for carting carry-on(s) and you know, actually holding your baby. We only have one stroller and car seat**, so I bought these big red gate check bags to put them in to protect from scuffs. If you’re solo, wear your baby at the gate when you are packing these up as well. I was glad I bought the bags, because there were scuff marks on them and it was raining when we arrived so the car seat would have been soaked when I picked it up at our arrival gate.
    • **If you are going to travel a lot, you may want to consider getting a second travel system that you don’t care that much about getting scuffed and skip the gate check bags. One less thing to worry about bringing and doing!
    • Also, you can check your stroller before even going through security if you don’t want or need it. For that, I would suggest getting the luggage bags for whatever brand you have – they are generally sturdier and protect the stroller better while it’s getting tossed around on conveyor belts and such.
  • Get to your gate a bit early, about 30 mins before boarding. Talk to an airline rep – they might be able to get you a better seat, provide assistance boarding, or even hook you up next to an empty seat to give you a bit more room. Or, in my case, they could kind of be bitches about everything but I think those were two isolated employees at JFK who fed off one another’s misery.

In the air:

  • Nurse, nurse, nurse… or do something that comforts your baby. I found that Elizabeth was unsettled by the experience at first, but nursing brought her a lot of comfort and on the first leg of the journey that’s pretty much all we did.
  • Water, water, water. Not only to hydrate yourself (especially if you are breastfeeding), but you can also use the water for mixing formula, etc. Most flights will have this on board and you can purchase once you are past security.
  • Use the seat back pocket. Stash anything you want to have easy access to there. Since you packed everything in plastic bags in your carry on, this makes it easy to keep everything clean and organized within easy reach.
  • Relax. Baby will pick up on your stress and respond in kind. It’s not fun traveling with an infant, but you can pretend.
  • Pat yourself on the back. You made it through security, through boarding the plane, and are on your way. It’s almost over.

Once you arrive:

  • Wear your baby, again. Before you deplane, get situated with the baby carrier of your choice so that you can collect any gate checked items before proceeding to baggage claim.
  • Ask for help, if you need it. I can only assume flight attendants want to get the hell out of there as much as you do. They will probably be more than willing to help expedite your exit so whether it’s getting a bag from the overhead (which you don’t have, because you only brought ONE carry on, right?) or holding the baby for a second, ask for help and usually ye shall receive.

That covers all of the wisdom I can impart from our trip. Any other traveling parents out there? Since I’ve only done the plane thing once, I bet there are a LOT of other tips out there. Leave a comment with your two cents!

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14 thoughts on “Tips for flying with a baby (or how not to smell like roadkill by the time you arrive)

  1. Karmen says:

    This was a really funny post, and had a lot of truths to it! Thanks for the tips for flying alone with a baby.

  2. Sally says:

    Great tips!!!

    My mom and I flew to FL with the twins about 2 weeks before their first birthday. Everything you said was applicable to our trip (thank goodness no one projectile vomited, though!!).

    For older babies, or mommas using formula, I would add looking up TSA’s guidelines about food/drink for infants. I was formula-feeding them at that time, and brought a bunch of those puree pouches for the kids to have on the plane. I think the wording on TSA’s website said I could bring a “reasonable amount” of liquids for kids under 2, so I was confident going through security that my stuff wouldn’t get thrown out (if I hadn’t known, I probably would’ve stressed out a bunch more).

    I wholeheartedly agree that it’s a good idea to invest in a new travel system if yours won’t work well going through security! Right before our trip, I bought 2 umbrella strollers and these clips to attach them together. That way, mom and I could each take one baby, or one of us could navigate both at the same time. Definitely helped to have that flexibility!!

    Lastly, (again for older babies) the ipad was a lifesaver! I tend to use anything with a screen as a last resort, but my mom uploaded a Baby Einstein DVD onto her ipad and not only did it help distract Ellie on the plane, but having it during the 2 hour drive once we landed pretty much saved my sanity. Sometimes, you just have to let your overtired babies indulge in a movie. 🙂

    • Love, love, love your tips! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂 And the umbrella stroller clip attachment things? What a clever invention – sounds like one of those “if only I had thought of that first…” things! I’m saving your tips for our future plane rides!

  3. […] New York. Our trip to Phoenix was one for the record books (read all the gory, puke-covered details here) and while I had done a ton of laundry once I got there, I failed to wash my nursing cover. A […]

  4. Thank you for this! We are getting ready to fly back to the states after being in Korea for 3 years. This had some great tips and I’m hoping me and the 1 year old make it back without both of us being gross 😀

  5. Mallory says:

    I’m a little late in reading this, but loved the post! I’m traveling on a plane with my 6 month old in July (She’ll be 8 months by then!) and I’m already getting serious anxiety about it. Your post was hilarious and I really enjoyed all of your travel tips! I read on the TSA website that you’re allowed to carry the child through the metal detectors in their sling/carrier but there may be additional screening required whether the metal detector goes off or not, which I’m sure is a generous way of them telling you you’ll likely get screened regardless.
    Thanks for all of the info! I’m hoping this goes well, but who knows.

    • Hi, thanks for reading! My daughter’s first flight will live in infamy for sure – but we flew again when my daughter was six months and it was MUCH easier – you know, that whole able to hold their head up on their own thing ha! You’ll both do great on the trip! And… I wish I had known that TSA rule about the carrier – maybe it’s new? Going to look into it as we’re hitting the skies again soon on another cross-country flight (yes, we’re insane). Good luck!

  6. Avamom says:

    One tip I stumbled on quite by accident is to take your stuff in a clear plastic back. I had a heavy-duty clear plastic beach bag that I grabbed on the way, and the see-thru feature turned out to be super-helpful on the plane, where it is difficult to move around when you don’t have a baby, never mind when you have the baby in your lap. I have seen clear plastic backpacks, that might be the best thing.

  7. […] since Phoenixgate 2013, I’ve been pretty lax about nursing in public (and by pretty lax I really mean “I […]

  8. katie watt says:

    how comfortable were you not using the carseat base? I’m traveling to florida with many family members so I will be able to sit next to my LO when we drive after arrival but I’ve never gone without the base and it makes me nervous.

    • Hi Katie – good question. I’ve learned SO much about car seat safety. The base is purely for convenience – you still need to make sure the seat is properly installed, base or no base. You absolutely do not have to travel with the base if you don’t want to – but you do need to make sure the seat is properly installed with the seatbelt. Read your manual for both the car and the seat, and check out Car Seats for the Littles – they have a great group on Facebook where you can ask questions of certified seat techs and their website is chock full of great information. Have fun!

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