As a flight attendant for thirteen years with two companies, I learned a lot about traveling with babies by just watching what worked and what didn’t with passengers, but the real lesson was ahead of me. Now I’m usually flying alone with my own three between Europe, where I now live, and California, where I’m originally from about every six months. We’ve also taken quite a few flights within Europe, the Middle East and domestic flights in the States. I’ve actually lost count of how many, and now we can claim we’ve done stand-by, full fare, low-cost, charter, etc.
Some of this information might seem obvious to you, especially if you’ve flown a few times either with or without your children. Some reading this have never been on a plane themselves, or it’s been long time ago, so please keep this in mind.
Also, to be clear, this article is not a legal document and can’t be used as proof of any of the laws or rules I refer to throughout. Check the FAA websites or other relevant agencies to confirm any statements I make. I try to provide links when I can. Be aware, also, that airlines often have their own policies which might be stricter than their own governments’ laws. Most of the employees you encounter do not have the power to change or make exceptions to any rule. They simply must follow them, even in cases where logic or safety is questionable. Now that I’ve covered my backside…
Flying with babies? For me, it’s definitely a means to an end. I loved my job. I love traveling, but actually flying in the plane with my little ones, I just try to get through it as smoothly as possible. If it helps, calculate how much of your total trip will actually be spent on the plane. A mom flying halfway around the world wrote me to tell me it helped to think of it that way. Even for a short visit, the actual proportion of the time spent in the airplane and airports will be short.
One of the worst mistakes to make is to assume that the last time you flew, everything went great so it will again. Also, how much your little one(s) have flown has little or no impact on how it will go the next time. Not too many kids have flown as much as mine have, and I’ve stopped predicting whether they’ll have horns or halos during the flight, while children who have never been on a plane can be complete angels. It’s variable. Pint-sized memories are short. The purpose here is to keep make it as easy as possible. I usually expect that everything will go wrong. If any mishaps occur, well, stuff happens. That’s a given. If everything goes smoothly, I quietly celebrate my victory…
I have tried to organize this article in sections so that parents can skip over and get to the parts that are relevant. For example, if you already have your tickets booked, you can pass over all the sections on buying tickets. It can also be a bit much reading all this in one sitting so parents have told me that they find it helpful to bookmark or copy it, coming back to the sections they need as they come up.
If you are at the stage of considering an international journey, look into what documents you need for your child as soon as you can organize it. Obviously it’s impossible to cover this subject thoroughly, but make sure you have what you need. There are too many horror stories of families being turned away at the airport, if not prevented from booking, in the first place.
For international travel, your child probably needs a passport. There only very few exceptions like using E.U. national ID’s to travel the European Union. Passports are required by more and more countries, especially post 9/11. There is a new U.S passport card but it is only good within a specific area and only for land and water ports of entry, not for air travel. The system of putting children in their parents’ passports is less and less common and now every member of the family has to have his or her own. Because of the worldwide security situation, many countries which used to let nationals of neighboring countries visit without, are now requiring passports. If you are going on an organized visit or a cruise, the company involved should inform you of what you need.
For domestic U.S. travel, if a child is traveling with a parent, they don’t have to have any kind of identification. No proof even that the adults are the parents is necessary. Some airlines will require a birth certificate or other ID, to prove that the child without a seat (“lap baby”) is under age 2. This is due to the FAA regulation that lap babies cannot have had their 2nd birthday. Most airlines won’t ask if the child is obviously under that age but some airlines require a birth certificate of all lap babies. As far as I know, a photocopy is acceptable. You don’t have to bring the original but find out. Check your airlines’ website to be sure of what they require.
Some states will do photo ID’s of children for a fee. These aren’t required but if you travel a lot with a lap baby, it might be worthwhile to get one.
A big stumbling block to getting a baby’s first passport can be the photo. Taking children’s pictures is not always easy in the best of circumstances and getting a little one to cooperate within the requirements of an official document, even less so. Many insist on pure-white backgrounds. For a U.S. passport, both ears must show and the eyes must be open. A helpful trick to share with the photographer or if you’re doing it yourself is to put a small baby in a bouncy seat covered with a white sheet. There can also be issues with photo sizes. Get this information clear and don’t risk your file being refused or delayed for some petty problem with the photo that could have easily been adhered to if you had known ahead of time.
As a reminder, U.S.citizens with other nationalities cannot enter the country on any other passport with no exceptions for children. If living internationally, it may be easier to obtain your child’s other passport, but this will not be accepted by U.S. immigration. If you are American and are reading this in anticipation of an international adoption, your agency will give you the information you need, but the child can enter the U.S. on his or her original passport, as long as his American nationality has not gone through yet. Double check this with your agency!
If you or your children are eligible for the nationality of the country you’re visiting, check the requirements. Some have the same rule as the U.S. does, others are less strict. Some parents find it easier to obtain that country’s passport, in that country rather than where they live.
I take our U.S. passports with us, even when visiting a third country. I have had to travel for family emergencies and if this ever happens again, I would want to be able to head to the nearest airport, and not have to return to France to pick up my U.S. passports. This is an extra precaution.
It’s also a good idea to regularly check passports for expiration dates. Remember that some countries require not just a valid passport to visit, but one that is good for the next 3 or 6 months. Seems all our passports have spring expiration dates, so I try to get those renewed well before the pre-summer rush.
Someone reminded me to bring the medical records. This is a great idea but I have to confess, this is a case of do what I say, and not what I actually don’t do. I should at least, have photocopies. My kids’ French health records are large and bulky–a feeble excuse I’ll admit! This is especially important if there could be language issues or if your child has any specific health concerns.
If you are not flying with the other parent, you might need to have a permission letter. With a U.S. passport, the other parent signs the passport documents, this gives the other parent permission to travel alone with the child but the letter might be required at your destination, or even transit country so check. This is especially important if you are visiting several countries, for example on a cruise or tour. There are very few countries that require a permission letter from the other parent but I know Canada and Chile are among them.
Do not just write up a letter for the sake of it. Confirm that a letter from the other parent is required first. Then find out exactly how they want it written, in which language, what it should say, if it needs to be notarized, what the date limit is, etc. Canada and Chile, for example, have instructions on their tourist and official sites, including instructions for those with sole custody.
If you are flying with someone else’s children, even if related to you, please make sure you have both power of attorney (in case of emergencies) and a permission letter from the parents. Find out if any of these letters need to be notarized and/or have a time limits.
When you book your flight, a few tips can make the trip easier.
Flying off season is not always possible, but booking a few days forward or back can be dramatically different in price and how full the flight is. I once saved a lot but simply leaving on the earlier flight. Look at a few flights, if your itinerary is flexible, with the agent or on the net. This can take a little time, but it might be worth punching a few extra buttons to have a bit more peace in the air.
I actually do better for both price and convenience by buying with an agent than over the net. Also, look at both the airlines’ own sites, as well as discount sites when shopping around. Basically, I try everything, and have booked every way too.
Some of the sites wont let you book a child under two in his or her own seat, automatically making them “lap” babies. Luckily, more and more airlines now give a “on lap”/”own seat” option for under 2’s. Look carefully as this isn’t always obvious. I hate to tell you to cheat, but if you want a seat for your baby and there is no way around the booking, add a year or two to the birth date. You are not trying to “get away” with anything, in fact, the airline is making more money off of you. It is simply to get around a computer glitch. If you’re not comfortable with this solution, another option might be to note the fares and contact the airline. Tell them your dilemma and ask them to “match” the Internet price ticket, and then you will purchase from them. An airline reservations agent did this for me once.
Check the school vacations both where you are and where you’re going. I, and many I know, have saved major amounts by leaving a few days before school lets out, when the prices go up. If you’re not bound by school schedules yourself, this might be a good way to save some money.
Recently, I was informed that there is at least one airline which will allow you to purchase a seat for your child and will reimburse you if the flight is not full (and therefore you can use a free seat). Be wary of that because they might fill the flight with stand-by’s, the airline employees or others (perhaps missed flight/bumped passengers) and if your baby does not have a ticket, they will go back on your lap and someone will occupy that seat. So if your airline does this, be sure to ask about the standby list and only do this if the flight is really empty.
Check all connections yourself, especially on the net. The consolidation sites are especially dangerous for this, like Expedia and Opodo. Make sure any stopover is reasonable and there isn’t some nasty surprise, like having to change airports or leaving the next day.
Remember that if you’re flying into the States, you must clear Customs and Immigration at your “first port of entry” with no exceptions. If you’re connecting, the process is straightforward. There are agents to help re-collect your bags and there are usually a lot of people doing the same thing. Having children in tow can slow you down and there can be some long lines in high season. When you reserve, be sure you have time to complete this process. My blanket recommendation is to have at least 2 1/2 hours layover time where you go through Customs and Immigration. Slim that down if you know that the connection point is good and efficient, if you’re flying off-season and/or if there are multiple flights to your final destination from that connection airport.
Remember that a ‘direct’ and a ‘non-stop’ aren’t always the same thing. Always double check that the same flight number doesn’t stop and even change air crafts. With a “direct” flight, it can. Often these terms get confused and people think they’re the same, sometimes not realizing until they arrive at the airport.
For other connections, I recommend at least an hour and a half. Risk less time only if you’re;
-staying within the same country or connecting in a country that doesn’t require re-claiming your baggage (within the EU is an example)
-going through a connection point that has a lot of flights going to your final destination
-staying in the same terminal (preferably with the same airline)
You still have very little “jiggle” room if your first flight is delayed. If not all of the above applies, give yourselves two hours minimum, adding time for changing terminals, changing airlines and getting through security. This might be excessive to someone flying without kids, but remember that you can’t just jog through the airport anymore, like you do/did on solo business trips. Everything with children will take more time. By contrast, I can easily pass three hours in almost any airport with my kids when that would have been a horribly long wait in my pre-baby days.
This is general information on connections; if changing airlines, ask if they have “one stop check-in” so that you wont have to repeat the process. Some “code shared” airlines have “seamless” check-in where you get all your boarding passes at one time. Other times, you’ll be checked in but will have to collect your boarding passes at the connection point. This is usually straightforward at your connection airport, since they usually note your preferences. Just find out what steps your connection involves so that you’re not standing in line for nothing or run into problems because you were supposed to do something that you didn’t.
Don’t change airports if at all possible. Watch out for this, especially on the net where the airports might be listed in tiny lettering. Look carefully at each airport code before hitting the “enter” button. I did this once, which was rectified by a very nice reservations agent. I was “saved” because I called right away and there was room on the flight I really wanted. Don’t make my mistake or you might not be as lucky!
You’ll hear a lot about which airline is “best” for traveling with children. I discuss car seat use later, but in general, I really don’t suggest digging into the subject of which airline unless you absolutely have no other criteria to consider. By the time you look at prices, availability and routing, not to mention any frequent flyer memberships, I doubt there will be much choice.
To be honest, from someone who worked out of countless airports, your experience might depend more on the crew on that specific route than on the airline itself. When someone gives their opinion on the subject, it’s really only relevant if they flew on the same exact flight at the same time of year that you’ll be doing. I’ll have someone rave on about a certain airline to learn that the flight was half empty. The fact that they got great service is not a big surprise.
These (often) new companies are making air travel more affordable, but some of the rules are slightly different than flying with regular companies.
First of all, they often fly into really remote airports. In fact, objections have been raised over what cities they supposedly serve and even ended up in court. Some airlines even list their airports by different cities than for which they were originally named, for example, one company claims to fly to “Barcelona” when it is really Girona, quite a distance away. Occasionally, they actually use a more convenient airport or perhaps they land closer to where you’re headed but find out exactly in which airport they use. Do not simply go by the city on their list.
I recommend never mixing same-day travel between low-cost and “mainstream” companies. Low-Cost’s often don’t have agreements with other airlines (another cost-cutting measure) and there are other complications with totally separate reservations, including using different airports and having to transfer and check in again even if staying at the same airport.
One way they sell tickets cheaper is that they don’t always handle connections. Check to be sure but tickets are often sold “point to point”. This means you arrive at the connection point, you get your bags, pass through arrivals and head for initial check-in and do it all over again, even though it’s the same airline. I’ve done this and managed it alone with three children. It wasn’t actually that terrible but I was very lucky that nothing went wrong on the first flight. It’s usually obvious when you book that you’re buying two separate tickets so this shouldn’t come as an ugly surprise.
For the record, the company itself will probably advise against this. We were once on a very delayed flight. A family waiting with us, lost their next flight entirely, since they had another ticket for the same day. The airline offered no compensation and were very unsympathetic.
If they offer “priority boarding” at a cost, it’s a good idea with children. Ask but they probably don’t pre-board families at all or board them after those who paid to get on first. This “priority boarding” is usually not expensive but a silly thing to actually pay for. We end up simply getting on the first bus out to the aircraft. With open seating, you might have to really fight to seat the family together. One experience doing that convinced me that the small fee per person was well spent to get on slightly ahead of the rest. This is especially important for a parent flying alone with more than one child.
Find out if you can simply board earlier by using the on-line check-in service, if offered. Read about boarding on your airline’s website because this process can be very different than what you’re used to and policies can change from the last time you flew with them.
Some Low-Cost airlines do offer reserved seats, again, if you pay a fee. I recommend paying this fee too, unless the flight is completely empty (a fact you may not be able to check). The problem is that if your family is split up, you may be in a position where you are asking other people to move to accommodate you. They may have paid for their reservation and are now inconveniencing them because you didn’t.
Check that there are no restrictions to flying with more than one child under age 2. At least one foreign airline does not allow one adult to fly with two under-age two children since seats cannot be purchased for them.
Low-cost companies in most countries usually don’t serve meals and when they do, they’re overpriced, limited and usually not the best quality. Meanwhile, you are often welcome to bring a whole picnic on board if you want. In the terminals where Low-Cost companies fly, often there are plenty of food stands which are conveniently placed by the boarding area, after the security points. So head for your gate as soon as you can and stock up for you and your kids. If you bring food from home, most security companies are more concerned with drinks and will allow most food through. Show the security agents directly any item that you have questions about and if not allowed, it will simply be taken away.
Be very aware of checked bags. It’s usually cheaper to pay for your luggage ahead of time. It might be better to over-estimate your number of bags because if you add one later, or worse, show up at the airport with more, this might mean paying a steep fee. Extra baggage at the airport might mean waiting in another line and dragging out the check-in process. When you fly with kids, do everything possible to keep check-in smooth and quick.
But before booking, do the math. The cost of transport to an out-of-the-way airport, especially early in the morning, might not be worth it. Remember, if there is a delay, you may not be switched to another flight on another airline since they are usually not members of alliances. You have to wait until your specific flight is ready. Also, if you arrive in the evening, you might end up paying for a hotel an extra night, which you wouldn’t if you took an earlier scheduled flight. Again, another cost-cutting measure is taking flight slots at odd times, perhaps late in the evening. The cost of checking bags is also pretty heafty with some companies.
Sometimes saving money is not actually saving much and your sanity is worth a price too.
“Bulkhead” seats are often recommended for families. We’re talking about the ones with the wall in front. They are not necessarily in the front of the cabin, as many believe. It depends on the aircraft. I think they’re ideal for toddlers as you avoid the problem of the child kicking the seats in front of them thus annoying the passengers in front of you, since there aren’t any. You can also get in and out of these seats easier, as you will be doing that a lot with a toddler or baby. Plus, children can often play in that space on the floor, close to their parents and their seats.
Not everyone loves them though. There isn’t much forward legroom (although sometimes they are comfortably set far back), and stowage is limited. Usually the armrests wont come up to let a child lie down (especially appreciated for older children without car seats). Installing wider car seats can be a problem, as can installing a convertible seat rear-facing. Some bulkheads are near emergency exits so only those over age 15 can sit there (among other restrictions). The other disadvantage cited is that if there is a large, pull-down movie screen, that could bother some children and keep them from sleeping. Obviously, this is not a problem on aircraft with individual screens. The old pull-down screens are rare these days.
Normally for bulkhead seats, you have to stow your bags for take-off and landing. I’ve had reports that some foreign airlines require the bags be stowed for the entire flight. You may want to ask about this if you are flying a non-U.S. carrier. Otherwise, feel free to get your things down once the seat belt sign is off.
Some airlines will not reserve bulkheads ahead of time and state that they’re specifically set aside for families. You are then put on a waiting list. If there is too much demand, they will determine at check-in who will get them. Priority usually goes to lap babies needing the well-mounted bassinets. I found this to be a cut and dry process, depending on the age and/or number of children. If you run into this situation, don’t insist, and make sure you have reserved as good seats as possible as back-ups. Also be clear on when and where they will announce the lucky winners.
I find it mega-annoying if I’ve been refused a bulkhead seat, only to step onboard and see all adults sitting at the bulkhead. As stated earlier, those over age 15 can be placed in exit rows, which have more legroom. I actually wrote and complained and they told me that they were reserved for frequent flyers. So children get to kick other customers’ backsides, who will then be annoyed and swear they’ll never fly that airline again. Tell the poor bruised-backsiders “Sorry, we requested bulkhead, but this airline’s policy is…” If you endure this too, please write and complain as I did. Maybe if enough of us speak out…
Recently, I read one of those (un)helpful tips to nursing mothers to sit by the window for more discretion. Perhaps there is a certain logic to it, I will admit but if you’re on a long flight, I can’t imagine anything more inconvenient than having to crawl over two other passengers every time you need to get up. I picture this nursing mother trying to get over two businessmen with a crying baby who’s just done a “blow out” diaper, lugging a gear-filled diaper bag. Not a pretty picture. Trust me, for the tiny bit more of discretion you’ll get, the inconvenience outweighs it by far. I have breastfed all three of mine in bulkhead and/or aisle seats and I never suffered as a result. As someone who only owns one-piece swimsuits, I’m not one to flash my flesh when not necessary. Fellow breastfeeders, you have your own section further down…
Some airlines have bassinets for lap babies, which mount on the bulkhead wall, mentioned above. These are useful if available but you’ll usually have to be in a bulkhead to get one. If your baby is more than four months old, ask about what weight limit is, which varies from company to company. The highest limit that I know of is Lufthansa’s. Many parents with babies who meet the weight limit find their “tall” offspring wont fit lenthwise so be aware of this is you have a lean and leggy baby.
Some bassinets can be suspended from the ceiling for center seats. I have only heard about this and never actually seen one in action. American rules on these are strict and don’t be surprised if you can’t get one on a U.S. company. I also understand that Canadian airlines now require that only sleeping babies can be placed in any bassinet inflight. Again, lots of different rules and availability regarding bassinets.
A bassinet should not be seen as an option to avoid bringing a carseat. For safety, again, there is no replacement for a car seat. Sometimes too, you will be requried to remove the baby from the bassinet and hold him or her in turbulence. Never leave an unattended baby asleep in a bassinet. The bassinet has to be stowed for take-off and landing so the child will then have to go either in his or her seat or on your lap.
Families flying with at least two adults often book two (or more) seats in front and back of each other. This is an obvious choice on smaller aircraft which don’t have four across together and any airplane which has two seat rows. Also, this could work if there are at least four or five family members flying together. The advantage is that the most active child can sit directly behind a familiar adult or a baby in a car seat and not kick the seatback of a stranger.
Some parents also like booking the window and aisle seats when there are two, plus a lap baby, or a solo parent and child with seat, hoping the center one is left empty. If not, they can simply switch with the person who gets the middle seat. No one ever wants the center so swapping isn’t usually a problem. If you are a couple with a lap baby, let the newcomer choose window or aisle. If you have a child in a car seat, it must go by the window if you have a window row. The newcomer can sit at the aisle.
Another version, an excellent tip sent in to me was an expanded version of the above. Perhaps a family of three is flying and the aircraft has four middle seats. The family will book three seats together and then skip a seat, booking the aisle. They then hope that no one sits in the extra seat. If someone does arrive, logically they wont mind swapping for the aisle seat. I suggest a parent be the one to switch in this case, if possible.
If you have a “stranger” in your row, the rest of the seats taken by your family, choose with care who is to sit next to them. I thought it would be better for me to sit next to someone once, instead of one of my children. Bad call on my part. I was getting up too often. A better pick would be perhaps an older, maybe school-aged, child. Obviously, you won’t want to place a small baby or toddler next to them if you can avoid it.
Look carefully at the seating chart. Sometimes, even on a bigger aircraft, there are some rows with just two seats. The back of a 747, for example. This is good if it’s a solo parent with a child or a couple with a lap baby. No one else in their row guaranteed!
I’ve also heard of one parent sitting away from the rest and the two switching off to give each other a break. This is often cited as yet another (un)helpful flying “tip”. The few times I saw this, the “displaced” parent ended up hovering over the other members of the family anyway, annoying those around them. Stay together!
Some families prefer to sit one row in front of the other, instead of everyone all across. They’ll place the child most likely to kick behind another family member. This also is good if you have a rear-facing car seat that may not allow the seat in front of it, to recline. This way, it’s a family member who can’t recline their seat, and not another passenger. You will need at least two reasonably aged family members in your party to sit in each row and supervise the younger ones.
I tried this a couple of times and like it too because family members can talk to one another more easily and can pass things back and forth.
Some parents love to sit in the very back. They like being close to the galley and toilets and figure their children’s noise is less likely to disturb others. Added plus, you can often stand up in the back without disturbing others when the seatbelt sign is off. If your children need or want to get up, this way they’re not too far from their seats. Please note that the galley is not always located in the back, although the toilets usually are. I don’t recommend the very back of the plane if your children have a tendency to get air sick. The back is bumpier.
If you can’t sit together, try to get groups of seats together, that include an aisle. You can trade aisle seats the most easily, followed by window seats. Avoid all center seats as these are almost impossible to swap. Try to stay in the same section. Call the airline before flying to change the seating. If not, ask at check-in. If that fails, try to get it done at the gate (usually automatically if you didn’t succeed at the front desk when you first checked in). If all else fails, then you will have to do it on board.
I had one flight where we were all separated. I was able to more easily change seats not on the airline’s own website but on the frequent flyer program’s site. I checked again and again, slowly moving each family member until we all had aisle seats, and we had two groups of two. I then called reservations and asked what else I could do. She told me that reservations “open up” 30 hours prior to the flight. They release all the blocked seats (handicapped, families, etc.) at that time. I counted it up only to realize to my horror, that meant it was 4am my time! But I did it. I set the alarm and with delight, saw all these open seats, including entire rows. I moved each family member, based on who had the “worst” seats first, to our own row. Then I returned to bed!
On the day of the flight, there were many split-up families. When I mentioned in conversation what I had done, the other passengers had no idea and wish they had known too (despite the 4am wake-up!) Getting up that early to do this was well worth not sweating out seating for an 11 1/2 hour flight. Find out your airline’s seating policies if you’re struggling with this issue!