Flying with babies, how we survived

A bit more than a year ago I became the proud parent of the cutest little girl in the world.

By living abroad and traveling often, the little one had to endure quite a few trips with us on her first year: west to east coast and back, with a road trip involving New York and Boston, a few trips to Europe and one trip to Hawaii. All spiced up with hours of driving and a few rides on trains, buses and even trams.

In this blog post I'd like to tell you about our experience flying internationally with a baby: what worked, what didn't, and the lessons we have learned.

Planning your trip...

Documents and paperwork

If you are traveling internationally, your baby needs his/her own passport.

Getting a passport is easy: bring a picture, birth certificate, your ID (passport, in state driving license may be ok), your child, the other parent of your child, and all together go to the nearest passport agency. The all together part of the process is important: if your partner can't be there, you'll need more paperwork ahead of time, and baby must be with you.

Once there, you'll need to fill a DS-11, read an oath, pay the fee (check or exact cash only in many agencies), sign some documents, and chit chat with the employee. If everything went well, you'll get your passport by mail a couple weeks later.

The hardest part for us was the picture: there are strict requirements (read online!), baby was just a few weeks old but still she had to have her eyes opened with her neck straight, a normal looking expression, with an uniform background.

The shop we went to was not really equipped for very young babies, and laying her down on a white duvet only addressed a few of the problems.

She kept moving and giving us cute, funny and lovely expressions that the passport office would unfortunately not accept.

In the end, we gave up. Drove home, and took the picture ourselves: set the camera to 5 shots per second, took 100s of pictures until one was good enough, and printed it at the nearest Walgreens/CVS/Fedex/UPS/Whatever store.

Dual citizenship

If your child was born in the USA he/she will be an American citizen, and can have an American passport. If you are traveling back to your own home country, make sure your child has the right paperwork to stay and travel there: he/she may need a VISA, or you may want to get the paperwork done to recognize his/her dual citizenship before traveling.

In our case, applying for dual citizenship involved collecting a fairly large list of documents, getting them translated, and mailing them to different offices. The whole process took about 5 to 6 weeks, but got us an European passport for our baby without too much hassle.

When traveling, though, remember to bring both passports and use the best passport for the country you are entering or leaving. It is not only a matter of convenience, as you may be entitled to use a different line, it may be mandated by the local laws or otherwise require you to present a VISA or other proof of citizenship.

For example, when we enter or leave the USA we will present her US passport, while when we enter or leave the EU we will present the EU passport.

Buying tickets for your baby

Conditions change wildly by airline, but there are normally two ways to get your baby a ticket: as a lap child, or with his/her own seat.

A ticket for a lap child is often free or only a small percentage of an adult ticket (10% is common).

Your baby must be younger than a certain age (normally 2 years), and he/she will not be entitled to a seat or a meal, you will need to keep the baby on your lap.

As soon as you indicate that you have a lap baby to the airline, they may prevent you from picking a specific seat online, as the rows with lap babies must meet certain requirements.

On some airlines, the ticket for a lap child may allow you to bring some extra luggage for free, like an extra suitcase.

If you decide to buy your baby his/her own seat instead, he/she may not be able to really seat on it unless you bring a car seat with you.

On long hauls, some airlines provide bassinets to be used for lap children after take off and as long as there are no turbulences. You may need to ask the attendants for it to be installed, although they always remembered with us.

I have yet to see an airline that allows you to reserve the bassinet online: some web sites go as far as stating that bassinets will only be offered on a first come first serve basis.

The trick is to call the airline by phone: so far the operator was always able to confirm the availability of bassinets, while blocking the right seats or the right flights for us (yes: some of the flights we were looking at had all the bassinets taken).

If you do this, make sure they don't change your seats at check in. Given that there can be only a certain number of babies per row and it is not common to have the right seats ahead of time, they may think that a change is necessary. We have blocked them at least once.

Here are a few more important things we learned:

  • conditions change wildly by airline. Some airlines don't even allow you to buy tickets for infants online, you have to call them by phone. Calling them by phone may be a good idea for the bassinet.

  • So far all airlines allowed us to gate check (or check in) both the stroller and car seat for free. By reading the fine lines, some airlines require that the stroller must be more like an umbrella stroller or a single piece, although we never had any issue.

  • Even if your infant is traveling as a lap child and did not pay for an extra ticket, if you ask nicely at the check in desk they may be able to block one of the seats next to you. In that case you don't have to check in your car seat: you can bring it with you all the way to the airplane and use it to give your baby a little comfort on the extra seat. Watch out though that they will not offer, you have to ask, and your car seat must be approved to be used on planes (which is common).

Car seats

Your American car seat may not meet the requirements to be legally used in other countries, and vice versa. Surely it cannot be used in Europe. If you travel to a place where it is legal to use your car seat and you will need to drive, bring it with you.

Renting a car seat will generally give you an horrible car seat, and just a few days of renting will be as expensive as buying a cheap car seat yourself.

Most airlines will check in your car seat for free, but beware: even though we bagged it, out of 4 flights our car seat came out damaged once (minor, but still annoying).

If you payed for a seat for your child and your car seat is approved by the FAA (common), or you lucked out at the check in desk and they had a free seat next to you (see above), you may bring your car seat with you on the plane and use it for your child.

Packing for the emergencies

While we were quietly enjoying our first flight with our baby, proud of our smooth experience so far, we suddenly realized there was liquid poop pouring through her clothing. All of her clothing, even socks.

Changing there was no problem: we were ready for such an event, and just locked all the dirty clothes in a ziplock bag.

A few hours later, literally before boarding our last flight, we again realized that poop was pouring out everywhere. Although we had one last change of clothes with us, the flight was about to take off, did not have the time to do the change. Further, the flight lasted only 45 minutes, and for the whole duration of the flight we had the "keep the seat belts on" sign lighted.

Luckily for us, we had brought some large chux (disposable underpads) which we used to wrap the baby (a lap baby) and isolate our body from the overflowing poop.

Our suggestion is to:

  • always have at least 2 full changes with you in your carry on luggage.

  • if you have a transfer, you may miss a connecting flight and be stranded there until the day after. Worse, your checked in luggage may not be available there. With transfers, we generally bring 24 - 48 hours of food, diapers and wipes with us, spread over mine and my wife's carry on.

  • disposable underpads are always useful, bring a few. Having them may make a significant difference in case of overflows or explosive poops.

  • bring one or two ziplock bags and/or plastic bags, in case you have some clothing you need to "seal away" and carry with you home.

  • bring some change of clothing for you as well. If your t-shirt gets stained with vomit or poop, it is nice to have a change. Unless you enjoy smelling it for the whole duration of the flight or plan to inflict some pain to other fellow passengers.

Planning for your stay

For any trip longer than a week or 10 days, it is hard to bring enough supplies for your baby with you (food, diapers, ...).

In addition to what we bring in our carry on luggage for the flight, we generally pack at least 3 or 4 days of baby food and supplies (diapers, wipes, ...) for when we reach our destination. This gives us enough time to find local supplies of the products we need.

Talking about hotels and where to sleep, call them ahead of time and make sure they can provide a crib. If there is no crib, you may want to explore co-sleeping (a no go for us) or buy something like a portable bed.

We bought what they call a "peapod", a very compact sleeping tent for babies, which we have used a few times by now. Baby was happy, and slept without much issues.

In terms of hotels, hostels, and places where to stay, we now strongly prefer locations that provide a kitchen or at least a refrigerator and microwave.

Your trip...

Getting to the airport and back

Getting to and from the airport with your beloved one may be a little tricky. A few things we learned:

  • In many states, including California, a child does not need a car seat to ride in a cab or a shuttle. You can instead rely on cabs and buses never getting into accidents, magically.

  • Many cab / shuttle services provide a car seat for a little extra. Our local cab company asked for a 10 $ fee per cab ride. Note that this is 5% of the cost of a 200 $ car seat, 20 trips will buy you a new car seat.

  • Even when landing at the airport, some cab companies will gladly pick you up with a car seat ready, no questions asked. Just call them when you are ready and they will tell you where to go at the airport to be picked up. Often this involves going to the limo / driver corner, but no task is too challenging after flying for 15 hours with a baby. You may want to check with your cab company ahead of time, though, spending half an hour on the phone trying to find a way to get back home in case they don't provide this service is not fun.

  • If you drive your family to the airport, they don't have to park the car with you. It is much more convenient to drop everyone off, including luggage, at the correct departures door, and then park the car by yourself. You can then then find your way back to check in with no luggage and no screaming baby. Same thing on the way back: leave everyone chilling out on a bench at the arrivals, find your way to the parking lot and then drive back to the arrivals to pick everyone up.

Within the airport

Moving around with luggage, stroller, car seat and baby at the airport may not be an easy task. We generally use a cart for as long as we can.

You then need to decide 1) what to check in, and 2) what to carry to the gate all the way with you.

If you have bought an extra seat or lucked out at check in, you'll probably want to carry your car seat all the way to the plane. In this case, bring a caddy with you, a small car seat carrier (common for travel), and check in your stroller.

If not, you probably want to check in the car seat, and carry the stroller with you.

Until we drop off our luggage or get a cart, we try to put the car seat on the stroller and have baby in a carrier or carry around the car seat by tying it to the handles of a wheeled suitcase.

Past security, many airports have family spaces. The one in the Zurich airport for example turned out to be amazing: good, nice, changing tables, microwaves, sink, facilities to cook, wash and seat around a quiet table, tons of toys, extremely nice staff, and beautiful view of the airport.

Don't forget to change your baby every chance you have. If it took you 1 hour to get to the airport and you arrived 2 hours earlier, chances are that before boarding your baby will have a 3 hours old diaper. Change it right there and then, don't wait to do it on the plane, it is much less comfortable.

Strollers and planes

You will need your stroller while waiting for boarding, once you arrive, and if you transfer.

If you are strong and willing you may get away with just a baby carrier strapped to your body. We have never been brave enough to try: we always wanted a place for her to nap or enjoy her milk without being strapped to a sweaty and overheating parent.

Consider also that planes may be late, and you may be forced for several hours on the ground waiting for a transfer.

In any case, most airlines will gate check your stroller for free. At check in, ask to bring the stroller to the plane and tell them you want it back as soon as you land.

They will give you a label to tie to the stroller with a bar code and destination, and let you go. Once you reach the gate, after security, and once you are about to literally enter the plane, there will be a corner or a random guy with a security vest collecting all strollers and taking care of them.

On some small airplanes with steps and buses to board, we were instructed to abandon the stroller next to the airplane: although scary, it worked out.

Make sure you have the label: they seem to forget often in the confusion, and if you don't have it once you get to the plane they will send you back to the gate, where they have extra.

If you have a transfer, you may also need to change the label. Ask at the gate of your next flight.

Checking in

We gave up on online check in with babies. We have to drop our luggage anyway and always end up asking about different sitting arrangements.

Don't forget to ask for a tag to attach to your stroller, and if your child is a lap child, ask if they have seats available next to you that they can block off. They will not offer, but they will gladly help if they can.

Baby food and security

We had to supplement our baby with formula, and she loves milk in general. All we had to do was pack all the food, including milk, in a separate bag to run through the X-Ray machine. We were never asked any question and never had any issues despite quantities, bottling, or packaging.

We generally empty our own water bottles before security, and fill them up again past it, although we were told it was not necessary.

In long haul flights we were worried about milk going bad: we'd usually bring a bottle or two with fresh milk to use in the first hours of the flight, and then a few small bottles with pre-measured milk powder in them. All we have to do to feed baby is add water, shake, and attach a nipple.

The only issue we ever had with security was related to my wife being swabbed and testing positive for dangerous residues. We believe it was because of the butt cream she used on our baby just before leaving, with high concentrations of zinc oxide, but don't know for sure.

Boarding

Most airlines call families ahead of time, often right after business class.

Make yourself visible and known, and if you think they are about to call everyone, you may want to just get to the front of the line. Especially on small or short flights where families are fewer and rare, they often forget to call them explicitly.

Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not advocating skipping or cutting the line just because your child entitles you to do so: a few minutes standing in line on a slow boarding may swing the mood of a toddler or a baby from smiling/happy/laughing to crying/screaming/throwing a tantrum, especially if it's the second or third flight after a long haul.

Getting in front of the line may significantly improve the travel experience not only for you, but for all the other passengers. Those extra minutes will allow you to take care of the stroller, ensure you can safely store your carry on nearby, with easy access to food and changes, and will allow you to do everything without other passengers pushing to get past you and reach their own seat. A better experience for everyone involved.

On the plane

There is not much to say here. Facilities normally have a changing table. Bring something to keep your baby entertained. Walk from time to time, use the spaces you can find to let your baby crawl or stand for a few minutes. Use a pacifier if necessary, keep food and changes nearby, make sure you have water.

After the first trip, we always used a baby carrier on the plane: handy to keep her strapped to your body in a comfortable position, even when napping, while leaving your hands free. Forget to use a laptop: there won't be enough space.

A book or phone may be fine, unless he/she decides she wants to play with them.

If there is any passenger keen at entertaining your baby with smiles, some playful activity or silly chit chat... let them.

It is great to have some help and relief, and on long flights, you will need all of your energy for when nobody else is around.

Which reminds me... I should really thank you, you kind stranger, for all the entertainment you provided my baby and the relief you gave me, even if for a few minutes.

Conclusions

Traveling is fun, even with a little one! Every experience we had got us closer together, and every thing we did wrong thought us an important lesson.

She will probably not remember much as she grows up, but at least we can see her smile every time she hears the voices of the people she met while traveling.

We have memories of her shyly getting her feet in the ocean for the first time, or crawling on a Mediterranean beach making her first encounters with the sand and sun, or the stupor in her eyes the first time she boarded a subway in New York or when we first took off and landed.


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