Some things we learned about flying with a toddler...
1. If you can, drive yourself to the airport. Parking in the long-term garage costs more than having friends or family drop you off, but it gave us a chance to freak out in private on the way to the airport and decompress on our own once we got back home. If we lived in a city that had an actual airport, I'd probably recommend saving the parking money in favor of letting someone give you a ride, but we had to drive almost 100 miles to the airport and there was just no way we could deal with a witness to our jitters/sighs of relief. Parking garage=money well spent.
2. Clean out the diaper bag before you pack it for the trip. I took a trip down memory lane when I cleaned out every single pocket in the Biggest Girl's diaper bag. Look! There's the sticker she got after her six-month check-up. And I thought she ate it on the way home...
3. Once it's cleaned out, overpack the diaper bag. Most airlines don't count the diaper bag against your carry-on allowance, so make the most of it. More diapers than you think you need, teething tablets, tylenol, diaper cream--anything you might need should come with you. And snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. Not only do airport stores not carry tasty baby snacks, you never know what you'll encounter on your trip. Delays can spell disaster if you've got a hungry baby on your hands and nothing to feed them. Plus, having a familiar snack can make things seem less bizarre for the wee one.
4. Check your stroller at the gate. Even if you end up carrying the baby through the airport, you can use the stroller as a cart for your carry-ons. Some airports (Atlanta) don't have luggage carts available, so the stroller was a blessing. We checked our fancy BOB stroller at the gate--we wrapped three bungee cords around it to keep it from flopping open--and it was waiting for us every time we got off a plane. It survived the trip and came home without absolutely no damage.
5. Buy a seat for your baby, regardless of their age, and strap them into an FAA-approved car seat for the flight. This is my soapbox. I am climbing on it now. You wouldn't sit in the front seat of a car with a baby on your lap, so why should an airplane be any different? Yes, you can save yourself some money by holding your child for the duration of your flight, but is it really worth it? The FAA recommends a car seat for all children. And here's a pop quiz for you: The cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks drop down (it happens--ask around). Your baby is on your lap, so you've got one mask for the two of you. Who gets it?
6. Check in at the gate and ask to board early. Ask for a seat belt extender for the seat that will have the car seat. The standard seat belt will fasten just fine, but getting it unfastened is a nightmare. The extender makes it so it fastens outside the car seat, rather than behind it, where it turns out there is no room to lift the lever high enough to get it to release. Lesson learned. The hard way.
7. If people are getting snarky about how long it takes you to get the seat and the baby and yourself situated, just smile and keep working. Remember when they used to let people traveling with small children board early? They don't really do that anymore. As a result, the general public is going to have to just sit tight while you do your best and if they don't like it, that's tough. Maybe they should write a letter to the airline and then people traveling with small children will be allowed to board early once again.
8. Given the choice between a 30-minute layover and a 3-hour layover, go for the 3-hour layover. The extra time allows you to forgo the stress of trying to make a tight connection and gives the wee one a chance to stretch their tiny legs. This is more important than you can imagine, especially if you've got a toddler.
9. During takeoff and landing, have a sippy cup or bottle at your side. Every time you feel even the slightest bit of pressure in your ears, offer your child a drink. When I explained that it would make her ears feel better, the Biggest Girl totally got it and eventually started to take sips on her own. Anything that gets them to swallow--snacks work--will help pop their ears and make the beginning and ending of the flight more bearable.
10. Stock your purse (or backpack or whatever) with paper and pens and a new book or two. The novelty of a new book can buy you more time than you think. Drawing is a big deal for the Biggest Girl right now, so being allowed to use Mommy's pen was pretty darn exciting. We also spent fifteen bucks on a little lap desk for the flight home and that proved to be money well spent. It clips on to the car seat and provides tray table for drawing and snacks. Stash it behind the car seat for takeoff and landing. And if you use it in the car when you get home, make sure it's attached snugly and use a bowl with a suction cup for treats--one big corner will send an unsecured snack bowl flying across the back seat and cause some serious distress for anyone under four feet tall who happened to be enjoying that bagel before it went airborne.
11. The freakout will happen. Maybe not on this flight. Maybe it will be the next flight. Who knows? Here's what you do--do the best you can to fix the freakout and don't let the eye-rollers get you down. Case in point: the Biggest Girl's freakout on the way home. Less than an hour into our five-hour flight, Mean Guy (that's not what I really called him) in front of her reclined his seat all the way, so he was essentially sitting in her lap. She started to lose her little marbles and pushed on his seat with her feet. To her credit, she really moved the seat quite a bit, due in large part to her superhero-like strength in moments of distress. Mean Guy was not impressed, though, and shot me a nasty look, along with the hissing of a "Do you mind?!". Umm...yeah, I mind. You're a Mean Guy. I tried to play nice, though, and did what I could do keep her from kicking his seat. This created more angst which led to more kicking which led to me physically restraining her for the first time in her life and that made her cry and that made me cry. Even writing about it is going to make me cry. It was awful and I was doing everything I could and then Mean Guy rings for the flight attendant and asks to switch seats because he just "can't stand to spend the whole flight like this". The angel who was disguised as a flight attendant looks at me wrestling the Biggest Girl/Incredible Hulk with tears running down my face and she smiles ever-so-sweetly at Mean Guy and says, "I'm sorry, but the flight is full. You're just going to have to make the best of it." Ha! In yo' face, Mean Guy! Take that! Five minutes later, all was quiet. The Biggest Girl passed out the moment before the beverage cart rolled up and, after charging Mean Guy seven bucks for a beer, the angel disguised as a flight attendant very loudly complimented my efforts, commended the Biggest Girl on her ability to adapt to a difficult situation, and then bought me a drink. That's right--I'll have a whiskey and ginger ale and I don't have to pay for it because I did the best I could. The lesson? Do what you can. Everyone else can just piss off. And if there's a baby freaking out on your flight, don't be Mean Guy.
12. Don't even try to get off the plane until everyone else does. This is where the longer layover will come in handy. Just wait patiently while everyone else crams into the aisle and attempts to push their way to front of the plane. It's sooo much easier once everyone else is gone.
13. Be prepared to sit by a window and look at planes during your layover. There is no way around this, unless you blindfold your child.
14. Bring an extra set of headphones. The bigger Delta planes we flew on had televisions in the backs of every seat, so you can plug your kid in to Nickelodeon or Animal Planet for a bit, if you like. The Biggest Girl doesn't watch much TV, so this was a fabulous treat for her. The flight back wasn't as much of a treat, though, thanks to the "When Animals Attack" marathon. If you're traveling with a laptop, take advantage of the wi-fi in the terminals and find fun things on youtube to keep tiny travelers amused, should the lure of the planes lumbering about outside wane.
15. I'm not a fan of using Benadryl or Dramamine to keep a baby quiet on a flight. To me, that equates to drugging a child to get it to behave the way you want it to and that's just not cool.
16. Since you're obviously going to hang on my every word and will be paying for a seat so you can use your car seat on the plane, sign your kid up for a frequent flyer card. That way, the whole family accrues miles and then you can all fly for free someday. Or upgrade to first class where it's rumored they have actual leg room, free drinks (no freakout required!) and better snacks.
17. Oh! If your little one is walking, bring a leash. We call it the Froggy Backpack and it saved us during our layovers. Yes, people will look at you funny, but whatever. The Biggest Girl got to run in front of us and dance around while we stumbled behind her like zombies. Trying to hold on to a tiny hand in a big airport can be difficult. The leash is extra security for you and extra freedom for whoever is on the other end.
I think that's it. I mean, I'm sure it's not, but that's all I've got for now.