Flying with a baby or small child involves a lot of logistics. And when you are traveling solo as a single parent with one (or more than one) baby or young child, the logistics can seem that much more overwhelming. How are you going to get a baby, stroller, gear, and yourself through TSA lines without an extra set of adult hands? How are you going to get a bathroom break in-flight with no one to hold your child? These and a million other questions are probably racing through your mind.
To help in planning for your next solo trip with your little ones, here’s my checklist. This list walks you through all the logistical considerations of single parent pre-flight planning, navigating the airport by yourself, the in-flight solo parent experience, and more.
1) The Week Before Your Flight
- Make a comprehensive packing list for you and baby.
- Evaluate your luggage options before you pack. Can you carry, push, or pull everything you will be bringing by yourself? I often find that the following combination of items works well when traveling as a solo parent with a baby: umbrella stroller + good roller suitcase (to check) + backpack to serve as both carry-on and diaper bag. You might also be able to handle a backpack and a separate diaper bag if you can hang one or more items from your stroller.
- Consider shipping baby items ahead that you need at your destination – diapers, wipes, formula, etc. Alternatively, investigate whether there are stores convenient to your destination to buy what you need.
- Call the airline or check your reservation online to make sure you still have your original seat assignments and have not been separated from your child, if you’ve bought a seat for your baby.
- If you are traveling internationally and your baby is small enough to fly in the bassinet, call to confirm that your request for a bassinet and your corresponding bulkhead seat reservation is still on-file.
2) Getting to the Airport
- Consider having someone drop you off curbside with your bags. Driving yourself and carrying the baby and your luggage on parking lot shuttles is hard. Alternatively, you can take a taxi, but remember to book a car service that will have a car seat for your child.
- If you have to drive yourself, consider paying a bit more to park in a closer parking lot where you can easily walk to your terminal (often hourly/daily lots are only a few dollars more per day than the economy lot).
3) Checking In & Checking Bags
- Try to check-in online at home if possible. You can often skip the long lines at the airport by bypassing check-in entirely. If you have checked bags to drop, there is often a “bag drop” kiosk or separate line that is shorter than the full check-in line for your airline.
- If you are flying with a lap child, inquire at check-in about how full the flight looks. Often, the agent can block an empty seat next to you if there is extra space (note that the gate agent may have more power to do this than the check-in agent, but it never hurts to ask at this stage in the process too).
4) Getting Through Security
- Look for the TSA family lane, which is now available in most airports. Those lines are almost always shorter.
- Remember that all liquids and gels need to be in a separate zip-top bag and placed into a bin. If you are traveling with an infant or small child, the TSA liquid limits do not apply to you. You may, however, be required to go through special screening as a result.
- Keep the baby in a stroller or carrier until you get all of your personal items (including your shoes) into bins and onto the conveyor belt. As the last step, take your child out of his stroller (you may also be required to take the baby out of a carrier). Put the stroller through the x-ray machine last.
- Walk through the metal detectors. With a baby or small child, you will not be asked to go through the more advanced scanning machines.
- Once you are through the metal detectors, put the baby in your carrier or stroller before gathering up all of your other belongings. Don’t be afraid to take your time or pull to the side to get yourself organized.
5) Getting to Your Gate
- Depending on the size and layout of your airport, you will either walk or ride a shuttle or train to your gate. Be prepared to take a little extra time to wait for elevators if you have a stroller. Airports are rarely all on one level!
- Now is the time for bathroom and food stops, assuming you have enough time. If you are traveling with a formula-fed infant, buy bottled water to use to mix powdered formula. Also, consider taking a bathroom break to change your baby into a fresh diaper and to go yourself where the bathrooms are bigger and logistics are easier.
6) At the Gate & Airline Boarding
- If you plan to gate check a stroller and/or car seat, check in with the gate agent as soon as you get to your gate. The agent will give you a claim check and will “tag” your gear. If you plan to put the stroller or car seat in a protective bag, make sure to tag the bag itself.
- If you are traveling with a lap child, enlist the gate agent’s help to block off an extra seat next to you if there is empty space on the flight.
- Be aware that many airlines no longer offer preboarding with children, so you may not be able to board early. If you are traveling by yourself with a child (especially if you are using a car seat or stroller that require extra juggling), this can be stressful as you are thrown in with the masses hurrying to board. Relax and take your time.
- After walking down the jetway, you will fold up your stroller and leave it with the other bags to be gate checked. I like to put my stroller and car seat in protective bags to prevent them from getting wet or dirty, but this is an extra step that takes time and is hard to do with a baby or toddler in arms. You might need to put baby in a carrier to make this doable.
- Walk aboard and smile at the friendly flight attendant. You might need her help or sympathy later.
7) In Flight
- If you are using a car seat, strap your baby in right away so you can free up your hands.
- As soon as you get on board, get your luggage stowed so you can access what you need in-flight. I like to leave my full diaper bag under the seat in front of me so I can access all of the baby gear I might need without opening an overhead bin. If you are taller and need the legroom, stash the essentials in your seat back pocket and put your other items in the overhead bin.
- Do what you can to entertain and contain your little one until takeoff. Often watching other passengers board is ample entertainment.
- As the flight takes off, consider feeding the baby or letting him or her use a pacifier to help with ear pressure changes (do the same on landing, when the pressure equalization is more difficult to handle). Important rule of thumb – don’t ever wake a sleeping baby to do this! If they sleep through takeoff or landing, their ears will adjust.
- During the flight, do whatever you need to do to keep your baby happy – walk the aisles, feed & play with him, etc. Lap babies of a certain age can get squirmy being cooped up so long, so be prepared with lots of in-seat toys and entertainment. Get up as often as you can to mix things up. And try your best to get the little one to sleep, especially on red-eyes. A familiar blanket or stuffed animal may help.
- In-flight bathroom breaks involve the toughest logistics as a solo parent. Often it is easiest to keep the baby in the carrier or balance him on your knee. Sometimes on longer international flights, there might be a friendly flight attendant who will hold your little one for a moment. But don’t count on it, and don’t do it if your baby is going through a stranger anxiety stage.
8) At Your Destination
- Touchdown at your destination – congratulations! But the logistics aren’t quite over.
- Get your baby off of the plane and wait for your gate checked items on the jet bridge. Strap the little one into stroller and be on your way.
- Now do everything in reverse – navigate through the airport (and if you are traveling internationally, you will have to clear immigration and customs) and claim your luggage.
- If you are visiting family or friends, it is easiest to have someone pick you up at the airport with a car seat waiting. Your other choices are taxis (again, a car seat is needed), public transit (very hard to do with a baby and luggage, even in the easiest of cities), or a rental car (can be challenging getting on and off rental car shuttles, but the driver will help you).
- Enjoy your trip!
The inspiration for this post came from a friend who is planning to take a transatlantic flight with a toddler in her lap… by herself. Brave mom! If you have a trip coming up and have questions, I love to share my thoughts and experience. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your specific situation and I’m happy to help. Sometimes the questions turn into great blog posts.