Several years ago, my younger sister was planning to taking her first flight with her then 5 month old daughter. After many years writing a blog about traveling with babies and kids and traveling with two of my own, I had so much to tell her. Of course, that was also the problem. There is so much information about travel and flying with babies that it can be overwhelming for new parents. Many give up before they even get started, especially if they weren’t regular air travelers themselves before having kids.
Recognizing that new parents don’t have much free time, I distilled my in-the-trenches travel experiences into 7 basic tips for your baby’s first flight. These tips will serve you well if you are taking a domestic trip to a standard destination – a beach vacation, grandma’s house, Disney World, etc. International travel throws a few more considerations into the mix (passports, jet lag, and time zone changes). But the essentials remain the same.
So, without further ado, here are my very best tips for baby’s first flight!
7 Tips for Flying with a Baby for the First Time
1. Know Your Airline
Not all airlines are created equal these days. Policies and practices among the US carriers can vary considerably, from checked bag fees, ease of securing seats together as a family, being able to purchase food in-flight, etc.
Depending on where you are located and where you are going, you may have only one or two choices of airlines for baby’s first flight. That is fine, as long as you know what to expect aboard the airline you do book. Check the airline’s website and make sure to read the sections about 1) Travel with Children (if the airline has one – not all do!) and 2) Baggage policies. This will cover 90% of the surprises you may encounter when traveling with kids.
If you do have more than a few airline choices, then may I recommend rewarding the airlines that work harder for traveling families with your business? Not all airline are created equal anymore in terms of how accommodating and sympathetic they are to traveling families. Confused about which airlines to consider that treat families better? Check out my post about the best and worst domestic airlines to fly with kids.
And when traveling with a baby for the first time, I’d avoid the ultra discount carriers unless you are used to traveling on them regularly. These airlines include Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant in the United States and RyanAir, EasyJet, and others in Europe. There are simply too many traps for the unwary.
I’d also avoid booking a basic economy fare with babies and toddlers, particularly if you are booking a seat for them to occupy. These fares do not come with seat assignments. As a result, you may find your child (or your spouse or partner who you need to help juggle the kiddo) assigned elsewhere in the cabin!
2. Pick Flights Where You and Your Baby Are Likely to Be at Your Best
This tip may seem quite obvious — if you pick flights where you and baby are likely to be at your best, then your chances for a successful flight are much greater. But I see many new parents ignore this simple tip in the interests of a few bucks. I’m a big fan of traveling on the cheap, but when you have a new baby, you sometimes need to pay a bit more for an improved travel experience. This is particularly true on your first flight with a baby. Set the stage for travel success.
Before you book any trip with your new baby, think about your child’s daily routine. Try as best you can to book flights that work WITH that routine rather than disrupt it. For infants who have settled into a two-nap-a-day schedule (this usually happens somewhere between 4-6 months), I happen to think a 10 am flight is a perfect choice for a baby’s first flight. You wake up at a normal hour, get to the airport, and time takeoff to coincide with a morning nap. If your baby is colicky or fussy, avoid flights at times where baby is likely to be at his worst — evening flights (6 pm is not called the “witching hour” for nothing), redeyes, etc.
Sometimes you simply won’t have a choice of an ideal flight time and that is okay too. But when there are options available, I recommend taking them if your budget allows.
3. Don’t Overpack…
One of the hardest things about having a new baby is all the gear that comes along with this little person. The reality is that babies don’t really need much. Resist the urge to pack everything and the kitchen sink on your first trip. You will only be frustrated and tired from carrying all of it on parking and rental car shuttles, through security checkpoints, and on airport trains. And the bag fees can really add up!
Worried you won’t have the essential gear you need at your destination? Amazon Prime to the rescue. Consider shipping duplicate baby gear items ahead. I’ve found it very helpful to have an extra Pack n Play and car seat at grandma’s house where we visit often. Both of our kids have been bouncy seat fanatics, so we found the cheapest $25 bouncy seat Amazon had to offer and made sure it was waiting at grandma’s house before our first visit. This actually turned out to be pretty economical because we used the same gear when Baby #2 came along, and other family members ended up using the gear when they visited too.
And remember: if you forget something essential, chances are you can buy it at your destination.
4. But DO Overpack the Following in Your Carry-On: Diapers, Formula, & Food
I always encourage traveling parents to do their best to travel light. But there are three essential items on which you simply can’t risk being short with a baby: diapers, formula & food. These baby items simply aren’t available for purchase in the vast majority of airports. Babies mysteriously seem to go through more of them during travel days anyway. Add in a flight delay or cancellation and you could run through your entire supply. Consider how much food, formula, and diapers you will need for your trip and double it. If there is weather in the forecast at any points on your trip, triple it. You’ll thank me later.
If your baby is breastfed, congratulations! You just freed up some space in the carry on bag. Although you might be wary to nurse in public places like planes and airports, be aware that airlines are quite supportive of nursing moms and it is much easier and more portable to breastfeed. A lot of airports have installed Mamava pods in strategic locations the last few years. These are small rooms where moms can nurse or pump in private if they prefer.
5. Know and Use all the TSA Shortcuts
One of the biggest chokepoints in air travel is the airport security line. Do what you can to shortcut it if at all possible when traveling with a baby. Before your flight, research the airport and terminal you will fly out of to know how long security lines tend to be. If you are traveling at a peak time like around the winter holidays (Related: Secrets to holiday air travel success with kids), plan for extra time and much longer lines.
Some airports still offer a separate security screening lines for families (although these are fewer and farther between these days). If your home or destination airport has one, they are a life-saver. Sometimes these family lines have absolutely no line at all. I’ve saved hours of my life that would otherwise have been wasted in TSA lines by using the family lanes.
If family lanes aren’t an option, consider using one of these 7 tips for speeding through airport security with kids. TSA Pre-Check in particular is especially helpful for travel with a baby. Kids ages 12 and under can use these lanes if their parents have Pre-Check. So if you have it, you can bring your baby right on through!
A few tips for TSA when you do breeze right through airport security. First, remember that liquids in excess of 3.4 oz (prepared formula, milk/juice, etc.) may need special screening. Have larger liquids separated if you have Pre-Check (if you don’t have Pre-Check, you’ll need all liquids in a Ziploc bag). Second, I have good news for those of you aren’t a fan of the body scanners. You’ll always skip them if you have Pre-Chec! But even if you don’t have it, you don’t have to go through them with a baby. At least one adult in your party will get sent through the standard metal detectors with an infant in arms.
Finally, be aware that you will have to take your little one out of his or her stroller (and sometimes also out of baby carriers – your miles may vary) to go through the TSA checkpoint. This is a big pain if you happen to have a sleeping baby. I always try to keep my little one awake until we get through security, if at all possible.
6. While On-Board, Change It Up
Babies aren’t known for their long attention spans, so your best bet for surviving and thriving on the flight itself is being prepared with new things to do. Depending on the age of your baby, bring a variety of toys or items for him to look at or manipulate. Some of these should be new, and none of them should make serious noise so as not to disturb other passengers (rattles are okay, but nothing with music or bright lights). Sometimes simple is best. At 6 months old, our daughter entertained herself for 15+ minutes on one of our flights by meticulously tearing up our copy of the New York Times.
It is often helpful to get up and walk the aisles with a baby who is squirmy. You can often rock a fussy baby right to sleep this way if you put him or her in a carrier. Just be considerate of other passengers and try to stay out of the flight attendants’ way in the galleys.
7. Relax – You Can Do It!
Millions of traveling parents have flown with babies before you and lived to tell the tale. You will too! Your baby may fuss or cry at times, but most of your fellow passengers will be understanding, especially if they see you doing your best to manage the situation. And even if they aren’t, you don’t owe them an apology for bringing a little person on what is essentially public transit.
If things go wrong during your travels, stay calm and ask for help. Gate agents and flight attendants will be more willing to help you solve a problem if you are kind and in control. And also consider asking for or accepting help from a fellow parent. Now that my kids are a bit older, if I see another parent with a baby or toddler struggling, I’m always willing to help because I’ve been there! So many other traveling parents feel the same way.
More Tips & Tricks for Families Traveling with Babies & Toddlers:
- 11 Tips for Changing Diapers on a Plane
- Flying Solo with a Baby: A Step-By-Step Guide
- Where Should My Baby or Toddler Sleep in Our Travels?
- Tips for Surviving Travel During the Diaper Years
Questions about traveling with kids? Other tips to share? Please comment!