Henry and I have been jet setters lately. We've had three trips in his first month of toddlerhood and two of them were cross country ones. Needless to say, I feel like I'm raising a little travel pro. I'm so proud of him, and thought I'd share our tips and my experience.
Before I get started, I want to be clear that all my advice is coming from the perspective of a breastfeeding mom. Non-breastfeeding moms and dads, you are superheros.
I thought I'd break my advice down into the following categories: Packing, Airport, Flying, and Other. With packing being about what to bring, airport covering our time at the airport, flying being the time in the air, and other covering everything else about our trip.
Packing with a toddler definitely takes more planning, but luckily, because their clothes are small it doesn't take up much more room. We even managed to pack my husband, Henry, and me all in the same suitcase.
I like to keep a running list of things I need to bring, and a special section for the last minute things I need to pack. I keep it on my phone so I can always add to it anytime I think of something.
Ironically before having kids, I always had snacks with me. I love to eat, and you don't want to be with me when I'm hungry. Now, my snacks play second fiddle to Henry. Thank goodness, in a jam I can breastfeed, but his snacks keep him entertained as well as fed. I bought this bento snack box for Henry and it is perfect. It takes up more room than ziplock bags would, but it keeps the food from getting smashed and is a perfect serving tray.
If you can get away without bringing your carseat, do it! We traveled with it once and it was horrible. It took forever to arrive in baggage claim on the first trip and got lost on the return flight. The other times we've either had family have a carseat available or rented one from the rental car agency.
I always check my bag when flying with Henry because it makes it so much easier. All I bring with me on the plane is my carrier and a bag (that can fit under the seat in front of me) filled with diapers and wipes, snacks, toys, an outfit change, my wallet, and my phone.
I try to get as much energy out at the airport as possible. When we arrive at the airport, I immediately put Henry in my carrier. That way I can check in and get us through security without having to chase him around. I wear him through security because it's much easier to do that and have my hands swabbed than to deal with taking him in and out (especially because he wants to be on the move at all times). Once we are through security, I let him free. This way he can run around and explore before having to be contained on the plane.
One thing I learned on the first flight, is you must plan ahead regarding what you have within arms reach. My first flight I was in a row with no under seat storage so all my snacks and activities were overhead until the seatbelt sign turned off. I had to resort to using the emergency pamphlet and airlines magazines as entertainment.
Henry struggled the most on his first flight because he wanted to get up and walk around. Each time we've traveled, I've found that the first flight is the hardest. Everything is new and exciting again so he doesn't want to miss out. By the second one he is exhausted and the airplane is less novel, which allows him to fall asleep.
Luckily Henry doesn't seem to have problems with his ears (I did when I was young), but I make sure he can breastfeed if he wants to at all times during the flight. The sucking motion is meant to help with their ears.
Before Henry the aisle seat was always my favorite. I like having easy in and out access and the added room of the aisle. Now, we opt for the window. Not only does it give an extra option for entertainment, especially before take off when he sees other passengers walking around and doesn't understand why he can't, but it also gives me a place to lean for added nursing room (I've gotten really lucky and have either had the seat next to me empty or have been traveling with my husband on the majority of our trips. This makes such a difference because Henry is very tall and doesn't have the best nursing manners). Also, the aisle is dangerous with toddlers. They are almost guaranteed to be hit by the cart or a passenger walking by as they (or at least mine does) like to flail around and take up a bunch of room. The window also keeps them contained a little easier.
The best thing is to have a nice passenger sitting behind you. Henry loves to peer over the seat so it's always helpful when there's another interested child or a kind and interactive adult.
For entertainment, I have a book from Target that has fold outs and it provides tons of entertainment. Basically a couple books, snacks, and my boobs are our in flight entertainment. We've also tried some downloaded videos, but those can be hit or miss.
Try not to panic when your toddler does break down. I know it's so much easier said than done, but he or she will pick up on your anxiety which can only make things worse. Try to breathe and pray that the other passengers have compassion. Ultimately, you'll be okay, your toddler will survive, and the other passengers on the plane will eventually forget about the horrible child they flew with (or they'll forever have a good story to tell at parties).
Go to the bathroom before you get on the plane and don't hydrate too much! It's hard to go to the bathroom, especially if you're traveling alone and especially if your baby falls asleep on you. I really wish I had a diaper sometimes.
I try to explain to Henry a few days before leaving that we will be going on the plane. I don't know how much he understands, but I figure that the more I can prepare him ahead of time, the better for both of us.
Overall flying with a toddler is harder than flying with a younger baby. The fact that they are mobile changes everything. Also, they are so much more interested in their surroundings. As tough as it may be, try to remember that there's only a small time frame that you'll be traveling with them at this age and you'll get through it (or at least I keep telling myself that). And, it will give you more compassion for other parents in the future.
Edit: We learned the hard way that Southwest requires birth certificates as proof of age for lap children. We have flown with Frontier, American Airlines, and United, and Southwest is the only one that required a birth certificate. A picture or scanned copy will suffice, but make sure you have one ready at check in.