I sympathize. I have three kids, now 12, 14 and 17, and I’ve broken every rule flying with them. When he was 1, my eldest son mistook the tray table on a Spirit Airlines flight for a drum set. I fell asleep on a Virgin Atlantic flight while my 2-year-old son roamed the aisles. And I’m still recovering from the tongue-lashing delivered by an American Airlines flight attendant when I tried to change my daughter’s diaper on her seat. (I know what you’re thinking, and it was just a wet one.)
That makes me an advice columnist who has not only written the book on travel but has made almost every mistake in it. Let me help you avoid doing the same.
Q: I'm flying with my infant for the first time. Will I be able to get breast milk through security?
A: Yes. Formula, breast milk and juice are allowed in “reasonable” quantities in carry-on bags, according to the Transportation Security Administration. This means you’re exempt from the 3-1-1 rule limiting liquids to 3.4 ounces. You’ll need to remove the milk from your carry-on for a separate screening, but most of these screenings are routine and go off without a hitch. Practically speaking, TSA agents go out of their way to accommodate families. Young kids don’t have to go through full body scanners, and screeners often wave one or both parents through the screening area.
“In my experience, half the time the TSA person will not say anything” about breast milk, says Ranjana Armstrong, founder of a family travel website called Nugget. “The other half, they will check your liquids or food, which can take some time if they have pulled out other travelers’ luggage, too.”
Q: Do I need to buy a seat for my baby?
A: You don’t have to if your child is younger than 2, but you should. The safest place for your baby on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system or device, not on your lap, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. “Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence,” it adds. So why doesn’t the government require kids under 2 to have a seat? If it did, some parents would choose to drive, which is less safe than flying.
Q: Should I bring an infant seat or car seat on the plane if I'm flying with a baby? What if I have to check a booster seat? Does that count as luggage?
A: Boosters, strollers and car seats generally don’t count as luggage, but policies vary by airline, so it’s best to check with yours before flying. If junior has his own airplane seat, bring the safety seat with you. Make sure the seat has an “FAA approved” sticker so you know it will work. Also, bring a printout of the FAA regulations for flying with a safety seat. “Often, flight attendants are unfamiliar with the specifics,” says Corinne McDermott, founder of the family travel site Have Baby Will Travel . She notes that holding a baby and installing the child safety seat is “frustrating.” If parents are traveling together, she advises them to plan their boarding strategy. One parent holds the baby, the other installs.
Q: What will happen to our stroller once we get on the plane?
A: Flight crews will gate-check a larger stroller. Some smaller strollers can fit in the overhead bins. Ask a gate agent to tag your stroller when you check in, says Dana Delaney, a business coach from Santa Barbara, Calif., who frequently travels with her kids. “You can have your child in the stroller all the way to the door of the plane.” But remember, after that, you’ll have to carry baby and luggage to your seat, so prepare accordingly.
Q: Where can I change a diaper on an airplane?
A: Not on the seat, please. Also, not on the tray table, not on the floor, not in the galley. There’s only one place for a diaper change: the bathroom. Though not every airplane lavatory is equipped with a changing table, there’s usually one on every plane. (Check with a flight attendant.) As a backup, you’ll have to change the baby on top of the toilet lid — so pack a disposable changing pad. Also, “assume the flight will be delayed, and bring enough supplies like diapers and wipes, snacks and at least one change of clothing for everyone in the family,” says Trish McDermott, co-founder of BabyQuip, a site that rents strollers, cribs and other baby equipment. “That keeps everyone comfortable when something unforeseen happens.” Hold on. Did she just say “everyone” in the family, including adults? She did. After all, some diaper changes are very, very messy when you’re flying with a baby.
Q: What can I do to help my child with air pressure discomfort?
A: Swallowing will help with equalizing the air pressure. Patrice Cameau, who flies with her three kids, ages 12, 2 and 3 months, says she pays close attention during takeoff and landing. “If they’re drinking or eating during this time, the swallow motion will help equalize the pressure in their ears,” says Cameau, who owns an event studio in Maryland.
Q: Where should we try to sit?
A: If your kids are a little rowdy or you need quick access to the galley and restroom, the back of the plane is better for everyone. The engine noise also can soothe infants to sleep — or drown out their screams when they’re awake.
Q: If we don't have seat assignments, will we be able to sit together?
A: Strictly speaking, no. Airlines, as a matter of policy, will make every effort to seat you together, but unless you pay an extra seat reservation fee, they won’t guarantee it. (They should. In 2016, Congress passed a law that requires airlines to allow children 13 or younger to be seated with a family member older than 13 when requested, at no additional cost. But the Transportation Department hasn’t created the necessary regulation to enforce the law.)
Q: At what age can my child sit alone?
A: There’s a gray area between age 2, when they must have their own seat, and age 13, the cutoff for the previously mentioned new law. Use your judgment. Any child sitting alone should be old enough to follow a crew member’s instructions in the event of an emergency.
Q: What if my child is seated away from me — and next to someone who looks like potential trouble?
A: Talk to a flight attendant immediately. A crew member can make arrangements to reseat your child.
Q: What should I bring for my kids to eat?
A: You mean, what shouldn’t you bring? You’ll want to pack a lot of food. “Airplane food generally leaves much to be desired,” says Suzanne Brown, an author and business consultant from Austin, who often flies with her two boys, ages 5 and 8. “So why not get what you know your kids will eat?”
Q: How should I keep my kids entertained?
A: Any which way you can. Flights can be long, and delays happen. You know those American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations about screen time? “They go out the plane window when you’re flying with young children,” says Vic Strasburger, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. He ought to know; he wrote those guidelines. “For older children, get them immersed in a good book. Teenagers? Good luck. Can’t get them to do anything you want them to do anyway.”
Q: What should I teach my children about manners on airplanes?
A: It really comes down to a simple strategy: Teach your kids not to do anything on a plane that you wouldn’t do on the ground. “In-flight etiquette is life etiquette,” says Amanda Keeley-Thurman, who travels with three kids and covers their adventures on her site, Hot Mama Travel . “And we always expect polite public behavior.” When Keeley-Thurman’s kids were toddlers, she made up a song to remind them: “No screaming, no crying, no kicking and no running away.” That’s good advice for children of all ages.
Elliott writes the Navigator column for The Washington Post.
More from Travel: