Cleared for Takeoff: How to Survive Air Travel with a Baby

Shortly after my daughter was born, I was asked to co-chair a seminar in Orlando, Florida the following summer. Not only was it the perfect family-friendly locale, but it was also a great opportunity for my career after being out of the game for a bit while creating a human being from scratch. After some quick math, I realized Kate would be just over one at the time of the meeting—a great time for our first official family vacation. 

Even though I travel frequently for work, have TSA pre-check status, and am a self-proclaimed airport pro, taking a kid or kids with you changes the game. I spent several months trying to learn as much as I could about navigating airports, what was permitted and prohibited by TSA, and doing as much research as I could so that I would look like an old pro rolling through the airport with a small child. I consulted with countless girlfriends, and even called Southwest’s customer service line a handful of times. In an effort to save you a little bit of time, below is everything you need to survive airplane travel with kids under the age of three. 

Logistics

Not knowing where to go in new situations stresses me out to the max. Major presentation at work? No problem! Not knowing where to park for said presentation? Cue the start of my crippling anxiety. Planning our first family trip was no different. Knowing how to get there, where to go, and what to expect in advance, was critical.

Here are some key points to consider before you get to packing:

On the plane at 5:47 A.M., ready for takeoff and very tired.

1. Know your airline.

Every airline treats kiddos a little differently, and some do not require a ticket for children under age 2. Below are helpful links for traveling with littles from the major airlines that fly out of SAT, for your viewing pleasure:

We generally fly Southwest. Before Kate was two years old, I always had her birth certificate with me but never bought her a ticket, and it worked out perfectly. Simple and painless.

2. Plan how to get to the airport.

You have a few options here, but after weeding through some terrible ones, here are my recommendations, in very particular order:

Best plan: Have a friend or family member take you to the airport. Bonus points if they already have a car seat(s) so you don’t have to install your own. This way you can have your car seats packed in advance, have them drop you at the curb, and you are on your way. Worst case: use your own car seat in a friend’s car and pack a car seat travel bag you can throw it in when you drop off your luggage. More on this below.

Average plan: Uber or use some other ride-sharing company. We generally Uber, and I force my husband to install a car seat in the Uber. It’s the next best thing to having a friend or family member drop you off due to no parking fees and curbside drop-off (assuming whoever is tasked with installing/uninstalling the car seat can get it done quickly).

My least favorite plan: Drive yourself. No explanation needed here. It just sounds like a lot of work. If you are traveling with another adult, I recommend having him/her drop you and the small human(s) at the curb while he/she figures out parking. 

3. Don’t stress about checking in and navigating security.

This was the most headache-inducing part of travel for me. My kid was one of those with severe food allergies that required prescription formula. I spent weeks paranoid some TSA agent was going to dump out the formula gold my child depended on. To save you some heartburn, here are some easy things I learned:

  • Formula and breast milk are allowed in checked bags and carry-on luggage.
  • Ice packs to keep breast milk cool are also allowed in carry-on luggage.
  • If you wear your infant in some sort of carrier, you can usually leave your baby in it while going through security (as opposed to breaking down a stroller, removing a car seat, etc.). I wore Kate at 13 months and didn’t have to take her out. I understand this is case by case.

On a similar note, the less stuff through security is better. Of course, if you want a stroller or to use one of those car seat attachments that turn a car seat into a stroller, you do you. That was not for me, and with already trying to remember so much, I liked having a wearable carrier option that I could break down and stick in a backpack. Also, another thing I’ve found is kids that hate carriers, strollers, etc. will behave like different human beings in an airport. So. Much. Stimulation. 

TSA quick reference links for you to double and triple-check:

Things to Bring

When packing for my little girl, I consider myself a “bare minimum” mom. I have never been one to pack the contents of my house for an outing. Has this backfired for me? Absolutely, and on more than one occasion. Do I routinely need to borrow baby wipes from other people? Yep, but it’s worked out enough times that I now firmly believe that simple is best. You have enough to juggle when getting small, glorified wild animals through a security line. Pack what you absolutely need, and remember that wherever you are going also likely supports human life and you can pick up more supplies along the way.

Aside from your usual diaper bag essentials (diapers, wipes, pacifiers), below are the items I recommend you bring with you on your journey, with links to my favorite battle-tested products (because surviving air travel with a small child is kind of like battle, right?): 

  1. Disposable changing pads—While I find airports to be pretty accommodating for changing small humans, having my own disposable changing pads has saved me from having to venture into the petri dishes of germs known as airport bathrooms.
  2. Car seat cover/bagIf you will be driving around at your destination it’s nice to have your own car seat. We opted to check ours, and boy, am I glad a girlfriend told me to get a bag for it. Those things get thrown around like you would not believe.
  3. Backpack with many pocketsIf you have one or more small humans I’m sure you have plenty of bags and totes to carry baby essentials, but I am telling you that this backpack changed my life and was the most accessible thing on the planet so I wasn’t constantly trying to find a new onesie and diaper. Bonus: it has an insulated compartment for baby food.
  4. Formula or snack dispenser—A friend of mine recommended this, and it ended up making traveling with formula a lot easier. We also used it daily on our trip to pack snacks for my little girl.
  5. Change of clothes for everyone in your party—Don’t pack them for only your child; you and any other adult traveling with you that will handle said small human(s) needs one too. Ask me how I know. Or you can ignore this advice and end up with some pretty sweet San Antonio, Texas airport t-shirts. Your call.
  6. Baby carrier—I do not consider myself a baby-wearing mama because I could not figure out those wrap things and my kid hated it, but this particular one made the TSA line a breeze. It snapped back into place, and both my husband and I could get it on and off fairly easily.
  7. Sleep aid or in-flight entertainment—I chose meds; you may choose a book or an iPad. You know what your kid likes and will respond to. just make sure you have something.

    Husband with baby carrier and backpack with many pockets exploring Animal Kingdom!

One thing that has served my family well is to buy essentials at our destination. For example, I bring just enough diapers and wipes to get to my destination (with a few extras for delays or cancelled flights), and the first thing I do when I land is search for a store where I can buy diapers, wipes, etc. for the duration of the trip. Not having to pack these items saves so much headache. I’ve even waited to buy things like sippy cups and a cheap umbrella stroller so I didn’t have to deal with it in the airport. My husband will tell you this is a waste of money, but I don’t care.   

Odds and Ends

Traveling while pregnant? Check with your gate once you go through security. Several airlines have boarding accommodations for pregnant women. If you’re flying Southwest, that perk will get you in front of A1. Get you that aisle spot close to the bathroom. You got this.

Dietary concerns? Thankfully my child is no longer on prescription formula, but she does have various food allergies. If you are in the same spot, find yourself a Starbucks. In terms of airport food, they have the most variety of creative food solutions. I now routinely stop and buy warmed almond milk for my girl since we can’t travel with her now preferred vanilla soy milk.

While this certainly is not an exhaustive list of everything you need to travel with a baby, it’s a great starting point and will hopefully get you about 90% of the way there. At the end of the day, whatever you choose to do will be right for your family. Remember, you are in charge of small human beings, and that alone makes you a superstar. Happy travels!