Military spouse or not, online parenting forums are flooded with questions on traveling with children. As a military spouse, traveling with children is inevitable, even if just for a PCS. So, how does one travel with children?
For starters, pick your mode of transportation. There are things I like about flying and things I like about driving. With flying, I like that it shortens travel time. With driving, I like that I can pack as much as my mini van can hold: snack bags, en route entertainment, as much clothing as I want, etc... The flying versus driving argument is usually solved by what we plan on doing when we get there and how long we plan on staying.
When we fly, I pick my airline wisely. I prefer to fly Southwest with our big family. I can change our tickets up to 24 hours in advance with no change fee. I like that each paid seat has 2 free bags included with the ticket price. And in-cabin pets are only $100. All of those aspects make it the friendliest airline for our military family. Sometimes we book our tickets and the boat schedule changes or our kids get sick and we need to push back our departure date. Whatever the reason, I like to be able to adjust our travel dates. I also like that for every ticket, I can have up to two 50 pound bags. This works out great because I usually travel for extended periods of time with our kids. Traversing time zones with 5 kids usually means it is worthwhile to stay for at least 2 weeks. That usually means we are flying home with a lot more stuff than I left with. I like to pack empty duffle bags inside my packed suitcases so we are prepared for our return flight.
The problem with Southwest is that they don't fly everywhere we want to go. When that happens, I research my other airline options. As a rule, I book directly with the airline. Sometimes the price is less booking through a 3rd party site, but when complications arise or travel dates change, booking directly with the airline is the best bet. When I have to book with other airlines, I investigate their policies before booking. Is there a ticket change fee? What is the price of the 1st checked bag? The 2nd checked bag? What are the weight limits on the checked bags? Is there a fee for picking seats? Is there family boarding? Booking with the "cheapest" up front ticket price can backfire if you have to pay extra to sit next to your young children and are paying for each and every bag you take. Sometimes the higher upfront ticket price actually costs less money when considering those factors so doing a little research first helps.
Car seats are the next big question when flying with young children. I do not like flying with car seats and so I have left a complete set of car seats at my parents' house (our most frequent travel destination). This works out well for us because they also have a Suburban that we use when we travel there with our 5 kids. Before we did this, I lugged car seats through airports. I know everyone has an opinion on car seats in flights. However, it is not possible for me to get 5 kids, 2 pets, and 4 car seats on an airplane when flying alone-- nor do I want to. When flying with car seats, I prefer to gate check them with my stroller. Again, this doesn't work out well when flying alone and navigating an airport with my hoard and so I have also checked our car seats with our baggage. This is not my favorite option and I stressed about it each time we did because I worried about arriving at our destination and having lost car seats. Rental car companies do have a limited number of car seats, but that doesn't really help if they are unavailable when you arrive. No matter how you dice it, traveling with car seats is a cumbersome and back breaking affair. In all our time traveling, I have never had car seats or our stroller damaged or lost, either with gate checking, carrying on the flight, or checking at baggage claim. When figuring out the car seat situation when flying, I weigh the risk versus reward. Are we flying somewhere we can risk being stranded while we figure out the car seat situation on the other side? If not, I carry them on the flight or gate check them. If we have wiggle room on the other end, it could be worth not lugging car seats and our crew through the airport, so checking them with our baggage would be a fine option.
The other question I see a lot is in flight entertainment for kids. In my opinion, traveling with children before they are a year old is the prime time. They want to eat. They want to sleep. And if all else fails, you can strap them in a baby carrier (like a Tula) once you are in air. The worst they are going to do is cry the whole flight. As a parent of 5 kids, I can handle crying. The hardest age to fly with is the just walking/toddling phase. It does not matter how much pre-planning you do with toddlers. If they decide they want to be miserable, they will be miserable. They are too young to reason with and too big to contain if they want to flail. The baby carrier can still be handy with this age as you could strap them in and go bounce them in the back of the plane if flailing is on the on the agenda, but if you have turbulence and the seat belt buckle sign is on, you are basically trapped with a kicking toddler for as long as they see fit. Preschoolers and up are workable; you can reason with them better. These are the ages where in flight entertainment comes in handy.
Whatever you chose to entertain your children in flight won't matter unless you pack your bags well, no matter the age. If you are flying by yourself with even one baby, your carefully thought through carry on will mean squat if it is in a bag so big you have to put it in the overhead bin or if it is so tightly packed that you can't access anything with a baby strapped to your chest and your carry on wedged under the seat in front of you. When flying with children, I like to have at least 2 carry-ons. One I put in the overhead bin. This is where I put all my changes of clothes, the extra diapers, the extra wipes, the extra formula, the extra snacks. Anything I pack that falls into the "worst case scenario" category goes in the overhead bin. In the bag under the seat back is where I put the bare minimum of things I would need for the flight and they are all packed in order of priority. Diaper and wipes (the minimum amount needed for the duration of the flight) are kept at the bottom of the bag. These I would only be using if getting up from my seat when I have more room to dig in the bag. Snacks, toys, and bottles are kept near the top of the bag. These are what I will use when wedged like a sardine in my airline seat, when I have a baby strapped in the Tula and am digging in the under seat bag straddled between my legs. As soon as I get in my airline seat, I pull out the mommy supplies I will want if, Lord willing, the flight goes smoothly. I put my book, gum, and a water bottle in the seat back in front of me. I wedge the Tula next to my under seat carry on. I pull the bottle to the top of the bag so I can easily access it, if need be. And then I arrange our other children's carry-ons.
When flying with children ages 2+ (meaning, requiring their own airline seat and not a lap child), I like to have carry on bags for them that they can slide under their seats (meaning, not taking up the limited room I have under my seat). I also like these carry on bags to be light enough that I can put on their backs and small enough that I can put under the stroller, if I need to. Because at some point in time with extended traveling, your kids will give up and lay on the airport floor and you will wonder if you can live in Terminal B forever or how you can lug everything down to baggage claim. Overpacking carry-ons isn't in your best interest. What do I put in their carry-ons? Depending on their age, snacks. Snacks are your best friend on flights. I don't care if you have structured mealtimes and don't believe in snacking. I don't either. When your kids are bored and kicking the seat in front of you or refusing to walk, a package of snacks can save the day. If your kids are too young to manage a snack bag without throwing the whole thing or plowing through the snacks in one sitting, I put that in my carry on to divvy out when needed. I love books and crayons. Markers are never a good idea with just about any age child because the lids will roll of the seat-back tray and then your kid will freak out and you will be left with an uncapped marker. Crayons are the way to go. Target has really fun crayon options too-- themed crayon boxes, crazy shaped crayons, etc. I stock up on those for travel. We do coloring books and sticker books as well, I find them at Target or Amazon or our local children's book store. Usborne has some really fun activity books with games or stickers, depending on the age of your kids. I like all of these because they are interactive lap activities. I can talk them through it or they can do it on their own or with their siblings. I love Look and Finds. These are great because I can focus their attention on it while taking care of younger siblings, "I see a pirate holding a sword! Do you?" The rest of their carry-ons consist of various dollar bin finds such as lacing boards. I avoid anything that has small pieces that can roll away. I do like to find action figures that do not have small parts so they can play with those. And the last thing I put in is their ONE (ONE) favorite toy. Not their 5 favorite toys. Because I am ONLY keeping track of ONE end-all-be-all-have-to-have-it-or-the-entire-trip-is-ruined type toy for each of our kids. These toys are needed for flights and layovers because they are calming, but stressful if lost-- because the world is over.
I am not an electronics person. Yes, I do have views on technology and children and all that. However, I also find it extremely inconvenient. I do travel with a tablet for the kids and they do use it. But more often than not, we don't use it. I get tired of them asking me to start a movie or fix this or why won't this work or the headphones aren't plugged in or whatever. I find it to be a pain. So the tablet is Plan Z for me when flying, the last resort. When road tripping, that is totally different. We have the DVD players constantly rolling movies. When flying, I am carrying all our bags, all our babies, all our pets, and trying not to be motion sick myself so the tablet is not what I want to be dealing with on top of it.
Even with well thought out carry-ons and carefully chosen flights, there is still the matter of getting on and off the airplane with a hoard of children and all the carry-ons. I have had various luck getting flight attendants to help me board the plane. Some airlines have seen me with my crew and let me board early. Most airlines make me wait until family boarding and get on then, without assistance to my seat. In preparation for boarding, I make sure all carry-ons are zipped shut and every single small thing is tucked away. Our children are allowed to hold nothing in their hands. All toys must be secured because my arms will fall off if I am left holding everything for 10 minutes while they scrounge around under seats for a toy they dropped on their way to our seats. I get all of this ready before boarding. I make sure I have the proper tags for gate checking the stroller and then I wait in line for family boarding. I put the baby in the Tula. Even with toddlers, I put their carry-on backpacks on them to board the flight. I set my 2 carry-on bags on the stroller and make sure the strollers are ready for gate checking. When it is our time to board, I pull the bags off the stroller, fold the stroller up and leave it at the proper spot for gate checking, and then I make the children walk in front of me when boarding the plane. This way I can see them instead of holding carry-on bags, baby, and jackets and trying to look over my shoulder at who is dragging. It seems counterintuitive, but I like to sit near the back of the plane when flying with our children. You aren't allowed to loiter at the front of the plane and so it is good being seated near the back where I can bounce the baby or wrangle the toddler while still keeping a close eye on our other children. Not going to lie, every time I board a plane, my arms are burning by the time we get to our seat. Boarding is the hardest part for me since the airline walkways are so narrow.
Checking in is so much easier now with technology. I check in for our flights on my phone 24 hours in advance. A lot of times I am able to do curbside check in for our baggage (be sure to have tip money!). I've even checked in at the kiosks with all of our bags because the lines were so short. Being flexible with how you will check your bags helps. If there is no curbside check in, check for a kiosk. Otherwise, check in at the desk.
Often times people plan to have a friend or family member help them get through check in with them, but when you are flying by yourself with children, you can ask at check in for a pass to have a friend or family member get you through security and to your gate. If you paid for TSA pre-screening, your friend or family member won't be able to go through this with you, so that is something to keep in mind. But this is one of my favorite tips and tricks when traveling with kids. This isn't always an option when traveling as a military spouse, but when I can have help getting the children and I through security and up to the gate-- it is so much easier. I think this is honestly the biggest help when traveling with kids. When I have help going through security, one person can focus on getting the kids through and one person can focus on getting our things through. This helps for all the bathroom breaks once at the gate, the food runs, getting the gate tags for the stroller and car seats... on and on. Make sure that whoever is going to go through with you to help has a valid ID and some time and patience. And be sure to thank them, because they are true heroes! :)
If I do not have help getting the children and I up to the gate, I drink a lot of caffeine and plaster a smile on my face as I force myself to be calm and patient. Checking your bags will take longer as you answer their questions and wrangle your kids. Security will take you longer. But breathe in, breathe out, and get through it. I often make my kids sit down in place where I can keep an eye on them. That may mean all of my kids are sitting against the airline desk or next to me at security as I load or unload our things from the belt. This is a helpful trick when they want to run around or are whining. It may sound silly, but I can at least see them as I get done the things I have to do to get us on our way when traveling.
Once through security, buy a bottle of water and put it in your carry on. This will prevent you from pestering the flight attendant either immediately or at an inconvenient time on your flight. If you need warm water for baby bottles, fill them at a coffee shop in the terminal. They have hot water and you can cool it by diluting it with the cool water from your purchased water bottle (or you can leave it hot and use it later on the flight after it has cooled some). Ask the children if they need to use the restroom. Boarding the plane is hard enough with a hoard of kids, but it is next to impossible if they are crying because they have to pee as you are boarding the flight (as children always have impeccable timing). Once those things are checked off your list, buy food that you can shove in a bag (sandwiches, bagels, etc) because after spending $12 on a single slice of pizza, your children will tell you they aren't hungry and you will not want to be stuck with red sauce all over your carry on.
Flying with children is busy. But out of all the times that I have flown with our crew, I have not had a horrible flight from start to finish. Bad moments, rough moments, and really hard to get through moments, but our kids have impressed me with their flexibility when traveling. My mom always tells me that the parent sets the tone. I try to keep the kids on track and make it work. Keep calm and carry on. Because most of the time when I travel with our kids, I am flying somewhere that I want to go to for a reason I want to travel for. Those are the reasons I keep in mind as I figure out the best way for us to get to the airport or if I'm bringing car seats or when flights are delayed and layovers extended. Lastly, I make sure to use my manners and to remain calm. There have been very few times when I politely explained my situation to an employee that they didn't help me find a solution. For instance, the last time I flew with our kids, the flight attendant helped me with the baby when I needed to take one of our children to the restroom for an outfit change. When I navigate hard moments while flying with our children, I remind myself that there is a limited number of hours that we will be traveling. We will get through and we will arrive at our destination.
What are your tips and tricks when flying with lots of young children?