Traveling with kids can be a challenge on its own. But when you’re flying solo without another adult to help – by choice or necessity – it can be even more complicated.
Each youthful age has different joys and challenges. When it’s time to fly, infancy through preschool age can be the toughest to manage and occupy. And it’s at a whole different level when you’re juggling it on your own. Take it from me, and learn from my mistakes.
My first time flying with our two children solo, the kids were 7 months and 3 years old. Getting to the check-in counter with our insane amount of baggage – three backpacks, two large suitcases, two car seats, a stroller, and a breast pump bag – was a nightmare. We were traveling at the trickiest time of day for our girls: bedtime. One of them was under the weather. And worst of all, I didn’t do any prep work to make the trip easier for myself.
Luckily, I’ve learned a few tricks to travel as the only adult in the bunch since then. And even if you’re traveling as a pair, there are a few nuggets of wisdom to help for smooth flying.
1. Mentally Prepare
When you’re traveling with kids, your trip begins long before you set foot in the airport. You need to get ready.
Most kids love surprises. But if you’re traveling with multiple kiddos, information is key. Don’t make the mistake of assuming your kids will just “go with the flow.”
The airport can be an overwhelming place. Walk them through the travel day events such as checking in, waiting in the security line, going through actual security, wait times before the flight. And don’t forget about what happens after you land. Children need to know your expectations of them in each situation.
Get them excited about what they can do while on the airplane along with where it’s going to take them. If your children will need to nap mid-travel, talk about that as well. And most importantly, ask them what questions they have. Even if your child can’t talk yet, infants and toddlers understand the calm and importance in your tone.
Thrifty Packing Tip: Dress the kids in a hat or hood for the flight – it will help come nap time (and save weight in your bag!) Or step it up a notch and bring eye masks and noise-canceling headphones in case of delays or mixed schedules to help them sleep easier.
2. The Gap Seat Method
Extra space can be hard to come by with little ones in tow. It’s time to get creative.
While an empty seat is tough to come by on flights these days, it could be worth trying the “gap seat” method. If you’ve got just one kiddo with you (or a second as a lap child), select the aisle and window seats – leaving the middle seat open. Other passengers are less likely to choose a middle seat willingly.
Of course, if your flight is full, there won’t be much choice. If it gets filled, passengers will likely be glad to switch to the aisle or window. And if you’re lucky enough to get on a flight with empty seats, you just weaseled your way into precious extra room for you and your little ones.
Flying basic economy fares? Sadly, you can’t always count on getting a spot next to your little ones. Each major U.S. airline handles seat assignments with minors differently on basic economy fares. If you want peace of mind, it’s probably worth upgrading for main cabin fares so you can pick your seats.
3. Bags, Bags, and More Bags
If you’re driving yourself to the airport, skip the hassle and use the curbside check-in counters. Don’t lug all the bags, children, and car seats from the parking lot.
Many airlines provide the curbside option where lines are typically short. If there are backups, just take another spin around the loop and try again -it’s definitely worth the wait. Make sure to check your specific airline and airport for details on availability and location.
As an added time-saver and safety bonus, pack an extra car seat to check for your trip instead of taking your little one out of their harnessed seats at the curb. It saves transition time and your bundles of joy will still be safely buckled while heading for the parking lot.
If you’re getting dropped off, curbside check-in still cuts your luggage-heavy walk down significantly. Either way, make sure to check the car seats at the counter instead of at the gate when you’re flying solo. It saves a major hassle.
Thrifty Packing Tip: If you don’t need a stroller at your destination but want one in the airport, try buying a folding luggage cart and zip-tying your car seat to it. It can double as a temporary stroller during those sleepy times – and you can still gate check it!
For a charge, luggage carts are available near baggage claim to help with all the child gear necessities. And if you make the trek back to the cart rental drop off, you’ll get your money back.
To save some cash, you can often find abandoned ones near loading areas by taxis and parking lots – if you and the kids can spare the time and energy.
But luggage straps can be a much easier option with the kiddos. If your bags don’t have them already, they can be purchased for a decent price online. Luggage straps are priceless when you get to baggage claim. It’s easy to buckle two or three rolling suitcases together, which minimizes the need for extra arms. They can even be helpful for attaching car seats as you navigate the stretch between the baggage claim and transportation.
Either way, this is a perfect time to let the kids run and use the stroller for your bags – if they’re old enough, that is.
4. Getting Through Security Unscathed
It’s all about preparation.
The key to getting through security with children is managing your bags so you can be swift. Pack all the security-sensitive items like snacks, electronics, and liquids together in one bag for easy removal.
Thrifty Tip: Have TSA PreCheck? Any children 12 or younger booked under your reservation will also get it!
Once you’re through security, find a quiet place to sit down together to redistribute snacks and goodies into each child’s bag for easy access on the flight. There’s no need to sift through multiple bags when going through the scanners – especially with a kid in your arm.
If you’re traveling with more than one child, strollers can be a lifesaver at the airport. A lightweight model is helpful when going through security – especially if you’ve got an infant, as you’ll be doing many things with one hand.
It’s also a perfect time to break out the wearable infant carrier! It can be a huge help while breaking down strollers for scanners, pulling items out of suitcases, and taking off your own shoes. It will come in handy again when you need to get your luggage into the overhead bin – or just to free up arms on the flight.
Remind your children that going through security helps to keep us all safe. That means it’s a time to be quiet, ask questions before or after, and follow mom or dad’s directions immediately. Give each child a job to help when going through the scanners. Big helpers are amazingly obedient.
To keep the little ones occupied during the wait in line, play simple games like “I Spy.” Or make up stories so your energetic children don’t get antsy. It also keeps those packed activities neatly tucked away until the flight.
5. The Bathroom Conundrum
Something as simple as a trip to the bathroom can cause big heartburn when you’re traveling with more than one kid.
Should you wake a sleeping child just to bring the other to the bathroom? Do you wake them all because you need to go yourself? Or do you go for the clown car option, where everyone piles into the tiny lavatory to change a diaper?
Well, you have a few options. And each one has its appropriate uses.
First, you can obviously ask a fellow passenger to keep an eye on your other children. For many parents, whatever the reason, that may not sit right.
Second, you bring all the kids to wait outside the bathroom. They will end up making friends with the flight attendants and fellow passengers while waiting.
Third, and highly recommended: Talk with a flight attendant when you board. Many times, they are more than willing to keep an eye on your seated children – especially if they are sleeping! This way, you can sneak off with the one in need. Asking ahead of time typically eases any frustrations and flight attendants will be sympathetic to moms and dads traveling alone.
An infant can make it difficult to answer nature’s call for yourself, too. Many times the changing table is directly above the toilet, so rule that out as an option to buckle your child into while relieving yourself. If you aren’t comfortable with others holding your baby, bust out the baby carrier again. It takes some ingenuity, but certainly frees up your arms!
Thrifty Packing Tip: Don’t lug the whole diaper bag to the airplane bathroom; there’s just not enough space. Pack a separate, small bag or a gallon zip-lock with two diapers, wipes, and a change of baby clothes. Keep the rest in your seat. You’ll be thankful for the extra space in the lavatory. And don’t forget to pack a second shirt for yourself in the carry on. That way you’ll be prepared for any surprises mid-journey.
Traveling with kids on your own doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Each journey gets better as your children become familiar with the art of flying. Kids grow, they become more helpful, and the luggage juggle lessens.
Until then, there’s no need to stress. Use these tips and tricks so you can plan ahead and skip most of the learning curve of traveling solo with your kids.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.