If you find yourself with the misfortune of flying on your own with your children, take heart! I have just been through a doozy of a travel experience, and I have some wisdom to impart. I was traveling solo with my seven-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter from Athens, Greece, to Kansas City. Please note that if your kids are older that five, you will read this with nostalgic amusement. This will all be schadenfreude for you. And if you’re only traveling on a plane for a few hours, your job is seriously cake in comparison (trust me, I just did that and it was so much easier). The rest of you, please take notes. Learn from my mistakes. And if you’re smart, you’ll follow my first bit of advice: Don’t even attempt it. I probably wouldn’t have if my oldest weren’t such a good little traveler. But if you must…here’s what I have to say about the matter.
For the love of Pete, buy your baby a seat. Ten hours entertaining a baby is no picnic, but doing it while she sat in my lap the whole time would have been nigh on impossible. The meal service alone is unthinkable. Buying a seat for your toddler is expensive, especially when she can ride in your lap for free until she’s two. But on a transatlantic flight, I would hardly call that “free.” I’ve seen people use these inflight bassinets with their lap-sitting babies, but you still have to take them out and hold them during takeoff, landing, and turbulence. And while Violet fell asleep in my arms a couple of times, she also spent a good chunk of time snoozing in her car seat. I even managed to get through three quarters of a movie! In ten hours! But that was more because of my next point…
Do not rely on the inflight entertainment options. I’ve often pondered if I should bother bringing along activities for my oldest because he can just watch TV on the flight. But I always do, and I’m so glad I did. Halfway through our flight our entire row of back-of-the-seat monitors shorted out, so we couldn’t get any movies to play or get the map of our progress to display. Liam took it a little like this:
Actually, we’ve been working on his anger issues, so it was more like barely contained seething rage. But after plying him with Nesquick cereal and a book of mazes, he was back to sitting quietly.
If you have a toddler, buy these two indispensable items right now. After much research, we purchased this car seat, which is one of the narrowest on the market. We use it for both our car and for travel, and it has served us well. So far it has fit in every airline seat we’ve tried – and you can usually put the arm rests up if it doesn’t quite fit. I also lucked out finding one of these car seat travelmate at a garage sale, and it has been a life-saver. I can either roll her around in it like a stroller, or I can carry her in the Bjorn when she’s going through that I-want-to-be-so-close-to-mommy-I’m-a-part-of-her phase.
Snacks, snacks, and more snacks. Inflight meals almost never appeal to my picky eaters, so having a cache of snacks was essential. I can’t say they were the healthiest snacks – goldfish crackers, cereal, rice cakes, and those Gerber Graduates snack foods. Again, picky eaters. But they saved the day on numerous occasions.
When all else fails, go for a stroll. Violet just learned to walk, so a stroll up and down the aisles was just the thing she needed to get out her wiggles. It also endeared her to the other passengers and crew so they might forgive us when she started getting fussy. She stopped to say “hi” to anyone who would make eye contact, all with an adorable ear-to-ear smile.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I can’t tell you how many times I relied on the kindness of strangers. They helped me with my bulky luggage. They helped me put things in the overhead bins and take them out. They helped me keep my toddler smiling. They looked after Liam while I ran to the restroom. I even had the co-pilot on our last flight help me take out the car seat. Mostly people offered, but I did ask a few times, as well. It truly does take a village, and I’m grateful to everyone who gave me a helping hand.
Prepare for the worst. When we landed in Newark, my kids had completely passed out. And as if a 10-hour-flight followed by the ushering of two pint-sized zombies through customs wasn’t enough, we got to the gate just in time to discover our flight had been cancelled due to weather. I hadn’t packed any extra clothes in our carry-on bags (Where to fit that, I ask you?), I had a European phone that didn’t work in the US, and the airport WiFi, much like everything I’ve experienced in the greater NYC area, didn’t work as promised. Thankfully I was able to use the airport courtesy phone to alert my parents to my situation, and I was able to recover my checked suitcase.
After waiting in the “Travel Assistance” line for almost an hour, the agent informed me that the airline would comp me for a new ticket (booked the next afternoon) leaving from a different NYC airport (annoying…), an overnight stay in Newark’s finest establishment (riiiight), and all of our meals and transportation costs. Except….all the rooms at the nearby hotels were booked up. This was my reaction:
Actually, I was so jet lagged, this was all going on in my head while I stared in dazed disbelief. But he gave me detailed instructions on how to call for a hotel room and find the hotel shuttles.
Your adorably pathetic children are your secret weapon. Use their cuteness to your advantage. Maria, my savior at the baggage claim desk, took one look at my offspring,
then pulled a few strings to get me a room at the Ramada. I am eternally grateful. She also loaded us down with snacks, water and diapers before sending us to collect our bag. Little did we know we’d be waiting for over an hour for it to spit out of the baggage carousel. But at least we didn’t have to worry about getting a room.
And finally, after no sleep for 24 hours (Murphy’s Law, Violet got me up at 5AM the day we left), and 19 hours of waiting in airports, sitting on planes, and waiting in lines, we made it to our hotel around 11 PM. Aaaand then the next morning the children and I woke up at 4AM, bright eyed and ready for breakfast that didn’t start until…7 AM. Ugh. My one consolation is that on our cab ride from Newark to LaGuardia, the kids got to see New York City for the first time, and I was seeing it for the first time in over a decade. I’ve talked to Liam at great length about the year that James and I lived there before he was born, so he was very curious. Particularly about how it would smell, and of course everything about the subway.
We had a few hiccups at LaGuardia – an hour at the ticket counter and a three-hour thunderstorm delay on the tarmac — but we finally made it to Kansas City…23 hours after we were supposed to. And in a few weeks we get to fly all the way back to Athens again.
God help us.