By now you’re probably sore from all that packing. Odds are decent that you even acquired some new luggage now known as “The Baby’s Suitcase.” Not Billy’s suitcase. Not Jill’s suitcase. Just The Baby’s Suitcase, bursting at the zippers with fear and resentment, and it probably weighs 49.9999 pounds – just under that $100 weight limit. You look at it and immediately feel secure, though, as it contains every conceivable item in order to tackle a problem on the road.
Tomorrow you head to the airport! That’s right, I’m going to assume you’re better than me and not packing the morning of the trip. Please, do yourself a huge favor and be better than me.
Up to this point, you’ve done your best to plan the itinerary and grab the right seats. If you weren’t able to get the seats you wanted, be sure to try and check in 24 hours out and see if you can move at that time. If not, do your best to at least be seated together, and try your luck again with the gate agent at the airport check-in counter – they have access to blocked seats that are held for a number of reasons, one of them being families. Just don’t count on it. My prior advice was to make sure you could sit together at the time of booking and I haven’t changed my mind!
The general strategy is pretty simple – get to the airport and through security as quickly as possible, with enough time to let the sweat try and change some diapers. For the first trip, I suggest getting there such that you expect to be through security with an hour until departure, which generally means 30 minutes until boarding is first called and the merciful act of leaving the airport begins. Your instinct will be to show up with pleeeeeeenty of time to spare and I suggest following that. You’ll do less running around and feel a little more settled. Just make sure the airport is open that early, speaking hypothetically of course.
I’ve found that when there are two of us, dropping my wife and daughter at the departures curb works best. Generally, she’ll try and take the carry on bags with our daughter sitting in the stroller. If our daughter insists on being carried, strollers make great luggage carts. Then, the driver goes to park and mules the rest of the luggage into the airport.
If you have some sort of status, use it and take the preferred check-in line. If not, no big deal since you need to check bags and get boarding passes anyway, so get in line for the kiosk. Your child’s car seat and stroller generally travel for free and can be checked at the counter, so check your operating airline’s policy beforehand. If you do have one of the free items to check, don’t choose it as a piece of luggage on the kiosk or you’ll be charged – instead, exclude those pieces and declare them to the gate agent, who will tag and check them for you.
Whether to check a car seat at the counter, at the gate, or never at all is hotly debated, mainly due to potential hidden damage to the seat when being loaded. I do feel better gate checking my car seat since it will be handled less, but have checked in our convertible (toddler) seat at the counter. The question is whether there will be any frame damage on the way out, so pull back the fabric and inspect it when you receive it, no matter what. That said, I personally feel the danger is more to the seat bag than the seat itself, as the bag looks like it gets dragged more than anything.
According to my wife, this tip goes first – if at all possible, find some means of becoming pre-check eligible as it makes the whole airport experience so much smoother. Simply put, the most hassle and uncertainty comes from the airport security process, and Pre-Check generally means less unpacking and a shorter, faster line. The CBP Trusted Traveler programs are my recommendation, although direct enrollment in TSA Pre-Check is now available. In any case, familiarize yourself with the TSA rules specific to families.
If you are not pre-check eligible, don’t sweat, just remember to pack your liquids into an easily accessible quart size bag so that you can pull it out separately to go through the X-Ray. Families skip the body scanner and instead use the metal detector, although shoes still need to come off. If you are carrying your child in a sling, they may ask you to switch to carrying in your arms or also swab your hands. Remember that liquids like medicine and infant formula are exempt from the 3oz/1 quart restriction, and I do have some suggestions on how to best pack formula.
Congratulations, you made it! The next steps are relatively easy. Fill up on drinks for your child – we usually go to Starbucks and fill a sippy cup with milk. Grab a bottle of water for the bag if you didn’t carry any through security for the formula. Then, most importantly, change diapers and go to the bathroom! I am reminding you to pee because so much has happened that you may have simply forgotten.
When boarding is called, you have the two options that I normally weigh – board as early as possible or as late as possible. My preference is to board last, but only if my carry on luggage does not require the overhead space. If it’s a backpack, a purse, or something soft like that, I’d just as soon wait and stuff it under the seat. You are better off this way because you’ll need to get into The Bag and the other bags regularly.
If you have a stroller or car seat, ask the gate agent for gate tags when you go up to board. You can try and get one earlier if you’re at the gate, there’s an agent at the podium and no line – some agents appreciate it, but some have snapped at me because they’re “not ready to scan it in.” In that regard, do what you want and ignore any negativity.
When you get seated, remember that your belongings will be stowed for takeoff. I usually put The Bag in the seat pocket, along with something to drink and a small snack. The rest comes out as needed.
Don’t forget to take in the experience. Talk to your child every step of the way, tell them what is going on, and try not to act nervous – even if things like security, takeoff or landing otherwise make you anxious. We noticed our child feeds off of our attitude, and if we’re excited, so is she. From the moment we wake up for the airport, sometimes at 4am to catch the early bank of flights, we tell her about the “adventure” and keep the energy up. She’s two now and loves going to the airport and getting on the plane, to the extent that she talks about it for days prior to departure.
To borrow and bastardize a very Northern New England phrase, you will get here from there.