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My Ultimate Guide to Traveling with a Little One

May 29, 2012

My son, Ibrahim, flew before he could walk.  When he was a month old we took our first flight together from New York to Texas, and now, at three and a half, we’ve flown across the country and across the Atlantic more than a dozen times.  We’ve had smooth and comfortable experiences as well as turbulent and stressful ones, but I thought I’d share with you all a few things I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way!) on flying with a little one.

My son at age one and a half helping me pack.

Get Philosophical

Though it can be enjoyable in some ways, it’s good to go into an upcoming trip with the understanding that traveling is, by its very essence and nature, something that requires patience.  I’ve often heard people joke that, “that’s why they call it suffer” (Safr is the Arabic word for travel. :)) There’s a statement of one of the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that says that traveling with someone is a great way of getting to know their real character, which I think is very true as it’s a time when a person can be tested in many ways and has to deal with various frustrations.

If you can accept and ready yourself mentally and spiritually for the upcoming challenges that come with travel, it will make it that much easier when there is a hold-up somewhere in line, your little one spits up on you before you even make it to the plane, or when you’re asked to step aside for ‘random selection’ (yet again :))

Also, keep in mind that when traveling you will, at least at some level, be dealing with a large group of people who are really a complete mix of attitudes and personalities. You may meet some really lovely and interesting people, and at other times come across those few who feel the need to make a snide remark or in other ways show a level of rudeness to you or your child.

Just remember, even if your child ends up acting up or crying a lot on the flight and someone does react negatively, that the ‘offended’ person could have easily requested another seat or purchased their own noise-canceling headphones (which most seasoned travelers do), that you will most likely never see that person again in your life, and that some people are just unnaturally dissatisfied with the world, and if it were not your child crying it would perhaps be something else that they would have found to grumble about to their seatmate.

In short, as long as there is no serious injury done, most of these matters will be forgotten about within moments of stepping out of the airport.  Everyone on that plane will walk away to their own lives (A nice time to reflect on Quran 2:148), so one shouldn’t take anything to heart and realize how temporary the situation is (like many other things in life :))

For the Airport

Find out beforehand what the luggage allowances are for your little one.  They usually vary depending on the airline and the age of your child.

▪ Weigh your bags at home and try to keep them below the required weight. It can be a difficult task if they ask you to lessen the weight of your bags at the airport and you have to juggle a little one and sort through your bags there.  If you’re finding it hard to keep below the limit in each suitcase, try to spread heavy items out between the bags so no one bag is too overweight.  Prepare a few of the heavier non-liquid items towards the top that could be easily shifted into carry-ons if they ask you to remove things.  Keep an extra plastic bag or canvas tote bag in the front pocket of your carry-on in case they ask you to shift items out.

 Don’t feel rushed.  Try to give yourself some extra time by getting to the airport a little earlier.  Take your time.  If your child is crying, it is well worth it to sit out for a few minutes until you and your child are calm then try to check-in or go through security with the baby crying in your ear.  The more stressed you are, the more stressed your baby will be and vice versa, so try to keep yourself and little one chill 🙂

 If you were not able to book the bassinet seats beforehand, go early to request them because they usually get taken up quickly.  The front, bulkhead seats are also nice even if you don’t use the bassinet because they give a somewhat more open space for kids to play, and you don’t have to worry about them kicking the chair in front of them. They may offer to seat you in a row with a number of empty seats instead of the bulkhead row, which may be a better choice if your child is slightly older (to have a place to lay him down to sleep).

 Bring a baby carrier/sling along with your stroller, especially if you are traveling by yourself.  The carrier can be very helpful when going through security, and also once on the plane.  Before getting in line for security I would always put baby in the carrier and then had both hands free to fold the stroller, take electronics out of bags, take off shoes, etc.  It’s also nice to have on the plane if you need to take down your bag or do other things with both hands.  I’ve even strapped baby in while sleeping on the plane – I liked having him close and didn’t have to worry about him falling or sliding down.

Keep in mind that they may ask you to take it off when going through security (I’ve had some allow me to leave it on and other require me to take it off) so make sure you know how to put it on and take it off comfortably.

 Try to group together liquids into one ziploc bag that can be easily pulled out at security.  Later you can put things back in their separate places if necessary.

 If you’re traveling with a laptop, you may want to forgo a separate laptop bag and put your laptop in a sleeve in a larger purse or carry-on bag.  This will mean less bags to carry overall and an easier time at security (They usually do not require you to take the laptop out of soft-covered sleeves).

 If you’re Muslim randomly selected, be prepared for all of your bags to be opened up, things taken out, and stuffed back in again at security.  Once you get through, it may be tempting to just zip things up and hurry away as others seem to be doing, but it may be a good idea to move to the side (they usually have a bench or chair there for this purpose) and re-organize things, put your jacket back on, kid’s shoes on, etc.  This will make it much easier for you to start your flight with everything organized and arranged the way you had planned, and also make sure nothing gets left behind.

Many of the larger airports have prayer rooms which may be a more comfortable place to wait with little one (and offer a few raka’at :)) before take off.

You can keep your stroller with you until you reach the gate and then check it in planeside.

For the Airplane

 It usually gets quite cold on the airplane, so dress little one (and yourself) in layers.  (Ex. a full-sleeved shirt or hoodie over a half-sleeved shirt)

 Put your little one in comfortable, loose clothing that you assume will get messy during the flight.  Pack an ‘Arrival Outfit’ (the complete outfit with top, pants, socks, fresh diaper, etc) in a big ziploc bag, to easily pull out for a quick change after the descent and to stuff the old clothes in. It’s best to wait to change baby until after you’ve actually landed and gotten off the plane; things do happen in those last few minutes of descending, which can be hard on a baby’s ears and tummy.  It’s usually easy to find a bathroom on the way to baggage claim, and there you have more space and you can put baby in the stroller while you freshen up yourself.

 Visit the Dollar Store, the dollar bin at Target, (or the 2.5 guinea store if you live in Egypt :)) and stock up on a number of new toys.  I usually combine these toys with some old favorites (but nothing precious, expensive or that would cause sadness if lost.)  The trick is to have enough toys and things to cover the duration of the flight; when little one gets tired of one thing, put it back and pull out something else to keep them busy and interested.

Another tip: introduce your child to the new toys a few days before the flight so they are somewhat familiar and interested in them, then pack them away for the flight.  (Something I learned the hard way, when on one flight I pulled out all new toys that seemed completely strange to my son.)  Also make sure you hide them well, I’ve also had my bag of toys ‘discovered’ beforehand 🙂

Some of the best toys I’ve gotten for cheap are a little wind up train with tracks that snap together (which he played with on the tray table), sticker books (which are better than markers/ crayons which can get lost and slide under the seat), party favor bags that have lots of random things like yoyos etc, a travel-sized Magnadoodle, flap up books and other new interesting books to read.

Bring a ton of dry, non-messy snacks in little ziploc bags like raisins, goldfish crackers, dried fruit pieces, etc. and dole them out slowly over the flight.  I’d also try to have lollipops or a type of candy like smarties on me, which are great for when the plane is ascending and descending to encourage older children to keep swallowing and reduce the pain in their ears.  If you have an infant, giving them a pacifier or nursing them would probably be best during those times.

I admit that I also keep an emergency pack of chocolate (M&Ms or something similar) – to pull out if things are getting bad or little one needs some sweetness 🙂 I would say in general to be flexible when traveling on these sorts of rules (sweets or on watching a cartoon on the screen provided in front of the seat, or playing games on toy computer etc).  It’s only temporary and back on the ground you can revert back to your usual healthy habits 🙂

 If you want to know in detail, this is usually how I organize my carry-ons for the plane: I usually carry three bags with me –

1. A  Baby Bag: I actually normally use a backpack instead of a baby bag, since it’s very roomy, easy to carry and has nice compartments – but you can use any bag that sits upright and that preferably has a zipper to avoid things spilling out or getting lost.  This is the bag that I keep with me, by my legs or under the seat, that I’m constantly using throughout the flight so I try to make it the most organized.

In the very front pocket I usually put medicines, and in the side pockets I put sippy-cups/bottles.  There are usually two separate zippers to inner compartments; In the one closer to the front I put all the snacks and toys, books etc for the flight.  In the back compartment I stack extra baby clothes (the ‘arrival outfit’ and one other outfit), then diapers and wipes.

2. A Purse:  Make sure to use one that has a zipper.  I usually put only my own personal items in here (as well as my Dell Mini – which is great to travel with and fits in most purses) and immediately stow it under my seat.

3.  I take a larger carry-on (the suitcase style one with the pull-out handle) and put everything in it that I will most likely *not* use on the flight.  This includes heavier items that I couldn’t put in the suitcase like books etc, and also ‘emergency’ items if there is an extended layover or something similar: toothbrushes and toiletries, an extra outfit for me, some additional extra diapers and wipes and a few extra outfits for baby.  This is usually stowed overhead and not taken out again until we have landed.

Other Quick Tips:

 Take a few extra plastic bags.  They usually come in handy as a little trash bag or to store different things.  (I almost always take off little one’s shoes as soon as we are seated, put them in a plastic bag and put them away in my purse so they don’t get lost.)

 Put each toy with its various pieces in separate plastic ziplocs to easily pull out /put away.

 Take lots of extra wipes and tissues.

 Use overnight diapers to help prevent accidents, and pull-ups even if your child is potty trained just in case.

 If there is an accident or spill on the seat, you can take one of the blankets the airplane provides to lay over it.

 Some medicines you may want to have on hand on the flight: Infants’ gas drops, Childrens’/Infants’ Tylenol, teething tablets, anti-nausea medicine, and a mini first-aid kit with bandaids and Neosporin.

 Make a little package of a few wipes, diapers and changing pad to pull out easily when going to the bathroom to change the baby.  It is much easier to pull that out to take to the restroom than lugging your whole bag with you.

By all means walk around the plane and let little one walk around to get a little exercise and change of scenery.  This is usually a good way of keeping your child in a good mood before reaching a point of frustration and boredom.

Buy a bottle of water after going through security.  They can be pretty stingy about it on the plane and it’s always good to have in case baby is feeling some nausea or parched.

Lastly, enjoy your adventure with your new mini world traveler! Happy traveling 🙂


If you have experience traveling with a little one, I would love to hear your thoughts, advice and suggestions in the comments!  Please do share!

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Zarina permalink
    May 30, 2012 12:46 am

    Magic Snacks (snacks that will instantly calm your child), and stickers are awesome distractions for flights.

    I try and let Fahim run around (in the airport) quite a bit so that he’s ready for a nap/bed when he gets on the plane. IF the airline has assigned seating I don’t try and pre-board with families. Fahim gets a bit antsy waiting for the plane to take off. Some kids like to explore in/around their seats ahead of time, so they may need to pre-board. I try and pack as light as possible- this is helpful for 2 things I don’t have to worry about stowing overhead luggage, and it allows me to keep my hands free for picking up Fahim and running if need be. One time the airline actually checked my stroller all the way to my desitination (at the GATE!! without my permission!!), and I had to carry him as it was the dead of night. I was really glad that I only had one backpack, b/c I would not have been able to transport everything other wise.

    On my last flight I packed a foldable reusable bag (think those ecofriendly bags that you can buy at the grocery store) in my backpack. It came in handy at security, where I threw our sweaters, watches, boarding passes in, and then was able to grab them off the tray and rearrange away from the busyiness of security. At 3, my son is starting to become much more independent, and this has kind of slowed things down for us, so I like being able to sit on a bench somewhere to re-organize. The bag serves a double purpose, b/c when I get on the plane I put the things we’ll need during the flight (snacks, toys, an extra pull-up, wipes), and keep that bag under the seat in front of me. I then stow my backpack.

    Also, if someone around me gives me a hard time when Fahim acts up (which has only happened once in the past 3 years), I remind myself that my child is young, and he has very limited self-control over his emotions/outbursts. The other traveller can control themselves and their emotions my kid cannot, and really who would want their young child to throw a tantrum in a confined space? Also, I will say that at this point, I do feel slightly entitled because we are paying full price for his ticket. I will go out of my way to ensure that he’s comfortable and polite to other passengers, but I’m not going to apologize if he crys or whines for a few minutes.

    • June 2, 2012 12:01 pm

      Jazaki Allahu khayran for sharing your tips Zarina! I definitely agree that having minimal stuff with you on board is much easier (though it can be hard especially if you are moving overseas and there are so many things you want to bring with you.)

      I’ve also had it happen where I had to pick up my stroller at baggage claim (Take note anyone flying EgyptAir into Cairo that it is common!)

  2. Mommy permalink
    May 30, 2012 1:34 am

    Great tips, many I have also found to be true in my 13 years of international travel with children. My additional thoughts:

    1) IMO, more stops are better when traveling with children. They need to have a change of scenery, get off the plane, run around, eat some different food, use a real bathroom, etc. Long haul flights with children are the worst.

    2) I know you talked about the bulkhead/bassinet thing but the one thing to keep in mind is that when you sit in the bulkhead row you do not have a seat in front of you to put your bag of toys/food etc. You can NOT have that bag intrude at ALL into the aisle for safety reasons and it is a real pain to have to get it down out of the overhead compartment over and over again. Also, in some planes (most maybe?) the armrests in the bulkhead row do NOT push up out of the way because instead of having a tray table on the wall your tray table is stored inside the arm rest. I learned this the hard way when my 2 year old wanted to lie down in her seat but couldn’t get comfortable due to the arm rest. If I had been able to raise it up I could have laid her down flat with a pillow or with her head on my lap. That was a miserable, miserable flight.

    3) Re: baby carrier/sling You will not be allowed to walk through security with the baby in the carrier or sling, you will have to take it off and put it through the x-ray machine. Also, on domestic flights they do not let you have the baby (even a lap infant) in the sling during flight. I won’t go into why (unless you really want to know) but the rules are different for domestic and international. Once you are on an international-bound flight they will let you.

    4) Re: food. Bring something with protein in it like cheese sticks. Carbohydrate- and sugar-rich snacks are easy to come by but not protein ones. Also, if you ask the flight attendants, they have stuff like bananas, cookies, etc. On domestic flights probably not anymore but they should still have freebies for little kids if needed on international flights.

    5) Read up on the TSA website before you go what your rights and your child’s rights are. I have been burned by stupid TSA agents in the past. You CAN carry a small child through the metal detector and your child should NOT be separated from you at any time. I highly recommend printing out the website sections on travel with children to show any misinformed agents.

    6) I guess my last thought is bring less STUFF than you think you need but more clothes changes (at least 3 full changes if traveling internationally) and more diapers than you think. Especially diapers.

    • June 2, 2012 12:03 pm

      JAK Mommy! I especially like your tip about having something more substantial as a snack.

  3. May 30, 2012 4:29 am

    How appropo! We’re taking a looong hault tonight ourselves. Our little one was conceived in Algeria, born in Oman, and we’ve been rippin’ and runnin’ ever since; so long trips are nothing new! 😉
    My little girl loves books, so little board books and flipping through the flight magazines is a great treat for her. We’ve resorted to the in-flight entertainment when our batteries were running low. As for the snacks, I echo the comment above about food- carbs are super-easy to come by so i focus on protein and fiber. My daughter is almost 18 months and our travel favorites are chickpeas, apples, and non-dairy yogurt. We don’t use a sippy cup but we do pack straws for easy sipping.
    I completely agree with the philosophical points. At some point, you have to just pray and brace yourself. I also recently heard the statement: “as-safr yusfir (travel uncovers)” and if you can ride the waves with patience and keep your cool, you have a huge advantage. all of life is a form of travel, isn’t it? 😉
    I also have a pre-travel strategy of early packing, lots of immune-building foods, and as much as rest as possible for ALL of us! 🙂
    Blessed travels, ladies! Maybe we’ll cross paths in the skies! 🙂

    • June 2, 2012 12:05 pm

      Lovely to hear from you eternitysojourner 🙂 I especially love this part of your comment!:

      “as-safr yusfir (travel uncovers)” and if you can ride the waves with patience and keep your cool, you have a huge advantage. all of life is a form of travel, isn’t it? 😉

  4. May 30, 2012 4:39 am

    The TSA is the devil. I seriously hate flying with my baby b/c of the hell they give me. It’s really unfair and ridiculous the way they treat parents with small children. I have been harassed, my breastmilk bottles contaminated. Every airport seems to have its own rules. How do you maintain your patience with a fake agency and its loser agents who do nothing to keep this country safe???

    • June 2, 2012 12:18 pm

      It’s definitely hard. I think in the short-term, it’s a matter of trying to keep your cool and to know your rights (reading up before you go about what they are allowed to do or alternatives you can opt for), and long-term working towards changes in unfair policies. Personally I’m hoping/praying to see changes before my little one grows up!

  5. Khadijah permalink
    May 30, 2012 12:57 pm

    I don’t have kids yet but I love your post!! I love traveling and I can just imagine how convenient and practical your tips would be… My sisters both have children so I’m sure, even when they go run errands, these tips would be very useful 🙂
    I’ll def refer back to this when I have children iA!

  6. May 31, 2012 1:21 am

    Excellent tips. I have always tried to make my flight arrangements closer to their nap times for domestic flights and at night for International flights so that they pretty much sleep a majority of the way with the rest of the plane.

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