Travel with Two: Flying Across the Country with Young Kids

Travelling with kids does not have to be as hard as it looks

We traveled to Boston this October with our two kids. I researched the heck out of “travelling with toddlers,” “travelling with babies,” and “travelling with two.” I read so much about it that you would think I had never traveled with kids before.

We have actually made this trip many times, but only with my daughter. We had never done a cross country flight with two kids. As with everything, adding that second kid seems to really up the challenge level. We started out with no sleep. That seems to be my daughter’s M.O. for pretty much anything. Oh, we are travelling from Santa Barbara to Boston tomorrow morning? How about we go to bed at 11pm and get this day started at 2am? Early enough for you?

 On top of zero sleep ( Lana had her first meltdown on waking, I had MY first meltdown at check in), we had a day of delays. It was a nightmare. We boarded on time and then sat on the plane for an hour. That wasn’t a big deal because we had a 3 hour layover. You cannot fly direct from Santa Barbara to pretty much anywhere and so we had our first layover in Los Angeles. This is a 20 minute flight and this was one of many mistakes I made on our first flight with 2 kids.

Prepare for delays

We boarded the plane to Boston from LA on time. We preboarded because we had so much stuff. And then we just sat there for more than an hour while people boarded and shuffled about. Then we learned we’d been delayed and we had to deplane for half an hour. Then we got back on the plane. And then we sat on the tarmac for another hour. By this time we had been travelling for 7 hours and we were only in Los Angeles. Even with traffic we could have driven there and back and there again in that time. I had packed enough new toys for 9 hours of travel and now we were finally taking off and I had nothing. We ended up arriving at our hotel at 2:30am instead of 10:30pm. Luckily we were on California time.

Be flexible with sleep schedules

I learned several things on the flight. My 5 month old does not like sleeping on planes. My 3 year old still DOES like napping on planes even though she has mostly given up naps at home. Ten new toys is not enough for a 14 hour travel day. No matter how I prepare, I will never be prepared. My 5 month old likes to poop on airplanes. Even on planes, my kids stagger naps so that someone is always awake.

Bring aaallll the snacks

Now on the way back we ended up flying through Denver. This time, we didn’t have a long enough layover and we ended up running to the plane and being the last ones to get on. I’d expected to get lunch on the layover so we made that flight fueled on smoothies from breakfast, airline pretzels, and some random cashews and fruit leather snacks leftover from the flight there.

Tips for cross-country flights

The moral of this lengthy story is don’t fly with kids. Just kidding. Kind of.  But if you have to fly with kids, here are some tips I learned from our cross-country trip:

1.      Fly direct. I know, this is not always possible, but layovers create chaos. They can mean missed flights, delays delays delays, interrupted naps, lost carry-on items, and additional opportunities for toddler tantrums. We cannot fly direct from Santa Barbara so it is an issue of two evils for us: Los Angeles traffic or a layover. I would not expect weather to be such an issue in October, but it was, and in this case driving to LA might have been better. If you have to fly with a layover, try to pick a midway point. Our SBA – LAX –BOS trip sucked because the first fight was so short and then the layover was long and there were tons of delays and we had literally been travelling all day to get to 2 hours from our house and now had an entire day of travel left. Our return BOS – DEN – SBA trip was better because even with delays we had already conquered half the trip. And it was easier for the kids to have two chunks of evenly spaced travel like that.

2.      Toys. A small kid’s roller backpack full of new toys like no mess coloring books and play dough is a great distraction for long flights and delays. Just know and accept that you will end up carrying it at some point and/or that they will insist on rolling/carrying it themselves when you might be in a hurry. We have this Popatu rolling kids backpack and I actually loved it. It converts to a backpack, it stretches a lot, their favorite doll or stuffed animal can strap to the front, and when your trip is over you can throw it in the wash. Skip Hop also makes a good size wipeable rolling suitcase in all their Zoo animal styles. Here’s a couple options that are not pink  unicorns: Monkey, airplane, owl, dog. As you can see, you can find these at Nordstrom, Amazon, Target, Walmart, and basically everywhere in just about any style your kid loves. This is a great list for airplane-friendly toys to fill the backpack.

3.      Carry all the diapers. And pull ups. This is a tip everyone will give you. Carry a diaper for every hour you will be on the plane. At some point your toddler will also have to go during a time when you cannot access a bathroom, so if they are desperate and cooperative, they can use a pull-up in an emergency. However, if you have a preschooler who refuses to use pull-ups, I found the flight attendants to be especially accommodating for tiny little anxious faces. I also bring extra undies and pants just in case… I have this backpack as a diaper bag and I love the shape and easy access. Amazon has a bunch of similar shaped backpacks with insulated compartments, which I would have bought if I had known about them before buying this. My husband has this larger Quiksilver backpack, which is great because it is huge and it has an insulated portion and a laptop section.

4.      Pop your ears! Bring enough suckers for every take-off and landing. OK, I know sugar and confined spaces for kids is not a good idea. But I had a sucker for 3 out of 4 take-offs and landings and those are the ones where Lana did NOT cry about her ears. Cashews and gum did not work for her. Suckers were both a distraction (she only gets them after the doctor) and a way to pop her ears. It took her literally days to pop her ears after I failed to provide a lollipop for the last descent. Do it.

5.      Snacks snacks and more snacks. Travel with all the snacks and buy meals the night before if you have any sort of layover. And I mean healthy snacks. By the end of the night, all I had was Lara bars, pretzels, and trail mix. That was fine, but what everyone wanted was turkey sandwiches and fruit and veggies. Apples, oranges, and baby carrots travel easily. So do packets of oatmeal and airlines always seem to have hot water. I have also never had a problem with carrying on freezer inserts as long as I have kids with me, although I travel with disposable ones. Security is also great with Hydro Flasks full of milk, water, juice, or formula and apple sauce or baby food packets. I really like Hydro Flask for travel. It takes a beating and keeps everything cool. My husband has the big 32 oz one but Lana and I travel with smaller straw bottles similar to these kids’ Hydro Flasks. Obviously you can carry around fresh sandwiches but I should have grabbed something from town the night before and kept it in our hotel fridge.

6.      Carriers vs. Strollers. I would say a carrier is a must and a stroller is a plus. I liked having a stroller with us for parts of the trip, but Boston was not stroller friendly. I ended up with the Captain in his carrier the entire day so I was glad I had that too. Plus, if you wear your baby he or she can fall asleep through security at the airport and be undisturbed. We have a Joovy Caboose Ultralight tandem ride on stroller, which was great because my daughter can just hop on and off. The difference between the Ultralight and Ultralight Too is a detachable rear seat. You can buy this as a set, or individual parts, which often ends up cheaper. My daughter HATES the seat though and much prefers just standing or sitting backward on the bench. My other complaint with this stroller is that, while it is definitely light weight for a tandem stroller, it’s still bulky and unwieldy.  I cannot toss it around during travel like a do with my single strollers. But it fits through the security check, is convenient for small and large children, and I have yet to find a better option for two.

7.      Car seats. We brought car seats for both kids, but if you do, I recommend checking at least one, since they are free to check and that leaves you able to chase kids. I really like this Cosco car seat for travel because it is light weight and it’s cheap enough that you could actually leave it behind on the way back. You can get it from Amazon, but it is usually around $40 at Walmart. Note: it is COSCO not from Costco. Sometimes buying it for a trip is even cheaper than renting car seat for a week. Also, a car seat bag with a rolling trolley makes a world of difference. I found the backpack car seat bag to be bulky and uncomfortable. That said, I think we will try to rent car seats and maybe even a stroller next time. I would get car seats from a baby rental company instead of car rental since they have more options. These companies are everywhere now and they provide everything from car seats to jumperoos to buckets of toys. I have more faith in the quality of their items than rental car companies, too, since it’s their entire business. That said, I have never used one and cannot recommend them personally.

8.      Sleeping. My daughter sleeps in a full bed with a bed rail, so travelling with her is pretty easy. A bunch of mom friends recommended putting pillows under the sheets around the edge of hotel beds as a rail, and that worked beautifully, even for my little ninja sleeper. Captain Fatty is only 5 months and we have not transitioned him into a crib yet. We have this folding bassinet version of the pack n play that I considered taking. It folds up pretty small but it is still extra to check for most airlines. Any pack n play type crib that folds up will work like this one from Graco, this one from Lotus, BabyBjorn, or 4moms.

 I actually ended up taking his small DockATot instead of a pack n play though, just for convenience and it worked really well. It actually fit into this car seat bag along with my daughter’s car seat, which made it super easy and convenient to travel with. I have to warn you, DockATots are not meant to be used as beds. Obviously, they were originally created to be safe beds meant for co-sleeping babies. But, like most baby gear with soft sides, they are not considered safe for sleeping here in the U.S.  Other countries have different regulations, and you can do some research on the safety by looking at information both in the U.S. and in Europe.

I bought my first DockAtot 3 years ago for my daughter in the larger Grand size and I thought it was helpful enough that I bought the Deluxe for my son when he was born. I do not know if it is the size difference or changes in fabric or something else altogether, but my friend and I both noticed the smaller, recent Deluxe also seems less breathable. Just do your research on this before you decide.

9.      Packing. I use one large suitcase for myself and my kids, both to stay within baggage allowance and because it’s impossible to carry or roll a million bags. But with 3 people in one suitcase, it was a nightmare finding anything. Packing cubes are the best solution. We have this set of six cubes with windows that make it easy to know what is inside. I know some people buy sets of 4 instead in different colors so each person has their own color. This is a terrific way to organize your luggage. Just remember that whatever you buy has to Tetris fit somehow inside of your luggage.

Those are my key recommendations for cross-country travel. Come back for more travel tips, including getting around Boston with 2 stroller-age kids!