If you’ve ever traveled for any length of time overnight with kids before, you know that it takes a great deal of advance planning for things to go smoothly. There are basic everyday needs to meet, contingencies to plan, and contingencies to the contingencies to pack for. Do too hasty a job and you risk underpacking; plan for too many contingencies and you won’t be able to carry everything. As if parenting wasn’t hard enough, even having fun is complicated.
In April of 2017, I flew from Germany (where we lived at the time) to Minnesota, USA, (where my family lives) with my 11- and 31-month-old kids for a month’s stay. Though we travel pretty routinely, this trip daunted me for a couple reasons: I’m terrified of flying, and flying over the ocean is a special kind of torture; I was changing time zones in a big way with two small kids; and I was doing the whole trip without my husband. As is usually the case with me, the anxiety anticipation was disproportionate to the event, and, while I would rather not repeat our experience, I feel that I could with ease if I had to.
In this three-part post, I detail all the planning that went into making our trip successful. I also talk about some things I could have done better.
If you want to navigate around, I talk about all the planning that I did before arriving at the airport in this section, Part 1; in Part 2 I talk about our time in transit; and in Part 3 I cover the things that were the most helpful and then extensively about carseats. I hope that you find this information helpful for your own travel planning.
Without further ado…
1. I planned ahead
We had two (maybe three?) months to plan our trip. For me that’s plenty of time, but I’ve heard of people planning trips a year in advance. You do you.
I used the time to write out a detailed packing list, read articles by others who have gone before me, order things we needed for our trip, and make some last minute doctor appointments.
2. I wrote a load plan, a/k/a a packing list
When we first started traveling with our first child after forgetting some critical items, I created a packing list. I didn’t always bring everything on the list, but we never again left any needed items behind. Since our daughter arrived, I’ve gotten away from using it and find myself scrambling at the last minute for things like hats and sippy cups. For this trip, though, I started a special packing list when we first started planning. I would add forgotten items and cross off things I deemed unnecessary as we got closer to our departure date. I included how I was going to carry the kids and their car seats, and what bags I was bringing with what was being packed in each one (a/k/a a load plan). When it was all said and done, I adjusted where some things went and left some things behind but all-in-all stuck pretty close to the final draft.
3. I planned for the weather and activities
April showers bring May flowers, but I also remember significant snowfall on my parents’ wedding anniversary in the beginning of May. Pack for that weather! I knew the weather would be in that transition between winter and spring, we would spend most of our time on the farm, and we would need one set of Sunday’s Best for Easter Mass. We packed for layering, included things that could pull double-duty, and left our rain coats at home. For instance, we brought my son’s rain boots with liners, and a fleece coat and knit hat he could wear on the farm and to town.
4. I rolled everything I possibly could
The most effective packing method I’ve found is to roll all soft items. Once I rolled it, I wrapped a rubber band around it to keep it from unraveling. This was helpful because I was able to place larger items into the suitcase, fill all the gaps with the smaller items, and rearrange as many times as I needed without having to re-roll anything. I was able to get all of the clothes we needed for a month in our carry-on suitcase, with the exception of two changes of clothes for each kid that went into their respective diaper bags. I even rolled what I could of what I put in their diaper bags (which are just small backpacks we picked up at Decathlon): 15 diapers (overkill but one for every hour of travel as recommended by the airline), wipes, changing pad, diaper cream, small toys, and seatbelt extenders.
5. I packed to distract on the plane
My kids are pretty tolerant travelers. But after more than 15 hours of being tied up (and most likely not sleeping well) I knew they would be stretched to their limits, if not beyond. Between the drive from the house to the airport, the two flights, and the agonizing final stretch from our destination airport to my parents’ (a two-hour drive) we were going to be gross, exhausted, and cranky. To help with the ensuing anxiety, I packed a variety of things to do on the plane. I tried to find activities that would be easy to carry (flat, light, small), minimal mess, and disposable. I brought Color Wonder markers and books, and filled two clear plastic bottles with tiny toys and styrofoam pellets which were engaging yet quiet. Finally, I downloaded some new movies to our electronic device in the event the aircraft was not so equipped.
I also carried food for my kids. My daughter wasn’t quite one year-old and my son is the #pickiesteaterontheplanet. There are no hard and fast guidelines for how much food you can carry but I spaced out meals and snacks based on the duration of our travel and our normal meal times. To help keep things organized and to make things easier for us to get through security, I packaged each meal in a gallon resealable bag and then labeled them with the kid’s name and the meal. In the end I had way too much food. They served us multiple meals on the plane, my son ate more of that than I thought he would, and neither kid ate the full array of food I brought for each meal. I did a little better on the return trip but after a month, my daughter was eating table food almost exclusively.
6. I researched
You don’t know what you don’t know until you know you didn’t know it. With all the pocket reporters, I didn’t want to be the subject of a controversial, embarrassing, viral YouTube video. So I read official pages on traveling with kids including the FAA, NTSB, and the kids’ pages of the airlines on which we traveled. I also read several different blogs about traveling with kids, covering topics from the safety of flying with kids in your lap, activities and methods to distract them on the plane, the advantages and disadvantages of different car seats, and good and bad experiences with airline employees. All of this information helped me formulate my plan prior to our departure and changes I had to make on the fly.
I also learned that, since I was traveling without my husband, I would benefit from having additional documentation. Though it’s not required, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection recommends for parents traveling solo to obtain a written note indicating they have permission from the other parent to travel with the kids. You can read more about that here and find out about recommended information in the note here.
7. I rehearsed, sort of
This would have saved me some considerable pain on our outbound trip. I struggled to carry everything, and when I had to go through security, I struggled to reconfigure everything in a way that made movement easy. By the time we were on our final leg of our return trip, I could easily reassemble everything and move about as necessary. I only needed assistance getting everything and everyone on and off the plane because of the narrow aisles; this is something you simply cannot do in multiple trips. I don’t like imposing, but sometimes it can’t be helped.
I also practiced installing the car seats. No one likes doing this. It’s a task that requires precision, patience, and a great deal of force. By the time you’re done, you’re cursing the manufacturers and sweating in places normally reserved for a CrossFit workout. While I’m sure there aren’t lots of ways to rehearse installing the car seats in an actual airline seat, any kind of practice installing the seats will be helpful.
8. I only carried what I could carry
I carried my daughter (20#) in a baby carrier, her Combi Coccoro car seat (9#), two small backpacks, and a full-sized backpack (at least 25#), while pushing/pulling my son (30#) in his car seat (26#) strapped to a dolly, and the swivel-wheel suitcase (at least 25#). I didn’t check any baggage. Everything we hauled with us on this trip (save what we mailed) went with us in the aircraft cabin. Since I packed for three people in one suitcase, I didn’t want the inconvenience of losing our baggage. But I was especially concerned with my son’s car seat. I didn’t trust that the behemoth would be handled with the appropriate deference. Nor did I want to wait for our bags to be offloaded from the aircraft at any leg of the trip, especially with customs. And, finally, I didn’t want to reconfigure the load more than necessary, even though it got easier and easier the more we did it.
This pretty much sums up the planning that went into our trip prior to arrival at the airport (save for the selection of car seats which you can read about here). To read how we handled transit read Part 2 and to learn what I think helped make our trip such a success go to Part 3.