This article was almost titled: "Keeping a toddler happy during nightmare air travel to Blogher '09."
On a Thursday evening in July 2009, my toddler (20 months) and I were scheduled on a direct flight from DC's National Airport to Chicago's O'Hare. The original direct flight was delayed and then cancelled due to thunderstorms and rescheduled for a one-stop flight with plane change in St. Louis the next morning. That flight was diverted into a cornfield with an airstrip in Illinois for an hour due to fog, resulting in a missed connection and second rescheduled flight. We finally arrived in Chicago 22 hours after we'd initially left for the airport in DC.
Here are a few tips we learned along the way:
1.) Plan your kid carrying device(s) carefully to accommodate both the airport and ground transportation.
I opted to carry my daughter Maya in our Ergo, a soft backpack child carrier, and pull a rolling suitcase. Maya traveled as a lap child and we planned to use public transpiration in Chicago, eliminating the need for a car seat. Traveling by subway, train, or bus is often easier with a baby carrier than a stroller and it is definitely easier to carry a toddler and pull a suitcase than push a stroller and pull a suitcase.
Navigating airport security is also easier with a soft carrier than a stroller. We've done it a dozen times now and four times with only one parent. No one has ever asked me to put the Ergo or a sling through the x-ray machine, though we have been hand-searched several times (and once swiped for explosives). (Edit fall 2010: New TSA guidelines require removing children from carriers for security, possibly because we've lost our collective mind when it comes to "security", but there it is.)
If I were traveling with a large or heavy toddler or needed a car seat at my destination, I'd switch my tactics completely. I'd pack a backpack and/or several small duffels into a larger folding duffle as my checked luggage. I'd plan to request help getting through security and plan extra time for it. At my destination, I'd carry a couple of small bags or the backpack and stuff the rest under the stroller.
2.) Pack lighter than you think you need to for the airport and be prepared to do a lot of toddler chasing
Among the many benefits of traveling with two adults is that one can sit with the stuff in the airport and rest while the other chases the kid around the airport, hopefully wearing him out for a good nap. If you are on your own, you will need to carry anything you take through security around with you.
I definitely over packed for the airport. We checked one rolling suitcase and I planned to carry my laptop bag, Maya's diaper bag, and a small bag of books and toys, most of which could then fit back into the rolling bag once we were in Chicago. That was a lot to tote around while chasing a toddler. Maya didn't use a single toy in the airport and slept on all three flights, so fewer toys and books would have been fine.
3.) Let your toddler carry her own stuff in the airport
Have you noticed that toddlers love to push and pull things? Maya adopted a bag belonging to another child (picture right). I'm totally investing in one for our next trip even if I'm not the only parent. It's both a backpack and a rolling bag. It's pretty small, yet easily would have held all of Maya's toys, a change of clothes and diaper(s), and snacks.
If Maya were riding in the Ergo, I would end up carrying my laptop bag and the little backpack, probably one in the hand and one over the shoulder, which wouldn't be bad.
4.) Plan for airport security.
One of the perks of traveling with a small child is that you can often jump security lines. Once you get to the front of the line, you'll want to go through security as smoothly as possible so check out the Transportation Safety Administration's travel tips for managing security lines quickly.
If you are traveling with lots of stuff, say a stroller and car seat, don't hesitate to ask for help. A TSA or airport staff person will likely be able to help you put your stuff through security so you can tend to your child.
If you are traveling with bottles of milk or formula, there is no limit to quantity but you will need a hand check so have your little cooler ready when you get to the front of the line. Same goes for baby food and juice. See the TSA's breastmilk and formula guidelines for details. I've never had trouble with freezer packs but some have. There's always a vendor with ice on the other side of security if you need it.
5.) Capitalize on your toddler's fascination with airports and airplanes.
Maya thinks airports are awesome: moving walkways, giant ramps, wet floor signs, and out the window there are AIRPLANES. Play with barriers, sing in lines, check out bathroom sinks, hopscotch or wander tile patterns, watch luggage get loaded on planes, make the whole thing a game and rediscover your inner child.
Your toddler will only want to play with you this way for so long. In not too many years, you'll be traveling with a cranky teenager instead.