When Darby was five months old, she made her first air travel trip to Texas and did fantastic. I mean, random passengers commented after we left each plane (And there were four planes. I secretly loathe people who have small children and can afford direct flights. Well. Loathe might be a strong word.)
Seriously, my head was 10 times bigger when we landed in Dallas. That's how proud I was of her (read: how proud I was of myself.) But, oh, hahaha, (shaking head in patronizing laughter) how silly I was. It's easy to keep a five month old entertained in a confined space. Just bring some of her favorite stuff and a lot of crap she's never seen before. She sits in one position and plays for hours every day. She doesn't know it's possible to do anything else. But a one year old? Now, that's a whole different animal.
However, since I'm writing this, we obviously made it through alive. So I'm here to offer some advice for any parent about to board an airplane with an angry octopus, aka, a one year old child.
1. Bring the car seat. Just do it. Ignore anyone who has told you otherwise.
Now, if you're reading this and you have purchased an extra seat for your child, I loathe you. OK, just kidding. Good for you. Then you'd obviously bring his car seat with you.
But what if you would never in your wildest dreams pay $500 for your one year old to have his own seat? Guess what? There are open seats on many flights, and if you walk up and beg the person at the gate desk with your frazzled, desperate parent look, they will hook you up.
This worked for our first three flights! Just be sure to emphasize that you want to be together as a family. Extra seat or not, I sure as heck was not going to sit by myself with Darby while Greg snoozed 20 seats up. But the extra seat was never in our assigned row, so we had to do more frazzled, desperate parent begging of our fellow passengers. I had to explain to one teenage boy,
"Trust me, you do not want to sit across from me on this flight."
The boy moved.
Later, as Greg leaned over the aisle to change a massive poop while Darby squirmed in my lap, I glanced back at the teenage boy with my best "told you so" look.
Car seats are lifesavers. Kids are used to hanging out in them for extended periods, so she didn't squirm and fuss and try to get down and crawl everywhere. She was tired, so she slept, woke up to eat (in the seat) and was easy to entertain with goofy peekaboo games and a few toys. Apparently we appeared to be having the grandest of times. One woman walked by when all three of us were snacking and proclaimed our row the "row to be in." I smiled, but wanted to ask, "Oh, well would you like to switch with me?"
Most car seats have instructions on the side for airplane seat installation. Also, airlines consider them "medically necessary equipment" and will gate check car seats for free if there aren't any open seats. Did you catch that? Free. (If it ends up being gate checked, it helps to prevent damage if you bring a large, black trash bag and throw it over the car seat.)
Air travel has never been enjoyable for me with all the hassle and motion sickness, not to mention that disconcerting thing about being thousands of feet up. But I'm not going to lie, when I plopped Darby into her car ... errr ... plane seat and watched her fall directly to sleep for her morning nap, I looked around, realized I had nothing to do for the next hour and a half, and got my relax on like I haven't in months. Just sitting in that plane was like a morning at the spa, I'm telling you.
In fact, the time before and between flights was actually more hectic than the flights themselves. Which is why it is imperative that you...
2. Bring the stroller.
I shudder to think of a stroller-less airport experience. Seriously, the word hellish comes to mind, and I don't use that word lightly. Not that Darby was in her stroller the entire time...
But a lot of it.
1. They gate check them for free.
2. Sometimes in airports, you're in a hurry and have no extra arms.
During one layover, we had 30 minutes to make it to a different terminal through a funhouse-esque airport that sent us on a seemingly random route up and down 11 elevators (we counted), on a shuttle, through a weird tunnel thing, and finally outside to a tiny plane with stairs attached. Oh, and we had to grab something to eat along that journey, which we somehow managed to stuff in our mouths on our only flight on which there was no seat for Darby.
Can you imagine us doing that without a stroller? Here's what you can imagine: not reading this post because I wouldn't be here to write it.
Note: please ensure that they put the correct tag on your stroller when you gate check it. If not, they will not bring it back up to you for your layover. This happened to us. I waited patiently beside the plane for my stroller, until the orange vested guy told me he remembered seeing it headed straight for Dallas. I was crushed. I think he saw it in my eyes.
We reached our next gate, and I happened to glance out the window and saw the stroller. It was just below us, chillin' in a luggage cart next to the plane.
"What? Hey! Hey, there's our stroller, Greg!" I cried, spinning around just as the orange vested guy rushed toward us.
"Oh, there you are! I found your stroller and I can bring it up to you if you want!"
"Yes, thank you! Thank you so much!" I spluttered.
I think he was secretly an angel.
Bonus: When they see you approaching with a stroller it somehow signifies that you need special treatment, like a wheelchair would. In all seriousness, we would not have made it out of Dallas if a TSA agent had not taken one look at us and told us to take a left and go straight through security, bypassing a 45 minute maze line of people giving us dirty looks as we rolled by.
3. To prepare in the case of no extra seats: Just bring everything you can think of to amuse your kid.
Fortunately the fourth leg of the air travel journey was only 90 minutes. And fortunately it was the only one with no car seat because the smorgasbord of entertainment I thought would last the entire trip hardly lasted that flight.
A few things I would bring again:
-Her favorite foods as long as they aren't too messy, like cheese, tortilla pieces and those squeezable fruit pouches.
-Some magazines because she loves playing with them and the ones in the seat pockets are gross.
-Her favorite books
-A couple dollar store toys she's never seen before
-We brought a laptop and some kid's movies which we never touched but I'm sure would have been useful on the longer trips, sans car seat.
Obviously, our bags were stuffed. I'm truly shocked we were able to zip them, to be honest. Which leads me to say...
Note: Security scans take forever with a kid, on a good day. One parent has to walk through with the kid and then keep her occupied while the other parent gets everything scanned. Be prepared for extra scanning of the stroller and sippy cup. I swear, one time I looked back and there were several agents helping my poor husband to get all our crap through, and I actually saw a pilot, who had presumably come out of nowhere, helping Greg repack one of our bags. And as always, be careful to pack according to TSA standards because you never know when you will meet with a rule "stickler."
One conscientious agent discovered we had more than the allowable number plastic baggies. Long story short, she confiscated half of our stuff because a lap child does not count as a passenger when it comes to getting their own baggie of liquids. Something I remain convinced she was making up. (Informing an agent like this that your flight is about to leave will mean nothing to them, as will reminding them that liquid baby food is medically necessary and not subject to limits. Agents like this are also angels in disguise, sent to help us learn patience.)
And speaking of patience, it's probably the most important thing to remember to bring along on an air travel trip like this. That and some perspective; have fun!