Plane and Simple
GETTING TO THE GATE
With babies, small kids, and luggage in tow, navigating an airport can be a challenge, which is why many experienced parents prefer curbside check-in if it's available. If it isn't an option, this may be the time to spring for a frill: Get a skycap, give him a tip, and let him transport the luggage while you cart or shepherd the human cargo. (A suitcase on wheels, which even a second-grader can maneuver, may also be a worthwhile investment.)
The supposedly family-friendly option of boarding the plane before everyone else can actually work against you, especially if no other adult is along. Many parents of young children report that they prefer to get on last, taking advantage of those final moments of freedom for their toddlers to run around the waiting area. If your child is the type who likes to climb, somersault, or catapult from chairs and you're traveling with him solo, early boarding may only make a long trip seem longer.
But if you're traveling with a spouse or companion, the early-boarding option can be a boon; one of you can get on board to get settled with the diaper bag, carry-ons, and snacks while the other supervises the leg-stretching action.
Because turbulence can hit without warning, kids under 40 pounds should use an appropriate child-restraint system (CRS) -- a car seat with the label, "This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft." The type of restraint should be based on the child's size and weight, according to a recommendation from the FAA. Of course, this means buying a ticket for the child because he's occupying a seat. But the good news is that last summer American Airlines initiated a 50 percent discount on domestic and U.S.-Canadian fares for children under 2, and other airlines swiftly followed with similar offers. On most airlines parents can book a bassinet for their baby; these vary in size, so it's wise to ask how big it is.
BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE
The bulkhead seats (the first row of seats in the cabin) offer more leg room and floor space. "But I've had both good and bad experiences with bulkheads," says veteran traveler Abby Johnson, of Carson City, NV, who often takes off with her son, Wheeler, 10. "The drawback is the airlines also tend to put the elderly there and other people who require extra leg room, so you might be sitting next to someone with a broken ankle and crutches. This can make for some complicated dynamics when you're traveling with an active toddler."
Other drawbacks to bulkhead seats: There's no under-seat storage, so all your supplies have to be in the overhead compartments and won't be available during taxi, takeoff, and landing. Some bulkhead armrests don't lift up (inhibiting for little nappers, who like to stretch out), and the pullout meal trays may not be as sturdy as those in the other seats. Older kids won't appreciate that the movie screen is very close.
Nursing moms may prefer the privacy of a window seat, while parents flying without a partner may want to opt for the aisle for easier access to the flight attendant. (It's in your best interest to develop a friendly rapport with this person -- though, as one mom points out, she or he either may be thrilled to cuddle your baby while you use the bathroom or may clearly convey the attitude "Hey, the kid is your problem.") Avoid seating preschoolers near the wing if they want to see the view. Barbara Albrecht, of Monroe, CT, mother of Erik, 10, and Alex, 7, has advice echoed by many seasoned traveling parents: "Let your children take turns looking out the window. If my seven-year-old gets to watch the takeoff, then my older son gets takeoff on the way home."
Those traveling without kids may relish the thought of a direct or nonstop flight, but many parents prefer connections because they provide a chance to chuck out the dirty diapers, let antsy kids burn off some energy, and sometimes even get a good meal. Other parents say it's wiser in the end to grit your teeth and take the airtime all at once: When getting there isn't necessarily half the fun, getting there sooner is better.
Families with babies likely to doze might opt for night flights, but most parents with toddlers and older kids prefer to travel during the day (and, if possible, during the week). That way the children's usual routine is disrupted the least and you can tuck them into bed upon arrival.
What about food? On many airlines you can preorder a children's meal when you make your reservation (see "Special Food for Little Mouths," below). But considering that many airlines have cut back on in-flight meals, it's always smart to bring along your own goodies to eat en route.
What's stowed under your seat can mean the difference between a pleasant flight and an uncomfortable one. Bring a change of clothes for each traveler (sticky messes and spills are part of the itinerary). Dress the kids comfortably, but even if it's a hot day, bring along a sweatshirt; airplanes can get cool. Be sure to grab a blanket and pillow for your youngster when you board.
Other essentials: diapers (one for every hour of flight), wipes, baby food, bottles, necessary medications, and as many small activity books and toys as you can handle. Leigh O'Neill, of Dayton, NV -- mother of a 5- and a 3-year-old -- tucks a couple of surprise games and toys into individual bags, then uses one bag for each leg of the journey.
Though you may need your stroller on your trip, you don't need to drag it onto the plane; leave it (with a luggage tag) with the attendant by the gate before you board, and it will be waiting when you disembark.
NOW EAR THIS
The change in air pressure when the plane is taking off and landing can cause ear pain or discomfort, especially in young children, whose eustachian tubes don't function as well as adults'. To alleviate the pain, babies should suck on a bottle or pacifier, says Patricia Edwards, M.D., a pediatrician in Concord, NH. Older kids can suck on juice or chew gum. "You want the child to be swallowing, which is what helps the ears pop," says Dr. Edwards. If your child has an earache or an ear infection, she recommends giving a dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen along with using the ear-popping tactics. A youngster with a cold may benefit from a dose of decongestant prior to boarding the plane.