Monday, April 22, 2013

Airport Series - Packing

Later this morning, I have my 18 month checkup at my pediatrician. Even though it's a few weeks before my actual 18 month date, we're going today because it looks like we're going to be off traveling again for a little while.

It's been a wild year and a half of life with over 45 flights under my baby belt so far, but I can still clearly remember my very first flight in February 2012 as a 3 month old lap child.

I was reminded of my inaugural flight because this past weekend, my new friend Ava came over the other day with her father and had a few questions ahead of her first flight coming up in a few weeks.

Now, I won't pretend that I'm an expert (despite my 96,375 miles flown before turning 18 months old), but I have trained my parents well on getting to/through an airport as seamlessly as possible. Well, actually, let me stop there for a minute.

As any obsessive New Yorker mother will tell you, every child is different and unique. So our way may not be the best for everyone, but it works great for us and may give you some guidance if you're a new lap child flying with your parents soon. Because there's a lot to take in (and since I need to fill a few days worth of blog posts), I'll break it up into a series over the next few days.


1. Packing
2. Getting to the Airport
3. Checking In Luggage
4. TSA Security Screening
5. Boarding Gate
6. Immigration

1. PACKING

For anyone who's familiar with flying, it's a huge PITA to check your luggage. First, most people need to pay a checked bag fee on domestic flights ($25/bag each way unless you have Elite frequent flyer status or a co-branded airline credit card). Second, there's always the risk of your checked bag not meeting you at your destination either from your bag not making it onto your flight or from it getting sent to another destination by mistake. Third, you have to wait around the baggage carousel with all the over-entitled passengers who feel they should push their way to the front to get a better view of the bags coming out. But another (and biggest) issue is that it means you have that much more stuff to carry around.

But when you're flying with children, it's hard to get everything you need to fit nicely into a few carry-on bags, especially when you're a lap child and don't get your own seat. Fortunately, my family is pretty good about packing (relatively) light. For our 5 week trip to Thailand earlier this year, we only needed two suitcases and a pair of backpacks in addition to my umbrella (fold up) stroller and infant car seat.

We like to travel casual and don't often find ourselves needing evening gowns or suits, so we have little trouble finding a local laundry service wherever we're traveling to. Worst case scenario, we can have the hotel wash something in a real pinch, but at $8 for each t-shirt, we're thankfully never that desperate.

As you can see, the suitcases weren't all that big either (the big one was 25"x15"x12" and the smaller one could have been carried on). If we were traveling for only 1 week or less, however, we'd only use 1 suitcase. Why pack so light? Well, first, my father hates excess, especially since he's the one that needs to carry everything. But also importantly, you'll discover that not every taxi (especially in foreign countries) can hold much more than what we brought.

At the airport, we generally check both suitcases (since if you have to check 1, might as well check everything), but the two backpacks are carry ons, since anything important or valuable should never be placed in checked luggage.
  • Father's backpack: passports, cash, cameras, cell phones, laptop, photocopy of my birth certificate 
  • Mother's backpack: diapers/wipes, baby food, extra change of clothes, photocopy of our passports

Baby Supplies

It's very important to note that while there's no official TSA rule exemption there is an official TSA rule exemption for traveling with formula, breast milk and juice for babies. In our experience, we've always been allowed to bring 1 bottle of water and baby food (jars, bottles, juice boxes, etc.) through security because infants and their handlers get VIP treatment.

The "3 oz liquid" limit doesn't apply to us, because what kind of cold heartless SOB will deny a little kid their food? However, while you'll be cleared to pass with all that stuff, you and your parent may still get detained a few minutes to scan the baby food separately. Even though technically, you may be exempt from a separate screening if you're bringing things below 4 oz per the official rules, not every TSA employee is always aware of every rule and exemption. But that's much better than dealing with a hungry lap child on a 5 hour flight.

How much baby stuff do we bring? Well, that depends on your lap child, but just remember that it's not just the scheduled flight time. You probably need to arrive at the airport 1 hour before your departure time (2 hours if it's international) and the drive may take 30-60 minutes. Then assuming you take off on time, you'll have all that time on board your flight and then another 30-60 minutes to get your luggage and rental car/taxi. Then probably another 30-45 minute drive to your hotel. So a simple 2 hour flight from NYC-Chicago would actually be 5-6 hours of transit, so pack accordingly.

Aside from the usual things I make my parents bring for me, they always bring a few small plastic bags (the kind you get from the pharmacy / grocery store). As soon as we're seated, my father hangs up one of these bags so we have an impromptu "garbage."

Apparently I go through a lot of stuff and seem to generate a lot of trash. The flight attendants usually do their job, but they're too busy to come by often enough to accommodate us.  Those tight little seat pockets can't hold much more than a few magazines and maybe a bottle or two.

Strollers

As I mentioned, we also bring a convenient umbrella stroller (we like the the First Years Jet Stroller, $45 at Kohls) to keep me from running around at the airport. I can't say that this policy applies for all airlines, but on the 9 different airlines we've flown so far, we could gate check our umbrella stroller without any problems or any fees.

When we land at our destination, my father waits by the plane door, and the crew returns the stroller there. However, some airports (Phoenix and Rio de Janiero, for example) have a policy where strollers need to be picked up at the baggage carousel.

Infant Car Seats

And I would be irresponsible if I didn't also mention infant car seats. To be honest, whether we bring one or not seems to change for each trip, though lately, we've been bringing our own more and more, especially since in most of the US, the law requires a car seat for any small children in a car. But to avoid taking sides, I'll talk about both scenarios:

1. If you don't want to bring your own, then it will save you some sweat by having 1 less large item to carry and check in. You can also rent one at the car rental place (usually around $12 / day) but you should always call ahead to reserve one. And in NYC, the taxis and limos are exempt from the seatbelt and car seat laws that govern all other passenger vehicles, and let's be honest, who brings a car seat when taking a taxi crosstown?

2. If you do want to bring your own, then you'll be glad to know that airlines don't charge fees for checking in a car seat. Also, you'll know what condition your own car seat is in when you strap in your DC into the back of a rental car. And finally, the ride to/from the airports (both departure and arrival) can be quite long and involve driving quite fast on the highways.

If you do use plan to bring a car seat, I highly recommend getting a car seat travel bag to cover the car seat when it's checked in. Unless you get the fancy ones, it's not much more than a cover for the car seat to protect against getting dirty.

For the past 18 months, we've been using our J.L. Childress Wheelie Car Seat Travel Bag (seen here to the left; $34.99 at Target.com). We loved it because it was large enough to hold bigger infant car seats and had wheels at the bottom to roll - though it wasn't the smoothest to actually pull across the airport. After 45 flights though, it finally started ripping at the bottom and we needed a new one.

So last week, we bought a Jeep Car Seat Travel Bag ($14.99 at Drugstore.com) because well, it's cheaper and we didn't need the wheels.

The big hidden benefit of the car seat travel bag is that you can stuff your winter jackets inside since (hopefully) you're not putting your infant lap child in your checked luggage bag.

Additional Notes

Here are some additional general tips to keep in mind whenever you're packing. I know my father get some of these restrictions waived because he has elite frequent flyer status on United, but I'll just stick to the rules for the non-elite flyers.
  • Airlines limit the weight of each checked bag. United Airlines, for example, has a max weight of 50 lbs (23kg) per bag. Most of the U.S. airlines have the same restrictions, but you should double check your airline before you pack. For example, some international airlines (Turkish Airlines, for example) have a 44 lb (20 kg) limit unless you have a premium economy/business/first class ticket.
  • If you plan on checking bags, you need to make sure you're not running late to the airport. The check in deadline for checked baggage is earlier than for just issuing boarding passes.
  • Large, non-collapsible strollers cannot be checked at the gate and must be checked along with regular luggage. 
  • Strollers and car seats may sometimes be considered "irregular sized" and will need to be picked up at the special baggage area instead of the normal baggage carousel. It depends on the arrival airport policy, not the airline. 

3 comments:

  1. Hi Steve, Great post! A few other tips--TSA does have an official policy on baby food, purees, and other liquids for infants and toddlers: http://www.tsa.gov/traveling-formula-breast-milk-and-juice. In addition, you actually do not have to go through the separate screening if you have anything under 4 ounces (so if you can get the jarred food or pouches in 3.5 oz, do it! it will save you the extra screening. Likewise if you have breast milk or formula in a bottle. Separate them into 3.5-4 ounces in each bottle if you want to save the extra screening of the liquids in that fancy machine).

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  2. Great point. I'll edit the post.

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  3. We always stuff our car seat bags full of jackets when we travel and the last time I did this the woman at Delta told me I was not allowed to do that and they could make me take them out, but she wouldn't this time. We have done this many times and only been caught once so I think luck is on our side :)

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