The first time I flew alone with Ava I was terrified. She was 3 months old, and I was hopping across to Ireland for my nephew’s baptism. Anyone with a baby knows just how much paraphernalia they require – how was I going to juggle all of this, a buggy, and a newborn who hates to go in said buggy?
2 years on, Ava and I are seasoned travellers. We’ve flown solo 15 times, to and from Ireland, Holland, Italy, and both the East and West coasts of America (twice). We have it down to a fine art. The key, I have found, is in the preparation. Here’s how we do it:
1. Flight Times
Preparation for a stress-free solo flight starts the moment you book your flight. So, if you can, choose child-friendly timed flights, especially when crossing time zones. It can be tempting to book the cheapest flight available, but even if it means spending just that little bit more I would definitely recommend booking direct flights that will help your baby adjust to a new timezone easily, and mean you’re not both jumping in a taxi at 3am. When flying west I like to arrive in the afternoon – this means we can squeeze in an additional nap at what should be ‘bedtime’, so she can make it to the new bedtime without getting overtired, and then hopefully sleep until the new morning time. Flying east I prefer to land later, so that it’s both her normal bedtime, and night-time at our destination (albeit much later than it feels), so bedtime goes smoothly. She may be a little drowsy the next day due to a shortened night, so compensate with an earlier, longer nap the next day.
2. Essential Equipment
The equipment and luggage you choose to take with you are going to make a world of difference to your trip. I’m of the opinion that the holiday begins the moment I step out of my front door, so I want it to be as stress-free as possible, right from the beginning.
BUGGY – Take your buggy, and make full use of it. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it at your destination, think of it as your luggage trolly, because while pushing a buggy AND a trolly is a great shoulder workout, it’s not one you can sustain across the airport. Trust me, I’ve tried. You are usually allowed to wheel your buggy all the way to the plane before handing it over. When you do, check with staff where you can retrieve it at the other end. Sometimes it will be available when you exit the plane, but other airports make you collect it from the luggage carousel.
SLING – If you have a younger baby or toddler, then the sling is a life-saver. It keeps you handsfree, means you can load the buggy up like a trolley, and encourage baby to sleep while you zip through check in or stretch your legs on the flight. You’ll also need it while trying to get yourself, baby and hand luggage on and off the plane.
CAR SEAT – Unless absolutely essential, I would advise against taking a car seat for purely logistical reasons. You can usually request one with your hire car, and this will save you a world of pain trying to get it from your car to the airplane. On my last trip I had to get myself, a buggy, 2 cabin bags, 2 suitcases, a carseat and a toddler from the luggage carousel to my car, which was parked a shuttle bus ride away in long-stay parking. I wouldn’t advise you try the same!!
3. Pack Smart
HAND LUGGAGE – Whether they have their own seat or not, infants and children are usually entitled to their own hand luggage or baby bag (check you airline’s policy to be sure). I always use separate hand luggage bags for myself and Ava, and sneak on a bumbag for essentials that I need to have to hand quickly like passports, boarding cards, phone and cash. Most airlines allow you to have a small suitcase-sized ‘cabin bag’, plus a small handbag. Use a rucksack for your handbag – it may not be as pretty as your Michael Kors shoulder bag, but you are going to need both hands free as much as possible. I then have a small hard suitcase that wheels upright on 4 wheels so that it glides easily down the aisle of the plane, and also fits in the basket under the buggy while we’re in the terminal. I then use a baby bag that hangs on our buggy for Ava’s hand luggage. It’s large enough to stuff full of activities and books, and I don’t have to carry it. If you have a toddler, I’d highly recommend getting a Trunki for their cabin bag – they’re compact and light weight, and kids love pulling them along, or they can even ride it while you pull it along! Especially handy if you have to collect your buggy at the luggage carousel as they can ride the Trunki instead, and play with it while you wait for your luggage.
Packed up like this I can easily navigate the terminal by myself, with a child and 4 bags in tow – plenty for a long weekend without having to check anything in! The only difficulty is getting onto the plane once I’ve handed over the buggy – see below..!
CHECK IN LUGGAGE – Here I try and pack mine and Ava’s things together rather than in separate suitcases. I opt for one large suitcase over 2 small ones. It may seem unweildy, but believe me it’s easier to pull a suitcase behind you than push a trolly loaded with 2 suitcases AND a buggy in front of you. It also means you only have to wait for one item at the luggage carousel at your destination, which in my opinion is the very worst part of the trip. After several hours cooped up in a tin can it is almost impossible to contain Ava once we get off the plane – the last thing she wants is to be strapped into a buggy – so waiting around the luggage carousel is hard work. I try and play games like competing to spot a bag of a certain colour. In order to achieve the one-suitcase policy, plan to buy bulky items like nappies at your destination, and pack enough only for the flight and first 24 hours. Make sure you know your baby’s weight in kilograms as this is often how they are sized abroad.
You would assume an airline would automatically provide a child’s meal for a passenger booked on a child’s ticket, but you would be wrong. Make sure to book a child’s meal in advance if you require one. I once had a relative book us a long haul flight and didn’t realise I needed to request a child’s meal. They didn’t have a spare(!) and the result was a very hangry toddler who reused to eat any of the provided food except pretzels. I ended up begging fellow passengers for their unopened packets.
Meal or no meal, bring LOTS of snacks! I have on occasion run out of snacks before we’ve even boarded the plane (sadly the same flight with no child meal!!). Low-mess snacks work best such as crackers or rice cakes, bananas, frubes, sanwiches and individual cheeses. A few sandwiches might also save your bacon if you have a fussy toddler who may not like the in flight meal. Crisps and popcorn tend to go everywhere on the plane. I also take a few chocolate coins or a pack of chocolate buttons as bribes for staying in the buggy – my rule is that Ava needs to stay strapped in until we get through security, and, whether I like it or not, sometimes chocolate is the only way to ensure that happens. I figure we’re on holiday so it’s ok..
5. Priority Queues
Larger airports sometimes have a dedicated family queue for security, so be sure to locate it. Sometimes it’s a little out of the way, so check with airport staff – they want you to get through security as smoothly as you do as it keeps everything flowing and ensures everyone has a cheerful start to their holiday. If there isn’t a dedicated family queue and you are travelling alone they will usually allow you through the priority queue. I’ve even had security staff open up whole new lines for me.
When it comes to boarding the plane, however, I try to avoid the priority queue at all costs! You want to confine your child to the plane for least amount of time possible. Once on the plane you are forced to start bringing out your zip locked bags of delight, and you need to spread these out so you have plenty of surprises during the flight. We once sat on the plane for an hour and a half before take off and I realised with horror that I had already used all the tricks up my sleeve to entertain her. So, instead of boarding the plane early, I spend the time trying to tire Ava out by getting her to run from one pillar/window,/vending machine to another.
6. Ask for Help
This is something I’ve really had to adjust to as a solo parent. I am fiercely independent and have always been of the mindset that if you want something done, you’re better off doing it yourself! I hate to be seen as the damsel in distress. But, a steep learning curve and a few dents in my armour of pride have taught me that it’s usually better to ask for help than struggle alone – especially when travelling. Be aware that there is rarely a lift from the gate down to the airfield, only stairs, so you’ll need to either leave your buggy with a friendly air steward, or enlist the help of a fellow passenger to help you carry it, and your hand luggage, downstairs. Once you get to the plane you’ll need to hand your trusty buggy over to be loaded into the hold, so if you then need help getting all your luggage onto the plane then again, don’t be afraid to ask.
7. In Flight Entertainment
The more entertainment you bring for your child, the more pleasant the flight will be. I find it useful to pack activities into individual ziplock bags. This makes each activity easy to find and pack away when you have limited space, and ensures your bag doesn’t look like a toy store threw up in there. You don’t want to be fishing about for tubs of playdough at the bottom of your bag when you’re in a confined space 50,000 feet in the air. Some activities I like to bring are:
- Playdough! I take 3 or 4 little tubs with 4 or 5 tools, and it keeps her entertained for ages – often a whole short-haul flight!
- Tinned toys – Amazon have a whole range of travel toys in cute tins. We have a set of dinosaurs that often come out to frolic in the Playdough.
- Sticker books – you can often pick these up in the terminal. I have a few at home that I save just for travelling so they’re always exciting.
- Fuzzy felt books – Similar to the sticker books, but you can move the felt ‘stickers’ around to make different scenes which add another level to the activity.
- Drawing – I tend to pack a colouring book and a few sheets of blank paper in a ziplock bag with some crayons. Crayola do a brilliant set of twistable crayons that are perfect for travelling as they last ages, are mess free, and don’t require sharpening. And no pesky lids for you to lose under your seat! Also look out for Crayola’s mess-free felt-tip colouring books. They have special ink that only works on the colouring book paper, so there is no risk of your cherub giving the airline upholstery an avant-garde makeover. Again, you can usually pick these up at the terminal newsagents.
- Books – a few favourites, plus a couple of new stories to retain her interest.
- Tablet – especially useful on short haul or budget airlines with limited inflight entertainment. Load it up with downloads of their favourite shows and games. Beware that some Cbeebies iPlayer downloads only last 2 weeks, so if you are away for longer than that make sure you have something else stored for your journey home! I speak from bitter experience… I would also recommend investing in a set of kiddie’s headphones to save your fellow passengers trying to strangle your precious munchkin when they watch their favourite episode of Bing for the fourteenth time. We bought a set at Dulles Airport, Washington, that came with pretty stickers to personalise them with. It was a great activity for the beginning of our flight and endeared Ava to wearing them.
8. Air Pressure
Make sure to breast feed or bottle feed your child during take off and landing. The airline crew will insist that you wrap a token lap belt around your baby or toddler if they are on your lap, so I like to have them facing me before belting them in so I can easily breast or bottle feed. This helps prevent their ears popping.
9. Sleeping on the Plane
For infants under a year old, long haul flights usually offer a bassinet which can be clipped onto the fold down table in a bulkhead seat. For toddlers under 2 years old without their own seat the basinet is more akin to a bouncy chair. You’ll need to book this in advance of your flight, so make sure to contact the airline well ahead.
In spite of my good intentions, I needn’t have bothered trying this with my insomniac daughter on our first long haul flight alone. At 15 months old she was still waking 4 or 5 times a night, and could only fall asleep on me or while breastfeeding, but I thought perhaps some inflight miracle might occur whereby I could put her down for some of the 11 hour night flight home from LA. I stared daggers at the couple across the aisle who enjoyed a meal and glass of wine together, watching a movie while their cherub slept blissfuly in a bassinet. By now it was 10pm and Ava was still bouncing up and down on my knees. The air hostess helpfully asked me how come she was still awake? I could have shot her.
I think she eventually passed out about midnight, attached to my boob (I’d given up all pretence of modesty by this point), and dozed on and off until breakfast was served a few hours later. On other flights she has helpfully stayed awake until touch down, leaving me to carry her, and all our luggage, off the plane…
I guess what I’m saying here is that I have no magic words of wisdom, other than this too shall pass. If they’re not sleeping, try not to sweat it. Toss the routine out the airplane window for a few hours – you’ll have a much more enjoyable time if you just follow their lead.
10. Be Brave, and DO IT!
So many of my friends have commented that they think I am brave to travel independently with my daughter, but I want to tell you that you CAN do it. Although it can be exhausting, travelling alone with my daughter ALWAYS restores my faith in humanity. People WANT to help you, and staff will often go out other way to make sure you have a smooth journey. As a single parent, we go to the front of the queue (pardon the pun) when it comes to priority – take that privilege and enjoy it. It takes guts to travel solo, let alone with young children in tow, so you deserve it.