By Hannah Lindoff
As the winter rolls on and Spring Break approaches many families will take advantage of the time off to travel out of town. Airline travel is part of life here in Southeast Alaska but boarding a flight can be daunting for families with small children and particularly for parents traveling alone with their children. I know this first hand, as I travel frequently for business and bring my daughter with me whenever possible. In 2011 I flew about 40,000 miles with my daughter on my lap; had I paid for her tickets she would have made MVP on Alaska Airlines. Because I was traveling for work I did nearly all of these trips on my own. There were highs and lows involved with each voyage but for the most part travel with a baby or small child is manageable, even on your own, if you are prepared to dedicate the day to your child.
When my daughter was an infant, I tried to think of airplane time as extended snuggle time and for the most part it was, usually she ate and then fell asleep in my arms. I was often too hot, sometimes my arms fell asleep but it was still a sweet time. Off the plane I placed the baby in a front carrier for moving through the airport and always checked her car seat. Airlines check car seats for free, they do not count as part of your baggage limit, and this method saves you from carrying a heavy car seat through the airport. I also used a backpack as a diaper bag/carry-on rather than a traditional diaper bag. The backpack not only holds more but is much easier to tote around than an over the shoulder diaper bag.
Now that the baby is too large for the front carrier I travel with a collapsible stroller. I always gate check the stroller so it doesn’t count against my checked baggage or carry-on items and I don’t have to worry about finding a spot for it in the overhead bins. A bonus here is that the crew will usually unfold the stroller and have it set up for you once you get off the plane.
If possible and practical, when traveling alone with a small child or children choose a smaller airport for your arrival. For example, arriving in tiny Santa Rosa is much easier than San Francisco or Sacramento because you can hit the rental car counter while watching for your bags, there is no large terminal to cross and you don’t have to search for an elevator or manage a heavy load on the escalators.
As my daughter got older I developed an “arrive early board late” policy. Arriving early allows you to fully harness the excitement of the airport, the new people in the boarding area and the children’s play area. The recent addition of the play table in the Juneau airport has made my life much easier. Anchorage has a private family room with a slide and plenty of room to sprawl out where a kid can burn off energy behind closed doors. The Ketchikan airport has great toys but they are just set in one corner without any separation from the rest of the boarding area which means you have to maintain volume control. The Seattle airport play room is one of the best I’ve been in; it’s large, colorful and always full of other kids to play with. Children’s play areas are marked on airport terminal maps so if you have a layover in an unfamiliar airport, they usually aren’t hard to find. The only play area I ever found to be unworthy of a trek across the terminal is the Portland play area. It’s one table of toys and a TV showing cartoons, set in the center of the walkway between two boarding gates. An onboard movie or TV show is fine for older kids once they are on the plane but the time prior to boarding is not best spent sitting and watching TV and because the kid’s play area is in the middle of the walkway, there are 360 degrees of escape routes.
I try to make sure we have at least half an hour in the playroom to burn off energy before we board but in airports without dedicated playrooms you can still get your child’s heart rate up with some hide and seek, chasing, etc. Yes, other waiting passengers might give you some dirty looks but in the end a little disturbance before you board is going to be much better for everyone than a fidgety, irritated toddler on the plane.
The airline can’t guarantee a free seat next to you when you take a lap infant, but most airlines, especially Alaska, will do their best to block off a seat if you’re flying with a lap infant. Therefore it’s best to add his or her information to your ticket well before the day of departure. You can do this online or by calling the airline. However, because the blocked seat is not guaranteed and because the idea of spending any extra time sharing a tiny seat with an active toddler is unappealing, I always board last.
After 40 minutes to an hour of fun and excitement in the airport, I like to feed the baby once we get onboard. I also carry an empty water bottle for her and fill it up prior to boarding so she doesn’t have to wait for the beverage service. I like small, time consuming snacks like goldfish crackers, raisins or apple slices for the airplane. They feed the kid and take up a chunk of time. At this point there is a good chance that the hum of the airplane engines will lull you child to sleep. However, it’s best not to believe this is going to happen and start thinking of reading your book or getting a nap of yourself. Once your agenda strays from “keep the baby happy” to any other goal, you set yourself up for disappointment.
If you are traveling internationally with a lap infant you can often request a bulkhead seat. Many airlines including Delta have bassinets they can screw into the wall for the baby. However, the airlines won’t release the bulkhead seats until the day of flight so it can be a bit stressful not knowing if your seat assignment is going to work out. Make sure you request the bassinet as soon as you book and get to the international gate early. Alaska Airlines can’t assign you the bassinet on their partner airline when you check in so you have to go to the gate and arrange it at the ticket counter before your flight. This can be a hassle but it’s worth it; 33 D with a lap infant for 10 hours is not an option. When I flew to Europe with my eight month old I never actually used the bassinet, but it was great to have the freedom of the bulkhead on the flight and to be seated in an area designated for small children. A tip to those flying internationally without a small child- choose a seat a few rows back from the bulkhead or bring your noise cancelling headphones!
While Delta Airlines reserves the bulkhead for children, on Alaska Airlines you cannot sit in the bulkhead row with a lap infant. As well, the exit row is off limits and parents with twins cannot sit together because four people to a row is the maximum the airlines allow. These policies are enforced so it’s better to choose a seat you are allowed rather than be forced to move to an unattractive location once you’re on the plane.
For international travel you will have to have a passport for your child, even if they are just an infant. Technically the airline requires identification for all lap infants but I have never been asked to present the baby’s ID other than on an international flight. I always carry her passport just in case but in general airline personnel try to make a traveling parent’s life easier. TSA has recently improved their policies for children and families as well. Kids under 12 do not have to remove their shoes and many airports have special security lines for families or at the very least will guide parents and kids to the metal detector rather than the body scanners.
Traveling with small children will never be completely stress free, especially if you are on your own, but it’s best to remember that most people on the plane are rooting for you, not against you and many have been in your shoes. I was once on a Horizon Air commuter flight where the passengers spontaneously clapped for me after I changed the baby’s diaper in the teeny-tiny onboard restroom.
To all the parents leaving Southeast with their children this Spring Break – good luck, you can do this! And to all the folks who find themselves seated near a small child on the plane, a few kind words can help a stressed out parent a lot and please, save your extra napkins, just in case!
Hannah Lindoff grew up in Juneau and returned to the community after graduating college. She now lives with her husband Anthony, daughter Marigold and dog Haagu on Mountainside. Hannah can be reached at email@example.com