We’ve just returned from 2 weeks on the west coast of the USA with our 7 month old daughter. :D It was a different travelling experience to how we usually roll but I’m so glad we did it because we had a great time and most of the things I was most worried about weren’t even a problem! Below is some advice based on our experience.
Go before your bub is mobile
Ideally before 6-9 months. It’s just one less thing to think about if they stay where you put them down! There are different benefits at either end of the pre-crawling age range: when they’re really little they nap easily and frequently and they don’t need a lot of entertainment; at the 6-7 month mark they respond to distractions (toys, food) which can be useful and milk feeds are speedy. Also consider where you might be with solids: before solids involves less stuff/mess, but once they’re starting to get the hang of it they can join in meals with you (baby led weaning is very travel-friendly).
Bassinet allocations are not guaranteed
The general rule seems to be that you can’t be sure you definitely have bassinet seats until you arrive at the airport. Even checking in online doesn’t confirm them – your best bet is to get to the airport as soon as your flight opens and cross your fingers. You can get bumped out of your bassinet seat if a younger baby is travelling on the same flight, which is fair enough, but sometimes airlines give bassinet seats to frequent flyers or passengers they want to impress because of the extra legroom. If you can’t get a bassinet sometimes if you ask nicely at the counter they might be able to put you next to an empty seat if the flight isn’t full – the extra space is helpful and it and can offer a bit more privacy.
Also note that different airlines have different sized bassinets with their own age/height/weight restrictions – check their website for details. You might also want to look into Etihad’s “flying nanny” service which is probably particularly helpful if you’re travelling on your own with the little one.
Babies don’t travel light
Luckily a lot of airlines will let you take up to 3 baby items (eg portacot, car seat, stroller) for free in addition to your checked baggage. You’ve still got to lug it all around though! We took a large suitcase full of her stuff and a portacot, but hired an infant seat with our rental car and used a Manduca carrier instead of a pram.
We had 4 flights: 2 long haul with Qantas and 2 domestic in the US. Because we booked all the tickets through Qantas our baggage allocation was the same on all flights – if we’d booked the domestic flights directly we would have had to have paid extra for checked luggage.
Carry on essentials
Take more nappies than you think you’ll need, wipes, nappy rash cream (under 100g), a change of clothes (and remember it’s often quite chilly on planes because of the air con), zippy swaddle or sleeping bag, cloth nappy/small towel and a variety of toys. If you’ve started solids it’s also handy to have a sippy cup for water (fill it up after you go through security) and some convenient snacks (eg crackers, cheese, fruit – bearing in mind you might have to throw out whatever is left on arrival depending on customs). Snacks and toys can help pass the time on a long haul flight.
I also find it really handy to wear a wrap on plane flights with a baby. They’re easy to pull bub in and out of in a confined space and can be used for naps and/or keeping your hands free during meals. Interestingly, I found that while Australian airport security makes you remove the wrap (even if your baby has fallen asleep in it, argh) American security lets you keep it on. Also, Australian airlines will make you put your baby in an infant seatbelt for take off and landing, but American airlines don’t use them. Both of these things make American airlines very baby-wearing friendly compared to Australian airlines!
Night flights could be the way to go
I thought a day-time long haul flight would be easiest, my theory being that if we didn’t get a bassinet and/or she didn’t sleep all we had to do was keep her distracted the whole time. This didn’t really work out because they still dimmed the lights for people to sleep to help them adjust to the new timezone, but it was too early for her to want to sleep so she just got confused and frustrated then overtired. We got a handful of short naps out of her in the wrap but she wouldn’t sleep in the bassinet. We had a night flight on the way back and she slept much better – 8 hours (made up of 3 naps) in the bassinet and another hour or so on me, hooray!
It might also be better to fly on an older, noisier plane (eg a 747) than a new, quieter plane (eg A380). I suspect the noisier plane might have provided better white noise, and it did a better job of covering up grizzling/crying. ;)
Adjusting to the timezone
Baby jetlag was my biggest worry about the trip but we were incredibly lucky in this department. Even though she didn’t get any decent sleep for about a 24 hour period on the way over she fell into the -17hr timezone surprisingly quickly and adjusted just as easily on our return! I think it was probably mostly luck, but the most useful things I took from the articles I read were:
- Don’t plan anything for your first day – you might have to write it off
- Let them nap when they want to, but for no longer than 2-3 hours at a time
- Make sure they get lots of sunlight and active play when they’re awake, especially for the first day or two
- Keep the bedtime routine consistent
We didn’t bother attempting to adjust her schedule in the week before we left. You might decide not to fully change your bub over to the new timezone – eg it might be more convenient for them to go to bed a few hours later than usual so you can go out for dinner and get a little sleep in in the morning (although we found that regardless of what time we put her down she generally woke at around 7am).
Road trip it
We love rail travel but driving might be a better way to get around with a little one. You won’t have to worry about disturbing other passengers, you can pull over for a break and feed/change in privacy whenever you like, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to nap and it carries all your stuff for you (no lugging all your items from accommodation to tram to platform to carriage etc). Try not to plan any more than 3-4 hours of driving a day – err on the side of less so you’re not rushing and break it into a morning and afternoon drive so bub can nap and you can stop somewhere for lunch.
Pay for convenience
It’s a little painful if you’re normally a budget traveller, but it’s worth it. Fly with a good airline at times that will work for your baby. Rent an airbnb apartment with a bath, living space and bedroom instead of staying in a single hotel room so you can give your bub a bath as part of their bedtime routine then put them down in the bedroom while you spend the evening in the living area. Find an airport transfer service that uses a mini bus or can offer an infant seat (taxis don’t) unless public transport will take you from your door to the airport (I recommend Simon Says in Portland!).
Most importantly, enjoy yourselves! The long haul flights were long and it was a more expensive trip than usual for us, but I think our little one enjoyed taking in new sights and sounds, charming people in queues and cafes, and spending extra time with the two of us. I’m not sure where our next trip will take us yet (possibly somewhere closer to home), but I’m looking forward to it already. :)