Just the Two of Us: Tips for flying solo with your toddler

This weekend, Bean and I successfully completed a round-trip flight from New York to Pittsburgh.  It was a short flight for sure, but, a daunting task nonetheless.  Now, Bean isn’t altogether unfamiliar with flying.  In fact, this was Bean’s third trip via airplane in just 15 months.  She is becoming a pro.  But, what made this trip particularly difficult is that it was just me and Bean.  And, while I love the idea of having quality travel time with Bean in theory, the reality of flying solo with a squirming toddler seemed intimidating. 
 I have flown solo with Bean once before, when she was just three months old.  But, flying alone with a baby seems different than flying with a toddler.   When Bean was a baby she was consistently sleeping for long stretches and simply providing her with a bottle would keep her occupied for large chunks of time.  But now Bean is a toddler.  She likes to move around, and babble, and play.  She has definite wants and desires and when she doesn’t get her way she can throw an epic tantrum.   
I knew preparation for this flight would be a little different.  So, I took extra time to really think about the best way to embark on our adventure with as little stress as possible.  And, while it wasn’t perfect (I don’t think traveling with a toddler ever can be), overall the trip turned out to be an enjoyable experience. 
Below are some of the philosophies that I followed when preparing for our flight.  
1.       Pack Early
During my days of flying completely solo I made many packing errors.  The main error being that I usually didn’t pack until just before my flight.  Because of this poor planning decision, I would almost always over-pack.  When I couldn’t make up my mind between two outfits, I would pack them both because I didn't have time to debate.  I would pack for weather that realistically would not occur.  I didn’t spend time thinking about what I really needed, and therefore ended up lugging around a bunch of things that I would not use on the trip.  In contrast, I would often forget items that I actually needed, like my phone charger or my hairbrush.   
I knew that I would already be under enough pressure getting Bean dressed and ready for the flight to also worry about packing.  So, I made a list and packed the night before.  My list included clothing, toiletries, electronics, chargers, money, documents  (driver’s license, passport), food, additional baby items, and more.  I couldn’t have been happier with my decision to pack early. Once everything was packed I placed everything by the door ready to go for our flight in the morning.  When it was time to leave for the flight, I just grabbed our bag and left.  It was simple. 
2.       Timing is Everything
This is probably the most difficult philosophy to follow appropriately.  But the timing of everything, from the time that you choose to book the flight, to the time that you leave for the airport, can truly effect how a trip will turn out. 
The time of day of your flight can effect your toddler’s schedule for the duration of the trip.  Maybe it is beneficial to plan to be on the plane when your toddler normally naps.  This way he or she may sleep during the flight.  Maybe you think it is better to book a flight that takes off during meal time so that you can plan to spend most of the flight occupying your little one with food.  On the other hand, you may want to avoid going through security while your little one naps as you may have to take them out of the stroller to go through the security line.  Or maybe you want to avoid traveling to the airport during a meal time since if it delays when your child will actually be able to eat.
I suggest trying to schedule a flight for the time that your little one typically naps.  This way, they will likely be tired on the plane and may increase the likelihood that he or she will fall asleep.  A sleeping toddler is especially helpful when they are riding in your lap and not an actual seat.  I know, for instance, Bean squirms when she is awake making it difficult to hold her through the duration of a flight.   
Another important aspect of timing includes how much time you plan to be at the airport prior to boarding.  Ideally, you should aim to have the least amount of downtime where you are just waiting around the airport with your toddler.  This is where I made a mistake this trip.  I incorrectly assumed it would take some time with traffic to get to the airport.  So I left my apartment with Bean a little over two hours before my flight.  Behold my shock when it took only ten minutes to get to the airport.  After making it through security I had an entire hour before my flight began boarding.  I had plenty of entertainment options (see tip three), but Bean eventually got tired of waiting around.  In an ideal world, I could have looked at the traffic and realized that I was planning to get to the airport entirely too early. 
3.       Bring Multiple Entertainment Options
I’m never sure what Bean is going to be interested in at any one particular moment in time.  So when I packed our bags the night before I put some extra thought into what kind of entertainment I could pack for Bean in the event that she did not sleep on the flight.  I ended up packing a book, a coloring book, a tablet with some pre-downloaded toddler friendly games, and her favorite stuffed animal. 
I find that novelty helps when it comes to entertaining a child.  Bean doesn’t ever play games on electronic devices.  So she was particularly interested when I pulled up a game on the tablet.  This kept her occupied much longer than I believe it would have if she was used to playing these types of games. 
On the flight back from Pittsburgh, Bean was awake.  I was able to rotate through the different entertainment items with ease.   
4.        Ignore the Judgement
This last philosophy is the most important and involves a little story. Right before we boarded the plane in New York, Bean through an epic tantrum.  I blame this on the fact that we had too much down time at the airport.  She did not want to sit anymore.  She wanted to walk and run.  So as I was holding her waiting for the flight attendant to make the first boarding group announcement she began screaming and crying.  She wiggled out of my arms and made a mad dash for a nearby restaurant where I would scoop her up and bring her back.  This process repeated itself several times. 
While Bean was having a meltdown, there happened to be another little girl roughly the same age at the gate.  This little girl was the picture of perfection.  And on top of it all, she would waddle over to Bean and pat her on the shoulder when she was crying, as if to say “there, there, everything will be alright”.  It was adorable.  But, I couldn’t help but notice the differing reactions of the people around me towards this little girl and to Bean.  No doubt many of these onlookers compared my parenting to the parenting of this little girl.  I’m sure that some of them must be convinced I was doing something wrong.  And, honestly, maybe I was.  None of us are perfect.  But, it was at this moment I realized something important. Nothing would be gained by letting any of this perceived judgment from others affect my trip with Bean.  It wasn’t going to help the situation to be upset with Bean for not being able to act like this other little girl.  I wasn’t going to feel better about yelling at her or trying to prove something to these strangers.  This was my trip with Bean and I was going to do my best to enjoy it, judgment free.  And guess what?  It all worked out.  After I managed to wrangle Bean onto the plane she almost immediately fell asleep and stayed asleep for the entire trip.
No matter what we do, there is no guarantee that travel with a toddler will be easy or go the way you plan.  But, if you prepare mentally and follow these philosophies hopefully things will be easier.  As always, I love to hear your comments and thoughts.  What are your great travel tips? 


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