Don't underestimate the power of pockets.
Air travel with little ones is stressful enough on its own: being trapped in a metal tube packed with strangers while your toddler erupts into a world-class meltdown deserves its own circle of hell.
But when you’re the sole parent or care provider flying with little ones, let alone during a lingering pandemic and months of continued air travel chaos, just making it to your final destination in one piece feels like a major victory. I know this because, as an avid traveler, I’ve been flying solo with my now five-year-old son since he was about two months old. On every trip with him sans my husband, I expand my arsenal of tricks—to the point where, with some careful planning and a bit of luck, some flights have been (dare I say?) even enjoyable.
Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way, along with a few handy hacks from other travelers who have mastered the fine art of flying alone with their kiddos.
Always Bring a Copy of Important Documents
Once while flying with my not-quite-one-year-old son, an agent at the check-in desk asked to see a copy of his birth certificate to verify that he could still fly for free. I panicked–I didn’t have a copy. Then, the agent suggested a clever workaround: Did I have photos from when my son was born on my phone, so he could verify the date? Yes! While I wasn’t sure how a nine-month-old baby could be mistaken for a two-year-old, I learned my lesson regardless–and scanned my son’s birth certificate to keep on my phone for future trips.
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Single parents and those whose last name is different from their children’s also should bring a signed, and ideally notarized, letter of consent from the other parent as backup–especially while traveling internationally. While obtaining this paperwork may seem like a hassle, you’ll be glad you did when that unsmiling border agent asks why you’re traveling alone with your kid.
Do Your Homework With the Airline
Until there’s an airline that markets itself specifically to families (note to aviation investors: there’s a huge gap in the market here), parents need to look closely at what airlines offer in terms of child-friendly perks.
When flying domestically, I’m a big fan of Southwest Airlines (as are the fine folks at Family Vacation Critic, which ranked it the best U.S. airline for kids in 2021). Southwest’s Family Boarding policy is open to families with children under age six, letting them board after passengers in Group A. This all but eliminates the massive headache (and cost) of making sure you and your kiddo are sitting together on the flight. For those unfamiliar with Southwest, it features an open seating policy in which passengers board by a group. The airline’s generous baggage policy (two free checked bags per full fare ticket) also makes checking luggage a no-brainer instead of hassling with carry-on suitcases and kids in tow.
In addition, many U.S. carriers allow passengers traveling with small children to pre-board, which can ease the stress of getting settled before the cattle call of general boarding. Just be sure you’re close enough to the gate to hear the announcement so you can take advantage.
Finally, if you’re traveling cross-country or internationally with an infant, some airlines offer a bassinet or cot that attaches to the bulkhead, which can be a godsend for both parent and babe. Just be sure to book as far in advance as possible, as these seats are in high demand (especially during the summer and holiday high season).
Let’s Talk About Clothing
Those comfy leggings may seem like the perfect fashion choice for a long flight. But pockets are a must-have for parents–and even more so when flying alone with kiddos. Nothing is handier than a pocket during those approximately 412 times you’ll be scrambling for a convenient spot to store and place stuff before, during, and after your flight–from a paper boarding pass to a pacifier to a meltdown-preventing lollipop.
While parents of babies and toddlers are accustomed to packing spare clothes for their kiddos, don’t forget an extra set for yourself, so that you don’t have to suffer wearing the remnants of your child’s gastrointestinal disaster any longer than necessary.
Take Advantage of Those Credit Card Perks
For Sarah Szczypinski, a writer based in Seattle, access to the lounge that comes with her Amex Platinum credit card, which she signed up for after her now 7-year-old son was born, is “pure gold”–especially when she’s flying solo with him. “I love it because the Centurion lounges usually have space and a dedicated play area for kids,” says Szczypinski. “Their food is also reliably tasty, so I don’t need to worry about packing snacks.”
Some credit cards also come with Global Entry membership, which also grants access to TSA’s PreCheck–both of which can be a gamechanger for parents traveling alone with kids. Bottom line: Any opportunity you have to reduce time spent standing in line, do it.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask (or Pay) for Help
When I started flying with my son, I discovered the perks of an often-overlooked service that I wished I’d been using in my pre-kid days too: curbside check-in. Offered by many carriers at most major airports, curbside check-in is ideal for parents flying solo with children: You’ll pull up to the curb, check bags, get boarding passes, and head with your littles straight to security, bypassing all those other (read: less savvy) passengers in the regular check-in lines. Depending on the airline, you can expect to pay up to a few bucks per bag (but always be sure to tip those hardworking skycaps on top of the fee).
Other services, such as Airport Butler, that assist with departure, arrival, and everything in between, are also worth looking into if you’re traveling a long way or have several kiddos in tow. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from others–fellow passengers, flight attendants–for those times when you really need an extra set of hands.
Laura Wheatman Hill, a teacher, and playwright based in Oregon has some straightforward advice for parents: Stop worrying so much about what other passengers think. “My kids lose it sometimes,” she says. “I need to be there for them, not the strangers I’ll never see again who may or may not have grace for my kids having a hard time with air travel.”
While she acknowledges that hers may be an “unpopular opinion,” Hill also notes that she’s “not going to be rude” with other passengers and that she discusses behavioral expectations and rules, like not banging tray tables and keeping feet on the ground, ahead of time with her kiddos. “But if they are having a hard time, I don’t apologize to strangers,” she says. “I take care of my kids.”
And if all else fails, consider one of the most on-point parenting adages of all time, which also applies to a seemingly never-ending nightmare of a flight: This, too, shall pass.