For the past few years, my family has temporarily divided its time between Texas (where I grew up and have been working on a book) and New York (my home, where I've lived for nearly two decades). As a result, my 4-year-old daughter and I frequently fly between the heartland and the East Coast and to other destinations far-flung.
Traveling with a small child is challenging under the best of circumstances, but especially so with only one set of adult hands. Even the flight attendants of hard-hearted American Airlines have been known to comment, "Honey, you look like you could use some help" as I stagger down the aisle with a car seat and two carry-on suitcases, festooned with laptop and diaper bag, toddler in tow. After one particularly disastrous 12-hour flight—the plane sat on the tarmac for two hours; circled our destination for another two; was diverted to a different airport, where we sat on the tarmac for yet two more hours; etc.—during which my daughter didn't cry once, people literally applauded her fortitude as we deplaned. I, however, was a wreck.
Over time, I've learned a few lessons. First, although infants can ride on a parent's lap up to age 2, you should spring for the extra seat if you can possibly afford it. That's especially true if you're traveling alone and can't trade off holding the baby. Otherwise, expect to emerge from the cabin at trip's end looking as if you were mauled by a feral cat. I know of nothing that prevents this except perhaps large, leather animal-trainer mittens. Second, think of the plane as a potential deserted island. During that 12-hour flight with my daughter, the plane had no food and eventually ran out of water; you need enough provisions to last a day. This includes a bucket-load of baby wipes (whether or not your baby is in diapers) and a change of clothes for your kid. Both help (trust me) with vomiting at 30,000 feet.
Mostly, however, I've relied on technology to cope. I've bought every imaginable toting and labor-saving device—some of them genuinely helpful, many of them not. In my four years as a parent, I've road-tested an enormous amount of travel gear. What follows is the result of this real-life test lab: what to avoid, what to buy, and why.
Go Go Kidz TravelMate, $79 While the FAA doesn't require car seats onboard, it does strongly encourage their use until age 4 (or until a child weighs 40 pounds). So do I. Besides offering additional safety, a car seat provides a natural headrest, so your child can sleep during the flight. My daughter was always a thousand times happier when strapped in her own car seat than when left to swim in the relative freedom of the plane's seat belt. The problem is a full-size car seat is about as easy to maneuver around an airport as a small wet hippo.
The TravelMate is a promising, but poorly executed, attempt to address this difficulty. A modified dolly, it holds a car seat upright on wheels. Your child can then sit tight while you push the dolly around the airport like a stroller. Sounds great. But the TravelMate's designers failed to consider the bottleneck at security. In my experience, the dolly won't fit through the X-ray machine unless you detach your car seat first. This slows you (and every person behind you) down at just the moment your child is already upset about being forcibly separated from Mr. Snuggles. Worse, it's too wide to roll down most airplane aisles. This means you have to unfasten the seat just as you're boarding the plane and then somehow get it, the dolly, your carry-on luggage, and your child all at once down the aisle by yourself. All this attaching and detaching might not be an issue if it were quick and easy to do—but it's not. It requires screwlike pins and is a major headache.
The Sit 'n' Stroll, $249.95 A mild improvement on the TravelMate (because it fits through the X-ray machine), the Sit 'n' Stroll looks, at first glance, like just another plush car seat. But pull out the telescoping handle on the back, and voilà, wheels pop out of a secret compartment in the bottom, and it's a stroller, too. Snap the handle down again, and the wheels retract—all this, at least theoretically, while your child is onboard. Even at $250, the allure is obvious: As you move from plane to street to automobile, the child can stay put. Three problems with this fairy tale: 1) Like the TravelMate, the contraption is too wide to fit down most airplane aisles. 2) The Sit 'n' Stroll weighs around 16 pounds when empty and is awkward to pick up. 3) You have to lift the Sit 'n' Stroll completely off the ground by several inches to get the wheels to pop out for stroller mode (which is extremely difficult owing to problem No. 2, especially if your child is already strapped in). If you have a partner who pumps serious iron or if you're not embarrassed by asking strangers to help you hoist large, potentially screaming objects, great. Otherwise, save the significant moola for your child's college fund.
Recommended With Reservations
CARES Airplane Safety Restraint, $72.99 The purpose of a car seat is not, as I thought prior to motherhood, to surround a kid in impact-resistant foam and cushioning. It's for positioning a harness over a child's torso. (A regular belt won't do the trick since it cuts across the child's middle in a way that can cause severe internal injuries in even a minor crash.)