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.)
The CARES Airplane Restraint—an elaborate strap that wraps around an airline seat—does just that without the bulk of a car seat, even as it adds an upper-body harness so your child's head won't fly forward in cases of unexpected turbulence. It's easy to pack and installs in seconds, but my daughter hated it. She felt as if she'd been tied up and couldn't sleep in the restraint, as there was nothing to lean her head against. Besides, I object to spending more than $70 for what is, essentially, a belt.
Trunki, $39.99 Although it doesn't address the car seat issue, Trunki, a carry-on for kids, is still a transportation aid, and for sheer fun, it's hard to beat. Made of tough neon-green plastic, it has bright-blue horns, a hot-pink "nose" (really one of the bag's latches), and four wheels for hooves. Because the bag sits horizontally (instead of vertically, like most carry-ons), it can be ridden like a bull. Should you need to carry it, the Trunki comes with a shoulder strap, which can also be used as a rein for your child to hold on to. With its low center of gravity, it maneuvers well around corners and is surprisingly roomy—holding nearly as much as a traditional carry-on because there's no telescoping handle taking up interior space. My daughter, who is tall for her age, just outgrew her Trunki (it's intended for children ages 2 to 4). But she used to love scooting herself along on it. And when she got tired, I'd pull her through the terminal. Once on the plane, I worried that it would be hard to use, as it has no exterior pockets, but because it's smaller than most carry-ons, it's easy to pull out and open. Its only drawback is that it doesn't really serve any pressing purpose. Because airports and airlines let you use strollers up to the airplane door, there's little need for a rideable bag. But it's cute, relatively inexpensive, and exceedingly light. Plus it will make other travelers smile—no small accomplishment in this time of rising air rage.
The Pac Back, $39.95 You won't win any beauty contests with this backpack-style strap that allows you to carry a car seat on your back. Also be careful when making sudden turns; it's easy to broadside innocent bystanders. That said, the strap is elegantly simple. It readily attaches and detaches in seconds and fits, even when holding a car seat, through the X-ray machine and down an airplane aisle—both major pluses over the TravelMate. It folds flat and so is easy to store when not in use. You can even drape it, with the car seat still attached, on the handles of a stroller to avoid the pack-mule look. It's also fairly inexpensive. Until my daughter became too old for a car seat on the plane, this is what I used the most.
RideSafer Travel Vest, $99.99 Airlines won't allow boosters (thick cushions with large handles) in the cabin because to work they need a shoulder strap, which airplane seats don't have. But many states require them in cars for children up to age 8. So what's a parent to do? The traditional solution involves lugging a booster to the airport, checking it or stuffing it in the overhead compartment, and then retrieving it for the car ride to the hotel or back home. This can be a hassle if you aren't otherwise checking luggage. Also, boosters are heavy and cumbersome to haul around.
Enter the RideSafer Travel Vest, a less bulky alternative to the traditional booster. Like the CARES restraint, it repositions a belt across a child's body—but it's cozier and simpler to use while still thin enough to fit in a carry-on's side pocket or even a large purse. A car's seat belts slide readily through the vest's tough metal guides, and you can leave it fastened in the back seat, so your child need only slip in and out without a lot of detaching and reattaching. My daughter, who thinks it looks like something an astronaut might wear, loves it. It's such a snap that some families might actually dispense with their booster altogether in favor of the RideSafer Travel Vest, even if they're not frequent flyers. Surely that's the mark of great travel gear: It's suitable for everyday life back home.