Check the car seat? Don't check the car seat? Bring the stroller or leave it at home? Take the kids shoes off or leave them on? Packing cubes? Do we actually need packing cubes?
These are all questions parents ask as they pack up their family for a vacation, especially if they have young children. There is no easy answer to any of these though. You need to look at the trip you are taking, what activities you are doing, and what gear you might need. After that you can start narrowing down exactly what you should bring.
Flying with car seats
Car seats on airplanes are a heated debate, and everyone has an opinion. Some parents swear by it and won't fly without one for their child to be strapped into for the entire flight. Others refuse to pay for an extra seat until the day their child turns age 2, which is when airlines require children to be in their own seat, car seat or not. This really comes down to your comfort level, but here are a few things you need to know about bringing a car seat on your next trip when you fly.
Check with your baggage - You have the option to check your car seat for free. This is not part of your one bag allowance. I highly recommend you get a carrying bag for your car seat if you check it. Something made of tough material. This will keep it cleaner than just throwing it on the check luggage belt. It will also give you a little extra free baggage room to store diapers, life vests, anything that is light and doesn't distort the shape of the bag. Checking your car seat with your baggage gives you the freedom to wander without the bulky seat. It's just one less thing you have to worry about.
Check at the gate - If you do decide to bring your car seat to the gate so you are extra sure it gets on the plane, you might consider investing in a car seat transporter. This is a little cart that you can throw under your car seat and wheel it and your child around the airport. If you have an infant car seat, chances are you also have a stroller that the car seat can click into. If this is the case, bring the stroller to wheel around the airport and check both at the gate. As soon as you get off the plane your car seat and stroller will be waiting for you on the jetway so you are ready to go.
Child in car seat on the plane - If you chose to bring your car seat on the plane, you need to make sure it is FAA approved. The flight attendants can refuse to let you use the car seat on board if it isn't. You will also be required to put the car seat in a window seat. Make sure you book one. Do not put your child who is not in the car seat in that window seat or you could watch a melt down when the flight attendant has to tell you to move that child. This is a safety requirement. If there is an emergency everyone has to be able to get out of the row. Car seats block the row trapping a passenger in the window seat. If you don't want to deal with the car seat but you still want a harness system for your child (not for infants or babies) look into the Cares Safety Restraint System, which is FAA approved.
I travel with my stroller everywhere. I actually miss it when I travel without my children. It is my kid carrier, luggage Sherpa, and all around pack mule for groceries, beach gear, carry on bags - you name it. Early on in motherhood I realized that massive strollers would not work for us. We needed a light umbrella style stroller that I could close with one hand while I held a squirmy child in the other hand. Having a light stroller makes it easy to decide whether or not I want to bring it.
If you have a baby, you have the option to use a stroller or just stick with a baby carrier. We always used both, but you need to look at your destination. In hot climates, you might not want that baby strapped to you all day. Bringing your bigger stroller that can hold the infant car seat would be an added relief for all of you in the heat, and it provides instant shade via the built in canopy. If you will be in more temperate climates, perhaps just the carrier will do.
No matter what you decide, if you fly with your stroller, you will need to check it with your bags or at the gate. It cannot come on the plane with you to your seat. I always recommend bringing your stroller to the gate and checking it there. Either option is free though. This way you have that pack mule handy when the baby wants to walk. You also have a baby chariot to plop that tired baby or toddler in when you come off of a long flight and need arms free to carry bags.
Packing cubes seem to be all the rage right now, but guess what? They don't work for every family situation. If your children are older and pull their own suitcases, then they work like a dream. If you are traveling with a baby or toddler who's clothing you pack in your bag, then packing cubes really don't work. Packing cubes keep everything organized for older kids - underwear and socks in one cube, shirts in another, and jeans/skirts/shorts in the third. Easy. Babies and toddlers can't pack or carry their own bags. More often than not you will want to pack their clothing in your suitcase so you aren't carrying more bags than you can handle. Rolling all of your clothing and your baby's clothing will give you every last nook and cranny of space that you will need to fit everything into one bag.
Security with kids
Thankfully the TSA has finally allowed children to leave their shoes on if they are under age 12 (double check at your airport as rules do change). However, if your child has already gotten used to taking off their shoes, and they are like my little guy who automatically sits down and takes off his shoes when he sees that luggage belt, don't fight it. Just let your kids take off their shoes. TSA won't care and you will avoid frustration and tantrums. It is easier to let them go through the motions than to try to convince a toddler that he is doing it wrong, even though up until now it was the right thing to do.
There are a lot of things to think about when you are traveling with your kids. Most of the decisions just require a little common sense. Think about where you are going, what gear you will actually use, and then narrow it down to what you just can't live without.
What other tips would you add to this list?
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