I've Been on 67 Solo Flights With My Toddler — Here's What I've Learned

The first time I flew with my daughter, Lucy, was when she was 4 months old, and it was a four-hour direct flight from New York City to Denver. I was so panicked from the endless parenting threads on Facebook about airport disasters, mean flight attendants, and packing lists that I decided to do a dry run the day before. For four hours, I sat in the corner of my local coffee shop with Lucy hanging out on my lap. And you know what? Nothing happened.

And nothing happened on that first plane ride, either. As a single mom, I was always the only one traveling with her, and I always had her in my lap. Children are free (with the exception of taxes for international flights) as lap infants until their second birthday, and I wanted to maximize our savings while we could.

At 3 1/2, my daughter has now been on 63 flights. That's counting connections and puddle-hoppers and international and domestic trips. And even when it's stressful, I remind myself how lucky I am to be traveling with my favorite plus-one. Some perspective: the worst flight I ever took was when I was in my 20s, hungover and sad from a breakup and sure I was going to throw up. Even a flight with a cranky toddler I love is a million times better than that sad, nausea-inducing flight — and I try to remember that whenever we hit a rough patch.

I know that my daughter represents a grand sample size of one. But I also know how scared I was before that first flight and wish there had been words of encouragement in the midst of all the praying emoji on those Facebook groups. Here's what I've learned.

  • Altitude isn't some sort of attitude changer. In general, I think how infants behave on land is how they behave in the air. Sure, there are air pressure changes, which can cause discomfort (which can be minimized by breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or sucking on a pacifier), but in general, kids don't go through some profound personality change just because they're at 45,000 feet.
  • You don't need a seat for your child. Sure, it's nice to have. But you truly can sit for seven or eight hours with a 30-pound child sprawled on your lap. Use each other as pillows!
  • You need two extra changes of clothes for them . . . and for you. Feeling poop leak onto your jeans and being powerless to stop it because the seat belt sign is lit is a million times worse when you know there are no clean jeans in your future.
  • You don't need a ton of toys. On one trip from New York to California when my daughter was about 1 1/2, I had been in such a hurry that I hadn't packed any toys. We had a mini stuffed pony, a toothbrush, and some stickers. Was it the best flight ever? No. Did we make it where we needed to be? Sure did.
  • You don't need to give presents to your seatmates. I don't believe in goody bags to apologize for an infant on board. I do believe in a friendly smile, an introduction, and recognizing we are all just trying to get from point A to point B.
  • Try to have fun in the terminal. You're going somewhere! It's an adventure! I grab food, let my daughter pick a treat at the news kiosk, and just generally de-stress and walk around. When my daughter was crawling, I tried not to worry about germs as she crawled around the gate. My philosophy: the more tired they are at the gate, the more tired they'll be on the plane.
  • It's OK to judiciously play the kid card. Sometimes, having a kid with you works better than Global Entry. In general, I've found that asking for what you need politely and respectfully can help you get it — including allowing you to a skip a line.

Finally, and I think this is the biggest thing I'm still learning: your experience is different than your child's experience. You might be stressed about flight delays and gate changes, but they could be totally chill. For example, when my daughter and I were waiting for an endlessly delayed flight from Budapest to London, I was checking my watch, trying to assess how many hours we would have to sleep when and if we ever got to our hotel. She had found a little girl about the same age as her and had begun happily playing with her Peppa Pig figurines. For her, a delay was fun. I'm not quite there yet, but I'm trying to find that perspective.

It's not all sunshine, rainbows, and clear skies. Some flights will become family legend. But I think the best thing to aim for is an unremarkable trip. But you don't need the gear, the note cards, or the precision-level planning to have an amazing trip with your child. Just enjoy the ride.