Linda's recent post on vacationing with your Bunch inspired me to share some of the top tips that I found worked for us when we traveled with our Bunch while they were very young. Somehow I found myself traveling with my Bunch alone quite a bit, it seems, so I've also included my top tricks for surviving when you don't have a spare set of hands along to help you manage. Since the information is kind of lengthy, this post focuses specifically on air travel. I'll cover car and hotels later.
Number one, and hands down, the most important: You need some way to secure and transport all members of the Bunch. In these days of tight luggage restrictions, you may be tempted to forgo a stroller if your kids are big enough to walk. Do not delude yourself into thinking that your two year old, who behaves like an angel at the mall, is going to happily hold your hand and walk through five airport terminals to get to the gate. I promise you that even the most well-behaved toddler will either bolt or refuse to walk in this situation. Your mode of security will depend on the ages of your kids. When the baby was very tiny, I found it most convenient to throw him in a Baby Bjorn and put the big baby in the stroller. When they got a little older, the double stroller was an absolutely necessity. Last summer, when I had to fly cross country by myself, I invested in a SitNStand. Even though my kids were two and three by this point, there was absolutely NO WAY I was going to trust my oldest not to bolt while I was helping the little one use the bathroom.
Speaking of the mode of transportation, use the cheapest stroller possible. My top choice is an inexpensive umbrella stroller, actually two of them if Dad or someone else is traveling with you and can push the other one. Last Thanksgiving, one of our umbrella strollers continued on to Denver while we got off in Salt Lake City. Since it was $10, I barely cared, but don't you know if it had been my Peg Perego Double Aria, I would've been pretty ticked off. The airlines do not care about your precious Bugaboo. Even if you gate check, they will beat it to hell, so do yourself a favor and, if you can, use cheapies for travel so you don't care if they get beat up or lost.
Get to the airport early. Way early. This is a given when you are traveling by yourself - add about two hours if your Bunch is in tow. It will take you longer to get your baggage checked, longer to get through security, longer to get on the plane - everything will take longer. Don't stress yourself out unnecessarily by waiting until the last minute.
Use Park N Ride, if you are driving to/from the airport. This seems like an unnecessary step, but you will be grateful for it when you are carting your Bunch. Park N Ride picks you up at your car, loads your bags, car seats, stroller, PackNPlay,etc. on the bus for you, and deposits you right in front of curb check. On the way home, they dump you off right at your car with all your stuff. This may take an extra 20 minutes on either end, but trust me, it beats hauling the entire contents of your nursery to and from long-term parking by yourself. As a bonus, it cheaper than on-site airport parking. Use the savings on parking to...
Always curb check or get a porter to help you with baggage. Don't try to be a hero and lug the bags to the check-in counter yourself, especially if you are traveling alone. You need to focus on your kids. This may be a challenge, especially in an airport like Hartsfield in Atlanta, which vies with Chicago O'Hare as the busiest airport in the country, yet has exactly ONE porter. But if you can, try to snag him - it's well worth the $1-$3 per bag tip just to not have to deal with your luggage.
How to get through security? Security always ticked me off because they insisted in strip searching everyone, including my uber-threatening to national security infant, but no one would help me with anything, including folding up the stroller and lugging it onto the heavy conveyor belt. My only tip here is to leave everyone in the stroller until the last possible minute. Strip them of their shoes, blankets, etc. and pull right up to the scanner. Then, at the last minute, take your little one out, grab your big one by the hand, and walk through. Don't forget to have all boarding passes in your teeth so security can inspect them. Some airports do have special assistance infant/wheelchair lines, so look for those if you can. But they're not really helpful because they still make you unload everyone to go through. If you can think/plan ahead, slip-on shoes (not ties) for everyone make this step a little easier...
You've made it to the gate, now how are you going to get on the plane? You can either pre-board in the beginning with the infants and invalids, as I call them, or wait until the very last minute so your toddler doesn't have to be restrained one moment longer than necessary. I always voted for the former, mainly so I could get on and stake out as much space as I needed for my carry on stuff without panicking that they would make me put the diaper bag up in the first class coat closet because all the overhead bins are full. Get on early and allow yourself plenty of time to install car seats, get everyone settled, etc. I've generally found that flight attendants are useless in assisting you with boarding, so if you can wear the baby on the front, wear a diaper bag backpack on your front, hold the car seat in one hand, and your Big Baby in the other, you will be good. It also always helps to have a stroller that collapses with one hand at the gate.
Speaking of car seats, to check or carry on? I am a tightwad, so I never bought a ticket for any of my babies until they turned two and the airlines made me. This meant that I had to check the baby's car seat. I have friends that always bought a seat for everyone and carried on all car seats - this is up to you and depends on how long the flight is and how much disposable income you have. But I always, always carried on the big baby's car seat. Not so much for safety reasons (I mean, really, if the plane falls out of the sky does anyone think that even the Britax Marathon is gonna come through for you?), but so that I could restrain Big Baby. And in a moment of crisis, even put Little Baby in the seat while I took Big Baby out to deal with his needs. Point is, your need for restraint continues on the plane, so be sure you always have at least one car seat.
What else do you carry on? Snacks, snacks, snacks. And junk food snacks. Now is not the time to stay true to your inner granola. Trust me, when you are two hours into the flight and have run through all of the crayons, playing cards, and tiny dinosaurs, you will be glad for the M&M's. But for heaven's sake, don't bust them out first thing. Save them for your last resort - they will be your life raft when the flight starts tanking. In addition to plenty of food for all, buy a huge bottle of water before you get on the plane. God only knows how long it will take for the drink cart to reach you or if it even will, depending on flight turbulence, etc. Think very carefully and pack things to entertain both Babies. I always liked to buy a few new things (new crayons, a pack of stickers, new playdoh, some little plastic farm animals, Matchbox cars, etc) - novelty will buy you some time. Pack a few old favorites too - favorite books, Lovey, etc. My kid was a cell phone junkie so I always bought an old one along - even if it wasn't on, it was guaranteed to keep him entertained. A friend of mine's kid loved Band-Aids, so she would always bring a box on flights and let her little medic go to town. DO NOT bring a separate purse, your laptop, magazines, a pillow, a sleeping mask, or anything else extraneous. Shove your ID and a tube of lipstick in the diaper bag and call it good. You are kidding yourself if you think you will be able to read or sleep on the flight - by virture of traveling with your Bunch you have just purchased a ticket to hell and back and there are no room for creature comforts for you.
What do you do about pottying? For me, one of the most stressful things about air travel is when people (including me) needing to void their systems. What do you do if you are by yourself and you have to pee? The answer is hold it. Even though there is technically nowhere for anyone to take your kids thousands of feet up in the air, I always felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. If absolute worst comes to worst, ask the flight attendant that seems the friendliest to stand guard over your bunch while you take the fastest pee of your life. Re: your kids, anyone who is even borderline potty training goes in a diaper, no questions asked. An airplane is not the time to put your toddler's Big Boy skills to the test. In fact, I put mine in Pull Ups, even after they were potty trained. Chances are, they will not want to pee in the Pull Ups, but just in case there is a crisis and they have too, you will not be cleaning up potty accidents in the sky. Re: baby's diapers - unless it is so disgusting you literally cannot sit next to your child (or passengers nearby complain), leave it. There is no good/sanitary place to change and dispose of a diaper on an airplane, so let it be. Your child will not expire if he has to sit in peepee for a few hours.
One last thing to pack - your sense of humor. At some point during the flight, and likely many points, it will suck. I once survived a flight by myself where my youngest literally cried the entire two-hour flight from Houston to Atlanta. I tried EVERYTHING to soothe him, to no avail. As we were preparing to land, the very helpful lady in the seat behind me leaned forward and said, "Do you think he's tired?" No shit, Sherlock. How I've managed to parent my kids this far without your assistance is beyond me. I really, really wanted to deck her and probably would've had my oldest not been watching. The flight was so agonizing that when I stood up to disembark and people were giving me nasty looks, I actually turned around and said, "You think you people have it bad? You get to go home now! I have to take this circus with me!" By that point, I had been through every emotion - embarrassment, frustration, anger, and exhaustion - arriving at humor, which is where I should've stayed all along. If the absolutely worst case scenario happens, you will certainly not be the first mom who hasn't been able to control her kids on a flight. The flight will eventually be over or they will wear themselves out and conk out, in which case you should summon the drink cart and immediately guzzle a mini bottle of alcohol to reward yourself and get yourself psyched for de-boarding and the next phase of the trip. Either way, you'll never see these any of these people again, so who cares what they think of your kids or your parenting?
Unfortunately (well, fortunately for me actually), I've never done an international flight by myself with my Bunch, which I know some people are forced to do. If you have tips for that, or additional tips for domestic travel, please chime in and comment!