Saturday, February 21, 2015

NOTE: The FAA has come out with a new advisory circular as of September 2015. Please refer to this instead of the older one that has several references below. Here is the new link. I will edit this later but I just want to be sure the information is current. Thanks for your understanding.

As a flight attendant for thirteen years with two companies, I learned a lot about traveling with babies by just watching what worked and what didn't with passengers, but the real lesson was ahead of me. Now I'm usually flying alone with my own three between Europe, where I now live, and California, where I'm originally from about every six months. We've also taken quite a few flights within Europe, the Middle East and domestic flights in the States. I've actually lost count of how many, and now we can claim we’ve done stand-by, full fare, low-cost, charter, etc.

Some of this information might seem obvious to you, especially if you've flown a few times either with or without your children. Some reading this have never been on a plane themselves, or it's been long time ago, so please keep this in mind.

Also, to be clear, this article is not a legal document and can't be used as proof of any of the laws or rules I refer to throughout. Check the FAA websites or other relevant agencies to confirm any statements I make. I try to provide links when I can. Be aware, also, that airlines often have their own policies which might be stricter than their own governments' laws. Most of the employees you encounter do not have the power to change or make exceptions to any rule. They simply must follow them, even in cases where logic or safety is questionable. Now that I've covered my backside...

Flying with babies? For me, it's definitely a means to an end. I loved my job. I love traveling, but actually flying in the plane with my little ones, I just try to get through it as smoothly as possible. If it helps, calculate how much of your total trip will actually be spent on the plane. A mom flying halfway around the world wrote me to tell me it helped to think of it that way. Even for a short visit, the actual proportion of the time spent in the airplane and airports will be short.

One of the worst mistakes to make is to assume that the last time you flew, everything went great so it will again. Also, how much your little one(s) have flown has little or no impact on how it will go the next time. Not too many kids have flown as much as mine have, and I've stopped predicting whether they'll have horns or halos during the flight, while children who have never been on a plane can be complete angels. It's variable. Pint-sized memories are short. The purpose here is to keep make it as easy as possible. I usually expect that everything will go wrong. If any mishaps occur, well, stuff happens. That's a given. If everything goes smoothly, I quietly celebrate my victory...

I have tried to organize this article in sections so that parents can skip over and get to the parts that are relevant. For example, if you already have your tickets booked, you can pass over all the sections on buying tickets. It can also be a bit much reading all this in one sitting so parents have told me that they find it helpful to bookmark or copy it, coming back to the sections they need as they come up.


If you are at the stage of considering an international journey, look into what documents you need for your child as soon as you can organize it. Obviously it's impossible to cover this subject thoroughly, but make sure you have what you need. There are too many horror stories of families being turned away at the airport, if not prevented from booking, in the first place.

For international travel, your child probably needs a passport. There only very few exceptions like using E.U. national ID's to travel the European Union. Passports are required by more and more countries, especially post 9/11. There is a new U.S passport card but it is only good within a specific area and only for land and water ports of entry, not for air travel. The system of putting children in their parents' passports is less and less common and now every member of the family has to have his or her own. Because of the worldwide security situation, many countries which used to let nationals of neighboring countries visit without, are now requiring passports. If you are going on an organized visit or a cruise, the company involved should inform you of what you need.

For domestic U.S. travel, if a child is traveling with a parent, they don't have to have any kind of identification. No proof even that the adults are the parents is necessary. Some airlines will require a birth certificate or other ID, to prove that the child without a seat ("lap baby") is under age 2. This is due to the FAA regulation that lap babies cannot have had their 2nd birthday. Most airlines won't ask if the child is obviously under that age but some airlines require a birth certificate of all lap babies. As far as I know, a photocopy is acceptable. You don't have to bring the original but find out. Check your airlines' website to be sure  of what they require.

Some states will do photo ID's of children for a fee. These aren't required but if you travel a lot with a lap baby, it might be worthwhile to get one.  

A big stumbling block to getting a baby's first passport can be the photo. Taking children's pictures is not always easy in the best of circumstances and getting a little one to cooperate within the requirements of an official document, even less so. Many insist on pure-white backgrounds. For a U.S. passport, both ears must show and the eyes must be open. A helpful trick to share with the photographer or if you're doing it yourself is to put a small baby in a bouncy seat covered with a white sheet. There can also be issues with photo sizes. Get this information clear and don't risk your file being refused or delayed for some petty problem with the photo that could have easily been adhered to if you had known ahead of time.

As a reminder, U.S.citizens with other nationalities cannot enter the country on any other passport with no exceptions for children. If living internationally, it may be easier to obtain your child's other passport, but this will not be accepted by U.S. immigration. If you are American and are reading this in anticipation of an international adoption, your agency will give you the information you need, but the child can enter the U.S. on his or her original passport, as long as his American nationality has not gone through yet. Double check this with your agency!

If you or your children are eligible for the nationality of the country you're visiting, check the requirements. Some have the same rule as the U.S. does, others are less strict. Some parents find it easier to obtain that country's passport, in that country rather than where they live.

I take our U.S. passports with us, even when visiting a third country. I have had to travel for family emergencies and if this ever happens again, I would want to be able to head to the nearest airport, and not have to return to France to pick up my U.S. passports. This is an extra precaution. 

It's also a good idea to regularly check passports for expiration dates. Remember that some countries require not just a valid passport to visit, but one that is good for the next 3 or 6 months. Seems all our passports have spring expiration dates, so I try to get those renewed well before the pre-summer rush.

Someone reminded me to bring the medical records. This is a great idea but I have to confess, this is a case of do what I say, and not what I actually don't do. I should at least, have photocopies. My kids' French health records are large and bulky--a feeble excuse I'll admit! This is especially important if there could be language issues or if your child has any specific health concerns.

If you are not flying with the other parent, you might need to have a permission letter. With a U.S. passport, the other parent signs the passport documents, this gives the other parent permission to travel  alone with the child but the letter might be required at your destination, or even transit country so check. This is especially important if you are visiting several countries, for example on a cruise or tour. There are very few countries that require a permission letter from the other parent but I know Canada and Chile are among them. 

Do not just write up a letter for the sake of it. Confirm that a letter from the other parent is required first. Then find out exactly how they want it written, in which language, what it should say, if it needs to be notarized, what the date limit is, etc. Canada and Chile, for example, have instructions on their tourist and official sites, including instructions for those with sole custody.

If you are flying with someone else's children, even if related to you, please make sure you have both power of attorney (in case of emergencies) and a permission letter from the parents. Find out if any of these letters need to be notarized and/or have a time limits.


When you book your flight, a few tips can make the trip easier.

Flying off season is not always possible, but booking a few days forward or back can be dramatically different in price and how full the flight is. I once saved a lot but simply leaving on the earlier flight.  Look at a few flights, if your itinerary is flexible, with the agent or on the net. This can take a little time, but it might be worth punching a few extra buttons to have a bit more peace in the air.

I actually do better for both price and convenience by buying with an agent than over the net. Also, look at both the airlines' own sites, as well as discount sites when shopping around. Basically, I try everything, and have booked every way too.

Some of the sites wont let you book a child under two in his or her own seat, automatically making them "lap" babies. Luckily, more and more airlines now give a "on lap"/"own seat" option for under 2's. Look carefully as this isn't always obvious. I hate to tell you to cheat, but if you want a seat for your baby and there is no way around the booking, add a year or two to the birth date. You are not trying to "get away" with anything, in fact, the airline is making more money off of you. It is simply to get around a computer glitch. If you're not comfortable with this solution, another option might be to note the fares and contact the airline. Tell them your dilemma and ask them to "match" the Internet price ticket, and then you will purchase from them. An airline reservations agent did this for me once.

Check the school vacations both where you are and where you're going. I, and many I know, have saved major amounts by leaving a few days before school lets out, when the prices go up. If you're not bound by school schedules yourself, this might be a good way to save some money. 

Recently, I was informed that there is at least one airline which will allow you to purchase a seat for your child and will reimburse you if the flight is not full (and therefore you can use a free seat). Be wary of that because they might fill the flight with stand-by's, the airline employees or others (perhaps missed flight/bumped passengers) and if your baby does not have a ticket, they will go back on your lap and someone will occupy that seat. So if your airline does this, be sure to ask about the standby list and only do this if the flight is really empty.

Check all connections yourself, especially on the net. The consolidation sites are especially dangerous for this, like Expedia and Opodo. Make sure any stopover is reasonable and there isn't some nasty surprise, like having to change airports or leaving the next day. 

Remember that if you're flying into the States, you must clear Customs and Immigration at your "first port of entry" with no exceptions. If you're connecting, the process is straightforward. There are agents to help re-collect your bags and there are usually a lot of people doing the same thing. Having children in tow can slow you down and there can be some long lines in high season. When you reserve, be sure you have time to complete this process. My blanket recommendation is to have at least 2 1/2 hours layover time where you go through Customs and Immigration. Slim that down if you know that the connection point is good and efficient, if you're flying off-season and/or if there are multiple flights to your final destination from that connection airport. 

Remember that a 'direct' and a 'non-stop' aren't always the same thing. Always double check that the same flight number doesn't stop and even change air crafts. With a "direct" flight, it can. Often these terms get confused and people think they're the same, sometimes not realizing until they arrive at the airport.

For other connections, I recommend at least an hour and a half. Risk less time only if you're;
-staying within the same country or connecting in a country that doesn't require re-claiming your baggage (within the EU is an example)
-going through a connection point that has a lot of flights going to your final destination
-staying in the same terminal (preferably with the same airline)

You still have very little "jiggle" room if your first flight is delayed. If not all of the above applies, give yourselves two hours minimum, adding time for changing terminals, changing airlines and getting through security. This might be excessive to someone flying without kids, but remember that you can't just jog through the airport anymore, like you do/did on solo business trips. Everything with children will take more time. By contrast, I can easily pass three hours in almost any airport with my kids when that would have been a horribly long wait in my pre-baby days. 

This is general information on connections; if changing airlines, ask if they have "one stop check-in" so that you wont have to repeat the process. Some "code shared" airlines have "seamless" check-in where you get all your boarding passes at one time. Other times, you'll be checked in but will have to collect your boarding passes at the connection point. This is usually straightforward at your connection airport, since they usually note your preferences. Just find out what steps your connection involves so that you're not standing in line for nothing or run into problems because you were supposed to do something that you didn't. 

Don't change airports if at all possible. Watch out for this, especially on the net where the airports might be listed in tiny lettering. Look carefully at each airport code before hitting the "enter" button. I did this once, which was rectified by a very nice reservations agent. I was "saved" because I called right away and there was room on the flight I really wanted. Don't make my mistake or you might not be as lucky!

You'll hear a lot about which airline is "best" for traveling with children. I discuss car seat use later, but in general, I really don't suggest digging into the subject of which airline unless you absolutely have no other criteria to consider. By the time you look at prices, availability and routing, not to mention any frequent flyer memberships, I doubt there will be much choice. 

To be honest, from someone who worked out of countless airports, your experience might depend more on the crew on that specific route than on the airline itself. When someone gives their opinion on the subject, it's really only relevant if they flew on the same exact flight at the same time of year that you'll be doing. I'll have someone rave on about a certain airline to learn that the flight was half empty. The fact that they got great service is not a big surprise.