I wanted to talk about one aspect of our trip to France this summer: the airplane travel itself. Hopefully this is helpful if you’re anticipating an international flight with kids too. You can do this! And then keep reading for some crazy passport drama that I had not anticipated — you seriously need to know about this rule, because I had never heard about it and this wasn’t my first rodeo!
So. Before we could get to this…
… we had to get through this:
We went to France this summer to visit my family, and I headed over on my own with the kids while Andrew joined us two weeks later, since it was tough for him to take so much time off work. I was understandably nervous to be by myself, but I came prepared: I charged up the iPad with shows and games for Adelina, brought plenty of baby snacks for Jonas, and this time, we were determined to get the sky cot (that’s what Delta calls it, other airlines may have different names for it).
You can request a bassinet on certain types of aircraft (typically the bigger ones, on long-haul flights like international trips) but the thing is, it’s still pretty random. For one, it’s first-come-first serve. And only if it’s available. Plus, you have to be seated in the right spot for it to attach — it only attaches in one particular spot on the airplane.
Last time we went, with a six-month-old Adelina, we called ahead of time to ask about it and were told to request it at the desk when we arrived at our gate. Well, turns out nobody told us we had to be seated in a specific spot (and this differs depending on the aircraft) and they couldn’t change our seats so we were screwed. We managed to sort of get her to sleep on blankets on our folding tray tables, but it was really rough.
This time around, we vowed to get the dang bassinet. I don’t know how I could possibly do it on my own with a baby AND a toddler otherwise! We made sure to arrive at the airport plenty early, got to the gate before anyone else, and immediately requested the bassinet. Andrew had upgraded our seats so we’d be seated at the bulkhead, which happened to be extra legroom, so more expensive, but we figured it was worth it. So we get to the counter and… they had changed our aircraft, so I wasn’t actually in the right spot for the bassinet. UGH. I wanted to scream. But I let Andrew smooth over the flight attendants while I took a breather far away with the kids… and they were able to move our seats so we’d get the bassinet. PHEW! Bonus: it wasn’t upgraded seating so we got a refund for the upgrade!
I was ecstatic. We were so ready! We said our goodbyes (two weeks is a long time to be apart!) and boarded. Adelina was so excited to have her own spot. I had bought her this headphone/ear muffs thing, which is nice because little kids can never keep headphones on. She was all set up.
The flight attendants come and install the bassinet once you’re at cruising altitude, they can’t have it on during takeoff and landing. I was SO happy to see them come around with this thing!
Let me tell you, it is a game-changer for long flights with an infant. He slept beautifully in it (although he’s an easier sleeper than his sister ever was), and it was also nice to be able to set him down from time to time for a minute, instead of having him perpetually on my lap. I need some personal space too! I cannot express enough how amazing the bassinet is for these long flights. DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO GET IT. OK, maybe don’t elbow babies out of other moms’ arms as you race to the counter to request it… probably not very nice.
One thing that’s a bit of a bummer is that in order to get the sky cot, you have to be at the front, so you don’t have under-the-seat storage in front of you — meaning you have to stow all your bags in the overhead bins. I grabbed a few little things I could stuff in those flat pockets you can glimpse above, but it’s very tight space. But the bassinet is so worth it. I also snuck a few things in the bassinet, ha.
Adelina thought it was so cool to have her own seat and her own little TV — and she ended up basically just watching Trolls on repeat the whole flight, ha! Go figure, she got sick of the headband pretty quickly and eventually just watched it play without sound. Whatever.
I actually got to watch a movie or two, believe it or not! It wasn’t all peaches and roses, but it went really quite well considering everything. It was an early evening flight, so they served us dinner and then later on turned down the lights so people could sleep and have a “night” on our way to France. Jonas did really well all things considered, but his sister fought sleep for a good long while…
Until she finally succumbed!
Poor girl. By the time they were turning the lights on for approach, she was out cold and wouldn’t be moved.
One thing about the cot — and it may be different depending on the airlines (we flew Delta/Air France) — is that you technically have to have them covered when they’re in it, in case of turbulence or something. Which makes sense, can you imagine hitting a bad air pocket and your sleeping infant flying straight up to hit the ceiling?! But it’s also a little awkward — for one, hard to not wake them up with all that velcro, etc. But we managed.
Finally, we were landing in France — always so incredible to me how lush and green it is compared to Wyoming and the Rockies — and I was so excited!
But we had one last leg to get to Bordeaux from Charles de Gaulle airport, and even though it’s a short, one-hour flight, it was the most brutal part of the trip. Everyone was tired and grumpy, plus CDG airport is a maze and there’s a lot of walking to get where you need to be. Not to mention I had to check on the status of some of our luggage, etc. Just not fun. By the time we actually made it to our plane and sat in it an extra 45 minutes because they had to reconfigure seating to make way for a stretcher (strange that they use regular flights? I’ve never seen such a thing!) the kids were kind of melting down. Jonas finally fell asleep, Adelina did plenty of whining and probably annoyed our neighbors, but we got there.
And just like that, we were in my hometown with the welcoming party!
(The return flight was much rougher, even though we had my husband with us this time — the timing of the return flight: early morning, traveling all day — is tough on kids. And it’s the return trip, all the anticipation and excitement is gone… with that one, we seriously just gritted our teeth and bore it as best we could… and holy crap going through customs in the US is such an endeavor! But I digress.)
So there’s our saga — oh, and I can’t forget the most crazy part in all of this: when we first arrived at the airport to check in, I was told MY PASSPORT WASN’T VALID FOR THIS FLIGHT. No, it wasn’t expired, I knew better than to do that. But apparently when traveling to EU countries, your passport must still be valid for three months after your return flight. (that is some serious wiggle room). Mine was off by only a day. ONE STINKING DAY. This is something that infuriates me in travel: when you reserve tickets, you have to inter ID info, passport numbers, etc. So you’d think they could give you a little ping: “hey, by the way, your passport will be expired/won’t let you travel on those dates,” you know? I had never heard of this rule, and I’ve made this trip a good number of times in the last ten years! My husband turned to me with a horrified look on his face, and I was in a cold sweat, but luckily I happened to also have my French passport with me, and we were suddenly good to go! PHEW. So now you know about the three-month rule. I was incredibly lucky to have the option of whipping out a second passport, for one, and then that Andrew had insisted several years ago I get one (I didn’t see the point of paying for two passports if I only needed one to get around). I am SO GLAD now that he had the foresight to push me to do it, because it would have been so expensive to change four tickets on the return flight to make this trip work. Yikes!
So remember: your passport must be valid for three months after the return date on your trip.
Ok. With that said, a few other things that might be helpful:
- Entertainment: I brought a little sticker book, a few books Adelina likes, a fully-charged iPad (traveling is one time it’s not worth fighting the media fight!) a couple of baby toys, and plenty of diapers and wipes and a change of clothes for each kid in the diaper bag. But in the end, they didn’t really play with much of it, Adelina just thought her own little TV was super fun. Oh, and bring headphones your kid can actually keep on — those little earphones they hand you in the plane can’t hold in their little ears! This is the one we used.
- Snacks: I had some good baby-appropriate stuff (purees, puffs, etc.) but the snacks I brought for Adelina mostly didn’t get eaten either because the airline plies you with pretzels and nuts and drinks, etc. and I would just keep crackers or cookies from meals in case she wanted them later. New snacks are always more fun than mom’s old stuff 😉 Jonas was still breastfeeding so I didn’t need to deal with milk for him, luckily. One thing that is super useful though is bringing an empty sippy cup — Adelina knows how to drink from a cup but nobody wants to deal with an elbow-y toddler and an open drink! Just pass it to the flight attendant when they come around with beverages and she’ll fill ‘er up 🙂 And flight attendants, for the most part, are super friendly and extra helpful when you have kids. Ours were awesome and if we needed anything extra they were happy to help.
- Sleep: our three-year-old had a little travel neck pillow her cousins gave her (they’re very experienced travelers!) and other than that we just used the airline blankets. She just made herself comfortable the best she could… for babies, you can get the bassinet as I mentioned above, but it’s a little tricky and somewhat depends on luck/first-come-first-serve. My best advice is to call your airline ahead of time — more than once, because we’ve gotten bad advice in the past — and then get to the gate first thing to set it up. They attach to that wall at the front, usually where the bathrooms are, so you need to be in the center aisle and in front of the wall. Just an FYI when choosing seating. But still call and double-check. Cover all your bases.
- Luggage/moving around in transit: I wish I had simplified a little. With a bigger purse I could’ve made my purse the diaper bag and had one less bag to lug around. I checked the car seats from the beginning because even though US airlines let you gate-check strollers, others may not. Air France doesn’t do it. So last trip with Adelina, we got to Paris and had to go check our stroller before boarding, it was a pain. This time, I wore Jonas in our awesome LilleBaby carrier (that thing is incredible) and that was super helpful for getting around the airports.
But fewer bags would’ve been nice considering I was already carrying this little chunker!
The other thing is Adelina’s bag: she had her own carry-on, a Trunki, and although she loved it and it sounds like a super fun idea (they can pull it themselves or sit on it while you pull them), it was actually really annoying because one wrong movement and you pull it right out from underneath them.
And the wheels don’t curve or anything, so if you swing too wide they’re getting stuck everywhere and mowing down passengers (ha!). More than once she fell off, cried, there was drama… plus because she had it she always wanted to ride, even though she was perfectly capable of walking. And then later on in the trip, it popped open and we thankfully had a luggage bungee on us to close it up again, but that was fun picking up her stuff off the floor at the train station! (Turns out it wasn’t broken, one of the closures had just popped off and we managed to fix it. She LOVES that suitcase, so we keep it around for car trips and such, but I don’t love it nearly as much for airplane travel!) So looking back we’d have been better off just giving her a small backpack with a few things and skipping the diaper bag and just stuffing things in my bag. Two fewer bags to manage. (I will say, it was kind of fun when it worked as intended. And she loves her suitcase. But most of the time it was actually pretty tricky to navigate, so if you’re on the fence I’m not convinced it’s worth it.)
- Strollers: we didn’t bring a stroller this time. We planned to be able to borrow one or just buy an umbrella one if needed. We were worried about space in my aunts’ car too when we got there — between all our luggage, and car seats, and a stroller… it was overwhelming. But looking back, we needed a stroller for one particular leg of the trip. We ended up borrowing a friend’s for most of the stay in Bordeaux, but we made the decision not to bring it on our Switzerland trip (I think we would’ve had to pay for it, since we used a discount airline) — bad move. Adelina did not want to walk that much, and looking back we were foolish to not anticipate that. It led to a pretty stressful day at one point, and I feel bad because Andrew had really been looking forward to that town too.
Bless him. And wearing Jonas worked a lot of the time — especially with cobblestone streets and cities meant for pedestrians — but a stroller would’ve been nice some days. But again, traveling in a European-size car with luggage AND a stroller? Not sure how it would’ve worked. I think what we really should’ve done is buy an umbrella stroller in Switzerland just for that leg of our trip. Luckily my friend Clementine lent us her extra one on the day she showed us around Bern!
So there’s some rambling food for thought on strollers. (Side note, we LOVE our Chicco Bravofor2 stroller that we got just recently! It folds up nearly as compact as a single stroller and for all the times Adelina was jealous of Jonas getting to ride, I wish we could’ve had it with us for the Switzerland trip!)
- And remember to make sure your passport is valid a full three months after your return date! Yikes!
I hope this is all helpful. Hang in there, parents, you can do it! To be 100% honest: I used to love traveling, but doing it with kids is definitely a challenge. It absolutely makes things more logistically complicated, especially if you a have a finicky sleeper ::cough:: Adelina ::cough cough:: But if it’s important to you, you can make it work. And we had some amazing experiences this summer, so it was absolutely worth it!
Now, stay tuned for the fun parts of the trip (with prettier pictures), coming soon! I’m going to enjoy re-living it all since it’s the dead of winter right now… ha! And in the meantime: do you have any good travel tips for young kids? Please share your wisdom!