Checklists are a solid way to prepare for any trip, but experience is the best teacher. Below are miscellaneous tips, tricks, and lessons learned from my time on the road with the family.
Stadium seats can't hold young bodies! I once spent two hours leaning over a stadium seat armrest to keep my three-year-old daughter's seat down, because it kept flipping up and turning her into a little human pretzel. Even at 40 pounds her legs weren't heavy enough to keep the seat in place.
Many hotel cribs are rickety—even those from expensive hotel chains that won't be named here—so you might want to bring your own portable crib if possible. Definitely bring crib sheets that smell like home, blankets and any lovies—unwashed, so they smell familiar. Hotel cribs also tend to come with a thin crib sheet. If your baby is used to a mattress with a pad underneath, bring your own pad for extra comfort.
Candy is your friend. If you're a health conscious mom like me, you cringe at the sight of young children eating cupcakes from vending machines or chewing on lollipops all day. But when you're in the car with two hours to go until you reach your destination and your toddler is screaming bloody murder or you're in the middle of your cousin's college graduation ceremony and your child simply cannot stop yelling, "Mommy that man has a big fat tummy; when will the baby come out?" candy or any kind of normally forbidden snack can be a lifesaver. We secretly call it "shut-up candy" at our house. When my husband sees a bag of Twizzlers packed with the fruit, yogurt, trail mix, and other healthy traveling snacks, he nods sagely and says, "Ah… shut-up candy. Good idea." You could more tactfully call it "emergency candy" since you open it only in the direst situations.
If your child normally falls asleep to the music of a mobile or music box, bring it! You don't have to attempt to attach the mobile to the port-a-crib, just wind it up and let your baby hear the music, so the atmosphere is familiar and comforting. Sometimes the actual piece that winds up and plays the music is detachable from the twirling elephants and ladybugs below.
Buying a children's music CD for the car is a wise investment. Even babies as young as nine months enjoy the simple tunes and repetition. If your child is a Baby Mozart fan, you can purchase the music on tape or CD too. Preschoolers will enjoy singing along to Itsy-Bitsy-Spider and other favorites packaged in Toddler Tune compilation CDs. One of my children once sang Mary Had a Little Lamb 45 times in a row for a total of two hours of entertainment on a road trip.
Tips for plane travel:If you're flying on an airline that allows passengers to choose their own seats and you'd like a little extra room to yourself, simply put your baby onto her back in the seat next to you with her little rump sticking out for all the other passengers to see and slooowwwly change her diaper as they file onto the plane. Most sane individuals will quickly seek out other seating options. If your baby actually has a dirty diaper while you're performing this little act of self-ostracism, you're pretty much guaranteed an entire row to yourself.
If you're flying on an airline with assigned seats, realize that you can always move if you're pushy enough. Try to switch seats with someone so that you're sitting next to or very near other children. Doing this ensures that your seat mates are other parents who won't give a hoot if your child cries, kicks the seats, or, as in the case of my 12-month-old daughter, pops up backwards in her seat and yells, "Hi!" at the people behind us precisely 71 times in a row. A small herd of children on a plane will often entertain each other with their shenanigans, share toys, and swap snacks.
Flying alone with a child and having to use the bathroom used to be problematic until I realized that everyone is trapped on the airplane with nowhere to go, so you can leave your child with a perfect stranger for a few minutes, without worrying that she'll be abducted. But if you're not comfortable asking a fellow passenger to hang on to your baby for a sec, ask one of the crew. They're usually happy to oblige.
Don't forget your changing pad. Many airplanes don't have changing tables in the lavatories. The ones that do sport this hideous short, thin, hard plastic monstrosity that resembles a kitchen cutting board located over the noisy airplane toilet. Only an infant can fit on them—don't even attempt to change a toddler's diaper on one of these; your poor child's legs will dangle into the sink. As tough as it may seem, you may need to ask your seat mates to get up for a minute, so you can lay your child out across their seats for a change. Most folks would rather stretch their legs for a bit than participate in a diaper change and will graciously make themselves scarce while you take care of business.
Bring some bottled water for sippy cup refills and formula mixing. Water from the tap in the airplane bathroom is unsafe and not drinkable.
Do not allow your baby to play with airplane headphones. The little rubber tips that fit into your ears come off easily to become an instant choking hazard.
Items on a plane that can pass for toys when you're desperate:Plastic cups from the rolling drink cart or airplane galley. Great for stacking like blocks, chewing on, banging together, wearing as a tiny hat or sucking onto your face and breaking the seal to make a rude noise—my daughter's favorite in-flight activity.
Straws. Babies like to chew them, bend them, blow air into them, etc. A straw will keep a baby busy anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour. Older kids can tuck the end of one into another to make bracelets and necklaces. If you can snag a whole handful, they can be put together, end to end, into endless configurations like tinker toys.
The telephone in the back of the seat in front of you. Babies and phones are like peanut butter and jelly. Munchkins can't get enough of babbling into them, pushing the buttons and pulling the retractable cord.
Airsick bags. Little children enjoy dropping things (like plastic cups and straws) into them and pulling them out—think of it like a paper shape sorter. Older children can color them and turn them into hand-puppets. On a recent cross-country plane trip, we made no fewer than three barf bag bunnies with crayons and the contents of the seat pocket. Airsick bags are also fabulous for storing half-empty baby food jars, gummy lollipop sticks, and other child-related trash until the crew comes around to collect the empty drink cans. If you're brave enough to change a diaper in your seat, pop the used one into a bag, so you don't have to hand carry an odor bomb down the aisle and past the faces of your fellow passengers on your way to the lavatory.