What to expect and how to prepare for flying with your baby during the COVID-19 pandemic
It’s October of 2020 and I just took two cross-country flights with my 11-month old baby.
Get ready, because I’m about to give you all of my tips for safely traveling with your baby or toddler during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a second, I’m going to answer questions like:
- How do you protect a baby or toddler who’s too young to wear a mask? (See all of my great gear).
- What was it like going through airport security with an infant?
- Was everyone wearing masks on the airplane?
But first, two quick notes:
1 – Before deciding whether to travel during the pandemic, speak with your doctor and your baby’s pediatrician.
2 – My only qualification in writing this is that I’m a life-long germaphobe and a loving mom.
Table of Contents
- Overview: What to expect if you’re flying during COVID-19
- Pandemic protective gear to keep your family safe while traveling
- What to pack for air travel with a baby during the pandemic
- Tips for booking your flight if you’re traveling with a baby during COVID-19
- What to expect in the airport during the COVID-19 pandemic
- The flight: What it was like to fly during Covid
- What to expect at your destination airport
- Final thoughts: Should you fly with your baby during the Coronavirus pandemic?
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Overview: What to expect if you’re flying during COVID-19
Before we get into the specifics of traveling with a baby or toddler, I want to set the scene so you have a general sense of what it’s like to fly during these bizarre times.
Airport and airplane policies are a clusterf*ck.
Traveling during the pandemic is like being in a room full of toddlers. Most people will follow the rules when they exist and are enforced — but when left to their own devices, it’s a disaster.
Enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing by the airports and airlines is inconsistent at best.
If you’re going to travel right now, go into it with the expectation that a number of people around you will behave selfishly or obliviously — and there aren’t enough systems in place to prevent this.
Next, I’m going to link to our personal protective equipment, including what I used for my baby who was too young to wear a mask.
If you’d rather skip ahead, use these links:
Pandemic protective gear to keep your family safe while traveling
Masks, though not federally mandated, are generally required by airports and airlines. (Any additional layers of protection are up to your own discretion). Masks should NOT be worn by children under the age of 2.
My pandemic protective gear for the airport and plane
Out of an abundance of caution, I wore 3 face coverings during my trip:
* If you already own an N95 as I did, wear it — but DO NOT buy new ones as they should be reserved for healthcare workers. (We happened to have bought them a year prior due to the wildfires).
** The CDC says that the effectiveness of face shields is unknown. I decided to wear a face shield in addition to a mask when I was in close proximity to others.
Baby’s pandemic protective gear for the airport and plane
The CDC advises that masks should not be worn by children younger than two. Aden was 11 months old, so he obviously couldn’t wear a mask.
Here’s what we did, though:
- Aden wore this little hat while we were going through security.
- While he was awake in his car seat and stroller, we used the rain shield that came with our stroller. Here are some universal ones.
My hope was that this was better than nothing in high-traffic areas. If anyone coughed or sneezed in his direction, at least the droplets would land on the plastic instead of right on his mouth or nose.
I do want to make this critical point about the safety of my baby’s pandemic travel gear:
The aforementioned accessories may limit a baby’s ability to get fresh oxygen, which is a risk factor for SIDS/SUID. This is why I only used them while Aden was awake — and of course while I was supervising. You can read my evidence-based introduction to safe sleep post here.
What to pack for air travel with a baby during the pandemic
As you read through the detailed packing list that I’m about to share, think about what you normally pack in your diaper bag and what your baby tends to need when you’re away from home.
Then, consider the TOTAL length of your trip from door to door. Factor in flight delays, baggage claim trouble, waiting for a ride who’s running late, and traffic on the road. It’s always better to overestimate travel time and be extra prepared.
And of course, be sure to pack your carry-on with COVID-19 safety precautions in mind.
Carry-on packing list: Essentials for flying with an infant or toddler
- Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes | Under new TSA regulations, you’re allowed to pack up to 12oz of hand sanitizer per passenger. This is about 4x the usual allowance.
- Baby/toddler headphones | A little screen time is probably worth everyone’s sanity. Be sure to bring an adapter if you want to use headphones with your iPhone or iPad.
- All-in-one cooler | If you’re bringing milk or anything perishable, get my favorite freezable pouch. No ice packs required!
- Muslin blankets | I always pack at least 3. They’re useful for warmth, wiping up spills or spit up, covering the car seat, covering the airplane seat, covering the floor etc. This is my favorite one of all time.
- Pacifiers | Lots and lots and lots of them. They tend to fall on the floor, which is especially not ideal during Covid.
- Pacifier clips | These will help with the constant dropping. Here’s a link to my favorite not hideous pacifier clips.
- Bottle “leash” | This is especially critical if your baby can hold his own bottle or sippy cup. Again, do everything you can to keep stuff off the floor.
- Burp cloths and bibs | I usually put a bandana bib on Aden to keep his shirt dry. It’s much easier to swap out a bib than change his clothes.
- Overnite diapers | Critical mom hack! Extra absorbent diapers will reduce the urgency to change your baby. You can also use a diaper liner if you prefer.
- Disposable changing pads | I prefer these to a reusable one when I’m changing Aden someplace germy.
- Wipes | I put a bunch in a ziploc bag. You might want to add a little water to make sure they’re wet.
- Different kinds of plastic bags | Don’t skimp here. Bring ziplocs to contain the stink of a dirty diaper. Pack plastic grocery bags to store ‘contaminated’ blankets, clothing, dropped pacifiers, etc.
- Change of clothes for baby | A long sleeve romper is easiest. Bring an extra pair of socks too.
- Change of clothes for you | I just bring an extra t-shirt and roll it up really small.
- Snacks | Our go-tos are puffs and veggie straws.
- Motrin | If you’ve got a teething baby, this is key to have with you.
- Baby books
- Toys | Avoid the ones that make sounds. Consider DIY “toys” that are disposable like plastic cups, spoons, straws, and post-it notes.
- Formula or breastmilk
- Bottles and/or nipples | The reason I say “or” is that my favorite hack for traveling with a young baby is to bring pre-filled 2oz bottles with disposable nipples.
AND DON’T FORGET…
- A carrier to wear your baby | This is an absolute MUST. I’ll never travel without one again. I love this one for a younger baby and this one for an older baby.
- A protective stroller bag | The one I have comes with a stroller replacement guarantee!
- A rolling and expandable carry-on bag that fits under the seat in front of you.
5 Tips for packing your carry-on if you’re flying with a baby
- Bring stuff that’s either disposable or easily cleaned — and be sure to have places to put whatever gets dirty from the gross airport/airplane. You don’t want the germy stuff getting mixed in with the clean stuff, particularly during Covid.
- Pack double (or 1.5x) what you think you’ll need before, during, and after the flight. You want to be prepared for unexpected delays and extenuating circumstances.
- Make sure that anything you’re most likely to need during the flight is EASILY accessible. This means keeping it under the seat in front of you, not in the overhead bins. This rolling carry-on bag is a must have for travel with a baby (I’ll tell you why in a second).
- Make a “back up” kit. I like to consolidate whatever supplies I’m unlikely to need. Less to rummage through every time I go in my bag.
- Separate liquids into one ziploc and all food into another. You want them to be easy to grab when you’re going through security. Note that placing food into a separate clear plastic bag is a new Covid-era TSA recommendation.
BONUS TIP: If you’re bringing baby’s car seat on the plane, do these 2 things in advance:
(1) Find your car seat manual, look up how to install a car seat on an airplane, and then take a picture of those pages so you have them on your phone.
(2) While you’re still at home, watch a quick YouTube demo.
The best carry-on luggage for baby’s supplies
Now I need to tell you about this game changer…
After several flights feeling frustrated with my various carry-on bags for one reason or another, I dreamed up the perfect air travel bag for parents of babies and toddlers.
I thought I was going to have to invent it. But, good news for all of us, it already exists!
It’s not that pretty (thankfully it’s not ugly either), but it’s a unicorn and I’m going to tell you why…
This bad boy fits UNDER THE SEAT in front of you in its condensed version, can be EXPANDED to the largest carry-on size, has WHEELS to save your back, and has TONS OF COMPARTMENTS for organizing baby gear.
The expandable part is what’s key. Most rolling bags don’t have this. And vise versa — most expandable bags don’t have wheels.
I like to pack blankets and towels to cover the airplane seats and floor. These are BULKY so I need the extra room in my bag…
BUT – Like I advised you earlier, you don’t want to stow your carry-on overhead when you’re flying with an infant or toddler.
With this perfect carry-on bag for flying with a baby, you can easily pack all the big stuff you’ll need during the flight. Then, once you board, unload the blankets, and voila, the bag now fits underneath the seat in front of you.
This carry on bag is worth every penny if…
- You’re packing breastmilk or formula. Or a large supply of hand sanitizer. Liquid is HEAVY to carry.
- You’re baby wearing. I’ve tried a backpack and a shoulder bag and neither is great if you’re also carrying your baby. It’s just too much weight strapped to your body. A small rolling bag is MUCH easier.
- You have a bad back. I have a terrible back and this is an absolute game changer for me.
BONUS TIP: Especially if you’re traveling alone with your baby, get these straps to consolidate the items you’re rolling through the airport. I tied my ginormous rolling suitcase to the stroller so I only had one thing to lug around.
Next, I’m going to talk about booking your flight:
- Which airlines to fly
- Where to sit on the plane
- What time of day to fly
- When to book your trip
If you’ve already booked your flight, you can skip ahead to the next section: What to expect in the airport during Coronavirus
Tips for booking your flight if you’re traveling with a baby during COVID-19
Even on a flight that’s not at full capacity, you’re going to be close to people — much closer than 6 feet apart. This may be particularly worrisome since your baby can’t wear a mask.
That said, there are certain things you can do to maximize your distance from others.
Here are 5 helpful tips:
Start by finding out which airlines are currently blocking off middle seats.
I was incredibly glad to discover that my go-to airline, JetBlue, was indeed doing this. (Apparently, this policy is changing soon. Ugh).
Last I heard, only Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska, Frontier, and Hawaiian are blocking off middle seats.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether blocking off middle seats decreases infection rates. That said, it certainly can’t hurt to maximize distance from others.
The Wallstreet Journal explains,
Scientists generally believe the biggest risk comes from someone near you coughing and sneezing.
Large droplets ejected by coughing or sneezing… [are] too big to be sucked up quickly by airflow. That’s why those immediately around you could pose a danger.
You’ll be in an even better situation if you do this next thing before flying with infant during the pandemic…
Buy 2 seats, the window and aisle seats.
Note: Most airlines require the infant’s car seat to be in a window seat.
If you buy seats for yourself and your baby and the airline blocks the middle seat, you’ll have the whole row to yourself. If the airline doesn’t block middle seats, you still might get lucky.
Yes, it’s a significant added expense to buy a second seat. But, having the whole row is not only MUCH more comfortable, but potentially much safer.
Not to mention, the AAP’s recommendation is for babies to fly in their car seats, which obviously requires a separate seat.
Think about whether you want to be towards the back or the front of the plane.
If you’re getting ready to fly, find out if there are any new studies about the safest place to sit. (At the time of writing this, the evidence was inconclusive).
What I chose and why...
At the time of booking, the back of the plane wasn’t nearly as full as the front. I initially thought this would be better for social distancing.
But, then I considered the bathroom line in the back of the plane.
I also reminded myself that there was no guarantee that the seats around me would remain vacant.
I chose to sit in the front of the plane right behind first class because I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about people gathering in the aisle during the flight.
(TSA regulations don’t allow passengers to form a line in the front of the plane).
Consider flying at night.
Particularly if you take an evening flight, people are more likely to be sleeping. Therefore, there are fewer people eating (maskless) and getting up to use the bathroom.
We took a redeye and practically no one got out of their seats throughout the 5 hour flight.
Be sure to consider the age and stage of your infant/toddler and be realistic about how easily he tends to adjust to a new sleep environment.
A redeye was glorious when Aden was 3-4 months old but terrible at 11-12 months old.
Lastly, it’s not a bad idea to wait until the last minute to book your trip.
I booked my redeye the same day that we flew.
For me, it wasn’t necessary to reserve a spot in advance because no matter what, I wasn’t willing to fly on a fully booked flight.
Note: You should confirm that your airline is waiving change and cancel fees.
BONUS TIP: If you’re planning on checking luggage, pay the fee online in advance. It’s one less thing to do if you’re standing in a crowded airport.
Next, I’m going to give you a play-by-play of what to expect in the airport during COVID-19. This section will be useful even if you’re not flying with an infant.
If you’d rather, skip ahead and read about the flight itself.
What to expect in the airport during the COVID-19 pandemic
You’ll find this section helpful even if you’re planning to travel without a baby. I’m about to give you a pretty detailed rundown of what the airport is like right now.
Here’s a quick video for some visuals first:
Checking in at the airport
When I arrived at SFO’s JetBlue terminal in the evening, I was happy to see how empty it was.
All of the airline agents were wearing masks and there was plexiglass between us. So far so good…
Then, just a couple of feet away from me at the next check-in desk, a woman in her 20s, NOT wearing a mask, arrived to check in.
I watched, expecting a JetBlue employee to ask her to put a mask on. They didn’t. I had to ask the attendant to please ask her to do so.
That was SFO airport.
My return flight several weeks later was from JFK airport. I arrived for check-in in the late morning. There were lots of people, but it wasn’t as crowded as I’ve seen JFK in the past.
I was surprised to see a number of active duty military personnel wearing masks below their noses.
I checked in by kiosk and e-signed a health declaration confirming that, to my knowledge, I didn’t have COVID-19 and would comply with wearing a face mask.
The security line
At SFO, the airport security line was very short, as it usually is at night. I still skipped ahead to the TSA PreCheck area where there was zero line.
There were social distancing markers on the floor to keep people apart as they waited to hand over their IDs.
At JFK, the security line was longer and many people were ignoring the social distancing floor dots.
At both airports, TSA agents were in plexiglass enclosures. The new protocol is to insert your own ID and boarding pass into a machine and then briefly remove your mask so the agent can see your face.
(No one ever asked for identification for the baby, which is consistent with our pre-pandemic domestic travel experiences).
Up until this point, at both SFO and JFK, I was reasonably pleased with my ability to maintain physical distance from others.
That all changed as soon as I crossed over to the scanners.
Going through security during the pandemic
Here’s where everything fell apart in both airports…
As I approached the x-ray machines it was an utter free-for-all.
Travelers and TSA workers were hurriedly milling about, reaching over each other for bins and belongings, and standing as close to one another as they would have pre-pandemic.
Zero social distancing whatsoever.
And let me remind you that this was the TSA Precheck side of security — AKA the more civilized side.
As I loaded my belongings onto the conveyor belt, I found myself completely surrounded by people.
Multiple TSA agents came within inches of mine and Aden’s faces because they couldn’t hear me or read my lips through the mask.
JFK airport made matters worse by merging PreCheck passengers with regular passengers at the x-ray machines. This created a lot of confusion and a bottleneck of irritated passengers.
Those of us with PreCheck were allowed to keep our shoes on; but the other passengers, interspersed throughout the line, were asked to remove theirs. And, unlike usual PreCheck protocol, we were asked to remove our laptops from our bags.
New changes to TSA regulations
There are 2 pandemic-related updates that you might care about:
- You are allowed to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer per passenger.
- The TSA recommends placing any food into a separate clear plastic bag to decrease the need for manual inspection.
(Source: May 2020 TSA press release)
What to expect from the TSA if you’re traveling with an infant during Covid
As I’ve described, going through security is a clusterf*ck.
The very best advice I can give you, whether or not you’re flying with a young child, is to take all measures to get through security quickly and smoothly.
Try to eliminate every possible touch point you can think of.
This means following TSA guidelines to a T and checking (instead of carrying on) anything that’s likely to trigger a manual inspection.
Bringing breastmilk and formula through security
The TSA has modified screening procedures (that existed pre-pandemic) for babies and children.
As per the TSA,
Formula, breast milk and juice for infants or toddlers are permitted in reasonable quantities through the security checkpoint.
In other words, bring whatever your baby needs for travel and don’t stress about the amount.
Even if you have PreCheck, pack these liquids in a clear plastic bag and put them into a separate bin for screening.
Bringing snacks through security
Just in case you missed this earlier, be sure to take note of the TSA’s new pandemic-era recommendation:
Pack whatever food you’re bringing in separate clear plastic bags to make it less likely that they’ll have to be inspected manually.
Trust me, do whatever they say.
Carrying your baby through the metal detector
If you’re traveling with a baby who’s too young to walk, you’ll carry him through the metal detector.
Don’t be alarmed: afterwards, a TSA agent will swab your hands, which is protocol to check for explosives.
NOTE: When going through the metal detector, you can’t push your baby in the stroller, but you CAN wear him in a carrier/wrap.
Wearing your baby through security is the easiest thing to do by far. It’s very useful to have your hands free.
These are both amazing:
Bringing a stroller through security
Normally, I wear Aden in a carrier when we travel. On the first leg of our trip I brought the stroller and totally regretted it.
First, to reiterate, you have to remove your baby from the stroller in order to walk through the metal detector.
You’ll be asked to fully empty the stroller and put all of your items on the conveyor belt with your bag.
A TSA agent will then manually inspect your stroller.
This is mildly annoying during normal times, but I will never again bring my stroller through security during COVID-19. It was too much of a hassle and also created unnecessary risk.
Before, during, and after the stroller inspection, TSA agents came within inches of my face to give me instructions. (Normal communication is 10x more difficult when everyone is wearing masks and can hardly hear each other).
While I waited for the manual inspection, I was left holding a heavy baby with one arm… trying to collect my carry-on items with the other… and trying in vain to physically distance myself from others who were gathered around the conveyor belt.
When I got the stroller back, I did my best to wipe it down with alcohol wipes while wrangling a very unhappy baby.
In retrospect, I would have checked the stroller with my luggage, which is what I ended up doing on our return trip.
Now that I’ve covered everything you need to know about going through airport security with an infant during COVID-19, I’ll give you the run down of what things were like in the terminal while we waited to board the plane.
Waiting at the gate pre-flight
In both airports, this part was great. I was able to sit down in an area where there were hardly any people in sight.
There were some people wearing their masks as chin diapers, but thankfully I was able to stay far away from them.
I gate checked the stroller and Aden mostly hung out in his car seat while we waited to board.
Boarding the plane
I want you to keep this section in mind when we get to the section about deplaning the aircraft.
JetBlue boarded the plane in the opposite order they normally do. People sitting in the back boarded first. From what I hear, many airlines are doing this now.
Only a few rows at a time were invited to board.
Travelers with upgraded seats, those with disabilities, and caregivers traveling with young children were given the option to board early or wait to board.
We scanned our own boarding passes instead of handing them to the airline attendant.
The whole process was very well-organized. For the most part, I was able to keep my distance from others while boarding.
The flight: What it was like to fly during Covid
Neither of my flights were fully booked, thanks to JetBlue’s (soon-to-be-ending) empty middle seat policy.
The airplane appeared to be clean, but nevertheless, the first thing I did when I got on the plane was wipe down every square inch of our surroundings.
JetBlue trying to be funny.
Here are a few places to clean that are easy to forget:
- The full seatbelt: the metal buckle and the fabric part
- Both sides of the tray table — and the leather seat-back that you see when the tray table is down
- The seat-back TV screen
- The airplane wall (if you or your baby are sitting in a window seat)
It’s also a great idea to cover the seats and floor with blankets or towels if you think your baby or toddler will want to move around.
P.S. I never use the seat pockets. They’re gross.
Mask wearing and social distancing on the plane
Overall, I have to say, I was very impressed by my fellow passengers on both of our flights. I didn’t notice people without their masks. The guy in the row across from me ate his snacks quickly and underneath his mask. Almost everyone was sleeping or relaxing in their seats.
But, over and over, the flight attendants came within just a few inches of my face.
I had to repeatedly reach my arms out in front of me to express that I wanted to maintain distance.
There was no beverage service and there wasn’t the usual JetBlue self-serve snack stand. Instead, they handed out sealed bags filled with water and a couple of snacks.
Deplaning: A total disaster
Out of everything that happened during our travel, this was the most infuriating.
I asked you earlier to take note of the careful measures that JetBlue took to board the plane by row.
Well, the second the plane landed, any modicum of precaution was instantly thrown out the window.
Practically every passenger simultaneously jumped out of their seats, crowding the aisles like sardines, and reaching over each other to grab items from the overhead bins.
I was stunned. Given how carefully we boarded, I had expected to deplane row by row.
There wasn’t even a peep from the airline about deplaning protocol on my first flight.
On my second flight, there were several announcements about social distancing while deplaning. However, most travelers ignored these directives with no consequence.
The airline made zero attempt to organize the process or ask people to take their seats.
I’m still scratching my head about this.
Retrieving our stroller from gate check: Also a disaster
Remember how I advised against bringing a stroller through security? Let me give you another reason to leave it at home or check it with your luggage…
There is no feasible way to maintain physical distance from passengers who are exiting the plane while you wait for your gate-checked stroller.
Upon being swarmed by people at the base of the jetbridge, I decided to wait at the top, just inside the airport. I notified the (supremely sour) JetBlue gate agent who told me she would get the stroller after everyone had deplaned.
In that time, however, my stroller was sent to baggage claim because “no one was there to pick it up.”
I was stuck with a heavy shoulder bag, a heavy car seat, and a heavy baby — and no stroller to transport them in.
Final thoughts on air travel with a baby during the COVID-19 pandemic
In all honesty, traveling during Coronavirus sucked. It was stressful, uncomfortable, and aggravating.
I particularly felt this on my first flight. (The stakes were higher because I didn’t want to get my family sick).
That said, the trip was well worth it and thankfully neither of us got Covid.
To sum up my advice to parents who are considering flying with young children during the pandemic:
- It better be worth it. Honestly, don’t fly unless you’ve got a really good reason. If you’re just stir crazy and want to get out of town, I’d take a road trip, hands down.
- Do not rely on airport/airline policies to keep you and your family safe. Knowing that mask-wearing isn’t enforced and social distancing isn’t possible, plan accordingly.
- If you do decide to fly, do everything in your power to reduce your family’s exposure to COVID-19. Wear protective gear, regularly wash or sanitize your hands (don’t forget your baby’s too!), strategically select your seat on the plane, and do your best to keep distance from others.
Good luck! I wish you and your family good health and safe travels!
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