If you're traveling with kids, you know planning ahead is key. Here's a checklist -- adapted from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Web site -- to help you make the journey with minimal hassle.
Before the Trip
Double-check the flight schedule. Check with the airline 24 hours in advance to make sure your departure and return times haven't changed. Sign up online for e-mail, PDA, and cell phone alerts in case there is a last-minute change.
Print your boarding passes at home. Airlines offer this time-saving feature on their Web sites -- and it means you won't have to occupy the kids while everyone snakes back and forth in line to check in at the airport. If you're not together enough to print passes out in advance, use the e-check in kiosks when you arrive -- not as fast as having boarding passes in hand, but still better than the line.
Explain the security obstacle course to kids. If your kids will be flying for the first time, tell them in advance what to expect during the security screening process. "You'll have to let go of your dolly while we go through security, but you'll get it right back." If your child is older, remind him that "My dad has a bomb" jokes are unacceptable.
Skip the car seat if you can. Unless you'll be using it on the plane, opt to rent a car seat with your car rental -- or borrow one from relatives to use when you arrive.
Know what you can carry -- and juggle. You may find yourself alone with the kids and mountains of bags more than once in the airport, while Dad's parking the car, on the way to the restrooms, etc. Think realistically about what you can manage on your own while watching and maneuvering the kids.
At the Airport
Have a bag full of tricks. If you're traveling with a child too young to distract himself, include plenty of small toys, games, stickers, magnets, and coloring books in your bag. (Once on board, don't whip them all out at once or let him rummage through -- take them out one at a time and let him play with each until he's really ready to move on to the next distraction. And leave toys that make noise at home. Your fellow travelers will thank you for it.)
Always ask about available seats. If you didn't purchase a seat for your toddler (kids under 2 years old can sit on your lap), expect a full flight and know your chances of getting one are slim. But ask anyway.
Take advantage of early boarding. When they make the call for travelers who need extra time to board, go for it. Use the time to stash bags where you want them before the overhead bins fill up. Get everyone situated and happy.
Packing & Security How-To
Check baggage guidelines. The rules are always in flux, so before packing anything, call your airline to find out the maximum size and number of bags you may carry on. And then still be prepared to check something at the last minute -- know which bag you can live without during the flight. In the bag you know you can't live without, pack a change of clothes for at least the kids, if not the whole family. Remember that backpacks are a convenient, hands-free option for parents. Know the weight limits for checked bags, too -- you may think you're doing yourself a favor by packing for your family of four in one suitcase, only to find out at the airport that you're way over your checked items weight limit for a single piece of luggage. Rules vary from airline to airline, so call the one you're flying for the up-to-date info on limits. You may find it useful to drag out your daughter's petite Minnie Mouse valise after all.
Don't wear big coats. Pack bulky jackets in your checked luggage -- that's one less layer you and the kids will need to remove for security.
Don't carry gifts. Don't bother trying to carry on wrapped presents -- they'll be opened. Put what you can in your checked bags or ship gifts in advance, especially any that contain liquid. The 3-ounce container rule applies to presents as well.
Be ready when you get to security. Your stroller or car seat will have to go through the x-ray machine, so take kids (and all their stuff) out in advance. Any child old enough to walk may be asked to remove his shoes -- you'll want to make sure they're all in something easy to slip off, so leave the lace-up high-tops at home. If you're traveling with a nonambulatory babe, you will be asked to walk through the metal detector carrying him.
Remember the 3-1-1 rule. The TSA is strict about how liquids, gels, and aerosols must be stored in your carry-on bag -- keep it in mind when packing toiletries or any liquid medications for yourself or the kids. There's a 3-ounce maximum for containers storing liquids, gels, and aerosols, and all of these containers must fit in a 1-quart size zip-top bag. Each passenger is only allowed one of these bags and you will be asked to remove it from your carry-on and put it on the conveyor belt for x-ray screening. (Note that this rule does not apply to baby food, breast milk, and formula.)
Peruse the checklist of permitted and prohibited items from the TSA Web site. Good news: Nail clippers and gel or liquid-filled teethers aren't contraband.
Pack as much baby food, breast milk, and formula as you need. If you're traveling with a baby or toddler, don't worry about the 3-ounce container rule -- just travel with as much food as needed to reach your destination. Bring snacks for older kids. Many flights (even lengthy ones) no longer offer in-flight food service. And of course endless holiday travel delays mean you may not have access to restaurants when you expect to.
Do pack undeveloped film in your carry-on. But remember that film faster than 800-speed should be hand-inspected by a security officer and not be put through the x-ray machine.
Finally, if you have unusual needs or will require assistance, call the airport in advance to inquire about a private security screening. Depending on your situation, they might oblige.
Breast Milk and Formula
Here's a quick look at the latest rules on formula, breast milk, and baby food.
Although previously allowed in carry-on luggage only in restricted amounts, quantity limits on breast milk and formula have been lifted. Here are the current rules:
Mothers flying with or without child can now take breast milk through security.
Security is encouraging parents only to bring as much formula and bottled breast milk as your child will need for the flight.
After you clear security, can you bring beverages and other items you've purchased in the secure boarding area on board the craft. (Which means if you've bought bottled water to mix with powdered formula, you can wait until you're on the plane to mix.)
If you are bringing milk/formula in containers larger than 3 ounces -- and since the smallest bottles we can think of carry 4 ounces, this will likely be the case -- the airlines ask that you:
Separate these items from all others.
Let the security officers know what you're bringing on when you get to the security checkpoint.
Present these items for additional inspection once reaching the x-ray machine as these items are subject to additional screening.
Other Carry-On Items
What Else Can You Carry on the Plane?
Canned, jarred, or processed baby food is permitted.
Other Baby Items
Gel or liquid-filled teethers are permitted.
Other Liquids, Gels, and Aerosols
Baby milk, formula, food, and teethers are exceptions, but there are others.
For all other items in this category the rules are:
All liquids, gels, and aerosols must be in 3-ounce or smaller containers. Larger containers that are half-full or toothpaste tubes rolled up are not allowed.
All liquids, gels, and aerosols must be placed in a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. Gallon-size bags or bags that are not zip-top such as fold-over sandwich bags are not allowed. Each traveler can use only one, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag.
Each traveler must remove their bag from their carry-on and place it in a bin or on the conveyor belt for x-ray screening.
In Your Checked Luggage
All of the above items are permitted in checked bags.