These days, families live all over the world so airline travel is a necessity. In airports, weary, stressed out parents are loaded down like pack mules with a baby or a toddler buried in a stroller under a mountain of blankies, diaper bags and too many toys and stuffed animals. Abandoned Cheerios and Teddy Grahams trail behind them as though they might forget their way back to the parking garage. I close my eyes and pretend not to see them. It's too painful.
In my last career, I traveled so frequently for business I joked that my suitcase was my double-wide mobile home. The queen of efficiency and free upgrades, I knew how to snag a first class seat and could pack two weeks' worth of fashionable clothes in a carry-on. Then my son was born. Nothing dethrones your elite flight status quicker than a baby, no matter how many miles you fly.
If you're an inexperienced parent traveler, you are assumed to be unpopular until proven otherwise. Plenty of businessmen groaned or outright swore when they realized they were seated next to my precious baby boy. My baby was better behaved than most of those businessmen. By the time the wheels hit the ground, some were making silly faces and goo goos, but popularity is fickle. Do everything right and somebody is still going to hate you.
I learned all my parenting skills the hard way. Oh sure, I was popular on trips where dads envied my son's tiny Denver Bronco sweatsuit with matching Chuck Taylor's and grandmas begged to hold him, all cuddly in his fresh diaper and jammies. But then there were those other trips. But the worst kinds of unpopular are the parents who don't even know they're unpopular. Don't be those parents.
Talk up the trip with your child before you leave home so he knows what to expect. Let him have the candy, chips and soda that are usually off limits. Use your imagination and make it fun. Teach him courtesy and manners so he doesn't grow up to be an inconsiderate business traveler.
There will be circumstances that unravel your best planning and preparation but it's a scientific fact that popular people are happier and have more fun. My motto is hope for the best but prepare for the worst. The only guarantee is the flight can't last forever. Just like your howling toddler, the plane will eventually run out of gas.
16 Ways to be Popular or Unpopular: Enjoy these real life scenarios (OK, I embellished one or two for a few laughs).
You prepared your child for security. Bobby Bunny "tells" your toddler he can't wait to go through the "car wash" (x-ray machine) but somebody needs to go through the "magic door" (metal detector). The nice "police man/lady", "Power Ranger", "Transformer" (pick a hero) might need to wave the magic wand over him or "tickle" him before he can board the plane.
Your toddler shrieks as you snatch Bobby Bunny from his arms and toss him in the bin with your purse and shoes as they're sucked into the dark hole. Then you realize your child is wearing only one shoe and the stray is nowhere in sight.
Lunch is your child's favorite sandwich, a banana and the cheese curls he always begs for, but you never buy. Because he sits quietly and stops kicking the seat you reward him with a rare treat like a lollipop — or maybe several — since it's a long flight.
You make your child eat natural peanut butter on pita bread because even though it's dry and tasteless it's organic and portable. Carrot sticks are nature's candy. Lunch ends up on the next passenger's shoe.
100% leak proof, idiot-proof zip-lock bags. Seal extra outfits, clean diapers and all liquids in separate bags for clean, protected organization.
Fish your wallet and book out of a sea of Similac just once and you will forget your baby before you ever forget your zip-lock bags again. The aroma of soured baby milk of any kind smells yucky and is as permanent as a leaky Sharpie.
You brought the lightweight stroller that can be steered and folded with one hand. You have your baby snuggled on your shoulder and because of your convenient backpack and slip off flats, your hands are free to quickly load everything on the x-ray belt. The TSA official actually smiles as you stroll through the checkpoint.
You struggle to dismantle the oversized, all-in-one car seat/stroller/high chair/tricycle contraption with the jammed latch. You attempt to put the car seat through the x-ray machine without removing the baby. Yes, the TSA website specifically prohibits passengers from putting babies through the x-ray machine while strapped in a car seat. I swear.
Shocking most airplanes still have no sanitary place to change a baby. Bring large disposable changing pads to cover even the most germ-infested surfaces, which is basically all of them. The floor at the rear of the plane is cleaner than the restroom.
Change a poopy diaper at your seat and risk the stares of death. Try to hand a dirty diaper to a flight attendant and you may involuntarily exit before the landing. They can do whatever they want to you. They're union.
You bring your child an electronic toy but also a few special, new books you read together quietly during takeoff and landing. Your child falls asleep halfway through the second book.
You bring your child an electronic toy, but you never read books to him so he demands the electronic toy while you try to explain airline safety regulations to a 2-year-old. You attempt to distract him by reading one of his books in your overly loud baby talk voice. Tantrum.
You wisely did not request a bulkhead seat even though "experts" tell you those are the best because there's more legroom. But you know there's no under seat storage in that row so when your flight is stalled on the runway for 45 minutes, the snacks your toddler needs right now are within easy reach under the seat in front of you and not trapped in the overhead compartment.
The extra legroom in the bulkhead seat is overrated since your toddler must stay on your lap no matter how hard he arches his back. He's hungry but your bag is four rows back because those thoughtless elite business travelers filled the compartment over your seat during priority boarding.
You planned your departure just before your child's naptime so he could get settled on the flight and have time for a short nap before your arrival.
Your friend told you liquid anti-histamine would induce hours of deep sleep in even the most rambunctious child. Problem is, you realize halfway through the six-hour flight that your child is one of the 40 percent who become hyperactive on that drug.
You booked your flight on a family friendly airline like Jet Blue that doesn't charge ridiculous fees just so your three year old can sit with you and not a stranger. Bonus: Each seat has its own TV with satellite access to Sponge Bob and other cartoons.
You're flying one of the airlines that hate families and discover at check-in your 3-year-old is seated in row 5 and you're in row 30. The unhelpful robot posing as a human at the boarding gate tells you in a perfect monotone without looking up that you can trade seats with another passenger. As if any self-respecting traveler would trade an aisle or window for a middle seat near the restroom. You panic then become enraged. Security escorts you to a private room to cool off. You miss your flight.
After pre-boarding, your toddler and baby are in their airline approved car seats. You took advantage of the 50 percent fares most airlines offer for children under age two traveling with a paying adult. Bonus: An entire row to yourselves. You silently say a prayer of thanks as unexpected turbulence drops the plane several hundred feet. When that's over you sit back and enjoy a magazine while your children sleep comfortably in their own familiar car seats.
After an ugly argument with airline staff that your "big-for-his-age 2-year-old" (who actually turns four in next week) will fit perfectly on your lap you complain there is not enough legroom then allow your child to climb over the passenger next to you to run up and down the aisle during the flight.
Your preschooler has her own small backpack with a few lightweight treasures and special snacks she can carry and keep on the plane. She helped pack that and the map of your destination, which happens to be Disney World. You answer all her questions quietly and in your normal voice.
Your preschooler keeps trying to pull her blankie out of your bag. In doing so she spills all the snacks, your wallet and your venti mocha and then the bag strap breaks when you pull it away. You're both tired and cranky. You yell at her. She cries. You cry.
Your baby or toddler is crying in her stroller so when she refuses a bottle, snack or blankie you pick her up and she quickly settles down in the comfort of your lap.
You ignore your baby or toddler's crying that escalates to blood curdling screams. Amazingly, you don't even flinch, but continue reading, knitting or playing Angry Birds and pretend not to hear her. Actually, you can't hear her because you're wearing noise blocking ear buds. Hey, it's your vacation, too. You tell the glaring passenger next to you not to worry, she always cries herself to sleep.
You're in a great mood and feel good about yourself because you dress for comfort, but don't wear pajama bottoms or sweats in public. You showered. You packed the platforms and skinny dress for the big night out with your husband. Your child is dressed in familiar clothes and shoes he can nap in. You're dressed for mobility and agility and you brought light jackets for the chilly plane.
You will not allow motherhood to stop you from rocking your leather mini skirt, 4-inch heels and every piece of jewelry you own even if you set off the metal detector multiple times, backing up the security line a few more miles. You struggle to walk let alone keep up with your toddler. Your feet hurt and your waistband feels tight after too much sodium-laced airport food. Your child pulls at his neck, because his new dress shirt and clip on tie to impress Gramma is scratchy. After you board you realize he left his sport coat back at security.
As you arrive at the airport you drive up and curb check your large bag while your baby rests comfortably and safely in her car seat. You can park anywhere because your lightweight stroller, backpack and sensible shoes make the long walk to the terminal a breeze.
You're too cheap to pay a $4 tip and besides, your large suitcase has wheels. But after circling for 20 minutes the only parking space left is a mile from the terminal. Your carry-on keeps sliding off your sore shoulder, the suitcase is tippy and you ignore the muffled cry in the stroller under the mountain of blankies and stuffed animals because you're running late for your flight. When you finally get to the terminal the line snakes all the way out to the curbside check-in where you sigh and cough up the $4 tip to check your bag.
Your toddler trips and spills chocolate milk all over his white shirt. You tell him it's OK as a clean shirt comes out of the ziplock bag and the soiled shirt goes in and is sealed tight. You'll wash it out later.
You were late for the airport so your toddler had to rush through breakfast. Hustled through the airport and excited about the trip he throws up all over his clothes. You forgot his extra clothes so you have to buy him a t-shirt at the gift shop that he wears like a dress. You consider dropping the reeking outfit in the trash as you unsuccessfully try to seal the odor in the gift shop bag because you forgot the ziplock bags, too.
You walk with your child through the airline terminal to burn some energy. You help her count the number of tiles on the wall. You guide her from harm's way and far from people with hot coffee. Together, you watch planes land through the window.
Your toddler is four gates away and about to board the shuttle to Boston before you pull yourself away from your 36th loss at Angry Birds and realize she's gone. You panic and demand an Amber Alert.