Five Ways to Usher Small Children Through an Airport without Losing or Killing Anyone
I’m sure the reason those top-ten-tips-for-travelling-with-children articles keep telling parents to “gate check the stroller” is because many parents find this solution helpful, and not because there’s some conspiracy of people who enjoy sniggering at folk like me as we curse our strollers and vow to tell other parents to ditch the things at check-in.
I promise this isn’t that kind of post. Instead, allow me to present, not five tips for getting through an airport with young children, but five options, with pros and cons, so you can decide what’s best for yourselves.
First of all, a short run-down on the trouble with taking young children through airports, in case you’ve never done it or witnessed it, or you’ve blanked the experience from your memory.
- Hurry up. Airports are masters at making sure planes leave roughly on time with almost every booked passenger aboard, but they can’t cater for every two year old who is extraordinarily fascinated by their carpet design (or every fifty year old who’s having one too many drinks at the bar, for that matter). You absolutely have to be where you have to be, when you have to be there – distractions be damned.
- And Wait. But at various points along the way, you have to stand more or less still doing very little except inching forward in the security/immigration queue, or maybe handing the appropriate bags or documents to the appropriate people – even when there is a fascinating carpet design nearby. This is worse than doing nothing at all, because it requires more concentration than doing nothing at all, which is a problem if you’re the parent of the two year old who is extraordinarily fascinated by the carpet design. All in all, it’s not really paced pleasantly for adults, let alone children.
I see five transport possibilities: 1. use a stroller; 2. use a carrier; 3. use a harness; 4. use a wheeled suitcase; 5. use a luggage trolley. Let’s examine them one by one.
1. Use A Stroller
A stroller can be good because
- You might be used to it, and so might your child. Anxious children, in particular, may enjoy the familiarity of their comfortable, old pushchair, complete with the option to pull the hood down and hide.
- It can carry stuff. And you probably have some stuff to carry.
- It will restrain your child for you when your back is turned. Like it might be, momentarily, at places like the immigration desk.
- It might double as a bed or change table, depending on the child and the stroller.
- It can be used for children of all ages, up to – well, let’s avoid the mummy-wars by just saying “as long as you need slash want it”.
But a stroller can be bad because
- It’s not a big hassle to gate check it, but it is a hassle. This especially applies at the end of the journey, when everyone is dying to break free/use the toilet/meet grandma/run around like a lunatic in six directions each, but the airline hasn’t unloaded the strollers yet. If you’d checked it, you could forget it until the baggage carousel, by which time most of your party will (hopefully) have calmed down a little. (Update: Free But Fun points out you can avoid this hassle by using an airport stroller, if this service is on offer, although their stroller might not be as familiar or have all your desired features.)
- Strollers don’t handle well in crowds, on escalators, or through narrow-aisled souvenir shops. If you’re in a real hurry at any point, they will slow you down.
- Being pushed is not an effective way to burn off pre-flight energy. Unless your child objects violently to being made to sit in it at the immigration point – then it’s probably the most effective way, if not the “best”.
- They can be a pain at security. Getting them in, getting them out, getting them in, putting it through the machine, not putting it through the machine and having to get it hand-checked instead… If you’re the sole adult in charge of a runner, you may want to pause to consider your security queue backup plan.
- You will curse if your child falls asleep in it as you’re approaching the gate. Whereas if your child falls asleep in the carrier, you’ll have an extra fifteen or twenty minutes before you have to disturb them, which in our cat-napping world is all the time we ever need.
Do we gate check our stroller? We did once, and we haven’t felt compelled to repeat the exercise. We prefer to use other options.
2. Use A Carrier
A carrier can be good because
- What parent doesn’t have a carrier? Seriously – I would like to hear their thoughts, because I haven’t come across any before. For most of us, no travel-specific equipment is required!
- They can be soothing. In a stimulating place like an airport, this is a big plus, especially for anxious children or those facing nap time.
- They can restrain your child, leaving your hands free to grapple with those pesky documents or last-minute doses of valium.
- A good one will have a pocket for all those things you have to keep presenting – passports, cash, boarding passes, pacifiers.
- You can walk at will, or even run if need be – up escalators, down aisles, along travelators, through crowds, and right up to the counter of the nearest coffee shop.
- They can be used for all age groups, from babies up to whenever they get big enough to hold on for themselves if they want so much to be carried.
But they can be bad because
- Kids can be heavy, not to mention wriggly. A good carrier helps, but it only goes so far. This is especially true if you’re pregnant.
- There is a non-zero chance that, at a critical moment, your toddler will reach down your top, pull out your breast, and exclaim, “LOOK MUM! YOUR NIPPLE!” at the only volume a two-year-old knows. This isn’t a problem for men, who only need to defend themselves against tugged facial hair, poked eyes, and chewed boarding passes.
- They can be a pain at security. You will probably have to get your child out, even if it means waking the sleeping baby. But at least they’re not as painful as strollers.
Do we use carriers? Yes, all the time. It’s been our number one ushering tactic for young kids. For the sake of my modesty, I try to persuade A to wear it, or don a turtle-neck.
3. Use A Harness
A harness is an option once they’re walking. They can be good because
- Kids can walk in them. This provides both exercise, and the illusion of freedom – two things they will be missing out on once they board that plane.
- They can restrain your child whilst your back is turned at all those slow and boring points where you’re performing those tedious logistical tasks next to those invitingly-designed carpets.
- They pack small and instantly. Just unclip the lead and let your kid free. Or scoop him up and run, depending.
But a harness can be bad because
- Some people think they’re bad. Certain people who have never single-handledly wrangled both a baby AND a toddler through security and immigration and on to an international flight object on philosophical grounds, stating that they are (for some ill-defined reason) more demeaning than forcefully strapping a child to a wheeled chair whilst he flails violently, pulling him along by the elbow, or repeatedly screeching his name across the gate lounge. If this includes you, then by all means avoid the harness. My usual response, however, is, “I’m sure you’re right, dear, now help me clip on this leash and we’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”
- They can’t be used for children who aren’t walking yet. Can you imagine?
- I can’t think of any other reasons why harnesses are bad. Harnesses are good!
Do we use harnesses? I used a harness when I travelled solo with two children under three. Eventually, my eldest stopped needing one, and with only one child left to carry/chase/restrain, I don’t see us using it again. (Update: since writing this article, I’ve lost my five-year-old in an airport. Found him – but might go back to using this idea in future.)
Bonus tip: when travelling alone with three children under seven, Angela put together this DIY version which even her seven-year-old was happy to use.
[Photo not available because Certain People refused to take one]
4. Use A Wheeled Suitcase
I have seen two-wheeled suitcases being used this way, but it’s probably safer to use a four-wheeled hard-cased suitcase, or a trunki, which is designed specifically with this purpose in mind. This technique is only suitable from two or three years of age.
A wheeled suitcase can be good because
- It doubles as a suitcase. No gate checking! (So long as it’s carry-on sized.) Also, it’ll fit more in it than the average travel stroller.
- It’s fun! The trunki suitcase, especially, makes following along with the rest of the family into a game, rather than an infringement on one’s inalienable right to hurtle uncontrollably amongst the expensive breakables in duty free.
But a wheeled suitcase can be bad because
- You have to get yourself a wheeled suitcase, which you might not have.
- You have to wheel a suitcase around for your whole trip, which might not suit the style of your trip, especially since it has to be carry-on sized to get you past check-in, yet it can’t be used as a day pack.
- Your child needs to be old enough to hold on properly. Trunki recommends 3-6 years old, but a lot of two year olds will be capable, and I’ve seen older kids on upright, carry-on-sized, four-wheelers.
- Update: andthreetogo points out that these don’t actually restrain your child when your back is turned, especially when you have to stop rolling along. This is a a bigger problem with younger kids or those prone to running away – where you may need to have a back-up plan, such as a harness, or use a different alternative.
- Update: on a similar note, Jo of Singapore Gripped points out that the trunki can be used as an instrument of terror, so, that’s obviously less than good, too. This tends to occur when the rider is stopped in queues with ready access to other people’s shins, apparently.
Do we use a wheeled suitcase? We love our trunki, although we only take it on trips where it won’t be a huge pain to have around at our destination. If we’re making too many stops and using long-distance public transport, it doesn’t make the cut. Most of the time, though, it does.
5. Use A Luggage Trolley
Some airports have small trolleys for carry-on sized luggage, available on the flip side of security and immigration. They can be good because
- Nothing to pack, nothing to take. You can ditch them and move on.
- They are novel, like riding a wheeled suitcase.
But a luggage trolley can be bad because
- You might not be able to find one. Not all airports even have them.
- They don’t help through security and immigration. The airports I’ve seen them at make you leave luggage trolleys in the departure lounge and don’t supply the carry-on ones til you’re gateside – which I’m pretty sure is standard.
- Your child needs to be old enough to hold on – about the same age as they need to be for the wheeled suitcase.
- Every so often an elderly luggage trolley handler will point out that they’re not designed to wheel kids on. He never seems to make a lasting impression on anybody, though.
Do we use luggage trolleys? Of course we do. Now that the kids are getting older, this has become a rising favourite.
Bonus Way from Mumsumsum: elephant train. (And variations on the theme.)
I know this isn’t as punchy as other lists, but trust me – it’ll save in the long run.
Meanwhile, other tips for ushering small children through airports without losing or killing anybody are greatly appreciated. We might need them next month when we go through our next airport.
Good news! I have more tips for travelling with children.