I've gotten a couple of questions about traveling by plane with babies and toddlers recently. This is a subject I actually know a fair amount about--by the time El Chico was 2 years old he'd been on 24 flights ranging in length from 1 to 5 hours. I accumulated a lot of knowledge about making air travel with a young child easier, so here are my general tips for air travel with kids under the age of 2 to 2.5 or so. (All our flights were in the US or to Puerto Rico, so these tips don't specifically apply to international travel.)
1. Try to book your flight for off times, if possible. If you can get a flight with a few empty seats you'll be much more comfortable than on a flight that's full, and you'll be more likely to stay on schedule. Also take into consideration when your baby usually sleeps. In general, you'll be better waking a baby up to catch an early flight or flying during nap time than keeping your baby up for a late flight.
2. Don't even bother trying to get the bulkhead seats on a domestic flight. Nowadays they're all reserved for people with mobility issues (which is proper, IMO). You'll have more room on most flights if you sit in the back, plus the greater engine noise back there might lull your child to sleep. And you'll be closer to the bathrooms.
3. Wear your baby through the airport. If your baby isn't old enough to reliably walk through the airport, wear him/her in a front carrier, sling, Ergo, Sutemi, etc. The most obvious reason for this is because it leaves you hands-free. The emotional reason, though, is that you never have to worry, even for a second, about your child being away from you in the airport. Since you'll have your baby strapped to you, you can use your stroller (or carseat-snapped-into-stroller combo) as a luggage cart for your diaper bag and carry-on.
4. You'll have to fold up your stroller (and break down the carseat-stroller system) to put it through the security x-ray machine. (That's another reason you want to wear your baby instead of having him/her in the stroller.) So while you're waiting in line and taking off your shoes and stuff, start getting your stroller ready to be folded down. Put it through the machine, then walk through yourself. You'll probably have to take the baby out of the carrier (although you can ask if they'll just wand between you and they might oblige) and hold her/him out in front of you as you walk through. Then you can put the baby back in, get the stroller and pop it up, put your bags on it, put on your shoes, and go on your merry way.
Yes, it's possible to do this by yourself. It's easier to do with a partner, but you can certainly do it by yourself, and people almost always offer to help you.
5. You can preboard, but consider if you want to or not. If you have a happy baby, it might build a little goodwill to wait until the plane's mostly boarded to parade your smiley cute cherub down the aisles. Then, if your kid wigs out in the middle of the flight, people will think, "Oh, that sweet little baby is upset" instead of "Whose screaming brat is that?"
If you have a toddler, wait until the last possible minute to board, and spend the extra time
having your partner run running the kid around in the terminal to get out energy. You might luck out and have the kid fall asleep right after takeoff. And if everyone on the plane sees you running around like a fool in the terminal, if your kid causes a ruckus on the flight they'll all think "At least the parents did the best they could" instead of "Why can't they make him shut up?"
6. Gate-check your stroller (and your infant carseat if you didn't buy a separate seat for your baby). That way your luggage trolley will be right there ready for you when you deplane.
7. If you're checking your convertible carseat (because you didn't buy a seat for your older baby or toddler), buy one of these bags to protect it. The bag has straps so you can wear it on your back and wheels so you can pull it behind you with one hand. Our first one survived a couple dozen flights before finally giving up the ghost, so it ended up to be only around $1 per use.
8. If your child is over 18 months or so, consider carefully whether you actually need a stroller with you. If you won't need one at your destination, it might just end up being a liability through the airport. You can bring a diaper bag and wheelie bag (or carseat in the rolling bag) and check everything else, and just walk slowly enough for your child to keep up. If you're only using the stroller as a luggage trolley, you might want to use a cheapie $15 umbrella stroller so if it gets crunched in baggage you won't be upset.
9. If your child is crawling or walking and you have the choice between a non-stop longer flight and two shorter flights, go with the two flights. Your baby will really appreciate the chance to crawl or run around in the airport during the layover. The novelty of boarding and takeoff will buy you enough cooperative time that the extra time in the air shouldn't be a problem.
10. Don't borrow trouble. Traveling with an infant is an opportunity for the universe to be nice to you. Sometimes it bites you in the ass, but more often than not, strangers come to your rescue. The number of times older white businessmen (who I thought would be the most hostile because they're trying to do serious business) have said nice things to me about my crying baby or about my nursing the baby (while being squashed in the seat next to them) is overwhelming.
11. The months between 10 and 21 seem to be the worst for travel. Before that babies are so pliable and easily entertained. After that toddlers are so impressed by the ritual of flying (check-in, security, waiting, boarding, takeoff, beverage cart, landing, deplaning, baggage claim). If you're in the Red Zone of travel, you'll have to suck it up, but know that it'll get better in a few months.
12. If your kid is particularly enamored of a certain DVD, you might want to bring along a portable DVD player for the trip. But it could be something extra to carry that doesn't actually buy you much quiet behavior if your kid ends up not being sucked in by the DVD on the actual flight. It's always safe to bring a bunch of new little toys along, though, so every 15-30 minutes you can pull out some new doodad to entertain the child.
13. Here's the obvious stuff: With a baby, nurse or give a bottle on the way up and down to prevent painful ear pressure. Make sure you have a change of clothes for the baby and for you in your bag, and plenty of wipes and extra diapers. Bring water and snacks (especially when your kids are older) since you have no idea what delays will happen and you don't want to be hungry or thirsty or be with a hungry or thirsty kid. Accept help where it's offered. And have a good trip.
Anything I forgot?