I had a friend recently ask for tips on flying with her 17-month-old child. Although Krew is only 10 months old, I have now flown with him quite a few times (I think 4 round trips - with several layovers) and so I feel like I am experienced enough to give some advice. So here ya go:
1) Know your airline's policy on strollers, diaper bags, car seats, etc.
Some airlines count a stroller or carseat as a piece of checked luggage, especially if they offer free checked luggage (such as Southwest). Other airlines allow all carseats and strollers to fly free (Delta) regardless of your checked luggage. Some airlines allow you to take on an additional personal item (such as a diaper bag) beyond your carry-on and personal item already allowed (for a total of three carry-ons). It all depends on the airline. Make sure to do your research ahead of time so you know what you're in for. Many airlines offer this information online. I have also called customer service to get details. Do what you need to do, but make sure you know all this ahead of time so you can take full advantage of everything offered to you and avoid getting getting pegged with any extra fees.
2) If taking a car seat, purchase or borrow a car seat bag.
I'm specifically talking about a car seat that you will be checking with your luggage, not one that you will use as part of your stroller within the terminal. (If you are using your car seat within the terminal, you can keep it with you until right before you board the plane, at which time you will put it and the stroller with the luggage that goes under the plane. See #3 below for more on that.) If you are checking a car seat with your luggage, I definitely recommend having a bag for protection. This will prevent your car seat from getting banged up and dirty under the plane. Because, trust me, they throw your car seat all around. We bought our bag off of Craigslist.
3) Take a stroller. Preferably an easily-collapsible one.
Even if your child currently likes to walk, or even if it's a direct flight, take a stroller. You're permitted to take the stroller into the terminal and then just collapse it before climbing it on the plane. The staff will put your stroller under the plane and then pull it out for you when you land. You never know when your child will get tired, get grouchy, or want to sit. If your child wants to walk through the terminal, you can use the stroller to hold your carry-ons.
4) If traveling alone with an infant, be prepared for chaos when you're getting on the plane.
If you're flying alone with an infant, getting on the plane can be tricky. You will find yourself trying to hold an infant while collapsing your stroller while holding all your bags...all with just two hands. Then once you get on the plane, you will find yourself trying to hold an infant while putting some bags overhead and some bags underneath...once again, all with two hands. Sometimes people around you will be helpful, sometimes they will not. So if you're flying with an infant, I HIGHLY recommend that you take some type of baby carrier such as a Baby Bjorn. Put the baby in it before the plane starts to load. Once the baby is attached to you, that leaves you with your hands free to hand the airline personnel your ticket, collapse the stroller, store carry-ons, etc.
5) Know your airline's policy on loading the plane with children.
Some airlines let you load at the very beginning with first class (Delta). Others allow you to load in the middle, if your ticket is not an early loader (Southwest). Once again, figure out your airline's policies ahead of time. If during loading time you notice that they are not following their policies, speak up. I've had to request to load with first class when an airline failed to invite me during loading time. They were happy to oblige.
6) Know flight policies for children during flights.
They will instruct you on most of this when you're one the plane, but here are the basics: 1. You cannot have your baby hooked into any type of baby carrier on your body during take off or landing. Any other time (on ground or in the air) is fine. (Weird, yes. I have no idea why.) 2. You cannot sit in any emergency exit row. 3. In the case that the emergency oxygen masks come down, you must put on your own mask before helping your child. 4. Many planes have a fold-down changing table in one of their bathrooms. Ask your steward if you need one.
7) Take more diapers and clothes than you believe to be necessary.
Flights get delayed and cancelled. Pee and poop explosions do occur. Some babies get sick and throw up. The airport or airplane can be very warm or very chilly. Be prepared.
8) When arriving at the airport, look for "family" lines.
They sometimes have these at check-in, sometimes have these in security. Sometimes a security person will direct you to go to a certain line. Pay attention...these family lines are usually much shorter than the regular lines, and they oftentimes have airport personnel to assist you with getting yourself and your child quickly through check-in and security and into the terminal.
9) Everything must go through security.
Yes, everything. Stroller, car seat if you're taking it on the plane, all bags, and even your baby. You have to collapse the stroller and put it on the conveyor belt along with all your bags (and car seat, if applicable). You then have to walk through security holding your child. You may be lucky enough to have someone help you get everything on the conveyor belt and get it all back together afterwards. Sometimes people have helped, other times I've been on my own, and sometimes I've even requested help when an airline worker was just standing there staring at me blankly as I fumbled with everything.
10) Remember that baby food, formula, and breast milk are all exceptions to the 3-oz rule.
You can take larger than 3-oz containers of these liquids on the plane, but they will have to go through a special security check. The airport personnel should take them from you and return them to you quickly.
11) Take entertainment (toys and/or books), food, and a beverage container for your child.
Chances are, your child will get both bored and hungry. Be ready for both. Make sure to take a sippy cup (empty until inside terminal) if your child is a sippy-cup drinker. Otherwise you may find yourself trying to help your non-experienced child drink out of your complimentary drink cup (that oftentimes more resembles a bowl in my personal opinion) while fighting the cramped quarters and turbulence of a plane ride. Not exactly ideal.
12) Look for family restrooms inside the airport.
These are nice, large, single-use bathrooms. They usually have enough room for you, your child, and your stroller. They should have a changing table and sometimes even a little seat to hold your child. They're also usually strikingly quiet compared to the terminal outside. I LOVE these bathrooms (and often take a wee bit longer than necessary just to enjoy the solitude).
13) Be early, and don't procrastinate.
Things take about twice as long with a child as they do when you're by yourself. This includes getting to the airport, unloading at the airport, checking in, getting through security (unless your airport has those blessed family lines), going to the bathroom, eating, loading the plane, getting off the plane, leaving the airport, etc. Give yourself way more time than you think you need for everything.
14) Don't forget about yourself.
Still bring a magazine or two to read, a water bottle (to fill inside the terminal, of course), snacks, etc. for yourself. It's easy to focus so much on your child that you forget about YOU.