Yesterday, I found myself lost and dazed in Seoul’s Incheon airport with a sweaty one-year-old poorly tied to my front, a mountain of heavy suitcases, and one pee-soaked shoe. I couldn’t find any sign for the baggage claim, and all the English-speaking Delta employees had bolted after I was the last person off the plane. You’d think years of international travel would’ve taught me how to better handle the situation, but doing this with a baby for the first time (without anyone else accompanying me) rendered me completely unable to function properly.
Before fully committing to the idea of dragging my rambunctious little girl to other side of the world alone, I combed the internet for accounts of flying with a baby. There is a lot of information out there, but I never found much about taking a 13-hour flight with a baby but without the help of someone else. There’s enough lists of tips to make anyone feel confident about this horrible idea, and I was mostly looking for confirmation that I could do it.
This is not a post about all the hacks for making flying with a one-year-old easy. This is a real account of all the things that went wrong while trying to survive the most difficult travel experience of my life.
Lap Ticket vs. Purchasing an Additional Seat
The idea of the super cheap infant lap ticket really appealed to me at first. I thought I’d spend most of the time holding my daughter anyway, so why drop nearly two grand for that extra seat? Ok, that thought is the perfect example of what it means to be naive. Luckily, my mother nipped this idea in the bud for me, and my daughter got her own seat for this trip. After spending a cumulative 17 hours trying to keep her from scratching, tickling, or throwing things at our neighbors, I can’t imagine how difficult it would’ve been to shield other passengers from her if we didn’t have that extra space. The lap ticket probably works great for younger babies on shorter flights, but just because you can get one for a baby under two doesn’t mean you should. When meals were served, I’d put my daughter on my lap and put my food on her seat’s tray. That let me keep her from destroying and/or throwing my food thus increasing my chances of getting to eat. I would have had to refuse the meals if my daughter was stuck in my lap the whole flight. I also needed two seats worth of seat back pockets to hold baggies of Cheerios, used bottles, toys, and whatever trash I need to hide from Miss Grabby Hands. It’s expensive to fly from the states to Asia, but those flights are so rough without a baby that I found the price of the extra seat to be well worth it. I survived this trip with my baby. I may not have without that extra seat. We’d be camping out under a table in Chili’s at the Detroit airport living off of dropped bottomless tortilla chips, an that would be the end of this story.
Security, Carry-ons, and Strollers
I spent a good two weeks trying to figure out what the easiest combination of carry-on bags would be for me. I typically try to reduce my carry-on luggage to one piece that will fit under the seat in front of me and still leave me room to stretch my legs. I hate vying for a spot in the overhead bins, and I hate having to dig through the overhead bins if I need something mid-flight. With a milk-guzzling, Cheerio-chomping, diaper-filling machine following me to Korea, one tiny bag wasn’t going to work. I ended up with four carry-ons: an Igloo cooler backpack for her bottles of milk, a small rolling suitcase with back-up diapers, toys, and just-in-case things, a small bag that served as the main diaper bag, and my purse. The cooler backpack was great. I highly recommend getting one for long trips with a baby.
My husband walked me and our daughter to the security line at the Jacksonville International Airport. It was time for me to take on carrying the baby and all four bags on my own. I wore the cooler backpack and attached the diaper bag and purse to the rolling suitcase. As I was snaking through the line, my daughter started slipping off my hip so I let go of the rolling suitcase to adjust her. The weight of the two bags on top it pulled it over onto the ground. People just walked by me until one woman was kind enough to give me a hand. I was literally 25 feet into a 7,500 mile trip and I was already struggling and swearing.
I set my daughter down to get my shoes and stuff on the conveyor belt to be x-rayed. She immediately started crying and scratching at my legs. I had to ask a TSA officer about what to do with all the bottles of milk, and we had a very long, awkward exchange about the number of bottles and baby food containers before he just took the whole cooler and threw it angrily into some pile of bags full of milk. I know I’m not the first mom to come through with bottles of milk, dude. In fact, there was a mom right in front of me getting her baby’s food inspected. I had to stand for about 35 minutes while they finished up examining her milk and mine. I was glad to have allowed a lot of extra time before the flight.
Once I got my shoes on and my bags put back together, I started wishing I had brought a stroller. My daughter walks fine at a year old, but that doesn’t mean she ever walks in the direction I need her to. I brought my Boba wrap so I could tie her to my front in the airports. I had practiced pushing her umbrella stroller and pulling the loaded suitcase at home, and it just didn’t work well. I love wearing my daughter, but I didn’t want to wear her through security. I’ve read that you can wear your baby through security sometimes, but it seem like it just depends on the airport. I didn’t want to risk it so I carried her through and it was tough. I got her all wrapped up after security and everything was much easier.
At the gate, passengers were already doing that rude, annoying thing where they crowd anxiously around the gate and don’t let anyone through. I boarded with the first group of people needing extra time(after wading through the pool of immovable jerks whose life goals apparently include boarding Delta flights as quickly as possible.) You must do this if you are traveling alone with a baby. Do not let the elite club members, and first class passengers, and premium seat holders, and Sky Club credit card owners, and business dudes board before you. None of those people actually need to get on the plane first. Getting my daughter and the bags situated took a while so I was really glad to not have anyone pressuring me to move faster.
Baby’s First Flight
Our first leg was from Jacksonville to Detroit. The flight was just over two hours, so this was going to be the perfect little warm-up for the 13-hour flight that lay ahead. I had one of those CARES harnesses that I buckled my daughter into. She is quite small for her age, so it didn’t really work. She was scared when we got on the plane and takeoff really freaked her out so I held her and didn’t ever use the harness again. I followed some advice I found online about giving babies a bottle during takeoff and landing to help with popping ears. This calmed her down and she didn’t seem to have any ear issues.
There was some lady behind us that was talking really loudly about her trip to Africa. She kept saying that there was going to be a tailwind on the flight to Africa. She never mentioned a country in Africa. I started to wonder if she even knew that Delta doesn’t have flight from Detroit to “Africa.” Then she kept calling the flight attendant over to buy snacks. It’s a two-hour flight, mind you. The she started talking with her mouth full of chips about how you have to “pee sideways in Africa.” She said this at least four times. Still no mention of a specific country in Africa. What does it even mean to “pee sideways”? Like, do you stand sideways? Is there some kind of wind that always sends your pee stream flying sideways? Do just boys pee sideways, or does this apply to girls, too? What is the toilet situation? Is it the toilet that makes you have to “pee sideways”?
It was time for baby’s first diaper change on the plane. Only certain bathrooms have changing tables, and the word “changing table” is used very loosely here. It’s more like the tray table on the seat backs. My daughter is about a year old, and she’s small for her age. On the “changing table” in the bathroom, you’d think she was a well-fed middle schooler. I had to put her diagonally across the table with her legs dangling off. Then I had to find a spot for her diaper and wipes that wouldn’t result in them falling on the pee-soaked ground if we hit any turbulence. Impossible task. I needed some kind of Batman belt to strap everything to me. I managed to get her changed without losing anything to the gross floor, but my daughter had grabbed a wipe before I got the container closed.
Back in our seats, my daughter popped her pacifier out and starting licking the butt wipe she stole in the bathroom. My mom instinct led me to just snatch the wipe without considering the consequences, and a screaming fit was upon us. Before I had my own baby, I absolutely could not stand listening to other people’s babies cry and scream, especially on planes. Flying is so expensive and torturous without the added element of a crying baby. Absolutely no part of me wants to inflict a screaming baby on my fellow passengers (as no mother does). So when my daughter started screaming bloody murder over her butt wipe, I tried everything to get her to stop short of just letting her eat the wipe.
That’s when the sideways-peeing lady bound for Africa made a comment to me.
“I say just give him what he wants so he shuts up!”
It took me a moment to process this. I didn’t expect it. I did expect people to think things like this, but I did not think someone would actually say something like this right to me. My blood boiled.
That’s when I unbuckled my seat belt, turned around, got up on my knees and slapped the crap-
Oh, no wait. That’s what happened in my head. What happened in reality was I waited a bit too long to think of something mean to say in return.
“Can someone give you something to make you shut up about pissing in Africa?”
My daughter had gotten over her little tantrum by this point, and the last little bit of the flight was fine. I waited until nearly everyone had gotten off of the plane to gather my things, tie my daughter to me and head into the Detroit airport. I noticed that the peeing lady’s seat was covered in chip crumbs.
The BIG Flight to Seoul
We had a three-hour layover in Detroit. It was just the right amount of time for me to be able to use the bathroom, change the baby, buy some water, and walk the long walk to the next gate without using those moving walkways. Those things scare me when I’ve got a baby tied to me. I sat down at the gate and made a bottle of formula using a disposable bottle called a Steribottle I bought from Amazon specifically for this trip. She didn’t really want it, so I popped the lid on and threw it in my cooler with her other bottles of oat milk I had packed.
By the time boarding began, I was feeling pretty tired. I made the mistake of not forcefully boarding with the first group on this flight, and it was terrible. On this plane, by rolling bag was catching on every single seat. Because my daughter was strapped to me, I couldn’t unhook the side handle that kept catching. The guy behind me saw this and helped me out. When I got to my row (we had two seats in the middle section) my bags fell over. I tried to get my daughter out of the sling and ended up bonking her head on the overhead bin, waking her up. I was blocking the isle because I couldn’t get my daughter out of the sling in such tight quarters very quickly, but I had to get her out and in the seat before I could start sorting out my luggage. Her foot was caught in the sling and she was now crying since hitting her head. I took off my cooler backpack and flung it in on the seat and it promptly fell off and landed upside down on the floor.
“Damn it! This is why infants should board first!”
There was a really nice guy already sitting in my row who picked up the cooler and helped me work the baby out. The other guy who had been freeing my luggage every time it caught on a passing seat got my things into the overhead bin for me. I think this is the typical kind of helpfulness and kindness a mother can expect most of the time when flying with a baby.
We were all settled and reading some riveting board book when the captain announced that there was a big thunderstorm moving into the area that would delay us 10 or 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, the plane was rocking back and forth from the wind while we sat at the gate. We were going to be delayed much longer. The flight was supposed to leave at 3:00pm and we didn’t start taxiing until 4:45. That was a rough way to begin what was already a long flight with an antsy baby.
About three hours in, my daughter started getting whiny. I had tried putting Finding Nemo on, but I think without headphones, it just didn’t work. I had some Delta-issued earbuds, but that didn’t seem like a good idea for baby. But, once she started getting really whiny and snacks, stuffed monkeys, books, and peek-a-boo weren’t working, and turned back to the screen. My daughter doesn’t watch TV at home except for an occasional bout of “Baby Shark” in Chinese on YouTube. She loves “Baby Shark.” Like REALLY loves it. So when I was searching for kids shows and “Baby Shark Gym Dance Compilation” came up, I nearly jumped out of my seat in triumph. All my troubles could be solved with that annoyingly catchy yet pointless song. So I put in on, and quickly realized I would have to break out the earbuds for baby in order for the magic to work. I held one earbud close to my daughter’s ear and she found the whole thing to be really strange at first. Then she settled into the hypnotic tune. I had put the other earbud in my own ear as if I hadn’t heard the song a million times before. At just beyond the one-minute mark, baby started to get frustrated with me holding the earbud and she wanted to grab it and examine it. Then she wanted to suck on it. Bring on tantrum #2 of this trip. Baby’s not eating butt wipes, and she’s not eating earbuds.
What I quickly realized during this tantrum was that the roar of plane coupled with nearly everyone being plugged into their personal entertainment center meant that no one was really aware of my little scream machine. I relaxed a little after this. Her tantrum tired her out and she finally fell asleep. Whew.
The lights were off nearly the entire flight to simulate night time. I found this to be a little frustrating because it was hard for me to find things that fell on the floor. By “fell on the floor” I mean chucked angrily by a tiny baby. I was trying to clean up while the baby slept a little and I just gave up. She woke up after only 20 minutes of sleep anyway, so she was right back to making a mess. I reached for my cooler backpack which was under the seat in front of me, and because it was so dark on the plane, I didn’t notice the milk that was leaking from it. The Steri-bottle that I had shoved in the cooler before boarding didn’t seal like the regular bottles. I pull out the leaking bottle and got gross formula all over the seat and the blankets. I had to get rid of this thing so I hike to the bathroom with baby to dump it. When I got back to my seat, I realized that I should’ve changed her while I was up. I grabbed some diaper stuff and hiked back to the bathroom.
The long flights get to me. And I was a little extra beat from having a squirmy worm beat up for a couple hours. I made a classic diaper mistake during this particular changing. I didn’t put the fresh diaper right under her butt after removing the old one. I had one hand on baby and was turned around trying to shove the wet diaper in the overstuffed trash bin. Why are the trash bins on a plane that holds several hundred people only big enough for seven tissues? Anyway, I hear this waterfall sound while trying to force the dirt diaper in the trash and whip around to see a stream of pee dribbling off the changing tray right onto the floor. My pants were splashed and my brand new shoes (they have cute cartoon puppies on them) were soaked. I had to try and clean all the pee up all while holding the baby and then stand on one foot while rinsing my super cute shoes in the impossibly small sink. I always wondered how people could be so messy in airplane bathrooms. Well, now I know.
Eating was difficult for me. My daughter would relentlessly try and knock
food onto the floor. I had to put my food on the tray on her seat and restrain
her in my lap. I also couldn’t get drinks with my food. A cup of some filled to
the brim was just asking for trouble. My shoes already had some mixture of milk and pee in them. I didn’t need to add soda. Also, why do the flight attendants come by to pick up trash 0.4 seconds after they give you food or drink? I collected so much trash in the seat pocket.
She fell asleep for the last four hours of the flight, and I was able to get
about 20 minutes of sleep, too. By the time we are landing in Seoul, I was
completely destroyed. My daughter was relatively well-behaved, but it was
impossible for me to sleep, eat, and use the bathroom in any kind of normal
way. That added to the dehydration and stiffness that comes along with these flights was tough.
Arriving at Incheon Airport
As people were getting up and leaving plane, I got so many compliments on how well-behaved my baby was during the flight. Some people were surprised to learn there was a baby sitting so close. In my mind, she was whiny and cried too much. I think the noise on the plane just drowned her out.
I waited until we were the last ones before getting off of the plane. I was too tired to have anyone rushing me. When I got off, I saw a sign that indicated the baggage claim was to the right. I turned the corner and put down my things so I could put my daughter in the sling. I walked down the hall any couldn’t see any sign of baggage claim. I walked back. Nothing. I suddenly realized I was in an airport I’d never been in before. This was the first time I was in a country where I knew none of the local language. I didn’t have a working cell phone. My daughter was heavy. The bags were heavy. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I asked several employees about baggage claim and no one spoke English. I had taken so much time getting off the plane that there were no Delta flight attendants to be seen.
The feeling of defeat was so strong.
Finally, a lady in quarantine gave me the magic answer: you must go through immigration before going to baggage claim. I knew this already. I had flown overseas so many times before. I felt so stupid.
I got to go in the diplomats line for immigration because I had a baby. My bags were waiting for me on the other side. I heaved them onto a cart all while the heavy, sweaty baby bounced on my front. Customs was a breeze.
My family was waiting for me and remember thinking this was one of the most difficult things I had done in a long time.