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Flying the not-so-baby-friendly skies

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Two words about traveling with young children: not fun. Most travelers know they must be flexible and prepared for delays en route, cramped conditions and long lines.

But try telling that to a toddler — not to mention a breast-feeding infant.

My husband and I recently flew to Austin, Texas, for a family reunion with our toddler and infant in tow.

I learned a few tricks that might make your summer trip less exhausting than mine.

If possible, book a direct flight. Even if it costs more, it's worth the money. By limiting the number of connections, you'll reduce the chance of unexpected delays.

We bought our tickets to Texas only three weeks in advance, and all the direct flights were full. After 2 1/2 hours in the air, we landed in Dallas for a short layover and then boarded the flight to Austin. The captain then informed us we would be rerouted because of a storm. We taxied onto the runway.

The storm clouds were a bluish green. I knew that was a bad sign. We sat on the runway for two hours, in muggy Texas heat. Our 21-month old daughter, Halle, and our 3 1/2-month-old son, Christian, were drenched in sweat and extremely fussy. I've never felt more trapped. We ran out of snacks and water fast, and we weren't allowed out of our seat belts because we were stuck on an active runway.

After almost two hours in the air and 1 1/2 hours in rush-hour traffic in Austin, we arrived at my in-laws' house. My husband and I were holding it together by a thread long after our children had simply had enough. Oh, how we wished we'd had a direct flight.

Ask the airline about half-price tickets for infants and toddlers. Our experience would have been much worse had we not bought a seat for Halle. I don't know a toddler who would sit contentedly on a parent's lap for more than five to 10 minutes, and certainly not for two hours or more.

Safety is also an issue. You wouldn't drive anywhere without your child strapped into her car seat. Why risk it at 30,000 feet?

Don't schedule flights around nap time. Many parents schedule flights during nap time hoping their kids will sleep on the flight. But don't count on it. Many times the noise and excitement are too much stimulation for a child, and she is sure to throw a tantrum if she hasn't had a nap. You don't want to be stuck on the plane during that tantrum. Halle only slept the last 10 minutes of the awful trip down, and she didn't sleep at all on the way back.

Pack extra snacks and water. We ran out of snacks because we planned for a much shorter trip. The only thing worse than being stuck on a sweltering airplane with crying babies is being stuck on a sweltering airplane with crying babies and no snacks. Flight attendants are usually willing to sneak kids extra snacks, but parents must ask for them.

It's also a good idea to offer snacks or drinks during take-off and landing. Swallowing will help reduce the pressure that builds up in the ear that can cause pain during and after changes in altitude.

Pack extra diapers and wipes. The same holds true for changing supplies. If you pack just enough you may be in trouble if you're delayed. You don't want to be stuck on a plane with no way to change your baby's dirty diaper.

Also, make sure your baby has a fresh diaper before and after the flight. Changing a diaper on a plane is a major pain. It can also be messy and uncomfortable for other passengers who are downwind from your changing area. You'll have no choice but to change him, as I did, if he gets messy on the flight. But you might ask the flight attendant if there is safe place toward the back of the plane where you can change him. Unfortunately, our flight was full.

Dress the kids in layers. Halle wore new summer clothing her father had given her. Christian was in a light summer outfit as well, and we packed the receiving blanket in the suitcase because it was so hot outside. As soon as we entered the air-conditioned airport from the 90-degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity, we were freezing. I'd wished I had a button-down or light sweater for each of them. Also, I was stuck with no blanket to cover myself as I attempted to nurse Christian discreetly.

Arrive to your gate early to make sure you are all seated together and not on or in front of an exit row. On the journey down, just after we got Halle strapped in and Christian settled, we had to move because they'd seated us in front of an exit row. If you're traveling with young children, FAA regulations will not allow you to sit on or in front of an exit row. Changing seats at the last minute was a major pain.

On the way back, the airline did not seat us together because they overbooked the flight. It was a bumpy flight in two ways: turbulence and temper tantrums. We would have had a much better time if we were seated together. There is strength in numbers.

Ask to pre-board. Many of the luxuries of air travel no longer exist. Airlines no longer call for families with young children to pre-board. However, if you ask at the gate, most airlines will allow you to pre-board with your little ones. It's a courtesy you must ask for, but we've found it is well worth it. You must arrive before they call for first-class passengers in order to pre-board with your children.

Check your stroller at the gate. This saved us fatigue on our trip. It was nice to have both babies in the stroller until the moment we got on the plane and then having the stroller at the gate when we got off. We buckled them in, and we were headed to get our luggage. (Editor's note: You need a luggage tag for the stroller, which you can pick up from the gate agent.)

It's not only more convenient but safer. Airports are such busy places it would be easy to lose sight of a child in seconds. If she's strapped in, it's less worry and stress for you.

Pack some favorite toys and books to keep the child occupied. Mr. Snuggly, Halle's revered bunny, was her salvation on our trip. When everything else was going wrong and she'd about had it, we had Snugs to give her comfort. Also, a few of her favorite books and toys kept her occupied and diverted her from the urge to fuss for a while. Snugs has become a part of the family, and we were so glad we had him along.

Be prepared for a certain amount of fussing.

There is no way to guarantee your child will be a happy traveler. Most babies get fussy at some point during the day, so it is only normal that she will cry at least some of the time when she's on an airplane. Be prepared for this. Take a few deep breaths and tell yourself: This too shall pass.

Sometimes there's just nothing you can do to make her happy. Also, an infant can get colicky at any time during the day or night. Don't beat yourself up. Just imagine all the fun they will have when you reach your destination. Tell yourself: It will be worth it.

Take heart in knowing that most people are good-hearted and won't be put out by traveling near your crying babies. I am always impressed that during a crisis, people rise to the occasion. On our ominous trip down to Austin, people, who moments before were fighting over the overhead bin space, truly pulled together. The man seated next to our screaming Halle gave up his headphones so Garth Brooks could lull her to happiness. The woman sitting next to me on the way home helped me with my seat belt as I held Christian in my arms. She also allowed me to use her tray space for snacks and drinks. People politely made room in the cramped space as I got situated to breast-feed. Even the young man who I thought was glaring at us with spite on the trip down actually had admiration in his eyes. As we deplaned he remarked: "That must have been your worst nightmare. I want you to know you both did an awesome job handling your beautiful babies."

Remember you are probably more stressed by your baby's fussing than anyone around you. It's comforting to know most people know parenting is difficult at times, and downright tough when you're traveling. I'm grateful for the kindness of strangers, especially when it's directed at the loves of your life. It's enough to encourage any parent that the skies can, indeed, be friendly, despite the inconveniences.

Heather Simonsen is a former television journalist and has a M.A. in communications.