When military airplanes fly military personnel and/or cargo, oftentimes those flights have extra space available, or Space-A, and they offer that space to members of the military and their dependents wishing travel at no cost. This incentive (free air travel overseas!) really convinced Jim & I that, while traveling with a baby would not be easy, we needed to take advantage of this opportunity while we are living on the east coast where these types of flights occur several times a week.
The significant hurdles to this type of travel are that it may take several attempts before you are able to fly out, and you have to be willing to pay for a ticket home if you cannot get back for some reason. Also, you’re not going to fly directly to a tourist destination, so you have to figure traveling for a few hours by train at the minimum to get to somewhere you’d really like to see.
I’m not going to pretend I know enough about how they determine who is allowed on each flight (depends on overall weight as to the space-available as well as category of your military member and when they put in for leave), but I do think we learned some things on our recent trip to Paris about this type of travel with a baby and also just doing Europe/Paris specifically with an 8 month old.
The first plane we took was a huge cargo plane. The seats were set up along the side of the plane. Luckily our flight coincided with Lydia’s bedtime, so after a bit of fussing during takeoff she went down fairly easily (for her). We debated about bringing our car seat, but we were told that it was required in the taxi when we got to Germany (but not required in France). We were hesitant to bring it because we really did not want to lug that thing from Germany to France just for one taxi ride, but it proved to be clutch on the flight over and back: it was a familiar place for Lydia to snooze, and we could cover it to keep out the light.
We packed two things at the last minute that we hadn’t originally planned, but are so glad we did: a baby noise-canceling headset and a few blankets. While they do have some blankets and pillows on these flights, our flight over was freeeeezing and I slept on the ground, so I was incredibly grateful for them. The headset is first of all super adorable on an 8-month-old, and also helps to block the sound—these types of planes are LOUD.. so loud, it’s hard to carry on a conversation during the flight. They also came in really handy while we were out and about in Paris and wanted something to block out noise for her nap.
Another thing we made sure to have was some sandwiches/good snacks for the flight. Some flights offer food, and some just have some things at their terminals to purchase. We were happy we had our own stuff.
The terminals themselves were much more family-friendly than I had anticipated. Both Dover & Rammstein had special kid rooms with toys, and Rammstein even had a nursing/napping room plus diapers and wipes! The family-friendly approach coupled with seeing many other families on the flights made me a lot less nervous about the whole thing. Plus, not having to deal with long lines at security made the whole thing seem like a dream compared to what I imagine flying commercial is like!
It was fairly easy for me to nurse and change Lydia as needed, as these flights are more spacious and offer more privacy than normal commercial flights. Also, the noise was a real blessing—any fussing she did was barely if at all heard by anyone else on board. That really helped calm my anxiety about flying with a wee one.
We were super nervous to upset Lydia’s sleep routine, as it wasn’t until she was about 6 months old that she began taking more consistent naps, sleeping through the evening when put down, and staying in her crib during the night. We worried about jet lag and the possibility of having to have her sleep in the bed with us. But, we decided we’d just have to cross that bridge if/when we came to it.
The hotel we stayed at in Luxembourg City the first night (we wanted to break up the long train trek) of course had a pack-n-play, so that wasn’t much of an issue. She stayed up later than normal, until about 10pm, but then had a somewhat normal night after that.
Our Airbnb in Paris, on the other hand, didn’t have anything, but we did discover a leather bench that opened and actually provided a perfect space for her to nap! We put some pillows in it and she seemed to like it for the most part. I, on the other hand, was a nervous Nelly about the top coming down on her somehow, so for most full nights I brought her into bed. But it was still nice to have a place to put her down for naps & beginning of the night sleeping. I should have taken a picture of this.. but after losing my phone the second day of the trip, my ability to take my own pictures were limited.. and we usually used Jim’s phone for white noise.
Naps were hit or miss. Sometimes she’d nap in the stroller, but inevitably something would wake her up 20-30 mins in. So, truthfully, we dealt with a crabby baby a lot of the time. We did have one day we stuck around the apartment more so she could get her normal naps in, but otherwise we just sucked it up.
As far as jet lag when we got home, ish was real! She was waking up in the middle of the night WIDE awake and ready to play. It didn’t help that we were dealing with daytime savings at the same time, so the daylight hours she was used to were mixed up also. Jim and I took turns getting up with her, but after 3 nights or so she was pretty much back to “normal”, or whatever normal sleep is for Lydia!
Other Travel Notes
Many things I had read beforehand stressed how difficult it was getting around Paris with a stroller. However, we were grateful we had ours. True, Paris sidewalks are very narrow, but we weren’t the only ones strolling along with one. And yes, it is hard dealing with steps in the metro and going through the gates, but we could usually manage while working together or a kind stranger would help us, especially if Jim was burdened with the rest of our luggage.
The trains from Germany to France were clean, comfortable, and quiet. Luckily, Lydia slept for one of the longer rides, and on the others she was fairly pleasant. One ride she was tired and hungry, but I was able to bring her into the middle compartment near the bathrooms to get out of the quiet cars when she was fussy. It went very well overall.
Taxis/Ubers in France allow infants to ride on parents’ laps, but Germany requires a carseat. It was a pain to have to lug the carseat throughout our travels, but it was nice to have on the plane. So, we made it work.
Sitting down to eat did not happen as often as we would have liked. During our first night in Paris, I made reservations for a restaurant that served 4 courses, but Lydia was immediately fussy and nothing would appease her. Finally, Jim took her home and kindly allowed me to enjoy the meal alone and I brought him his portions back. After that disaster, I was hesitant about dinners out. We did have one meal that she slept through, but otherwise we mainly cooked or got takeout. Lunches were usually street sandwiches or, a new favorite for us, falafel! We wanted to take advantage of enjoying the Parisian cafes, but that was limited. As long as we were moving, Lydia was usually fine, but when we tried to sit down to relax, she was a crabby Cathy!
We didn’t bring too many toys for obvious reasons, but I had read about bringing small beach balls, as they take up nearly no space. Food helped entertain her, too:
All in all, I am very grateful we were able to experience Paris together as a family. After we got home, Jim and I just kept saying to each other, “I can’t believe we just did that!” The time spent together was amazing, and I know Jim and I feel stronger as a couple and as parents for having gone through it together. I did have a huge sigh of relief when we finally made it home and could get back into our routine, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.