Flying With a Child During a Pandemic

Now this is definitely not a topic I ever thought I’d be writing about or sharing tips on…but the world suddenly got turned upside down with a new coronavirus & we ended up flying right in the thick of it all as every country was going into lockdown! This is just our personal experience and how we did things as we flew during an especially uncertain time with a child as this pandemic was quickly unfolding.

In mid February we flew with our daughter from Cancun, Mexico to Orlando, Florida for a fun little birthday trip to DisneyWorld as she was turning 5 that week. Little did we know that trip was likely our last “normal” vacay and flight for the foreseeable future. In the Orlando airport I noticed a woman and her child wearing masks and made a mental note how unusual that was to see in a North American airport but we carried on as usual.

Just 3 weeks later a global pandemic was officially announced on March 11, 2020. We also knew things were pretty serious when Disney, where we had just vacationed what felt like days earlier, shut down all of their U.S. parks. We are wedding photographers and continued to work right up until March 20th but suddenly realized we had to make an incredibly difficult decision as a family. See we live a bit of a split life by choice as dual Canadian-Mexican citizens dividing our time between Toronto, Canada & Cancun, Mexico. We were confused, nervous & overwhelmed with each press conference we listened to, watching wedding after wedding from our springtime destination wedding schedule become postponed and catching wind of news of the resorts we worked in all closing and flights between Mexico and Canada to be halted. We feared Mexico would be a lot slower to take things seriously so we made the decision to hop on what was to be one of the last few flights out of Cancun to Canada for awhile flying out on March 25, 2020.

We had 3 days to suddenly pack & prepare from the moment of booking a flight we genuinely had no idea a week earlier we’d be taking. At that point we had done exactly 44 flights with our daughter. We flew with her for the first time when she was just 9 weeks old and since then we had literally did dozens of international flights with her but we already knew nothing about flight #45 was going to be normal.

So many questions weighed on our minds from “Is it even safe to fly right now?”, “How do we protect ourselves?” to “How long are we going for?”.  We managed to order and receive three adult size N95 masks online in time before our flight. I watched a tutorial online how to modify one of the adult size N95 masks to fit Isla by cutting a seam along the bottom portion up towards the middle and then overlapping it securing it closed using a hot glue gun. Was it ideal? Maybe not but at that point we had very few options and no one had a fancy stash of personal masks in their homes yet.

I turned to a great travel parent group I’m a part of for tips and they were all so helpful and supportive. I think it’s important to share that I have never in any way been a germaphobe so it was weird to suddenly have to try and think like one. I never normally walked around using hand sanitizer, I used to do a quick water wipe when my daughter dropped her pacifier in public and I never feared public bathrooms for myself or even when I had a potty training toddler in tow (I probably have Mexico to thank for that and the many filthy baños I’ve hit up over the years and I never bothered with things I considered silly like potty training toilet seats or disposable seat covers). Each of our comfort levels vary and this all quickly became overwhelming to me. There was a tiring amount of planning involved with the preparation for that last minute flight in March that it almost makes me sick now thinking back on it. It’s also probably one of the reasons it’s taken me 4 months to finally sit down to share this story and tips. We had to think about so much in advance before the day anticipating our every move through the airport, on the plane, getting off the plane in the Toronto airport right up until driving to our final destination in Canada. Keep in mind there wasn’t a whole lot of information out at this time and a sense of urgency as the world was shutting down.

When we arrived to the Cancun airport on March 25, 2020 we noticed very few airline employees, Mexican immigration agents or airport workers had any kind of PPE (personal protective equipment). My memory is failing me but I actually want to say that I don’t remember seeing anyone other than passengers with mouth coverings. An employee from INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración-Mexico’s national government agency for migration relations) stopped me and asked me where I got my mask because she hadn’t been given anything yet and wanted to protect herself. The woman checking us in for our flight said she wasn’t allowed at the time to wear a mask because it might scare the tourists. So yes a whole lot has changed since then including mandatory mask usage for both employees & passengers travelling to & from Cancun…but at that time on that day when we were flying everything felt like an absolute mess with a million unknown variables!

All 3 of us wore our N95 masks from the moment we left our house in Cancun. If you know us well you know Isla’s bunny literally comes with us everywhere without exceptions so during what felt like a crisis I was also making a last minute makeshift hazmat suit for Año the bunny out of an old pair of thick cotton pantyhose to cover most of his body including his ears.

At that point masks weren’t mandatory but we chose to wear them. Our daughter actually didn’t hesitate once about the idea of wearing a mask. When I sat her down to honestly explain what was suddenly happening in the world I let her know we were going to need to wear masks. She casually said “Oh like some of the people we saw in Thailand?” and that was that. No resistance. No fear. No overthinking it. Although Isla is a fairly strong willed little girl she is super adaptable and I can’t help but believe that the month we spent in Thailand exactly one year prior had exactly the positive travel impact on her I hoped it would. I do believe travelling has helped make her more open minded, sensitive to others with a global mindset and scope to understand a bigger picture. She understood right away the impact of the virus when I told her the sickness was quickly spreading around the world naming people in cities and countries we’ve visited like Thailand, Cuba & Iceland.

As we went through security in the Cancun airport we filled out a basic health questionnaire ensuring we didn’t have COVID related symptoms and then had to pass by a temperature screening thermal camera. We then walked through an eerily quiet airport noticing empty gate after empty gate. We had what is normally quite a busy international airport all to ourselves with no other flight departing that evening. Isla brought her Zinc Flyte carry-on scooter suitcase with her which was one of the best decisions ever as that way she was able to happily scoot up and down the empty corridors without us needing to stress over what she might be touching or coming into contact with if she sat down and got into things.

One of our unusual must have travel items is our Mexican blanket. We found a quiet spot away from the few other people starting to gather for our flight and laid out our Mexican blanket as a safe spot to sit together so we would have little contact with surfaces. It was also the time we agreed upon in advance that we’d feel safe to sit and remove our masks for some snacks & water before the flight.

Once onboard the flight we immediately wiped down our entire area with disinfectant wipes. I essentially had one small carry-on suitcase designated for our pandemic goodies (I’ve included a detailed breakdown of the items in our carry-on suitcase with links below). I usually just have a backpack filled with mom travel items from sweaters, to toys, activities and snacks but this was a carry-on suitcase we brought with the pandemic in mind. I brought fitted bed sheets with us to cover the entire seating area which as a mom just made me feel more comfortable to think my daughter could stretch out all over her seat. I believe I had a fitted twin sheet that covered our two side by side seats right over the armrests.

Thankfully our flight was a late night flight leaving Cancun at 10pm which meant we could all sleep away some of that time wearing our masks which was still a very new concept to us. I’ll never forget cozying in with my daughter, asking her what her favourite part of the day was and then singing her her nightly lullaby as that’s our little bedtime tradition wherever we are in the world or whatever we’re doing.

We landed in the YYZ Toronto Pearson airport after 2am which was just 2 hours after the Canadian government put the Quarantine Act in place. Any travellers arriving internationally into Canada were now going to have to do a mandatory 14 day quarantine period as set out in their new emergency order. We were already well aware this was going to be the case so we were prepared. Ours was the only flight that had come in at that time and it was a stark contrast landing in Toronto to Canadian Border Services agents eerily lining our pathway with masks & gloves handing out information sheets shouting out quarantine requirements along the gangway as we exited the plane compared to Mexico where physical distancing wasn’t even a thing yet. I carried Isla off the plane and through the Toronto airport on my back in our Tula Toddler carrier as it was the middle of the night and we just wanted to move as quickly as possible without any possible meltdowns or tired little legs. After we collected our suitcases from the empty baggage claim area we headed into a family restroom to wash up. We had a change of clothes for each of us in our “pandemic carry-on” and then exited the airport terminal.

We had an amazing network of friends and family help us transition into quarantine in Canada because there were very strict rules in place (anyone arriving to Canada from outside the country must fully quarantine for 14 days without even setting foot into a grocery store). A friend of ours dropped off our car in the airport parking lot right at the terminal and hid the keys. I prepaid for the parking before our flight just having to give our car info and license plate so we didn’t have to do anything more than get to our car and scan a barcode from our phone on the way out. We sprayed down all of our suitcases before loading them into our car and wiped down the inside of the car. We didn’t remove our masks until we got to our car. All 3 of us (yes even our 5 year old) wore our masks for nearly 9 hours straight from leaving our house in Cancun to finally walking into the parking garage in Toronto!

Coming from Cancun we didn’t have any of our winter clothes on us. We knew we’d also be pretty tired by that point and chose to drive straight to my mom’s house where we’d sleep in the car in the driveway until morning. My mom (who is 69 and who has had a heart attack) and my 92 year old grandmother fall right into the high risk category of people we are all setting out to help protect which is of course why we weren’t going to quarantine in the same house as them. My mom and sister brought some blankets and pillows out to us and we peacefully slept for hours in our car feeling a bit worried but safe.

First thing in the morning my mom and sister brought out a bin with winter clothes, boots & coats for us as well as groceries they purchased in advance. We already knew as part of the Quarantine Act we wouldn’t be allowed to leave our designated quarantine location even for groceries so we needed to prepare. We spent about 20 minutes having a quick distanced hello with everyone in the cold on the lawn, loaded up the car and then headed slightly north-east to my sister’s cottage where we were going to quarantine.

In most larger urban locations people were relying on grocery & food delivery services if they couldn’t make it to a store or chose not to. Neither were available to us in the slightly more remote area we were headed to so thankfully my mom brought us more groceries the following week along with a kind cottage neighbour who topped us up on essentials we went through quickly like milk, juice and eggs.

In the end we spent 16 days in quarantine in our family’s picturesque little cabin on a lake in Ontario, Canada. It felt more like a vacation we didn’t plan on having. We spent time editing weddings we had already shot, working with our couples to reschedule their wedding dates and just continuing on with some sense of normalcy for our daughter with homeschooling (which we already did anyway) and lots of playing in the fresh air outside.

There will be strange random things I’ll always remember from that stressful travel day. I remember taking Isla to the furthest possible bathroom in the Cancun airport only to find a cleaning lady sitting in the stall we just happen to open eating her dinner on the floor. I’ll never forget the woman who sat in front of us with her family on the plane that was at only about 20% capacity turning to me and saying “You don’t have to worry because I’m a nurse and can just tell my family doesn’t have coronavirus”. I remember being grateful the pilots agreed to fill out Isla’s flight log book during such unusual circumstances but I was disappointed they didn’t write a personal note. Later on it occurred to me that leaving that part blank actually spoke volumes. I remember waiting for our suitcases in Toronto and noticing a young super laidback granola looking couple who had been on our flight standing there wearing flip flops and holding their fire show performance staffs & ropes in their hands. We see backpacking transient people like that all the time in Cancun and especially Playa del Carmen who perform at red lights at small intersections for tips and I thought to myself how sad it was that their lives were being turned upside down.

Most countries have travel advisories to avoid non-essential travel outside of your home country but many people are still travelling out of necessity and yes even some by choice. Regardless of why you might be finding yourself preparing for a flight during a pandemic with a child, I hope you’ll find some of our story & tips helpful. I think a lot has changed in regards to airline travel since when we flew back in March but I wanted to be honest about everything we faced at that time, how we felt in those early days as this unfolded, how we got through it all & what we brought with us. Most airports and airlines have now made it mandatory for all passengers to wear masks the entire time while in transit and have clearly marked stickers on the ground to allow for social distancing in lines…none of which was in place when we flew in March. There are now new cleaning and disinfectant protocols and in general just more awareness. I already know my next flight coming up soon with my daughter isn’t going to be nearly as nerve-racking as that flight at the start of all of this but either way I do feel a lot more prepared now.

Here is the full list of all of the items we packed with a pandemic in mind in our carry-on suitcase…
  • a fitted sheet to cover our seats on the plane (I found one twin size sheet covered 2 side by side airplane seats)
  • disinfectant wipes
  • travel size bottles of hand sanitizer
  • spare masks on hand for peace of mind in case a mask breaks, some kind of spill occurs or after too much handling they could be swapped out. NOTE: on our next flight we will likely be wearing both a N95 mask in addition to a cloth mask for protection & to prevent any possible spread
  • reusable water bottle with a cap that fully closes so the drinking spout is not exposed. I have a large size Thermoflask bottle and love that the chug lid completely screws shut to protect the top portion where your mouth comes in contact
  • packaged snacks like protein bars and mini cheese & nut trays
  • a wrap style sweater shawl to cover up with (this has always been part of my travel day wardrobe so I can cozy under it and cover my head)
  • a change of clothes
  • medium size towels, soap, travel size shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste & a hairbrush as we wanted to be prepared with carry-on essentials in case a suitcase was lost or we unexpectedly ended up in a hotel or other location. We even packed our Scrunch Bucket in case we needed a portable little makeshift washing station (in Canada it’s available here)
  • Mexican blanket (we felt more comfortable at the time finding our own spot to sit down on the floor on our Mexican blanket as we usually do when travellingt)
  • our Tula Toddler carrier (I’ve worn Isla in carriers at just about every age and stage so when we knew we would be landing in the middle of the night during a pretty stressful time the carrier was crucial to help carry her off the plane and through the airport)
  • our RideSafer travel vest! Instead of travelling with a carseat (one more thing to worry about in general & stressing about having to clean it at our final destination and install it) we brought our RideSafer travel carseat vest in our carryon so we could easily slip it on our daughter when we got to the car and knew she’d be safe as it tethers right into the car’s seat itself and uses the vehicle’s seatbelts.
  • my daughter’s Zinc Flyte scooter suitcase. This carry-on scooter suitcase had already been a lifesaver many times for us while travelling with our daughter but even more so through an airport where we didn’t really want her to be sitting around and touching things. Instead she happily scooted around the airport and got through the long corridors without complaining.

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