Toddlers are unpredictable. One minute they’re content and happy. The next they are sprawled out and having a meltdown in the middle of the floor. That being said, it should come as no surprise that the thought of flying with little ones can scare many parents. If flying with a toddler is in your future, here are 11 essential survival tips.
Flying with Toddlers
When I took my first flight with my son, he was a typical 2-year-old: Very active, short attention span, and an unpredictable temperament. One day out of the blue, I chose to take a mini-vacation with just the two of us.
I had no clue what I was doing. However, with only days between booking the flight and taking the flight, I quickly had to bring myself up to speed on family travel and flying with kids.
We (well, I) survived. Not only did I live to tell the tale, but went on to take two more mommy-son trips over the next year and a half.
Here are 11 great tips for surviving flying with a toddler, based on my solo travel experience:
- Book early flights.
- Don’t forget the essentials.
- Take the stroller.
- Let them run around.
- Book extra seats.
- Take your time.
- Always ask for help.
- Surprise them with a new toy or book.
- Extend the screen time.
- Bring out the snacks…and the candy too!
- Relax and have fun!
1. Book Early Flights
I’ve never been a morning person, but one thing I learned about flying with a toddler is to book the earliest flight possible. Early flights ensure that everyone has a fresh start, including the flight attendants and other passengers. Others tend to be more friendly and helpful. Toddlers not up against mid-day nap times will be more well-behaved. Early flights also give plenty of the day left to enjoy the day once you’ve arrived, even after nap time.
2. Don’t forget the essentials.
During my first trip with my son, I was clueless about what to pack. After the first couple of trips, I knew exactly what was needed and what could be left at home. Here’s a checklist of essentials to have ready in the carry-on bag when flying with a toddler:
- Medications & Documentation: First and foremost, pack all essential and non-essential medications and medical documentation in the carry-on bag. Whether dealing with a simple head cold or an unexpected medical emergency, keeping a sick toddler comfortable in the air is key to flight survival.
- Empty Sippy Cup: Totally necessary for keeping the beverage contents safe in one place and not all over you, them, or your seat mate. It also gives toddlers a sense of comfort.
- Baby Wipes/Antibacterial Wet Wipes: Perfect for conveniently wiping down little hands and faces, or wiping down dirty surfaces such as the tray table.
- Tissues: Keep small travel packs of tissues for wiping runny noses, or as backup when toilet paper is not available.
- Hand Sanitizer: When the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign is on, hand sanitizer is a great alternative to washing hands.
- Pull-Ups: Even if your toddler is potty trained, pull-up diapers or overnight underwear (for larger toddlers) can be a lifesaver. From tight connections, to long lines and flight turbulence, making bathroom trips can sometimes be impossible.
- Extra Clothing/Underwear: Extra clothing and undergarments will always be an essential during toddler travel in case of an accident. However, I also pack an extra set of light clothing for myself in case of spills or worse: bodily fluids.
- Ziploc Bags: Always handy for storing open snacks/food, soiled clothing, dirty wipes/tissues, and other trash. Also handy for keeping extra clothing and pull-ups easily accessible! (Here are 6 other uses for Ziploc bags when you’re traveling.)
3. Take the stroller.
Strollers may seem like another heavy item to lug around. However, when it comes to quickly getting between gates during connecting flights or keeping a toddler in one place at any point, it can be a lifesaver. Without a stroller, I’m not sure how I’d have managed to take a potty break with my son in tow. The stroller handles and storage basket also count as extra hands when walking through the airport!
4. Let them run around.
When not in the bathroom or running through the airport trying to make a tight connection, unbuckle the stroller straps and let them stretch their legs. Not only does it make the airport a much more interesting place for them, but the waiting time will fly AND it will tire them out for the flight.
5. Book extra seats.
Toddlers age 2 and older already need their own seat. For those under 2, it is totally worth it to purchase a separate seat for the comfort of all parties. Airlines are not required to seat families together; it is also worth the extra fee to ensure you can sit with your toddler.
During my son’s first flight, I brought along the car seat. It was heavy, but it made the flight much smoother. Not only did it provide a sense of familiarity and comfort for him, but he also had somewhere to put his sippy cup. For flights without the car seat, my son used the FAA-approved CARES 5-Point Harness for extra protection.
On every flight, I’ve booked him in a window seat. From guessing animal shapes in the clouds or simply enjoying the view of the buildings below, a window seat helped to keep him distracted during the flight.
6. Take your time.
When traveling with a toddler, I always make it a rule to get to the airport at least an hour earlier than the recommended time so I have plenty of time to check-in and do everything we need with ease. Traveling with a toddler means potential delays related to tantrums, potty trips, and simply attempting to walk in a straight line. Aim for connection times of no less than two hours to allow time for the above, as well as provide a cushion for delayed flights.
7. Always ask for help.
I’d always been told to ask for help when needed when my son was an infant. I learned quickly that the same goes when flying with a toddler. Much to my surprise, most people are willing to give you a hand if needed. Many will do so without being prompted. Going through security, I find other passengers very helpful in getting everything (including my son) through the line. When I asked, flight attendants were willing to let us board early to get the car seat installed and to get my son settled. They even did little things to make him smile, such as give him extra snacks or a pair of “wings” to wear as a pin.
8. Surprise them with a new toy or book.
In addition to packing crayons and coloring books, favorite toys, and iPads, buy a few new toys for the flight. Whether your toddlers are flying for the first time or a veteran flier, the surprise of a new toy or book will keep them distracted through the remainder of the flight (or at least until they fall asleep). The key is not to take it out at the beginning of the flight. Instead, save it for when they get bored with their current surroundings or toys.
9. Extend the screen time.
While it is important to moderate screen time, it helps to relax the rule when flying with a toddler. Before every trip, I loaded my son’s Leapfrog Epic with his favorite shows, games, and movies to keep him busy on the flight. Bringing along child-sized headphones ensured he didn’t disturb our fellow passengers.
10. Pack your own snacks…and candy too.
Like many toddlers, my son is an extremely picky eater. Since airline snacks may or may not do the trick, having the “fun size” version of his favorite snacks in my carry-on bag kept him content when he got hungry. Lollipops and other suckable candies help with popping ears during takeoff and landing. They also help to distract (a/k/a bribe) when young children get a little restless.
11. Relax and have fun!
Flying with babies and toddlers is almost never a walk in the park, but I’ve found that when I take a deep breath, have realistic expectations and prepare for anything, things go much more smoothly. I enjoy the opportunity to travel with my little one, and remember that there are many moms who wish they were brave enough to put themselves in my shoes. Sometimes it is isn’t so much about how well behaved a toddler is on a flight, but about the mindset of the parent and the decision to have a blast flying no matter what!