Flying with toddlers: A survival guide

Flying with toddlers: A survival guide

1 October 2020 • Words by Alesandra Dubin 3 mins

The mere phrase “flying with toddlers” is enough to strike fear in some parents. Yes, air travel with young kids can be stressful. But it can be so rewarding — and, dare we say, even fun, too. The trick is to be fully prepared. That means booking seats strategically and allowing plenty of time to navigate the airport.  It also means keeping your kids comfortable and well entertained on the flight.

These ten tips will help set you up for success when flying with toddlers:

Leave way more time than you think you need

Traveling is filled with unexpected hiccups. And that’s especially true when young kids are involved. An extra diaper change, potty break, or meltdown can throw off the best-laid plans. So count backward, accounting for every block of time you will need: getting to the airport, checking in, getting through security, boarding. Then give yourself a substantial additional time cushion for peace of mind.

Book a direct flight (or an intentionally long layover)

Navigating through the airport, getting on and off the plane, and takeoffs and landings can be some of the hardest parts of flying with toddlers. Once you’re airborne, you might find yourselves settling into a nice rhythm — even if the flight is long. So consider booking a nonstop flight to your destination. If you’d prefer to have a layover, consider making it a long one so you have enough time to rest and regroup — maybe even sleep in a hotel bed — before doing it all again.

Seat yourselves strategically

Children under two years old are not required to have their own seats on an airplane. But just because you don’t have to buy a separate seat for your child, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for it if budget permits. Flights with squirmy lap children can be challenging and uncomfortable for parents and can make it hard for anyone to sleep.

Also, consider selecting at least one seat on the aisle. Kids might want to look out the window, but the flight will be extra hard on parents who have to ask strangers to move every time your child needs to get up for the lav, a snack — or just plain boredom.

Plan activities in 15-minute increments

Nothing’s more exciting to a toddler than a new toy or game. But that newness wears off quickly given their short attention spans. So think about packing new activities for them to experience every 15 minutes or so when they’ll get bored and want a change.

Use wrapping paper or tissue to wrap up little toys for them to discover one by one. Vinyl sticker books are another fun and mess-free diversion. Regular crayons roll off tray tables, so pack some triangular ones along with coloring pages. 

Adapt to the situation

Consider whether you’re comfortable relaxing your rules about screen time for the duration of the flight. That way, you can frequently change games and videos when kids get bored.

If your child seems ready for a nap, encourage sleepiness by playing calming music or meditations through kid-friendly headphones. Moshi offers comforting sleep stories and meditations meant just for kids and is the perfect thing to relax them and distract them from the unfamiliar environment.

Know the rules

It helps to familiarize yourself with the rules of flying with toddlers because they’re not the same as the rules for adult passengers. For instance, TSA does not require children under 18 to carry identification when traveling with a companion domestically. However, kids do each need their own passport to travel internationally. Global Entry is a great way to streamline international flights with toddlers, allowing families to skip long lines. But children do need their own memberships in the program.

Divide and conquer when boarding

If at least two adults are flying, think about splitting up for preboarding. One adult can get situated on the plane, stowing the luggage and setting up in-flight essentials in seatback pockets. The other adult can instead skip the preboarding phase and wait as long as possible to get on the plane with your child, minimizing the amount of time in the cabin.

Pack something to suck on for takeoff and landing

Like adults, children can suffer ear pain when pressure changes on takeoff and landing. But unlike grownups, toddlers may not know how to relieve that pressure. Help them by packing something in your carryon that they can suck on; the act of swallowing will help equalize the ears. Any snack that requires a lot of chewing will do the trick, as will a lollipop, gum or a pacifier, depending on their age.

Accept help

Weary travelers know from experience that strangers can sometimes be unkind to kids on airplanes — especially if there’s a loud noise or seat kicking involved. But fellow passengers and flight crew can also be incredibly kind and helpful in stressful situations. If people offer to help when you need an extra hand, take it. Flying with toddlers can be rewarding for the whole family… but sometimes it takes a village to pull it off.

Alesandra Dubin

Alesandra Dubin is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle writer with a focus on parenting, wellness, and travel. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Good Housekeeping, Parents, TODAY, Best Life, and countless other outlets.