15 Helpful Tips for Flying with Toddlers
Flying with toddlers is hard. And each state of childhood presents its challenges. Babies require a lot of stuff that takes up space, like diapers, bottles, and swaddles. Toddlers + preschoolers need a lot of patience and pre-planning to set them up for success on a flight.
We recently took a five-hour flight with our 3-year-old and 5-year-old kiddos, and it was surprisingly a dream. After each flight, I silently give each kiddo a grade. This helps me assess what worked (or didn’t work) for future travels. And this flight, they both earned an A+. Chulengo, our 5-year-old, has flown a few dozen times, so he’s like an old pro when it comes to flying. And due to the pandemic, Bambino, our 3-year-old, has yet to fly nearly as much, so he often takes a bit more coaching before a trip.
Here are 15 tips to make flying with toddlers easier.
Book a flight earlier in the morning
I book morning flights for our family for a few reasons. One, our kids are super unpredictable in the evenings. They may go with the flow, be super tired, and be overwhelmed, so I don’t chance it if I don’t have to. The second reason–delays. If our flight gets delayed in the morning, it will probably go out that day. But, if I book an evening flight that gets delayed, it could get canceled until the next day. And dealing with the logistics of that with small kids sounds like a nightmare.
Sign your kiddo up for the rewards program
As soon as we purchased Chulengo his own seat on a plane, I signed him up for the rewards program for Southwest. We fly Southwest most of the time due to flexibility and family-friendly airplane staff. Since signing him up, he has earned three total flights out of points from previous flights. So this has saved us a good amount of money.
Expose your kiddos to flying.
Just schedule the flights and do it. The more exposure they get, the more relaxed everyone is. The first few flights we took with Chulengo as a baby were pretty straightforward, but the game changed as soon as he became a toddler. By trial and error of flying, we learned that he flies best in the mornings, likes to play with his tablet, and prefers snacks in a snack tray instead of a snack cup.
On each flight we take, I note what has worked well and what has yet to. And I will use that information for our next flight.
Play pretend airplane at home
I only thought to do this once our second came along. Still, playing pretend airplanes at home has made a difference in improving the boys’ comfort and confidence with flying. I started by teaching them to grab their bags and pull them through the airport (our living room hallway). Then we sat on the couch and put our bags under the “seat.” Next, we buckled our seat belts. Our pretend flight is sometimes bumpy; sometimes, the captain says a lot over the loudspeaker, and sometimes it’s dark.
We create different scenarios so the boys will know how to respond when we are on a flight.
Familiarize your kiddo with a tablet
If you choose to use a tablet on a flight, familiarize your child with the tablet ahead of time. Help them find a favorite show to watch or game to play a week before your flight. I made the mistake of keeping the iPad away from Chulengo until we got on a flight. He had no interest in the tablet because he had never seen it before. The next time we flew, I let him look at the apps ahead of time to gain interest. Then when I pulled it out on a flight, he was excited to use it, and it kept him very busy.
Find the right apps to keep them entertained, too. I always try downloading apps that don’t need the internet in case we get stuck somewhere without service. A few of my favorites for toddlers include:
- Baby blocks
- Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime: download videos ahead of time
- Lumi Kids
- Endless Reader
- Khan Academy Kids – library section
- PBS Kids: download games ahead of time
- Star Fall ABC
Pack the snacks
Lots of snacks. Each snack I pack has to meet one of three rules. It has to be something they love, something they don’t get to eat very often, or it has to be something protein-heavy. If I pack a variety that fits one of those three rules, our kids are typically better behaved.
I also pack the snacks in convenient containers. For young toddlers, I pack snacks in cups with spill-proof lids. I also attach a strap to the snack cup connecting it to the tray, so it doesn’t fall on the ground. I put snacks in thread organizer boxes and pill boxes for older toddlers and preschoolers. The assortment of colors and the readily available variety make the snack pack more appealing. The pill boxes are also perfect because they can open one at a time, and it keeps snacks from spilling.
Pack a carry-on bag just for kiddos
This depends on how independent your toddler is. Are they able to carry a bag onto the plane themselves? Or can you easily carry it on with your other items? If so, I recommend having a bag full of only toddler fun. I do this for two reasons. 1) They don’t put their hands all over my bag, which has my wallet, electronics, and other valuable items, and 2) they know exactly where to go to look for more toys.
I started with just one bag for both boys. And have recently packed a bag for each of them. My mom gifted the boys these rolling suitcases, which have been lifesavers. My youngest pulled his bag around when he was only two years old. It saved me from carrying him and tired him out as he slowly made his way through the airport.
Bring extra clothes
There’s bound to be a potty accident or spilled water–both have happened to us while flying. I always pack an entire extra outfit for each kiddo, including socks. In most of the flights we’ve taken, the boys have ended up with wet socks – bumpy flight, shoes off, and water cup explodes when opened because of the pressure change. Happens almost every time.
Also, pack an extra shirt for yourself, just in case someone gets sick or spills liquid on you. It’s essential that you feel comfortable too.
Bring new toys
Speaking of toys. Bring new toys or toys they last saw a while ago. We have an airplane figurine they only play with while traveling. I also have many different coloring books and water books that I save only for airplanes or restaurants. I remember I introduced matchbox cars to Chulengo on an airplane, which was a big hit.
Dot stickers, post-it notes, and post-it flags are non-toy items that provide a lot of fun for toddlers.
Wrap up their toys
When you put toys and entertainment activities in their bags, wrap them up. Yup, just like a gift. The time they take to unwrap each toy helps the time go by faster on the flight. I’ve also found it helps prevent kids from getting overwhelmed. Imagine opening up a bag full of all your favorite items. You’d go bonkers, right? By wrapping each toy or activity, our kids have been a bit calmer because they don’t know what’s inside each package.
Bring a travel stroller
I hate checking a stroller because I worry it will get damaged or lost. I also want to avoid dealing with bulky stroller parts and travel bags. We were lucky enough to find a stroller that fits in the overhead bin. I recommend getting a stroller that fits overhead. We’ve used this travel stroller for four years, and it’s been on dozens of trips with us, including an international trip.
Bring an empty water bottle for yourself and the kids and fill it up after TSA
Having a water bottle or sippy cup on hand has saved us so much money and stress. First, empty it before you head to TSA– remember, no liquids >3 oz. allowed. Second, fill it up at the water station just past security. It’s a fun activity for kids and gives you a little time for entertainment. Just remember that the pressure in the cup may change once you’re up in the air. When using the cups for the first time, once we’ve taken off, I have to quickly drink from my kiddos’ water bottles for a few seconds to keep water from overflowing. See the above note about extra socks– that’s why, lol.
Put toddlers in a pull-up, bring extras
Even if your child is potty trained, put them in a pull-up. I called these “airplane undies” for my boys because they were a little confused about why we put the pull-up on when they usually didn’t need to use one. There have been a few close calls where Bambino had to go potty during take-off or landing, and we were able to instruct him to go in his pull-up. He also fell asleep on a flight and peed in his pull-up while napping.
I hate having to deal with potty accidents on a flight, so our toddlers use a pull-up just in case.
Put toddler next to the window
Whether there are two seats in a row or three seats in a row, let your toddler sit next to the window. They are usually interested to see what is going on outside, so it’s an easy way to get them to stay in their seats. You can also block them from getting into the aisle. When I fly solo with the boys, I put the older one next to the window and the younger one in the middle, and I sit in the aisle seat. This way, they have little space to play, cuddle, and move around without disturbing others.
Give yourself grace
Flying with young kids is hard. They’re often unpredictable, which makes traveling a bit more challenging. Remember to take a deep breath and know your flight will eventually end. And you will experience all of life on the other side of the flight. Take a picture, even if it’s a nightmare, because one day, you will fondly look back on that moment.