Flying with a toddler (and traveling in general) is a much different ballgame than flying with a baby. Toddlers are past the stage of sleeping through everything and those (hopefully occasional) tantrums may have begun. They’re talking more and starting to have opinions, which, are sometimes totally irrational. Plus they have SO MUCH energy to burn. (And let me tell you, that works out great when trying to contain them in small spaces for small periods of time.)
But wait, I’m supposed to be here to convince you that traveling with children is easy. Or at least doable!
Any potential challenges aside, flying with a toddler can actually be fun. Toddlers are starting to see the world with fresh eyes and absorbing everything around them. One of the best things about traveling at this age with our son is that he’s truly engaged in the activities we’re doing and the process of traveling. This has made it so much more fun and helped us to realize even more how valuable travel is with young kids. And seeing my son get just as excited as I do about stepping foot in an airport is pretty much the best thing ever.
This week, our little guy will be completing his 15th flight just shy of 2 years old. While we have several flights under our belt, it will be my first time flying this distance with his toddler self completely solo. That means no Daddy and no grandparents. Just me, Will, 14+ hours of travel time and tons of strangers I’m hoping are nice. As I’m reflecting back on past trips to prepare myself, I thought it’d be helpful to share some tips that have worked well for us. (And, selfishly, this is just as much for me as it is for you guys!)
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1. Get your toddler excited about flying
Toddlers are learning so much every day. Even if you have a child that’s never flown before, there are so many ways you can get them excited for the flight. We love reading books as a way to inspire learning about travel in general. My son’s favorite book is The Airport Lift the Flap Book from Usborne Books. We read it every single day, and it’s one that I haven’t hidden yet from getting annoyed about reading. (Please tell me I’m not the only parent who does that!?) It’s super interactive and teaches kids about the entire airport process, from security to boarding to baggage claim. Usborne sells several other airport and plane-themed books, including sticker books that are one of our favorite travel activities for a toddler. For more airport books, click here.
Every time we see or hear an airplane, I also use it as an opportunity to get my son excited about flying. This entire week, I’ve been reminding him we’re going on a plane again soon every time we see one in the sky.
Additionally, many airports have reinstated airside access again, including our home airport of Pittsburgh International Airport. That means you can actually visit the airport, play in the children’s area and watch the planes take off without even having a flight! (Pending security checks, of course.)
2. Check for Child Fares When Booking Your Ticket
If you have a younger toddler under 2, you can still take your child on the flight as a lap infant. While this worked well when our son was younger, once he became more mobile, and especially if we were flying over nap times, we typically purchased a seat for him.
Many people aren’t aware that airlines often offer child fares as well, including domestically. Some airlines make this readily available on their online booking sites. For others, however, you need to call to inquire if a child fare is available. Our favorite US airline, Southwest Airlines, often offers child fares for certain flights for kids under 11. These fares cannot be booked online for Southwest, so a call is required.
3. Try to book flights during sleep times or quiet times
To date, the flights that have gone the smoothest are the ones around my son’s nap. This makes early afternoon flights the best for us. For the times he doesn’t fall asleep before the plane takes off, I try to replicate the nap routine as much as I can. This means reading a couple books and giving him his favorite stuffed animal and a blanket. There have been a few times lately that he cried a little before falling asleep. That minute or two seemed like an eternity at the time, but the reality is that it wasn’t that bad.
Some people also swear by early morning flights. Personally, that doesn’t work as well with us. Once my son is up, he’s up, and he tends to have the most energy in the mornings regardless of what time his morning starts.
If you’re flying longer distances, red eye flights are a great option too. If you’ve done one yourself as an adult, you already know that the flight goes so much faster if you can get a little sleep during it!
4. Pack light and check your bags if possible
When traveling with kids of any age, I always recommend trying to limit the amount of stuff you’re dragging through the airport. This is especially true if you’re traveling with more than one kiddo and/or as a solo adult. We typically use a backpack for a personal bag and check a large, shared suitcase and stroller. That way, we’re just left with our toddler to wrangle, the car seat, and one or two backpacks.
For our favorite travel backpack, click here or on the image below. It’s super padded, is water resistant, and it has just the right amount of pockets. We used it pre-kid and it now serves as a personal bag/ diaper bag with a kid. (Keep reading further for what we use to navigate the airport with a toddler.)
Of course, with ever-changing luggage fees, checking a bag may not always be feasible. If that’s the case, be sure to pack light and remember that you only have two hands!
5. Involve your toddler in the security screening process
If you’ve ever gone through security with a baby, you know it can be a bit challenging to handle your child and ALL of the stuff at once. One of the great things about toddlers is that they often respond well to being assigned a “job.” I’ve found that the times when security goes super smooth is when I’ve started to involve my son. Even if it’s a small task like putting his jacket in the bin or holding something while I load up the bins.
6. Have your toddler burn off energy before boarding the flight
Since flying with a toddler, I’ve actually been getting to the airport earlier to give him some time to run around prior to the flight. This seems to go a lot better than driving to the airport, going through security and having to board shortly after. We always scope out the airport first online as well, to see if there’s a children’s area to play in.
If your airport or gate doesn’t a play area, just find an empty waiting area by an unused gate. From my son’s perspective, I’m pretty sure being able to run around those chairs while simultaneously watching planes is as good as any play area. If you’re traveling with more than one adult, you can also take turns going for walks while one person watches the bags.
7. Take advantage of family boarding
Most airlines offer family boarding of some form, which means you get to board prior to the majority of the plan to give yourselves time to settle in. You don’t need to do anything special in advance- just show up at the gate early. If you’re unsure of your specific airline’s policy on family pre-boarding, you can call in advance, look online or ask when you arrive at the gate. (Note: Some airlines only allow pre-boarding up to age 2, but most allow if for families traveling with children of almost any age.)
P.S. Family boarding also gives you a better chance of saying hello to the pilot for a quick photo. On a few of our latest flights, our son was even invited up to check out the cockpit!
8. Make sure your child is comfortable on the plane
There are several different options available to keep your child safe and comfortable during the flight. Keep in mind that comfort (and safety) will likely change as your toddler gets older In the US, children are only required to fly in an FAA compliant carseat if they are using a seat as an infant under 2 years old. This means children who are 2 years and older aren’t required to have a carseat on a flight, which is obviously different than driving laws.
Technically speaking, having your child in a carseat is always the safest way to go on a flight. Fortunately, our son has always slept pretty well in a car seat, and we plan to continue to have him fly in one until he reaches the maximum weight. It doesn’t always work that way for every child though, and don’t worry, you have options!
Many people also choose to have their kids fly without a car seat over 2 years old. It’s a totally viable option and is certainly easier than lugging the car seat around the airport. This is especially true if your child doesn’t sleep well in a carseat or if you’re going somewhere that you don’t need a car seat. Keep reading for a few different options to keep your toddler comfortable and safe on a flight.
Some options for your toddler’s seat on the flight include:
- A lightweight carseat like the Cosco convertible carseat. We have this one and swear by it. It’s light at 11 lbs and can be used for a child weighing up to 50 lbs. It still passes all security checks and is FAA compliant but without all the bells and whistles. Given the price (typically around $50-60) we find that it’s worth bringing our own seat versus renting one at the destination. We use it along with the GoGo Babyz Travelmate to pull our son through the airport on his carseat. Note: You can also check your car seat either with your luggage or at the gate if you choose not to bring it on the plane. We use these bags when checking a carseat or stroller. The same company also makes less expensive ones that are a little less durable but great if you don’t fly often.
- The CARES Harness: This is the only FAA approved alternative to a car seat for flying with young children. It can be used for kids 22 lbs to 44 lbs. Click here to view the CARES safety harness.
- An inflatable footrest: We were gifted one from Premium Journey and plan to use it once our son grows out of the carseat. For younger children, these are great to form a bed as an extension of the plane seat. I love that it folds up in a small bag, inflates to different heights and it’s super easy to inflate. Plus you can’t beat the price point. Click here to view the footrest.
- A Jetkids by Stoke Bedbox: This is the “rolls royce” of products for flying with a baby. (And it has the price tag to go along with the features!) It can be used both as a bed, carry on, and device for riding on throughout the airport.
Most of the options above are intended to help your child sleep better on the plane, since those little legs can’t touch the ground. If your flight is during normal wake time or you’re trying to limit the amount of stuff, the good ol’ fashion seat on it’s own is always an option too!
Note: Some airlines have policies that don’t allow any type of footrest in front of the seat. While I haven’t experienced it myself, I’ve been told that reinforcement of such policies can be different depending on flights and crew. Something to keep in mind as you prepare for your flight!
9. Navigate the airport with a toddler like a pro
Airports can be huge, and many toddlers may get tired or easily distracted when trying to walk themselves. There are several options out there depending on your toddler’s age and ability to help with luggage. Below are a few of our favorite products for flying with a toddler, along with links to view or purchase.
- Go-Go Babyz TravelMate: We have this and love it. It’s great for pulling both your child and his/her carseat to the gate, whether you plan to check the carseat or have your child sit in the seat.
- ZyncFlyte Scooter Carry-On Luggage: This carry-on luggage for toddlers is also a scooter, making it a super fun way to get around the airport when flying with a toddler.
- Trunki Ride-On Luggage: This carry-on luggage lets kids sit on the luggage to quickly transport them through the airport. Once they get older, they can pull it themselves.
- Jetbox Bedbox (mentioned above): This is another ride-on, carry-on luggage option that also transforms your child’s seat into a bed.
- The stroller is always an option too, and you can check it at the gate if you want to keep it to get through the airport. Just keep in mind that there may be additional charges to gate check a car seat and/or stroller if your child is over 2. As always, check with your specific airline first.
If you choose any of these options, I’d recommend testing them out at home before your flight to make sure your child is comfortable using and that you’re able to easily set up. (The GoGo Babyz TravelMate in particular can be a little tricky to connect to the car seat until you get used to it.)
10. Snacks, Snacks, Snacks, Snacks, Snacks!
If you’re anywhere near your early 30s like me, you probably sang this to the tune of “Shots!” by LMFAO. (You’re welcome.) Snacks, especially those like Cheerios and Goldfish that are small and take a while to eat, go a lot way in keeping kids occupied. Even if you’re planning to eat meals on the plane, be sure to bring extra snacks as you never know when you’ll be delayed. Also keep in mind that some lower cost airlines like Spirit don’t offer food on board the aircraft. Be sure to plan for meals accordingly as well.
We also like to use a special treat as a way to help ear pressure during take off and landing. Either lollipops or something chewy like fruit snacks, dried fruit or tootsie rolls seem to work well. You can also try to encourage your child to drink from a water bottle or sippy cup to help relieve the pressure.
These snack catchers go everywhere with us and they’re especially great for travel with younger toddlers. If you’ve ever experienced your child dumping something over and over again, just one time doing it in cramped plane will ensure you never leave without them.
11. Bring different forms of entertainment for the flight
Since toddlers are often unpredictable, its always good to have multiple things to keep your toddler occupied during a flight. When flying, we always try to bring things that make little to no noise. We also try to avoid anything with small parts that can easily be dropped or lost.
Below are some of our favorite activities for a flight with a toddler.
- Sticker books, especially travel and airplane themed sticker books from Usborne
- Water WOW! Reusable Activity Books from Melissa & Doug
- Wikki Stix (the smaller packs linked here are great to easily bring one per flight)
- Regular books (read quietly)
- Coloring books used with triangular crayons that don’t roll
- Kindle Fire or iPad pre-loaded with shows or movies
- Children’s headphones for listening to music or watching shows
Note: Most airlines strictly reinforce headphone usage regardless of your child’s age. We recommend practicing with them before the flight to get your child use to them.
Check out our post on 10 Baby and Toddler Toys Under $10 for more ideas.
If you have any other tips for flying with a toddler, please share in the comments below. We will also be sure to update as we pick up new tips for flights with a toddler along the way!
Children’s Book Inspiration: Look Inside an Airport by Rob Lloyd Jones
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