The thought of flying with a toddler or a baby is enough to make even the most laid-back parent a little nervous. I would be willing to bet that anxiety related to flying with little ones is probably what keeps most people from taking trips in the first place.
I’m not here to tell you it’ll always be a walk in the park, but what day in parenting ever is? After over four years of flying with our two at almost every age from 11 weeks to four years, we have figured out what generally works and what doesn’t. There are tons of lists out there for how to keep kids entertained on a flight. I’m here to share tips for the more practical, logistical side of things. You know, the things you always wonder about, but can’t ever find a good answer for.
The Best and Worst Ages
Everyone always worries about flying with a young baby, especially first time parents. We were the same. But you know what? That cry that you think is so loud that they could hear it in the next town….it pales in comparison to the tantrum of a toddler.
We think that young babies are generally the easiest to travel with. They aren’t mobile yet, their cries really aren’t as bad as they seem to you, and people are generally more compassionate to their meltdowns.
Young toddlers on the other hand. Yikes! I feel like that time period between 15 months and 24 months is the hardest, at least in our experience. They are all over the place and can’t understand the rules about staying in the seat. Early toddlers become super independent (or at least they think they are) so they meltdown at every little “no”, and don’t quite have the attention span to just sit through a movie on the iPad.
This doesn’t mean traveling with kids should be avoided. Instead, take everything in stride and be prepared. Know that it is a finite amount of time that will eventually end at your fabulous destination. Mentally prepare for the worst, then you will be pleasantly surprised when your little one does great instead of screaming the entire flight.
To buy a seat or not?
Should I buy a seat for baby or take advantage of the lap infant price? This is a tough one that you could analyze until the end of time. Ultimately, for us, it usually comes down to price vs flight time. How long can we stand being crowded with him bouncing back and forth to save a few hundred dollars? If the baby isn’t walking yet, we always do an infant in lap. The baby is much more likely to be content in your lap than sitting in a seat beside you.
When we flew to Italy, our son was just shy of one year old and wasn’t walking yet. We didn’t buy a seat for him, knowing he probably wouldn’t sit in it anyway. We knew we’d have three seats across, meaning we had the entire row to ourselves. He spent most of the flight crawling back and forth and playing on the floor. (Yes, I know this is gross, but you gotta give somewhere).
As they start to get older, that extra seat becomes a lot more enticing. Now that he is around 20 months old and moving around like crazy, I’d probably go ahead and buy him a seat for longer flights. The good news is that most airlines offer discounted seats for babies or toddlers with their own seat. Check out this post for more specific tips on flying with a lap infant.
Carseat or no carseat?
When traveling with a toddler or a baby, you have the option of using the carseat on the airplane. It is generally recommended as being the slightly safer option, but not all carseats are aircraft approved. Should you take your carseat with you? For us, this is one that really depends on our destination and plans once we arrive.
In Italy, we planned to only have a car four days out of twelve, so we didn’t even bother taking them at all. We rented and had no complaints.
When we went to Tulum, we knew there wasn’t any public transport we’d be using, so we took our carseats. Our son was 12 weeks old, so we knew the baby carrier would also come in handy at restaurants too. If you’re going to a resort and will only be in a car to and from the airport, consider asking your transport service if they can provide carseats. Many companies will throw them in for free or for a small fee.
We have never used a carseat on the plane. If we travel with carseats, we always gate check them. I just know that unless the flight is extremely short, there is no way a busy toddler will sit happily in a carseat for an extended time without getting antsy. If it becomes difficult to put him back in his carseat, you don’t have anywhere else to put it. You’re stuck with that setup. So we just avoid this altogether.
When we bought our carseats, we purposely looked for an option that would travel well. The Diono carseats we chose fold up and have carry straps for easy travel.
What about the stroller?
We love to take a stroller through the airport. For us, it often acts as a luggage cart for all of the random things like my purse, kids blankets, etc. It also keeps complaints to a minimum when walking between terminals. We always gate check our stroller, keeping it in use until boarding time.
One thing to consider with a stroller is what kind of baggage you use. We use travel backpacks, so this leaves our hands free to push the stroller. If you use rolling suitcases, then I would consider a baby carrier of some sort instead. Also, I’d recommend you get travel backpacks. They are a game changer!
Try to fly nonstop, if possible
If that isn’t possible, then try to limit connections to one. For us, there aren’t many nonstop options via Nashville. (Although more are coming-yay!!) So instead, we try to pick the destinations that have nonstop options from other major US airports to allow for one to two stops at most.
Also, if I only have to spend a little more money for one less connection, you better believe I’m gonna fork over the cash. Once at the connecting airport, we make a beeline for some open space and let them run around and play (out of the way of others, of course).
Yep, you read that right. Most airlines have assigned seats anyway. So why spend an extra 30-45 minutes sitting in your seats while others finish boarding the plane? We almost always skip the family boarding option. We always try to board last, letting them play unrestrained for as long as possible. Now, this doesn’t apply to Southwest Airlines. Seeing as how they have boarding down to a science- and make the others look like ammetuers- it never takes that long anyway. Shoutout to Southwest!
What should I Pack in My Carry On?
This is where your screen time limits need to go out the window! I always try to download a few games and movies before we take a flight. But not too many! Too many choices will have you changing the movie every five minutes- just trust me on this one. I try to go for three to four movies and one or two games.
As for other options, it really depends on the kids. I try to take small toys that won’t be devastating to lose. Coloring books/drawing pads and small packs of crayons, along with small books are great options. You know what kept our 11 month old entertained on a flight? The plastic cups from the drink cart and post-it notes. He spent tons of time stacking the cups over and over. Don’t overthink it.
When packing the kids toys/entertainment consider how heavy the bag will be once it is all packed up. You will be toting that thing through the airport along with anything else you packed. Only pack a few small things per child. Trust me. And let’s just go ahead and throw this out there…you won’t be reading, so don’t even bother packing that book for yourself.
Organization is key
When packing your carry-on, make sure to organize everything! You want to quickly reach into your bag and find exactly what you want. This is why less is best. For me, crayons and stickers etc were in one small pouch, while small toys were in another. Anything baby related- diapers/wipes/powder and bottles- were all at the top of my bag for quick access. I knew exactly where to reach for chapstick, lotion or earbuds for myself. For our trip to Italy, there was a carryon for kid stuff- toys, iPad and headphones, our daughter’s blankets- then a diaper bag with essentials for baby boy and me.
Consider using a baby carrier to help baby sleep
With a lap baby, I usually walk onto the plane with him or her already in the carrier. This kept our little guy still for the first few hours of the flights to Italy and Mexico, and he eventually went to sleep both times. If he’d started out with the freedom of crawling around, it would’ve been a fight to get him into the carrier afterward.
Snacks and Drinks
They work every time! Individually packed is best so you can always pull out a new one when needed. Plus, they pack easier.
Pack your own water bottles/sippy cups- 1 for each kid. The cups on the plane aren’t exactly spill proof.
Caffeine for you: You probably won’t be sleeping. I’ll go ahead and say it, I was miserable for the first few hours of our flight from DC to Rome. Our daughter had fallen right to sleep, but our son didn’t. And as you’d probably guess, she woke up as soon as he was falling asleep. I was so frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Once I finally realized it wasn’t in the cards and changed my outlook I was a lot more pleasant. Embrace it. Hence, the caffeine.
If all else fails order a beer or wine (but white because you know some will spill, and you don’t want to deal with red wine stains on vacation).
What tips do you have for flying with little ones? Do you prefer flying with a toddler or a baby?
Still have questions? Reach out to us, we’d love to try to help!