There are few things more difficult than getting a toddler to sit still for five minutes, let alone for hours on a long flight. While I can’t offer any magical solutions that will make your trip the most pleasant plane ride you’ve ever had, I can offer some helpful tips on how to fly with a toddler.
Before I get into how to fly with a toddler, I have to mentally prepare you. This is going to be tough. If it’s not, you are one lucky parent. Going into this adventure knowing that it will be a challenge is important. Even if you follow every tip I offer on How to Fly with a Toddler and you are the most prepared traveler in the world, this is still going to be a challenge. That being said, taking the necessary steps to avoid any problems, other than taming your wild child, will undoubtedly reduce the stress. Who knows, maybe your little one will be so in awe of the new environment that you won’t have any trouble at all! My fingers are crossed for you!
How to Fly with a Toddler
Booking Your Flight
Before you even book your flight, you will need to decide if your child is going to have their own seat, or sit on your lap. Most domestic U.S. airlines (if not all) allow children under 2 years of age to fly on your lap for free. While this is not usually the preferred option, and of course a car seat in their own seat is technically safer, many parents simply cannot afford to pay for an extra seat. (My husband and I included!) If you are able to get the extra seat for your little one, your may have an easier time keeping them happy and entertained, but will likely still run into the same issues to a lesser degree.
Contact the Airline
If you decide to go the route of traveling with your child on your lap, you will need to let the airline know after you have booked your flight. I actually recommend calling them first just to make sure there isn’t anything special you need to do when booking. When you do call, this is also a good time to ask about any airline specific policies regarding additional carry-ons for your baby, special boarding procedures, etc. I will cover some of these topics, but it is always best to check with your specific airline as well.
Is the thought of traveling with your toddler giving you some major mom anxiety? Check out my post on 8 Ways to Manage Anxiety for Moms
When it comes to packing, you definitely need to carefully decide where you put things. How many times have you finally settled in on a flight only to realize that the book you want to read is in the overhead bin packed under three layers of clothes? Now think about if instead of a book, it was your baby’s favorite toy and they are screaming at take off. Trust me on this one. Pack carefully.
If you choose to get a seat just for your baby, then you can bring two carry-on items for them, just like you can for yourself (one overhead and one under the seat); however, if you are bringing your child on your lap, you are slightly more limited. Most airlines allow you to bring one additional bag as the “diaper bag”. This will be stowed in the overhead bin. There are not typically specific guidelines for the size of the diaper bag, but it’s safe to assume that if you bring an entire suitcase and try to pull it off as a diaper bag they will likely make you check it.
Milk and Formula
Within your allowed carry-on luggage, you are allowed one quart size bag with your liquids (per person) with each container of liquids being no more than 3.4 ounces. One exception to this when traveling with an infant or a toddler is that you can bring their milk or formula. This will still need to fit in your carry-on allowance and it will need to be removed at the Security Checkpoint and screened separately.
You will also need to inform the TSA agent upfront that you have it so that they can screen it accordingly. The quantity you are allowed is not specifically stated, but generally you will want to only bring what is needed for the time at the airport and the flight itself (with a little extra in case of delays). Once you arrive at your destination, you can buy more milk or formula or breastfeed/pump as needed.
Other Baby Related Items
In addition to milk and formula, you are usually permitted to bring canned, jarred and processed baby food as well as liquid filled teethers. You may also bring ice packs as needed. These items may need to be screened separately.
Before You Go
24 hours before your flight, you can check in online. This is particularly helpful if you are not checking a bag but I recommend it either way. Depending on the airline you are flying with, earlier check in may mean earlier boarding. While many airlines allow passengers with children to board early, it doesn’t hurt to get ahead of the game, just in case.
When you check in online, you will be able to print your boarding passes. I recommend printing two copies for each person. One copy can stay with you and the other can be placed in an easily accessible place in your luggage as a backup. Additionally, many airlines have apps that allow you to save a digital boarding pass. I love to use this method, but I always print physical boarding passes as well.
As you are leaving…
Before you leave the house to go to the airport, make sure to check the status of your flight online. If the flight has been cancelled or delayed, it is better to avoid a longer stay at the airport with your little one than necessary. That being said, you do still want to arrive more than two hours early. Most airlines recommend two hours, but with a baby on board, I recommend giving yourself even more time. Additionally, when traveling around the holidays, you will always want to arrive a little earlier. Depending on the day and time of day, those security checkpoint lines can get pretty long.
Right before you leave the house, make sure you have your most important items. I like to make a list ahead of time so that I can quickly run through it just before walking out the door. My list usually includes the following:
- IDs for all adults
- Some form of ID for little ones (Birth Certificate, Social Security Card, etc.)
- Boarding passes
- Baby/Toddler necessities for feeding, changing, and sleeping
- Phone and charger
- Any other documents needed (transportation to and from airport, rental car info, parking info, etc.)
When You Get to the Airport
If you are checking any bags, this will be the first thing that you do when you arrive at the airport. There, they will issue you a boarding pass. If you have already printed one at home, just use the new one(s) they provide. You will then go to the TSA security checkpoint. Make sure to take a second before you get in line to get squared away. If the line is long, you may have some time to prepare while you wait, but they might ask to see your boarding pass at the beginning of the line as well. Having your ID and boarding pass handy at the start will avoid any last-minute scrambling.
Before you get up to the front of the line, make sure you have prepared everything for the screening process. Remove your shoes or have them untied and ready for removal. (Better yet, wear slip on shoes!).You don’t need to remove your little one’s shoes. Remove all liquids and tablets or laptops. Take off your coat and remove any belts or metal items. If your little one is in a stroller, take them out and fold up the stroller.
Basically, when you get up to the conveyor belt, you want to be ready to move quick! Grab the bins and put all the loose items in them (tablets and laptops need to be in their own bin). Put the bins, your carry-on bags and the stroller on the conveyor belt. As soon as you are close enough to talk to one of the TSA representatives, you will want to inform them of any special circumstances. More than likely this will only include the additional liquids you are bringing for your child (milk, formula, teethers, ice packs).
If you find yourself at the checkpoint unprepared, step aside and let others go in front of you while you get everything squared away. This is another reason why you will want to arrive a little earlier. Traveling with a toddler is challenging enough. If you are also rushing and worried that you might miss your flight, your stress will be amplified to a level no parent wants.
Once you get through security, you will probably be pretty early. But before you rush to the most delicious restaurant in your terminal, make sure to stop by your gate. Check to make sure that your flight is still on time and, if there is anyone working the counter yet, pop over to let them know you are traveling with a child. If you are lucky and your flight has open seats, you might just get an extra seat for baby free of charge!
Keep in mind that the airline employees are no stranger to special requests. Don’t act as though you are entitled to anything. Simply ask them if there is anything that they can recommend to make things go more smoothly and graciously accept any tips or advantages that they provide. If they are short with you, it’s safe to assume that they have had a lot of grumpy customers that day. Just be pleasant. If you don’t get the response you want upfront, your positive attitude might just help you out later on.
On the Plane
Alright, you’ve made it this far. Now you have to face the greatest challenge of all. How on earth do you keep a toddler happy and quiet for hours? Well, to be completely, honest, you probably can’t. But you might be able to keep them happy and quiet (ish) for some of the time. Any break from chaos is a relief for a toddler parent. Here are a few tips for managing your crazy little kid…
Electronics are your friend
- Now is not the time to stick to your guns about screen time. Grab that iPad and let your little one go to town. I recommend reserving this tip for when you’re out of other ideas,
Use your baby carrier for naps
- Wouldn’t it be great if your toddler slept for even 30 minutes on the flight? That’s going to be tough if you don’t have anywhere for them to lie down. Baby wearing might be your best bet.
- When permitted, walk up and down the aisle with your little one. They will likely be fascinated by the new environment and the variety of people. If they are smiley, you may even win over some hearts and gain some sympathy if a tantrum kicks in later on.
Make sure baby’s needs are met
- While you can’t control the situation entirely, you can make sure that your toddler isn’t fussing because he/she is hungry, or has a dirty diaper. Stay on top of these things to put yourself in the best position possible.
Offer a bottle at takeoff and landing
- If you can get your little one to drink from a bottle or sippy cup during take off and landing, the swallowing may help with the pain of popping ears.
Bring new and exciting things
- While you probably want to bring some staple snacks that you know your toddler will eat, it might pay off to bring something new and exciting as well. This goes for toys as well. If they have a lovey, you better not forget it, but a new toy might entertain them for longer.
Expect the worst and accept it
- If you have already accepted that your toddler will likely scream the entire flight, then you can only go up from there. Then, if they are happy for even thirty minutes you can enjoy it. If you go into it thinking that they will be an angel the entire time, then you will just be frustrated that the silence only lasted for half an hour.
I truly hope that some of these tips help you out when traveling with your toddler, even if it only provides a small amount of relief. I wish you the best of luck on your journey, with a toddler, in a long metal tube, thousands of miles in the air, for a long period of time. You’re going to need it!
Traveling with your little one will likely leave you pretty worn out. Don’t get burnt out! Check out my post on 5 Ways to Avoid Mom Burnout
Do YOU have any tips for traveling with toddlers? Let me know in the comments below!
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