The thought of getting onto an airplane with a baby or toddler is enough to scare a lot of parents out of traveling altogether. But when you live on the other side of the world from all of your family, not flying just isn’t an option. So instead, you become a master of surviving flights with kids!
At ages 6 and 2, my kids they have racked up more frequent flier miles than most people will in a lifetime. And with all that travel, I’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.
It was after our last flight(s) from Maui back home to Vienna (24+ hours) that I thought to myself, I think I finally have this traveling thing down, because that wasn’t bad at all. Maybe at that point I was so sleep deprived that I was delusional? Because let me just repeat that last part…I had just gotten off of a plane after traveling for over 24 hours by myself with 2 young children. Yes, I was probably completely out of my mind.
The question of my sanity aside, here are my top 20 tips for surviving a flight with children of any age:
1. Manage Expectations
Both yours and your child’s. Flying with kids is much harder than flying alone. But with a good attitude and proper preparations, it doesn’t have to be terrible. You just need to go into it with the right mindset. Once you have your expectations in check, move on to your kids.
My kids have been flying since they were newborns, so they know exactly what to expect. But if this will be your child’s first flight, or if they haven’t been on a plane in a while, make sure to explain what is going to happen, and how they will be expected to behave. It may help to read a book like this or this to help young children understand what it will be like.
2. Start Well Rested
Flights are exhausting enough, you don’t want to start your journey tired. So choose your flight time carefully, if possible. Sometimes, you won’t have a choice. But I try to ensure that I don’t start a marathon journey already tired. This means no early morning flights, when everyone is grumpy about having to wake up too early. This also means no 11pm flights, which mean the kids are already exhausted being up way past their bedtime.
I like to leave mid morning, so we can all get a good nights sleep and still make it to the airport fresh and rested. If your kids sleep well on planes (mine don’t!) you might want to choose a flight that will take off close to nap time or bedtime, to increase the likelihood of your kids sleeping during the flight.
3. Dress For The Occasion
I used to always wear workout clothes when we traveled. Because what is comfier than yoga pants and a hoodie! But I always felt sloppy and blah. So I tried to find an outfit that was nearly as comfy as my workout wear, but looked a lot more put together.
My new travel uniform consists of jeans with plenty of stretch and a button up shirt with a tank underneath and a cardigan over – because you can never go wrong with layers. And cute, but comfy shoes. They don’t have to be your bulkiest, but they do have to be comfortable enough to run through the airport when needed.
4. Extra Clothes All Around
Bring an entire extra outfit for every traveller. Most people bring an extra outfit for the baby. Savvy travelers might also throw in an extra shirt for mom. But do yourself a favor and bring an extra everything for everyone, including socks and underwear. We have had enough “mishaps” in our travels to know that it is worth it! Also bring a wet bag or large ziplock bag to store soiled clothing.
5. You Can Never Have Too Many Diapers
If you have a baby or a toddler still in diapers, pack twice as many diapers as you think you will need. Then throw in a few extra. You would much rather have extra diapers than risk running out mid-flight. It also doesn’t hurt to bring a few disposable changing pads to use in the airplane or airport bathroom. You never know when and how well those changing tables are cleaned.
If your little one is potty-trained, it is still a good idea to put them in a pull-up or diaper. Because they will inevitably have to go at the most inopportune time, like during takeoff or landing. Plus, little ones can get really thrown off during travel and accidents are bound to happen!
6. Muslin Blankets Have a Million Uses
We never go anywhere without a few of these Aden+Anais muslin blankets. They can be used for everything: a breastfeeding cover, a burp cloth, bunched up as a pillow, a blanket if it is cold, or a clean place for baby to sit on the floor. They can also be draped over the airplane seat to form a little tent over your children while they sleep or rest, and to keep the overhead reading lights from bothering them on overnight flights.
Once you reach your destination they can be used as picnic blankets, beach blankets, stroller covers, etc. They are lightweight and breathable, and last forever! We have had ours for over 6 years and they still look like new.
7. Age Matters
Most people worry more about bringing an infant on a flight than a small child. In my experience, infants are a breeze to travel with! They are free if you choose to take them as a lap infant, they are tiny so don’t take up much room, they sleep a lot, and can usually be calmed with a bottle or by nursing.
It is the 12-24 month time frame that can be the most challenging. They are bigger and squirmier, so it isn’t enjoyable to have them on your lap. They want to be up and moving the whole time, they don’t sleep as much or as easily as babies, they aren’t yet into movies or iPad apps, and they have the attention span of a gnat. The worst flight I ever had was when my youngest was 16 months and slept a total of 15 minutes on a 12 hour flight! But hang in there, because by about 3, flying becomes easy again.
8. Pack Your Carry-On Carefully
Most guides to packing the perfect carryon do not apply to people traveling with children. You will have absolutely no use for an eye mask, a long novel, or ear plugs…unless you are giving the earplugs to your neighbors! You won’t be relaxing on the flight, you will be entertaining your children, and trying to minimize any disruption to your fellow passengers.
So pack your carry on accordingly. Stick with just the basics to keep the weight down: wallet, phone, lip balm, glasses, passports, extra clothes, diapers, wipes, snacks, iPad(s), and any prescription meds you need for the trip.
9. Kids Pull Their Own Weight
Starting at about age 3, each kid gets their own (little) backpack, and everything that they want to have on the flight goes in it. (Besides the extra clothes and snacks) Depending on their age, they can either pack independently, or you can do it together. But they should be involved in the process as much as possible.
Pack a few age appropriate books, coloring stuff, a light blanket, kids headphones, and any lovey or toy they are attached to. A lot of toys just make a huge mess on the plane and make the bag heavier to carry.
Then have them walk around the house with it for at least 10 minutes. If it is too heavy, reevaluate and take some stuff out. Make sure they know that they are responsible for carrying their backpack the entire time, then stick to it. No one wants to be the bag lady carrying 23 bags through the airport.
10. Arrive Early
Anything you do with kids takes twice as long as it would take you on your own. Getting through the airport is no different. You will have more bags and possibly car seats to get checked in. You will need extra time to get through security, especially with any bottles, baby food, strollers, etc. This is not even factoring in the time that it will take to actually walk to your gate, with your kids stopping to look at things along the way.
Save yourself the stress and plan extra time!
If you are able to move through check-in and security quickly, and find yourself with extra time before boarding, try to find a kids play area in the terminal. Not a lot of people know about these, so they are usually very clean and uncrowded. We have found some amazing little play-gym areas for the kids to burn off some extra steam before boarding, which always makes our flights a lot more manageable.
11. The Car Seat Question
To bring a car seat or not to bring a car seat – this is always the question!
There is no doubt that sitting in a FAA approved car seat aboard an airplane is safest for your child. But what happens when you are on a long haul flight, and your child wants to be up and around. Now you have a big bulky car seat taking up valuable real estate in your already cramped row. We have also had a problem of our FAA approved car seat not being on the airline’s approved car seat list. Which meant that our toddler couldn’t be strapped into the car seat during take off or landing, she had to sit on my lap. Because apparently that was safer? Don’t even get me started!
Weigh the pros and cons carefully, then check with the airline before making your final decision. Car seats can usually be checked as luggage for no cost if you decide against bringing it onboard.
12. A Smile Goes a Long Way
Be nice to everyone! The people at the check-in counter, gate agents, flight attendants. You never know who can snag you an extra empty seat on the flight, or a helping hand when you need it most. And especially the people sitting around you on the plane! I can assure you that being friendly and considerate is just as effective at gaining the sympathy of your neighbors as the elaborate “bribe kits” full of ear plugs and treats that you see on Pinterest. Plus, who on earth has time to make those?
13. Board Last
Some airlines will pre-board families traveling with small children. Don’t do it! Your goal should be to spend the least amount of time stuck on the plane as possible, and boarding early just means your kids will start going stir crazy even earlier.
I always try to be the very last person to board the plane before they close the doors. My carry-on always fits under the seat, so this works for us. However, if you are traveling with a rolling bag, it is likely that the overhead bin space will be gone if you board late, so keep that in mind.
If you are lucky enough to be traveling with another adult, divide and conquer! The first adult boards early and takes as much gear as possible. This way, they can get the car seat installed (if using) and get all of the bags situated without kids underfoot. The second adult boards as late as possible with the kids. There is absolutely no reason to spend more time than necessary cooped up in your tiny airplane seat!
14. Plan For Takeoff and Landing
Babies and toddlers often have pain in their ears during takeoff and initial descent before landing, due to the change in cabin pressure. Be sure to have something ready to help their little ears. If you are still nursing, plan to nurse during both of these times. Otherwise, a bottle or pacifier should work. For older kids, drinking through a straw or chewing something like gummy bears can help pop their ears.
In addition to the discomfort of their ears, I find this is the time that my kids inevitably have to use the restroom. Make sure that you take care of all potty breaks before this so there are (hopefully) no accidents. Also check that you have everything you need under the seat in front of you, as opposed to in the overhead bin. You never know how long the fasten seat belt light will remain on.
15. Snacks Are Your Savior
I usually don’t condone constant snacking. But when we are traveling, all bets are off! Kids are whining – how about a snack? Bored – more snacks? For kids, food is entertainment! I always pack plenty of healthy food, so I don’t have to feel bad about the kids grazing all day.
Start with cut up fruits and veggies, but make sure they will travel well. Bananas get mushy. Apples get brown, watermelon is too watery. Carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers and grapes are all good choices. Peanut butter sandwiches are easy and my kids love them. Cheerios, pretzels and nuts are also good to bring along.
16. Say Yes To Screen Time
Just as I don’t love snacking all day, we have very limited screen time in our house. But again, when we are traveling, all bets are off. Gather every device you have and load them all with music, movies, and age appropriate educational apps. Ideally you have enough devices that each kids gets one. If not, get an headphone splitter so they can watch a movie together. (These kids headphones are definitely our favorite)
A lot of airplanes these days have the individual screens on the seat in front of you, but it is best not to depend on these. Not all planes have them, and even if they do have them, there isn’t always a good selection for kids. On a recent 11 hour flight they had exactly 1 kids movie out of the 50+ available movies.
17. Stay Hydrated
This will make the biggest difference in how you feel both during and after your flight, and can help immensely with jet lag! Always bring a water bottle for each traveler. You can usually get through security with full water bottles for the kids if they look enough like a sippy or a bottle. (We have been using these lately and are always able to get them through with just a quick test by TSA)
For adults, bring an empty water bottle and either fill it after you get through security, or ask the flight attendants to fill it once you are on the plane. This way you can drink throughout the entire flight without waiting for the beverage service. Don’t make the mistake of taking little plastic cups of water for yourself or the kids. No matter how careful you are, they always seem to spill.
18. Get Up and Move
Make a point of getting up and walking around every so often during the flight. Especially on a long haul flight, it is imperative that you walk around and stretch out during the flight. This helps when the kids get super restless, and can kill lots of time. (Just make sure to time it right so you aren’t in the aisle during beverage or food service.) My youngest will walk up and down the aisles for hours, stopping to say hello to the other passengers, checking out the different flight attendant areas, and just seeing what kind of trouble she can get herself into.
19. How Much Longer?
And for the most frequently asked question of all time by all kids on all flights…how much longer? If your kids have access to a device of some sort (which for your sake I hope they do) they can check the time themselves! At the beginning of the flight, the captain usually announces the flight time. Set the timer on whatever device your child is using for that amount of time. Then, when they want to know how much time is left in the flight, they can check their timer! If you have the tv on the back of the seat, this will usually have the remaining flight time listed on one of the screens, but I have found that a timer on the iPad is much easier for my kids to find.
20. Remember, This Can’t Last Forever
Your baby might cry during the flight. Your toddler might throw an epic tantrum. Your kids may kick the seat in front of them. Just do the best you can. And when all else fails, just keep reminding yourself that the plane will land at some point, and your misery will end. I used to get so stressed if my kids weren’t perfect during the flight. I would repeatedly tell myself, it’s OK, I will never see any of these people again.
And then I did. While we were getting settled in our seats after spending Thanksgiving in the U.S. last year, I realized we were sitting behind the exact same couple that had given me the evil eye for the entire 9 hour flight to New York just 5 days prior. And no, for the record, they were not happy to see us again. So instead of saying “I will never see any of these people again”, I now tell myself, “This can’t last forever!”
What are you favorite survival tips for flying with kids?