Flying with a toddler is hard! There are no two ways about it, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Other passengers will always run the gamut from understanding, even helpful, to complete jerks. No one thinks it’s fun to fly with a cranky or crying little person, whether it’s your own or someone else’s. The difference for parents who have a small child with them is that when they get off the plane, the cranky, angry, crying person comes with them. They can’t escape. So what can make it less bad?
The first step is the first step: booking your flight. Look for a flight that is non-stop, if possible (and affordable), but definitely try to time the schedule so they are on the plane during naptime, or at least when they are normally least active. If your little one is in daycare, they probably have a scheduled recess or play time when they are active, as well as scheduled circle time and other quieter times. Use their normal schedule to your advantage as much as possible.
The advantages of a non-stop with kids include fewer descents/ascents (and less ear popping issues), fewer times you need to gather all your belongings and drag them through the airport (if you change planes), less time sitting on the plane in a confined space (if you aren’t changing planes), and fewer opportunities to lose precious items. You do not want to get to Los Angeles only to discover that they left the special luvvie they need to sleep in Chicago O’Hare or one a plane that is now in Boston.
If your flight allows you to choose your seats in advance, select an aisle seat because toddlers want (need) to walk up and down the aisle more than once or twice unless it’s a super-short flight. If you’re lucky, your family will get an entire row and they can get to the aisle or window easily.
Depending on how long your flight and the airline, you may have a meal. Check for kids meals. Of course, many airlines no longer provide meals and you will have snacks and possibly even a whole meal with you, but wouldn’t it be great to have them get a hot meal they actually eat some of? (Yes, I am a dreamer.) You will need to pack far more snacks (watch out for sugar), toys, and distractions than normal, but you already know that. Remember that you can pick up some extra items at the airport, including hot snacks and toys. When choosing toys to bring, think about how easy the pieces are to lose and how upset your kid will be to lose them. If they won’t care or notice and it has no small/easily broken pieces, that’s an outstanding choice.
Check to see if the airport has a children’s play space. Some do, and it’s worth arriving an extra half hour early to let your kids spend the last thirty minutes before the flight running and playing, and that’s not just true for toddlers. Even ten-year-olds will happily burn off some energy there.
Load some new apps on your phone and whatever other devices your kids use. Having new apps, videos, and music to enjoy on the flight could be huge! The rule about getting out and exercising instead of being on electronics really, extra-super doesn’t apply on an airplane. This is the perfect place for an “electronic babysitter.” There is even a ride-on suitcase just for little ones. For frequent travelers, the Trunki might just be a must-buy item.
Finally, remember to check in online to speed up everything when you arrive at the airport.
At the Airport/Security
This starts with packing and getting dressed. If you have a second car seat your child is happy with, pack that so you don’t need to remove the one from your car and pack it at the airport. Next, if you don’t use a small umbrella stroller regularly, find or buy one for $15 or so. You don’t want your $200 stroller getting damaged in transit, and think about how much extra stuff you will have to handle while traveling. A tiny umbrella stroller is soo much easier! We use a separate suitcase for each person so we can find things quickly and easily. It also keeps the size and weight down on each suitcase, although we did use a giant suitcase when our son was a toddler. It was filled with diapers, wipes, a few toys, and all the other bulky toddler essentials.
You can gate-check your stroller and car seat, and you may be able to gate-check a booster seat. If you ask nicely, sometimes they let parents with small children use a luggage cart on the opposite side of TSA, where they are normally forbidden. This can be a huge help! You will need to remove everything to go through TSA, then ask the agents to push the cart through to wait for you. Finally, keep an eye on the cart so no one takes it away and restack all your stuff on it when you get through.
Everyone goes through TSA, including little kids. Try to have everyone wear slip-on shoes to make this process easier. Keep things in a fairly small number of bags. Personally, I’m a big fan of the giant blue IKEA bags. Those will easily hold the winter coats, gloves, hats, and even boots for an entire family. They even fit an umbrella stroller, more or less. Whatever you need to carry, remember that you will have to pack and unpack your stroller and other things more than a few times.
Once you are through TSA, you should have a little time before your flight leaves. You can use this time to buy your little one a new, overpriced, soon-to-break toy to distract your little one for part of the flight. You can also use this to buy yourself a coffee, or buy a hot lunch/dinner to take on the plane.
People with small children can board first. Is this really a benefit? Yes, you can get dibs on overhead space and on good seats, if they aren’t assigned, but you may spend up to an entire extra thirty minutes confined to the plane. On the other hand, if your little one needs time to adjust to new spaces, the extra thirty minutes might help, so that really is a question. If it’s a benefit to you, take advantage. If not, hang back and wait until closer to departure time.
Once you are on board, let your little one poke around for a few minutes to satisfy their curiosity, as long as they stay safe. Would you rather have them looking under the seat in front of you while the plane is at the gate, or when you are cruising at 30,000 feet? Realistically, that’s about as germ-free as the bathroom floor of a mass transit bus, but kids do poke around in the darndest places, so keep plenty of sanitizer handy. The important thing is to keep them safe while you are flying. It’s also a good idea to save the toys, snacks, etc., for as long as possible.
If you need help, ask the flight attendants. They can provide extra blankets and pillows as well as help lifting carry-ons into overhead bins and they have little surprises for kids like pilots wings, a coloring book, or other goodies from the airline. If you forgot lollipops or something to help with the ear popping, they may be able to help with that, too. They will also be more than happy to ensure you have an airsickness bag, or two.