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Flying with a Toddler: Our Tips and Experience

I’ll be honest, this is one of the hardest ages to fly with a young child – and no two kids are the same so it can be very hard to know what to expect. I have been flying with toddlers for years (I have three children) and we’re currently smack in the middle of toddlerhood with our youngest child. If you’re a first-time reader we also have two older children that are 14 and 17. We have flown with all of our kids since they were born.

Recently we flew with him from Morocco to the US. This was his 4th international flight however we haven’t flown with him in over 18 months. On the last trip, he was just entering toddlerhood, now he’s a full-on preschooler. There are a lot of changes that happen in this age range, the largest being the transition from non-verbal to verbal and the ability to understand and follow directions. This can make a huge difference!

I am categorizing toddlers as children from ages 1-3 years old but your definition may be different.

Tips and Tricks for flying with a toddler

Planning Your Flights

The number one tip I can offer is to consider your toddler’s schedule and make every attempt to stick to it. You may also want to factor in things like time changes. In some cases, this won’t be possible but whenever you can, know that spending a bit more money can also save you a lot of headaches.

Here is an example of how we chose to route our travel to try and make it easier for everyone.

We left Casablanca mid-day for New York. This had us boarding a little bit before our son’s normal nap time. But it gave enough leeway that he could have some time to play before we encouraged him to nap. I have never pushed my kids to sleep on flights and instead tried to set them up to rest instead. This means having a travel pillow and travel blanket ready to go.

Should You Bring Your Car Seat Onboard?

My personal opinion is that it’s not worth it. I have way too many other things to carry and worry about to even consider lugging a car seat with me. I will say that having an extra seat for your child is 100% worth it. I have flown with all 3 of my kids as lap infants internationally and while yes it saves money it is not enjoyable at all.

Which seats on a plane are best with a toddler?

Is there a good answer for this? I’m not sure. I can say the seats that I dislike are any that are close to the bathrooms because the constant opening and closing (slamming) of the doors is guaranteed to wake up your child if they do manage to fall asleep. I have found that if I do end up with an extra seat it’s when I’m in the middle rows not in the aisle unless the flight is less full. Also sitting in the middle section of the plane is usually more likely to yield an extra seat than in the front or back.

Plane Routines with Toddlers

After playing a little and having some lunch, Baby A fell asleep for about 2 hours which is in his normal nap window. We landed in New York at 4:30 pm 9:30 pm in Morocco (a bit past bedtime). While there is normally an option to continue on with travel, we truly don’t mind having layovers. They have always been a huge help when traveling with kids because they break up the day and also get everyone some rest.

I book hotels that are close to the airport and that we can get to and from within 15 minutes. Then it’s into our normal bedtime routine; dinner, bath, changing clothes, and bed. I also swear by white noise machines. We have used one since our son was born and travel with this small one as well. It’s great because it is super tiny and light, but works great, has a Bluetooth option and a USB plug so we don’t have to worry about different electrical outlets.

An early morning flight the next day is usually not an issue for us so I try to book around 8 am or earlier. Because we’re all still partially on Moroccan time we try to sleep by 8 or 9 pm and are up by 4 or 5 am. My kids know we’ll have breakfast at the airport and it’s a bit of a treat. (Think bagels in New York, potato tortillas in Madrid, or pancakes in Amsterdam).

We’re all rested and can take our final flight. I have found that having a routine like this really helps my kids adjust to a new time zone and just manage the time better. Of course, a direct flight is always preferred but this is never an option for us.

What to Pack for Toddlers on Planes

One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make, and especially parents flying alone with a toddler or baby is having WAY too much stuff. To make this as easy as possible for yourself you need to check as much luggage as you possibly can and not carry it onboard. I always budget to make sure I can check most everything and only deal with a small bag for me and a small carry-on bag with my kids’ things.

I know this isn’t always possible but trust me when I say this will REALLY make your trip a lot easier. You already have a child to look after, you do not need to also try and pull a giant carry-on suitcase, bag for your child, and bag for yourself through the airport and down the aisle. It’s just not worth the headache.

In sticking with your single bag for your toddler here’s what I make sure to include;

  • at least 1 change of clothes for my child and 1 clean shirt for me in a Ziploc bag
  • a small travel blanket
  • toys and activities for them to do – a few of each item they might want to have
  • snacks, snacks, snacks and snacks
  • a sippy cup with water + an extra bottle of water or milk
  • diapers, wipes and diaper cream as needed

Travel Food for Toddlers

Traveling with toddlers means you need to have food packed and ready. My kids of all ages tend to reject meals on airplanes so we have a picnic lunch that we fly with. I try to keep this as mess-free as possible and avoid liquids whenever possible. Here are some of the ideas that you could try;

I will add that the quality of plane food in current travel times has been drastically worse than prior to 2020. We didn’t even get any food given to us for our toddler even though we paid full price for his ticket.

Toddler Airplane Activities

Toddler Airplane Activities

Keeping your kids busy on the plane, especially younger children, can feel like a daunting challenge. I won’t lie to you, I dread flying with my kids when they’re around 1 -2 years old. In my opinion, this is the hardest age as they’re really not able to have a sustained focus nor communicate well what they want or need. I know that I will not have any amount of rest time while flying at that age unless by some good fortune they fall asleep.

How to plan your activities

What do your kids like?

This is really the first thing to start with. Then think of how you can downsize their favorite toys, games or activities. My son loves his cars but I’m not going to pack the huge ones, instead, I’ll add a few different small cars, usually ones that he hasn’t played with in a while (this makes them seem new). Masking tape is also great for building roads on tray tables!

Playdough is another activity that my son loves. So I add some dough (one color usually) along with some odds and ends that he can use to play with it; small shape cutters, small figurines, buttons or rocks – whatever it’s just about having variety for open-ended play. (Check out our playdough kit for some more ideas).

Best No Mess Coloring Books

I have 2 kids that liked to color and 1 that didn’t so don’t bother packing these coloring items if your child doesn’t already like coloring. There are two main things that we really like and that my son uses; Water Wow books and Crayola Mess Free Coloring Books. Both of these options mean you don’t have to worry about color being left behind on the plane because they went off the page.

If your kids are a little older then you might choose a variety of coloring tools. I have a little pouch that has washable markers, crayons, and colored pencils. I also have regular coloring books and a small paper pad.

If you know you’ll be traveling with your toddler by plane and aren’t sure what to pack to entertain them, I highly recommend starting to do some activities that could be plane adaptable. Don’t do it so much that they get bored with the activity (and will not want to do it when you actually travel) but do it to get them used to these ideas and for you to see what keeps their attention.

The iPad

I know parents have different philosophies around screen-time but we have no rules when it comes to flights. If our kids decide to spend the entire time on a screen I just don’t care enough to let it bother me. All rules go out the window. For our toddler, we download plenty of his favorite shows so that they can play offline. We also remove all apps before flying that require internet so that he doesn’t lose his mind when they don’t work.

For sound and headphones, we have headband-style headphones. He’s 50/50 on these. Sometimes he will wear them and sometimes he hates them. But, I’ll take that over never wearing them. If he won’t wear them we keep the volume super low so that it doesn’t bother other people. Wearing headphones is another thing you may want to practice with before flying or it could be a disaster.

Stroller or No Stroller?

Toddler sitting on older brothers shoulders in an airport

Toddlers are at a weird age where they may not need a stroller anymore so you might be wondering if the hassle is worth it. I feel like a stroller is always worth it BUT with a catch. After our first flying experience when he was 2 months old, and losing my stroller (thank god for the wearable body carrier!) I bought a new umbrella stroller. This option folds down super small and can fit in the overhead on the plane. I don’t have to gate-check it and that means I always have the stroller.

We use this for everyday use and it makes traveling with a stroller a no-brainer. We have this gb Pockit but there are a few different models you can look at.

I really keep using the stroller until my kids were around 5 because I just never knew what would happen and a stroller can really come in handy when your travel day gets extended. I did not want to be carrying my kids once they were older.

New Travel Requirements: Masks and Tests

Flying with a toddler and wearing a mask

One of the biggest things that I was worried about was the new travel requirements (2021) of wearing masks on flights and PCR tests. For our international flight wearing a mask was not required for our youngest, however, on our domestic flight, we weren’t sure if it would be enforced in the airport or on the plane.

So, we practiced in case it was.

Our son doesn’t wear a mask to school, so he wasn’t really used to it. Just like with the headphones we got him a few in advance and would wear them before our trip. We’d try to get him to wear it 10 minutes at first, then 15 minutes, and so on.

Our guess was the longest he’d wear it without a snack or drink was about 30-45 minutes so our goal was to work up to that. We also picked out some fun masks (think puppy dog face or Spiderman) and gave him the new masks on traveling day as another fun thing.

He did need a PCR test to travel and I honestly just looked at this like any other medical procedure. There wasn’t any way around it so I basically held him as firm as possible while they did the nose swab. Thankfully the test was quick and over with. We also had him do his test first so he didn’t see anyone else having theirs done and possibly get more anxious. Instead, he could watch everyone else and laugh!

Above all other advice – remain calm!

So many times parents who are flying with their toddlers for the first time, or who are not frequent flyers themselves are so anxious and nervous about the trip that they make it worse for themselves. Kids feed off your energy. Stay calm. Give yourself plenty of time and check-in as much of your baggage as possible!

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