Last month, the husband, the 2-year-old, and I packed a half dozen suitcases and flew halfway across the United States from Austin to Portland and back again. That’s 13 hours total spent in airports and on planes, and while we’re pretty experienced traveling with our kiddo, it’s asking a lot of a toddler to sit still in a cramped space for several hours at a stretch and then to resist running shrieking through the airports in between flights. Not that you can really blame them. A lot of adults struggle to handle air travel these days with grace and dignity.
Flying with a toddler, though, is manageable, if not exactly a joy, and in my opinion is a whole lot easier than flying with a baby. Here are a few tips for surviving air travel with little ones.
1. Embrace the judgment.
If it’s your first time flying, you are probably thinking, “I just don’t want to be those parents.” Let’s clear one thing up right away. When it comes to air travel, all of us hope not to be those parents, and all of us invariably at some point in our travels become those parents. Accept and expect in advance that your kid is probably going to struggle at some point, if not several points, in your trip with sitting still, being quiet, minding their manners, and following the rules for several hours at a time with limited opportunity to burn off all that energy building up inside them. Toddler meltdowns are totally normal, not a sign that you’re the worst parent ever, and people who don’t understand that are probably people who have no business judging your 2-year-old for their lack of consideration for strangers. Stay cool when your kid does the inevitable. Ignore the judgy stares. You’ll all be fine.
2. Time it right.
There may only be so much you can do about the timing of your flight, depending on your starting point and your destination, but as much as possible, try to pick flights that will work with your toddler’s regular routine. Start your trip early in the morning, when they will be fresh and most likely to be patient and cooperative. Try to avoid long layovers during your child’s normal nap time, but if you must have a layover, try to schedule it around when your child will be ready for lunch or a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack. If you have to fly late in the evening, try to time it so you are getting onto the plane right around their usual bed time and put them in their pajamas before you fly, so when the flight attendant turns off the cabin lights, they are pretty much ready to go to sleep as usual.
3. Bring a car seat.
Part of what makes air travel so difficult for kids is that it is an unusual experience. This is probably not their routine, so anything you can do to normalize flying will help them behave more like they normally do. Kids are used to traveling in car seats. When they ride in their car seat on a plane, they already have some basic expectations of what’s going to happen. Plus, the car seat is probably more comfortable than the actual seat, and they will be more likely to sleep. For more information on flying with a car seat, read this.
4. Bring snacks.
I’m normally not an advocate of letting your kid eat whatever whenever, but I make an exception for flying. Snacks bring the bliss of absolute silence. Goldfish, peanut butter crackers, raisins, pretzels…whatever they like to eat, let them eat. I recommend parceling out the snacks a small amount at a time in order to make the food last as long as possible and keeping a sippy cup filled with water at the ready.
5. Bring entertainment.
For this trip, we brought coloring books and washable markers, story books, and wonder of wonders, movies. I’m not normally an advocate of sedating your kid with screen time, but again, flying is not a normal experience. We brought Isla’s favorite movies with us and a small electronic device for her to watch them on, and while they didn’t keep her preoccupied the entire time, they did give us a couple of hours of quiet, which is saying a lot.
6. Bring their favorite lovey and blanket.
You’ll want these for your whole trip anyhow, but on the plane, tucking your toddler in with a lovey and a blanket when it’s time to take a nap brings their normal nap time routine into play and makes it easier for them to settle.
7. Check your suitcases.
You’re already going to be loaded down with all the carry-on you need to keep your little one preoccupied. Check your suitcases. They’re just another thing to have to manage and keep track of in your travels. You’ll also be grateful not to have to worry about whether you’ll be able to find precious space in the overhead bins to store them. (Make sure if you check your bags, though, you have back-up clothes and toiletries in your carry-on for at least a day, so if your bags get lost or delayed, you aren’t up a creek.)
8. Fly Southwest.
I’m not getting paid to say this at all. For our last trip, we decided to fly Southwest, and it was amazing. You get two free checked bags per person, which means for the first time since our daughter was born, we haven’t had to pay upward of $50 to check our bags. They are one of the few airlines today who allow families to do early boarding. You’ll still have to wait for the people who paid more for early seating to go ahead of you, but you’ll get to sit before 2/3 of the passengers, which is great, because you are guaranteed to have a cozy spot where your entire family can sit together. Plus, they give out free snacks on their flights. Again, who does that anymore?! Southwest, and that’s pretty much it. I highly recommend getting their credit card and becoming a member in their rewards program, because it can help you get cheap tickets later on. Our trip this fall is going to help pay for a good portion of our trip back to Oregon at Christmas, and believe me, we are very grateful not to have to pay the full price tag on ridiculous holiday plane tickets this year.
9. Let them run.
Let them run around and burn off as much energy in the various airports you will be in and out of as much as you can. Even if other people think your child is being a little hellion. Even if it does mean you spend the whole time chasing after them. They’ll be better on the plane if you let them get as much of their wiggles out in a place where there’s actually room for them to wiggle.
10. Don’t worry about potty training.
Most toddlers today aren’t potty trained, but even if yours is, skip trying to deal with the potty when you’re flying. You may not be able to get them to a potty when they need to go, and the potty you may be able to get them to may not be something you want your toddler sitting on. (Airplane lavs are basically glorified port-a-potties . They’re disgusting.) Put them in an overnight diaper, which will last longer if you aren’t able to change their diapers frequently. Explain that potty training is being suspended for the day. While it may set back potty training a bit, I’d rather have to hit the reset button on potty training than have to deal with multiple accidents in airplanes and airports on an already stressful travel day.
11. Tag team.
Whenever possible, fly with a buddy. That can be your partner, your own mom or dad, or a friend, but seriously, the buddy system is critical for flying with toddlers. Not only do things tend to go more smoothly when you have two adults around to handle everything, but when you are at your wit’s end, you can look to your buddy and say, “Your turn.” And in my experience, when your kid is totally fed up with you, they will magically turn into The Best Kid Ever for whomever you hand them off to.
12. Be patient.
It’s going to be a tough day for everyone no matter what. Be patient with your kids. Be patient with your partner. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with airline and airport staff. This is especially important when things do not go as planned. If your kids see you losing your calm, they are more likely to come even more unraveled than they already would have. Take a deep breath. You’ll get there eventually…or you won’t, which unfortunately sometimes happens, too. Either way, you’re not going to get there any faster by losing your patience, and the trip will be a lot more enjoyable for everyone if you keep calm.