16 Tips for Flying With Toddlers and Young Kids

Traveling with toddlers can be hard, at least if you're not properly prepared. Here, experienced flight attendants share their secrets for flying with young kids.

mom and child seated in an airplane


With long security lines, cramped airplane seating, and busy waiting areas, flying isn't the most pleasant experience—and all of the frustration increases exponentially when you add a toddler into the mix. Some young children simply don't have the patience for airport security. They might despise sitting quietly for hours on end, and they might be uneasy during turbulence or get upset with the ear-popping changes in air pressure.

Thankfully, though, you can have a worry-free travel day with proper preparation and planning. Whether you're jetting off to your relative's house or Disney World, check out these stress-reducing strategies for flying (and traveling) with toddlers—some of which came straight from flight attendants.

Book an Early Morning Departure

If you're traveling with toddlers or young children, you should book an early morning departure. These give you the best chance of avoiding delays at takeoff and landing, a flight attendant named Patrick explains. "They are usually less crowded, too," he says. "Plus, everyone is tired and just wants to nap—kids especially."

Save Your Upgrades for Toddler-Free Travel

Traveling in first class with kids can be more stressful than it's worth. Mom Joanna recounts the story of traveling with her loud, lively toddler and incurring the vocal wrath of her first-class seatmates for the entirety of the flight. "It's not fair, but you're just going to get more empathy and support with kids in economy," says a flight attendant.

Talk to Your Kids About What to Expect

"My experience is kids do so much better when they know what to expect," says Shireen, a mom of three from Australia who's traveled to the U.S. several times with her kids. She recommends watching a Let's Go Play video on YouTube, which goes over the entire flight experience, from baggage check-in and ticketing to onboard etiquette and safety.

Dress in Layers and Skip Shoes With Laces

Whether you are changing climates or simply dealing with in-flight heat and/or air conditioning, you can and should be ready for drastically changing temperatures when traveling with a toddler. Wendy, a flight attendant and mom, suggests you dress your kids in comfortable layers—preferably without buttons, zippers, or anything that could prevent them from getting to the bathroom in time.

The same principle applies to shoes: Avoid laces and opt for slip-ons. "There's the added benefit of getting through airport screening that much faster," she says.

Bring Surprises

When flying with a toddler, a wrapped new plaything has two advantages: Kids love to unwrap stuff, and a new toy has more attention-grabbing pull.

Consider Using a Smaller Stroller

Getting through an airport without a stroller is unthinkable for some parents, so consider switching out your regular-size stroller for a small, compact umbrella stroller or travel stroller. Also, check your stroller at the gate before boarding; the crew will have it waiting for you when you get off the plane.

If you've got more than one little traveler with you, consider a kid harness (aka leash), Wendy suggests. "I was so against them until I saw a woman with three young boys using them in baggage claim. It made so much sense," she says, "with the exit doors to outside right there. Look, flying is stressful enough. Do what you need to do to protect your kids and your sanity."

Pack Just Enough

Flight attendants urge parents to pack enough essentials for the flight. "Unfortunately, you can expect there to be zero food on a plane that would interest a kid," says Lynn. "And we are so limited in what we can offer in terms of comfort items as well."

On the flip side, parents will struggle if they zealously overpack. "Usually, when it's one parent traveling with one or more kids, they'll bring way too much stuff in an attempt to keep their kids happy," Wendy says. "They forget they have to carry all that stuff off the plane with them, along with their kids."

Plan Your Packing List

To guard against over-packing while ensuring you don't forget anything critical, consider writing out a full packing list. Star or highlight those items that will need to be packed last minute (like the lovey your kiddo sleeps with or the tablet that's currently charging) so you have a checklist to consult one last time before heading out the door.

Sample Airplane Packing List for Toddlers

When packing your carry-on for the plane ride, use this list as a starting point:

  • Comfort item: Consider packing one of your toddler's favorite comfort items in your carry-on for mid-flight snuggles. If the comfort item is a pacifier, be sure to pack more than one, lest it gets flung down the aisle or on the floor.
  • Sanitizer, wipes, pull-ups, and diapers: You'll want these critical items within reach at all times during your travels. Not sure how many diapers to throw in the carry-on? One diaper per hour of travel is recommended.
  • Electronic devices: If there is any time to let up on strict screen time rules, it's when you're traveling. Make sure that whatever device you're bringing is fully charged and ready to go—and don't forget the chargers for the flight back. Consider pre-loading the tablet or phone with your kids' favorite movies or shows for offline viewing.
  • Kid-size headphones: Be sure to follow the basic rules of travel etiquette and pack comfy headphones your little one can wear while enjoying their favorite games or shows. Have more than one kid in tow? Consider investing in a splitter so both can enjoy the show with their own set of headphones.
  • Art supplies: A small box of crayons and blank paper can go a long way when it comes to entertaining your toddler on a plane. Mix things up and pack some fun stickers or even plain sticky notes to add to the excitement.
  • Plastic bags: You never know when you'll need an extra bag for wet clothes, a dirty diaper, or even just for trash, so pack a few extras.
  • Water bottle: Toss an empty clean water bottle into your bag to fill after you get through security. Just make sure that it's leakproof!
  • Healthy and fun mess-free snacks: While you don't necessarily want to load your kid up with sugar just before take-off, consider packing a mix of healthy and fun snacks that are relatively mess-free to keep their bellies full and happy. Cheerios, pretzels, crackers, string cheese, and granola bars are good options.

Be Prepared for Security

When you pack, make sure items that need to be removed during security are easily reached. Keep in mind that traveling with snacks may mean extra scrutiny during the screening process.

Prepare for Air Pressure Changes

If your child has recently had an ear infection or a cold, get your doctor's approval before flying. The change in cabin air pressure may cause pain for your toddler. After passing through security, stock up on enough water for everyone to get through a possible delay and have enough left for the descent, which is often the most bothersome time for ear pressure discomfort. Have your kids drink some right after takeoff and during the last 30 to 45 minutes of the descent. The swallowing helps with the pressure changes and gives an added hydrating benefit.

By All Means, Use Pull-Ups

Your little one may have moved beyond Pull-Ups into big kid underwear, but pull-up diapers are a great resource when flying with a recently potty-trained toddler or young child. "I even use them on my 6-year-old," says Wendy, who adds that it's much less stressful than having to race to the bathroom or deal with an in-seat accident.

Show Some Appreciation

Flight attendants love to receive a certain gratuity for dealing with toddlers. "Any kind of chocolate found in an airport, handed over at boarding, does wonders," says Patrick. Of course, it will have zero effect on the random bad-tempered, unprofessional cabin crew member. But it's a nice gesture nonetheless, particularly when flying during the holidays when most flight attendants will be working and away from their families.

"It will be so appreciated," he says. "And we will remember you and look out for you. And not only that, you'll probably score a free drink out of it."

Seat Kids Away From the Aisle

Aisle seats can be dangerous for toddlers and potentially give them a little too much freedom of movement. For example, little hands and feet can be bumped as people walk by and hot coffee and water may be just within reach as the food and beverage cart passes by. If you can, consider the window seat, which offers the benefit of a view and puts you between your toddler and any other passengers in your row.

Beware of Germs

Toddlers tend to get sit a lot, but you can try to avoid any travel-related illness by keeping your little one's hands clean. When flying with a toddler, wipe everything from hands to tray tables down with sanitizing wipes when you're getting settled in your seats—and above all else, do not send your kids to the bathroom without shoes. "The floor is a Petri dish," a flight attendant confides. "You're in the air, things jostle. That's not just water on the bathroom floor."

Keep Your Composure

There's not much you can do to assuage that passenger who complains the moment your child sneezes or giggles. Here's what you need to remember: As long as you're trying (and what parent isn't?), you've got almost everyone on your side. "An adult having an issue with a screaming child is acting like a child as well," offers a flight attendant and mother named Patience. "Don't engage. Just worry about your own child."

Choose an Airline With Kid-Friendly Perks

There's nothing a family-friendly airline wants more than happy, occupied kiddos. As such, many leading carriers have all kinds of kid perks to offer their littlest travelers from a wide array of their favorite TV shows and movies to kid-approved headphones and snacks.

Before boarding, be sure to check in with the gate agent about whether the airline offers priority boarding for families with young children. Often airlines call special boarding for families so they can board a little early so you'll have time to settle in. Other great perks to look for are family lounges or airports with areas for kids to burn off some steam during layovers or before boarding.

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