16 Tips for Flying with Toddlers and Young Kids

Traveling with a toddler is no vacation if you're not properly prepared. Here, experienced flight attendants share their secrets for flying with young kids.

Little boy on United Airlines flight with activities
Photo: Courtesy of United Airlines

With 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 get scared of 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 with a toddler. Some of the tips came straight from flight attendants (all of whom chose to remain anonymous for the article).

1. Book an early morning departure.

It's your best chance to avoid delays at takeoff and landing, a flight attendant named Patrick explains. "These flights are usually less crowded, too," he says, "and everyone is basically tired and just wants to nap—kids especially." Also, if possible, avoid flights with long layovers or late-night connections.

2. Save your mileage 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.

3. 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.

4. Dress in layers, and skip shoes with laces.

Be ready for drastically changing temperatures when flying 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 an umbrella 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 (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."

7. 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."

8. Plan your packing list.

When packing for the plane ride, use this list as a guide.

  • Comfort item: If it's a pacifier, be sure to bring more than one, lest it get flung down the aisle or on the floor.
  • Sanitizer, wipes, pull-ups, and diapers. One diaper per hour of travel is recommended.
  • Smartphones and tablets loaded with your kids' favorite movies or shows. Let them share a device with a headphone splitter.
  • Kid-size headphones
  • Art supplies: Crayons (small box) and blank paper
  • Plastic bags for trash
  • Water
  • Low-sugar snacks: Cheerios, pretzels, crackers, nuts, string cheese, and granola bars are good options

9. Get ready 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 will mean extra scrutiny during the screening process.

10. Prepare for air pressure.

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. Also, after passing through security, stock up on enough water for everyone to get through a possible delay and have enough left for the descent—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 and gives an added hydrating benefit.

11. By all means, use Pull-Ups.

Your little one may have moved beyond Pull-Ups, but they are a great resource when flying with a toddler or young child. "I 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.

12. 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 around 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."

13. Seat kids away from the aisle.

Aisle seats can be dangerous for toddlers. As the food and beverage cart passes by, little hands are in treacherous reach of hot coffee or water.

14. Beware of germs.

When flying with a toddler, wipe down everything—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."

15. 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."

16. 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. For instance, in 2021, United Airlines—a Parents editor's favorite for flying with young ones—introduced a new activity kit for children (pictured), designed to keep kids both happy and safe while flying. The kits, available on all mainline United flights, have a ton of fun activities and kid-friendly offerings, including a child-sized mask, a travel journal activity book with crayons, an origami paper airline kit, and a sanitizing wipe. Another great perk to look for would be family lounges or airports with areas for kids to burn off some steam during layovers.

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