We took quite a flew flights with Tiny Traveler when she was a toddler and preschooler and were lucky enough to never have a meltdown. I still have sympathy for parents with crying tots.
We did have a lot of badly timed naps, forbidden food, squirming and inappropriate climbing, and scrambling in our pockets for amusements. That’s OK.
Rule Number 1: When you’re trapped in a confined space with a child for several hours, anything that avoids passengers staring while the child melts down or glaring while she sobs endlessly is entirely OK.
Here are some hassle-free flying tips for parents. I hope they help you to arrive at your destination relaxed and ready for fun, rather than ready for a nap yourself.
Our 10 Best Tips ForFlying With Toddlers
1. Pick the right flight
Whether you fly with your baby or toddler in your lap or in her own seat is a personal choice. Either way, fly direct with kids whenever your itinerary, schedule and budget allow.
On both short and long flights, I tried to time departure so we were on the plane when naptime hit and there was a chance Tiny Traveler would conk out (she usually did…eventually). We tried to do overseas flights as late as possible to maximize our odds of her sleeping for most of the flight.
If that’s not doable I’d opt for early morning flights. She was better at sitting in her seat and engaging in quiet activities at the start of the day when she was well rested. Kids get fidgety when they’re tired.
Note: Get TSA Precheck if you haven’t already. The security line will be shorter and even when it’s long it moves faster. Each adult traveling needs their own Precheck number, but kids ages 12 and younger ride along on their parents’ clearance.
If you travel internationally, Global Entry will speed your trip through customs and immigration when you come back to the U.S. The Customs Department’s Mobile Passport app will speed you through, too. And any American citizeb can use it, there’s no pre-approval.
2. Have the right expectations
Children are active, curious, cranky and irrational. They don’t stop being children when you check in at the airline counter.
Have the right mind set (you won’t read your magazine; you will spend an hour reading The Hungry Caterpillar repeatedly).
Prepare even little kids for what’s coming (we’re going to have sit for a looooong time, but we’ll have snacks and I have new sticker book for you!).
And have as much empathy and patience as you can. It doesn’t make the flight shorter but it improves the odds of getting to point B with everyone happy.
Tip: Do some research on the airport before you leave (most airports have websites). Many airports have playgrounds, but information desk people don’t always know about them.
It also helps to know who runs the various private airport lounges to see if one of your credit cards or loyalty programs will gain you free or discounted entry. They always have free snacks and sometimes a kids’ play area or good vantage points for watching the the airport activity.
3. Pack strategically
The first time we flew my backpack was bursting with toddler toys and books. Tiny Toddler didn’t play with any of them.
Instead she played with the tray table, the overhead knobs, the flashlight Rich keeps in his pocket and snacks from the flight attendant.
I soon learned to pack airplane activities instead of books. The most reliable items were paper and crayons, Play-Doh, a new sticker book, a Magna Doodle, reusable stickers, one or two small cars, a doll, or mess-free art supplies from Crayola or Melissa & Doug
Read more: our top travel toys for preschoolers).
We started carrying books again when she could read to herself and would do so for extended periods, around third grade. For a long flight I might put a movie and some favorite cartoons on my tablet.
Once she was old enough to carry her own backpack she chose the toys and snacks to put in it.
I love Trunki’s backpacks for preschoolers because they are adorable, waterproof and easy for kid to open and close. They’re also small, so kids can’t pack more than they can carry.
This freed up room in my backpack for my own stuff!
4. Dress kids for comfort
Whenever I could, I took Tiny T to the airport in foot pajamas. They’re perfect for the air-conditioned terminal and plane and I don’t have to fuss with her shoes at security.
And I don’t care what she spills on them because I’d change her into clean, climate-appropriate clothes as soon as we landed.
If your kids are too old to wear PJs in public (my tween still asks to on early morning or late night flights!), try to steer them toward shoes they can slip on and off and encourage them to layer so they aren’t too cold or too warm.
Tip: If your child uses a pacifier at all, pack a few, even if your baby won’t sleep on the plane. During take-off and landing it can help with ear pressure and keeping kids calm.
5. Beg, borrow, rent (but don’t schlep)
Focus on what you can get away with not carrying rather than on piling on anything you might possibly need (because you’ll still have plenty to carry). If you’re visiting friends or family have them ask friends and neighbors for loaner car seats, playards, toys and even strollers.
Hotels have cribs; we’ve never had a problem with them.
Tip: Check with your airline to see whether they charge fees for checking gear like travel cribs. Be careful of statements like “you can check this free as your first piece of luggage,” which means you’ll pay to check your actual luggage.
6. A carrier is handy
The one piece of extra gear worth bringing. It packs easily and can be handy if your little one decides to nap as you’re landing (Tiny Traveler always did, especially on the return flight).
But keep it stashed in a bag until you’re through the security check to avoid the hassle of slipping it off and back on. There are so many great carriers on the market today, there is one for every carrying style.
7. The right stroller is handier
Even with a kid I dread being the person holding things up at the security gate, so I’m a gear minimalist. But strollers are handy for ferrying children and/or bags down endless terminals.
For traveling I bought a stroller I could open and fold with one hand while holding a passport, ticket and child in the other. It was light enough to carry up and down a flight of stairs with a child in my arms. And it was cheap enough that if it’s damaged in the cargo hold, I won’t care.
Tip: If you don’t have Precheck, look for or ask for the family lanes at the security check. They are often shorter than the regular lines and and you won’t get dirty looks as you sort out all your gear.
They’re most common and most well-run at airports outside the U.S.
8. Gate check!
This is every parent’s best hack. If you do bring a stroller or car seat, carry them to the gate and check them there. You often bypass the fees for checking extra stuff at the ticket counter. And you have the stroller to carry your child—or you carry-on bags—down those long airport corridors to and from the gate.
9. Wheels up, food rules away
Whatever snack the flight attendant has is going to be way better than the one you brought; it’s novel and probably junkier. Go with it, especially if it’s some kind of snack mix. Emptying a bag on pretzels, crackers and puffs onto the tray table, sorting, counting and sampling them and deciding what to eat first, second and third will kill a lot of time.
And always bring lollypops. Just when you run out of toys and your child is tired of being cooped up on a plane, you’ll have to buckle him or her in for landing. A lollypop will get your tot to sit still that important tiny bit longer. Lollypops can also help to keeps kids ears from getting clogged.
10. Plan your taxi rides
Google to find phone numbers for local taxi companies with car seats on both ends of the flight and call ahead to have a car waiting when you land. Taxi2Airport can help you find a taxi almost anywhere.
This takes some planning, but it’s worth it, especially if that taxi ride is the only reason you would need your car seat.
Read More: Tips for Taking Taxis With Kids.
You’ve arrived! Enjoy your destination with your tot!