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14 Essential Tips for Flying With a Toddler

Everything a parent needs to know to make that flight a whole lot less hellish.

The worst argument my wife and I ever got in came after a long day flying with our then 15-month-old daughter. It was a cross-country flight with a layover and, having elected not to buy her a seat, we spent a majority of day juggling a restless toddler between us while desperately trying to entertain her on our laps. Worse, we were still (mostly) opposed to screen time and our decision to fly at night in hopes that she’d snooze during her normal bedtime completely backfired. She didn’t sleep a wink. By the time we touched down close to midnight our nerves were shot, and I boldly declared we would never fly again. Ever. The ensuing fight about getting to the airport shuttle wasn’t fun.

To say we made a few travel mistakes that day would be an understatement. Our daughter had been a fantastic junior pilot only seven months prior, but as we soon learned, flying with a toddler presents an entirely new set of challenges than flying with a baby. And it’s due mostly to mobility. Toddlers don’t like to sit still. They’re also more headstrong, prone to meltdowns, and have fleeting attention spans. Keeping them occupied in a confined space for hours on end can prove exhausting.

But traveling with a toddler doesn’t have to end with your forsaking air travel until they’re teenagers. It just takes some proper planning, smart packing, and a little mental preparation. To help, the dads at Fatherly compiled their top toddler travel tips for surviving a flight with a kid who’s 13-months-old up to pre-school. Here’s what we recommend:

Get to the Airport Early

When it comes to flying with kids, some argue against arriving at the airport too early because it means entertaining them for a longer stretch of time outside the comforts of home. The simple fact remains, though: airport stress is dictated by your departure time. And the less time you give yourself to go from the parking garage to the gate ⏤ especially with a toddler in tow ⏤ the more stress you will create. Traveling with a toddler, especially when they’re walking, takes significantly more time than traveling on your own. Arriving 90 minutes to two hours before your flight ensures no matter how long the check-in or TSA lines are, or how slowly they’re moving, you’ll never have to sweat missing your flight. Even better, it gives parents a chance to regroup ⏤ order lunch, feed the kid, buy a book they won’t be able to read ⏤ when they get inside the terminal.

Use Curbside Check-In

This could be the single-biggest, life-changing tip on the list. While maybe not as much as a baby, traveling with a toddler still requires a lot of extra gear ⏤ umbrella stroller, car seat or safety harness, bigger bags (or worse, tiny luggage they wheel around), etc. ⏤ with which you traditionally wouldn’t fly. The sooner you can ditch your checked bags without having to wait in the long check-in line, the easier life will be. Seriously, do not walk by a curbside check-in counter and think life will be better on the inside. It won’t. Budget for the porter’s tip and gladly pay them for the convenience.

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Gate-Check Your Stroller and Car Seat

The beauty of flying with small children is that car seats and strollers fly free. Better still, you can walk them straight down the jetway and check them in before you board the plane, ensuring both will be there when you disembark. This is less a perk if you have older toddlers who may no longer use a stroller, but if yours still enjoys free rides, it’s a no-brainer ⏤ especially considering how light today’s umbrella strollers are.

As for whether to gate-check your car seat if you’re not using it on the plane, that’s a bigger debate. The arguments, however, are straightforward: Car seats are not cheap and those checked at the terminal often get the crap kicked out of them as they move through the bowels of the airport/airplane. There’s also a chance, albeit a small one, that the car seat doesn’t make the flight, and you’re left at your destination with no way to drive to grandma’s house. Gate-checking the car seat may mean lugging it through the airport, which admittedly sucks, but ensures it will make it to your final destination and is less likely to be damaged along the way.

No matter what you decide, buy a travel bag ⏤ and preferably one with backpack shoulder straps ⏤ to protect your investment and make carrying it easier. Also, consider buying a lighter travel car seat ⏤ many weigh under 10 pounds and cost less than $75 ⏤ or renting one from the rental car company on the other end.

Split Up When You Board

While all airlines allow parents with children to board first, it’s not always the smartest move. Remember, it usually takes a half hour for everybody else to board and the plane to start moving ⏤ that’s a lot of time stuck in your seat with a restless 3-year-old. The better strategy is to have one parent board the flight early to stow the carry-ons, gate-check the stroller/car seat, and, if you’re concerned about germs, disinfect the armrests and tray tables. Meanwhile, the other parent walks/entertains the kid in the terminal until everybody is on board, and then boards last.

If They’re Still Under Two, Consider Buying Them a Seat

Obviously, this decision depends on one’s finances, but if you’ve got the money to buy an extra seat ⏤ book it. Being able to give a toddler their own space, rather than bouncing them on your lap for three hours, is a game-changer. There’s a reason some parents oppose the idea of “Lap Toddlers” so much ⏤ sure it’s cheaper, but man can it be a nightmare if they won’t sit still. I am not a fan of paying for tickets for kids under 2-years-old, because I’m cheap, but I will confess that juggling our daughter for the duration of two flights most certainly contributed to our eventual meltdown.

Two other things: First, if you do purchase a separate seat but don’t elect to bring the car seat onboard, consider a CARES harness if you’re concerned about safety. Designed for kids 1-year-old and up who weigh between 22 and 44 pounds, the FAA-approved harness is both easy to set up and throw in your carry-on bag. And second, if the child is approaching that 2-year-old cutoff but still flying as an infant in arms, don’t forget to bring a copy of their birth certificate or other proof of age. You never know when you might run into a gate agent who’s convinced your giant kid is really 3-years-old, and you’re trying to steal a free flight.

Book a Window and an Aisle Seat

If you do go with the lap option, book the aisle and window seats and leave the middle one open. As middle seats are the last to be filled, this increases your odds of scoring your toddler a seat without paying. Worst case scenario, if somebody is sitting there, you can simply offer to trade them the more desirable window seat. Whatever you do, though, don’t give up that aisle seat. You’re going to want easy access to the bathroom and the ability to walk around with your kid.

Don’t Fly Too Late in the Day

Ever hung out with a 2-year-old at 5 p.m. on an afternoon when they didn’t get a nap? It’s not a pleasant experience. It may not always work, and your kid may be too distracted to sleep regardless of what time you take off, but booking flights that coincide with their nap schedule at least give you better odds for a smoother trip. Or, if you can’t fly when they usually sleep, try to plan the trip during periods of the day when you know they’re happiest ⏤ for a lot of kids, that’s in the morning. If you do choose a late-day flight, do your best to make sure they get a nap before heading to the airport.

Gift Wrap Cheap Toys

Obviously, you don’t want to bring an entire toy box but your main objective while flying with a toddler is to keep them occupied. And the more games, toys, or books you bring along, the easier your job will be. We’ve had great luck with the Water Wow! coloring books, Melissa & Dave’s Reusable Sticker Books, and wax Wikki Sticks, but every kid has their favorites. In addition to toys they already know and love, take a trip to the dollar store before your flight and stock up on cheap stuff you don’t mind losing or accidentally leaving on the plane. And then wrap them individually in wrapping paper like it was Christmas Eve. Whenever your child gets restless during the flight, break out a new toy and help them unwrap it. Let them play with the paper, then the actual toy, and when the child tires of both, well, there’s always Cheerios.

Kiss Screen-Time Restrictions (Temporarily) Goodbye

No matter how opposed you are to screen time under normal circumstances, flying is not the time to stick to your principles. It’s not. I’ve tried, and it was awful. That doesn’t mean you have to hand your 18-month-old an iPad loaded with every season of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood as soon as the flight takes off, but some screen time can come in handy when attention spans start to wane. A few hours staring at a phone or tablet isn’t going to permanently damage your kid’s brain. Depending on how long the flight, be sure to download a movie or two, episodes of their favorite television shows, and some digital kid’s books before you leave the house ⏤ just in case you don’t have access to the internet on the flight. And, more importantly, for everybody’s sake: Buy a trusted pair of child headphones and test them out before you go.

Download Audio Books

Even better than apps, movies, or TV shows, download their favorite books in audio form. That way their minds stay engaged but they aren’t mesmerized by a screen the entire time. You can get everything from Fancy Nancy and Curious George to Pinkalicious & Peterrific and Cat in the Hat on Amazon’s Audible or from the local library using the OverDrive or Libby App.

Use Food as an Activity

For toddlers, eating food on a plane can be an all-consuming activity on par with watching Paw Patrol. If your kid is tired of listening to books or playing games, break out the crackers and let them concentrate on eating for a bit. Will Gold Fish get everywhere? Maybe. But it beats a bored toddler melting down and a section full of angry passengers. Bagels are one of the best in-flight foods for toddlers because it takes them forever to finish one. We often bring an entire bag.

Two other things to remember: Toddlers ears can pop just as much as a baby’s, so snacks during takeoff and landing are helpful. And second, don’t forget that liquids and pouches still have to comply with TSA’s three-ounce regulations. We’ve thrown away many a good container of yogurt after forgetting it was too big to get through security.

Play Games, Lots of Games

A lot of parents are so quick to plug their kids in that they neglect to take advantage of their surroundings for entertainment. From flight attendants and carry-on luggage to cartoon safety cards and tiny plastic airline wings, airplanes are packed with stimuli around which to create games and keep kids occupied. A couple of fun games include “I Spy When I Fly” and “No Vacancy,” in which older toddlers keep their eyes on the bathrooms and try to guess which will be vacant first. Here are a few more airplane games, as well as fun airport games to keep kids entertained in the terminal before you ever even board the plane.

Have a Plan of Attack: Food, Books, Toys, iPad…

No matter what you pack for entertainment, have a plan coming in ⏤ and expect to vary activities pretty quickly. Maybe start with a snack at takeoff before moving on to some games, a little reading, and unwrapping a new toy. Keep your powder dry though when it comes to the tablet or phone. Because you know it will almost instantly quiet any ornery toddler, you’d be well advised to resist breaking it out until mid-flight, after exhausting as many other activities as can hold their attention.

Oh Yeah, Buy a Neck Pillow

And, finally, a tip I only learned this summer while flying with our now 3-year-old daughter: buy the travel neck pillow. While we didn’t put it on her, it was the perfect size when she finally conked out on the seat in between us ⏤ just as the captain announced that we were beginning our final descent. Ahhh, toddlers.