Saturday, November 19, 2011

Airplane Travel With a Toddler

Traveling by air with a toddler can be entertaining or stressful, but it is unlikely to be uneventful. During the holidays, especially, it's easy for adults to get busy or wrapped up in the season. It's easy for us to forget that air travel is so much more than going from Point A to Point B (not to mention the ecological costs).

However, if we take the time to slow down, avoid rushing, and allow the toddler to discover this amazing human feat, we are more likely to enjoy a simple, domestic flight -- holiday bustle or not. Being mindful and compassionate may also create an atmosphere of contentment and cooperation for a small traveling companion. Of course, a bit of preparation really helps, too!

Here are a few ideas for making plane travel with a toddler a positive experience. Many of these you likely do already, but I'm a big fan of checklists because they help me remember those little things...

Before your trip, talk about flying on airplanes.
As early as a couple of weeks before your trip, start talking about it with your toddler. Then he will know what to expect and it will give you a chance to confront any anxieties ahead of time. It also helps build excitement and honors your child by letting him be involved in trip planning. The day before the trip, remind him of what you will be doing the next day.

Watch videos of planes landing and taking off, both from the inside and outside.
Although your toddler has likely seen planes in the air and might even have a toy plane, these are quite different than what traveling by plane actually looks like. I'm not sure if all kids would like this as much as my son did, but this step was a total hit! He loved watching airplane videos. Avoid images of plane crashes. Here are a few links to airplane videos to get you started:

Airplanes taking offPlanes taking off
Eight minutes of many different planes taking off.

Over 4 minutes long with just one plane, but it's filmed from a great angle where you can see the plane go safely from the sky to the ground.

Airplanes from the inside: Kids on a plane!
This is a long (16 min) video but it's great because it shows door-to-door travel for a family with four kids. It includes loading the car with suitcases, riding to the airport, going through security, walking through the airport, boarding the plane, take-off and landing...all with kids!

Talk about your destination. Who are you going to visit? Where will you stay? What kinds of activities are you likely to do there? YouTube is a good resource for examples (e.g. kids playing on the beach, kids skiing, etc.). We used Skype to introduce our son to friends who hosted our family. When he met them in person the first time, he was already somewhat familiar with them.

Pack ahead of time.  Pick out what clothes to take ahead of time to avoid doing last-minute laundry. Be sure to include travel clothes, keeping in mind the different climates of home, destination, and airplane. Also set aside (read, hide) any toys you want to bring on the plane. Even if you can't get all of this packed into your bags, just having them selected and set aside will prevent a lot of stress and conflicts when you do pack. I'm usually a last-minute packer, but I managed to pick out what I needed a whole week before our last trip and I was so glad I did!

Pack your carry-on thoughtfully. When choosing toys or books to bring, consider your toddler's interests, energy level, and temperament. For us, having familiar items mattered far more than any new one we brought. Extra clothes for temperature fluctuations or messes can also help keep your toddler comfortable. A blanket, scarf, or pillow from home can help create comfort and privacy for nursing or napping during the flight.

Bring a good supply of snacks, food and drinks. A hungry toddler is a cranky toddler. Unless you plan to rely on airline food and airport snacks, prepare and bring your own. Remember that these will have to last the entire door-to-door trip, i.e. from the time you leave your house until you arrive at your lodging. That can turn a 5 hour plane ride into a whole day's worth of meals. Note that milk in bottles is allowed to pass through security, but water is not (brilliant, right?).

Consider using noise-reduction headphones at the airport or on the plane. If your toddler is easily overstimulated, these are a great "toy" to bring along. You don't need to buy the expensive ones, either. For a sensitive individual, background noise can agitate the nerves and interfere with focus and concentration. In toddlers, this over-stimulation can lead to extreme fussiness. This is easily relieved by donning a noise-reduction headset...even if it doesn't fit quite right.

On travel days, let go of schedules. Focus on your toddler's cues for hunger or fatigue rather than looking at the clock.This makes even more sense if you're changing time zones. A new environment can throw off even the most regular toddler biorhythms.

Allow plenty of time at the airport before boarding the plane. Avoid the need to rush your toddler by showing up early at the airport -- at least earlier than you ordinarily would. Having time to explore the new environment will also make it more fun. Airports with long open walkways and chairs to climb provide plenty of ways for a high energy toddler to burn off energy before you cram onto a plane. 

Get your toddler involved when passing through security. Show your toddler where all the bags come out on the other side of the tunnel, aka X-ray machine. Avoid taking away that beloved plush toy (or other belonging) amidst strangers and commotion because it can be unnecessarily distressing. Instead, let him copy you by placing it on the conveyor belt himself. Security should allow you to hold his hand and walk through the metal detector together. If not, make it a fun game for him to follow you through.

Bring a baby carrier for getting around the airport.  When you need to move quickly or safely, it's a whole lot easier to wear your toddler. Small carriers, like the Ergo or a sling, won't be counted as carry-on baggage. A larger carrier, such as a Kelty backpack carrier, may count as carry-on (check with your airline), but you can ask the flight attendants to stow it for you (typically you just leave it at the end of the jet bridge).

Car seats and strollers. Be sure to check with your airline ahead of time. You should be able to check a car seat for no extra charge. It will be loaded on the plane separately from the luggage with large and bulky items, so you don't have to worry about damage. Some airports and airlines supply a plastic bag for the car seat, others do not. Strollers can be taken all the way to the jet bridge where the flight attendants will help stow it for you. Again, be sure to check with your airline for restrictions.

Board the airplane early. When they call for passengers who need extra time to board, or those flying with infants, go! We passed on this opportunity once and will not do it again.  It's much easier to allow a toddler time to walk through the jet bridge, time to walk through the aisles, and time to investigate the back of the seat when a person isn't actually seated there. Plus, you'll have your pick of where to stash your carry-ons.

You are free to move about the cabin. Like the airport, the plane itself has some toddler-friendly activities...strolling down the aisles, saying hello to the flight attendants and other children on board, checking out the tiny bathroom. Keep in mind that a captivated, exploring toddler is far less annoying to other passengers than one having a tantrum! For tips on gaining toddler cooperation, check out this post and this one, too.

Have fun. Traveling by plane with a toddler can be an incredibly exciting adventure, especially for first-timers. Enjoy this truly amazing (albeit environmentally costly) experience's part of your vacation!

Do you have any helpful hints for traveling with a toddler? I'd love to hear your experiences!


  1. Thank you for all of the great reminders and new ideas! I haven't traveled by air with my toddler since she was seven months - back then, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a ring sling, a few new bracelets on mama's wrist, and a tiny mirror were our best friends on traveling day. Over a year later, we're gearing up for some really big trips so I'm soaking in all the advice I can find! This is great :)

  2. I hope it helps, Melissa! If you feel like sharing later on, I'd love to hear what works for you after your big trips. Good luck!

    1. Good knowledge for air travel with a toddler as well as other products that can help the children understand what to expect with flying may make for easier must very care when you are traveling by plane.

  3. Love your prospective on preparing a toddler for travel. The video links are so helpful! Thanks for posting.