Are you stressing the idea of flying with a toddler? Below I’ll share all the best tips for air travel with little ones from booking to baggage claim!
This list of tips for flying with a toddler was written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.
Flying with a toddler can be a challenging experience, but there are things you can do to make air travel a little easier!
Long flights, unfamiliar surroundings, and disrupted routines can make it difficult to keep little ones calm and happy.
But with some preparation and a few of my best tips, it is possible to have a successful flight with your toddler.
Below you’ll find my top 12 tips and strategies for flying with a toddler, divided into steps. Because it’s not just about the actual flight!
As a mom, I know how much planning it takes and the effort you put in until you’re safely leaving baggage claim.
So, keep reading for the tools and insights you need to enjoy a successful and stress-free trip with your little one!
How to Make Flying with a Toddler Go Smoothly
My husband and I are avid travelers. So when we had our oldest son, we knew it would change how we travel. We flew with him when he was a baby, but it’s definitely more eventful flying with a toddler!
My best advice? Plan ahead, go with the flow, and have a sense of humor. I always bring a bag of tricks, and our baby carrier was a lifesaver more than once. Also, it gets easier the more toddlers become familiar with flying!
On one flight, we brought window clings, which were fun for a bit, until our son figured out that he could throw them at people!
We ended up entertaining him with many rounds of “Peanut Butter and Jelly” while we waited for food and beverage carts to come by!
The next flight went much smoother. We checked the car seat and used the seat belt extenders for take-off and landing and made a bed for him in his seat. He slept the whole time. It gave us a break so we could rest too.
But then flying on my own with my son the next month was a completely different experience! Flying solo with a toddler is no joke.
Thanks to our Alaska Airlines companion fare, my toddler had his own seat, which helped a lot. We ate a lot of snacks and I brought out a new toy every hour or so.
My point is that flying with a toddler can certainly be done. The key is to remember that one flight (good or bad) will not dictate the next flight! With time, you’ll get an idea of what to expect and what to include in your airplane kit.
So, as a vetted toddler travel companion, here are my best tips for how to fly successfully.
Before Your Flight
1. Book a Flight that Fits Your Toddler’s Schedule
As nice as it would be, there’s no guarantee that your child will sleep on the plane. However, you know your child’s temperament best.
Are they deep sleepers? Aim for nap time and bring an inflatable leg rest for them to lie down on.
Are they in a better mood in the morning? Book a morning flight and bring lots of entertainment. Also, try to book well in advance of your trip so you can be sure that a flight that fits your toddler’s schedule will be available to you.
Another thing to keep in mind: direct flights with toddlers will be easier than handling a connecting flight.
The first time we flew with a toddler, it was a 90-minute flight from Seattle to San Jose. This was a good trial run for our next trip, which was a long-haul flight to Rome the following month.
2. Choose the Right Seat on the Plane
Yes, toddlers 2 years and younger fly free within the US if they ride in your lap. However, the “lap toddler” is a lovely myth! If you can swing the cost, just do yourself a favor and get them their own seat.
The truth is that they’re not going to sit on your lap like a baby the entire flight! Especially on long-haul flights, you’ll appreciate having that extra space for them to wiggle, lay down, and look out the window.
When choosing your seats for family travel, book in advance, and go with an airline that has seat selection. (Most major airlines do, but Southwest doesn’t). It’s worth the peace of mind knowing that you’ll sit together.
Don’t want to pay seat selection fees? You could book an overnight flight with your lap toddler that’s more likely to have a spare seat or 2.
Also keep in mind that if you get your toddler their own seat, you’ll have to decide if you’re going to bring a car seat for them.
Other things to consider
Is your toddler potty trained? Get an aisle seat so they can get up when they need to go. Are they easily entertained? Get them a window seat so they can watch the clouds go by!
3. Plan How You’ll Pack Your Luggage
Planning how you’ll pack is one of the best ways to make flying with a toddler easier for everyone. Pack light, because you’ll already have tons of stuff to lug around the airport.
Also, check transportation laws and your airline’s luggage allowance policy. For the most part, the following items don’t towards your personal item or carry-on:
- diaper bags
- soft-sided breastmilk coolers
- toddler car seats
- folding strollers
And when you’re packing, create a folder of all your important papers in an easy-to-access location in your diaper bag or carry-on. This way, you’ll get through the security line faster and be on your way to your great family holiday!
4. Pack a Carry-On for Your Toddler
I call this my “bag of tricks.” It should have all the essentials you’ll need to keep your toddler happy, comfortable, and entertained. Start with double the normal amount of diapers and wipes and an extra change of clothes for you both.
Add a warm blanket from home for comfort, a favorite stuffed animal, and a charged screen. Trust me, screen time is your friend here, especially on a long flight!
Next, add your airplane kit. This is stuff like Dramamine (for toddlers 2+), a sippy cup, and TSA-approved snacks.
If you’re concerned about the change in cabin pressure causing ear pain, you could toss EarPlanes for kids into the kit. Sucking on things like pacifiers or sippy cups also helps here.
And no airplane kit is complete without flashy new travel toys! These are toys just for travel, that you only bring out for a trip. Here are some ideas to keep your toddler entertained:
- Quiet books
- No-roll crayons and coloring books
- Melissa & Doug Reusable Puffy Sticker Play Sets
- Finger puppets
- Magnetic Doodle Pads
- Window Clings
At the Airport
5. Arrive Early to Avoid Stress
Some people get to the airport 3 hours ahead of a flight, and some live by the seat of their pants! Whichever kind of traveler you are, make it a point this time to arrive with time to spare.
This will give you and your toddler the chance to get your bearings. Talk about new noises so they have time to process this. And let them see all the people with time to adjust to being around so many strangers!
Arriving early when flying with a toddler is also a great opportunity to let them burn off energy before a long flight. Explore the airport, climb the stairs, or even book a private lounge with a children’s play area.
Before your gate starts boarding, grab the snacks you’ll need and make sure everyone uses the airport restroom. You’ll thank me later!
6. Check Strollers and Car Seats at the Gate
Major airlines in the US don’t count things like strollers and car seats as carry-ons, so avoid fees at check-in and just check them at the gate! Just make sure to label your stroller just in case it gets separated from you.
This also means you can use them up until you board the plane, and they’ll be waiting for you when you land. Just choose a stroller that’s light and easy to fold so it can fit through security scanners and narrow airplane aisles.
7. Take Advantage of Pre-Boarding
Pre-boarding is a process where certain passengers, such as families with young children, are allowed to board the plane before the general boarding begins.
It can be a helpful option for parents flying with a toddler because it provides some extra time to get settled and prepare for the flight.
With pre-boarding, you’ll have extra time to find space to stow your carry-on luggage before the other passengers start to board. This is extremely helpful if you need to access items like diapers, wipes, or snacks during the flight.
You’ll avoid the rush of other passengers boarding the plane, making it easier to get your toddler buckled in and comfortable before takeoff. And if you forego seat selection, pre-boarding means you’ll find seats together on the plane.
This is also a great time for you to let the flight crew know this is your first family trip or if your child will need additional assistance. Especially when you’re flying alone with a toddler, your flight attendant is your best friend!
They’ll bring you extra snacks and let you know when the seatbelt sign is about to come on. The flight crew is also who will help you secure your car seat during pre-boarding.
Overall, pre-boarding can reduce the stress and anxiety that parents may feel when boarding a plane with a young child. It provides some extra time and space to get organized and sets you up for success on a smooth plane ride.
On the Plane
8. Prepare for Take Off
Once you’re in your seat, explain to your toddler what’s about to happen! The environment of an airplane cabin can be scary to young children.
It’s important for you to stay calm and relaxed and let them see your response to the situation. If you feel safe, that will go a long way to make them feel safe, too!
While you’re waiting for take-off and everyone has to be in their seat, you’ll need to keep your toddler entertained. This is when to pull out snacks or a sippy cup, which will give your toddler something to do.
Chewing or sucking on something can help with ear pain caused by air pressure changes that happen during take-off. You could also offer them a pacifier or teething toy.
Noise-canceling headphones can also help with pressure changes and the loud noises of airplane travel. You could also try EarPlanes for kids.
Or if you notice that cabin pressure is a real issue for your little one, you could ask your doctor to prescribe ear drops that help with pain.
9. Keep Your Toddler Entertained
Sounds easy, right? I’ve learned that what works for one flight doesn’t work for the next when it comes to entertaining toddlers. The secret here is variety! This is where my bag of tricks comes in handy.
When my son was a toddler, one of our tried-and-true plane toys was window clings in fun and flashy shapes. Not doing the trick? Pull out the small toys and don’t underestimate the power of books!
Ask the flight attendant for extra airplane snacks, which tend to be crunchy things. This is perfect for toddlers who need something to focus on. And especially on a long-haul flight, allow for some screen time when everyone needs a break.
And the best thing to keep your toddler busy on a long flight? You! Don’t be afraid to (quietly) belt out all your favorite kid songs or engage in a round of peek-a-boo. This is the time to be silly.
And when your toddler gets tired, take a nap with them. If they’ll relax in a baby carrier enough to fall asleep, this a great way for everyone to have some downtime.
10. Take a Deep Breath and Ignore Everyone Else
Flying with toddlers truly means this time is about both you and them. No one else! Whether it’s a long flight or a short one, you don’t need to worry about other travelers.
The truth is that your toddler might cry, fidget, and make all kinds of noise. Little ones can be nosey and smelly and loud. That’s okay because they’re also super cute so no one expects less from them. Your job is to help them deal with this unusual situation.
Dealing with a cranky passenger? This is another situation where you’ll need to depend on your flight attendant. The flight crew knows what it’s like to have toddlers on a plane.
I’ve literally watched our flight attendants give the passengers around us earplugs! Let them attend to the other passengers the same way they attend to you.
After the Flight
11. Make Collecting Luggage with a Toddler Easier
Especially if you’re alone with a toddler, utilize all the ways to make things easier. Think about it: you’ve successfully flown with a toddler! But now you have to collect your luggage and find transportation.
First, use that stroller you checked at the gate. Or bring a baby carrier so you can use your hands. Especially if you have a young toddler, these devices will help to keep your child close and make it easier to navigate through the airport.
Second, keep a few small toys handy so you can keep your child entertained while you wait for your luggage.
Third, use a luggage cart or trolley to make it easier to transport your bags through the airport. There’s nothing more exhausting than lugging car seats through crowds.
No one expects you to be Superman, so accept the extra help where you can get it!
12. Book a Car
By now, that hotel bed sounds amazing. You’re probably excited to get to all the vacation adventures ahead of you!
The easiest way to survive this last stretch of your toddler airplane adventure is to hire a private car service or even get a rental car.
One of the best places to rent a car is Discover Cars because they usually have the cheapest rates and fantastic customer service.
Hiring a private car service means no standing in taxi lines with luggage and a restless child! And it’s much easier than navigating public transportation.
Bonus Tip: Look for Hotels with Mobile Check-In!
In 2023, more and more hotels are using mobile services that allow you to check in and out remotely. This is great if you prefer no-contact check-ins, or you just don’t want to make your toddler wait even more at the front desk!
Big hotel chains like Marriott and Hilton have mobile check-in, and a lot of boutique hotels are using apps that do the same thing. These apps even let you communicate with concierge services, unlock your room, and order room service.
FAQ about Flying with a Toddler
Do I need a car seat to fly with a 2-year-old?
For toddlers 2 years and up, you’re required to get them their own seat. Even then, both the Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) and the AAP strongly recommend a car seat for children under 40 pounds (and booster seats don’t count). Over 40 pounds, they should sit in their own seat with a seat belt on.
What does TSA allow for toddlers?
Going through screening, your children will never be separated from you, according to the TSA. Kids under 12 don’t have to take off shoes, light jackets, or headwear.
All children are required to get out of strollers and car seats to go through the walk-through metal detector, but small children in baby carriers can stay on you when you go through airport security.
What is the best seat on a plane with a toddler?
For a bit more room, go for the bulkhead seats at the front of the cabin. These seats are great for flying with toddlers and other young children because you have more space and access to flight attendants!
However, it’s always to check with the airline that you’ll be flying with, as each airline has its own rules.
What documents does a toddler need to fly within the US?
For domestic flights in the US, minors (18 and under) don’t need to show an ID at security.
However, the person accompanying a minor will have to confirm their relationship with the child. That means a parent should at least bring their ID as well as the child’s birth certificate.
And all children under 2 fly for free in the US, so you’ll need a birth certificate to prove their age.
Why do toddlers cry on planes?
Most toddlers cry on planes because their ears are very sensitive to the change in cabin air pressure, more so than adults! It can be pretty painful.
They might also cry because this new environment is scary. There are all kinds of new noises and people.
For ear pain, there’s not much to do other than comfort them. Pacifiers can help a little, as does nursing. You could also just try to distract them with their favorite toy or game.
Surviving Flying with Toddlers Just Takes Preparation
It’s absolutely normal to be concerned about the adventures that come with flying with a toddler! Air travel with young children comes with challenges, but please don’t let it discourage you from exploring new places.
Using my best tips and tools, it’ll make things more manageable. And soon enough you’ll be at your destination making amazing memories!