Tips for Flying with Kids

Flying with KidsI was just talking with one of my mom friends about my best tips for flying with kids and thought it might make an interesting discussion over here. So ladies, what are your best tips for flying with kids? Have you found that different things worked when they were babies, then toddlers, then kindergartners and beyond? You may want to check out previous tips for using AirBnB with kids, as well as pumping while flying.

Pictured, clockwise: Applesauce / Stroller for car seat / Gate check bag for strollers / Thermos bottlelarge, lightweight, durable nylon bag for carrying on / kiddie headphones.

  • Pack snacks that suck. OK, here is my top tip: You need to pack snacks that kids can suck on to help alleviate ear pressure. Applesauce pouchesThermos/Zoli cups (not straw Take & Toss), lollipops for bigger kids, bottles/binkies/Mom for littler kids. (I always nursed on the plane… it tended to make them sleepy, too, which we always welcomed.) Another big tip: Warn your kids their ears are going to hurt, once before the trip happens and again, loudly, once when you’re on the plane and it’s starting to make its ascent/descent. This accomplishes two things, the first of which is that hopefully your kid won’t freak out when they feel pressure building. Even when the boys were infants I would explain this to them, because who knows what they understand and don’t — you can pull at your ear and their ear more if they’re littler. The second thing this accomplishes is giving your seatmates a heads-up. I think for new parents, particularly, it can be stressful flying with kids because you remember being that single adult on the plane who hated whenever kids cried. Before I had kids it never occurred to me it’s because they’re freaked out that they feel like their heads might explode… so consider it a subtle, informal education for your seatmates. We also bring a lot of other snacks, an empty plastic bag for all our little wrappers and other trash, and as many napkins as we can steal from the airport Au Bon Pain or wherever.

  • A note on security lines. I don’t think it’s a formal policy, and it varies by airline, airport, and TSA agent, but I have had very good luck politely asking TSA agents if there’s a special line for families. We are often waved into the business class line.
  • The Mommy Pat Down. After almost 5 years of being pregnant, nursing, or knowing that we’d be TTCing soon, I only just started going through the new airport scanners — they’re apparently not that dangerous, but it was always easy enough for me to just ask for a pat down and go through the metal detector. So I’m pretty well acquainted with the TSA pat down — it’s not that bad. (I’ve always thought that of all the indignities of motherhood, the TSA pat down is a pretty minor one.) Prepare to have any open containers of milk or juice inspected by the TSA agents. Some TSA agents will enforce the “baby” rule — you’re only supposed to be bringing liquids on for the baby — but some have let us go through with multiple containers even after J was obviously no longer a baby. (You can always just pack an empty Zoli or Thermos and fill it up with water/juice/milk you buy after you get through security.)
  • Strollers at the gate. You can usually take your stroller with you to the gate and check it there — we always use a gate check bag for our stroller and anything else we’re gate checking, like their car seats. Sometimes my husband will shove his winter coat in the gate check bag as well, but we’ve had the closures on multiple bags break on us, so I wouldn’t recommend this. I mostly see families in the airports with umbrella strollers, but we prefer to use our universal stroller with the infant carseat or convertible carseat, and to check our umbrella stroller if we’re bringing it. (Check out my favorite strollers here.)
  • Checking vs. carrying on. Ah, the days we could carry on everything we needed and avoid baggage claim. Once we became a family of four, though, we made the executive decision to pack one big bag, check it at the counter before security, and then be relatively unburdened during our waiting time at the airport.
  • Stuff we always carry on, no matter what (usually in my beloved, lightweight Le Sportsac Weekender):
    • J’s favorite stuffed animal and the blanket he can’t sleep without. (Try squishing the stuffed animal into a Ziploc bag so you can flatten it without air if you need more room.)
    • A clean shirt for everyone (if I had a penny for every time I’ve been puked on on the plane…) and a plastic bag for anything that gets dirty.
    • Clean undies / night clothes for everyone / full change of clothes for the boys
    • Any chargers we might need
    • I always bring my makeup bag, too, on the theory that it would be expensive (and a PITA) to run around and try to duplicate the contents if I were to lose it.
  • To the back, to the back. If you can, choose the seats at the back of the plane. Odds are very good you’re going to be waiting for stuff you gate checked anyway, so you may as well wait in comfort. Other pros to this system: close access to the bathroom. (If it’s all four of us traveling together I often find it easier to go to the bathroom on the plane than abandon my husband with the boys in the airport or try to drag one of them into a family bathroom with me and convince my eldest of my revolutionary rule of “We don’t open the door until Mommy’s pulled her pants up.”) Plus: If your kids go crazy on the flight, you’re only annoying the back of the plane. Ah yes, another bonus: If you happen to change a pee-filled diaper on your husband’s lap instead of in the bathroom, you get less side-eye. (But really, if you can put your kiddo on the plane with a clean diaper and/or empty bladder, it’s going to be much smoother sailing for everyone.)
  • Special screen time (aka, plane entertainment). There are normal screen time limits, and then there are Travel Day Screen Time Limits. We’ve brought books and toys as well — I know of one mom who buys new toys to wrap up and give to her child during long flights — but once J hit 2, the $50 portable DVD player we bought, plus kiddie headphones, has won the day, along with snacks. We originally bought him a DVD player because many airlines would make you put away your phones and iPads during takeoff and landing, but they would almost always let us leave our DVD player out. This rule has changed significantly — I think most will let you use your phone as long as it’s in airplane mode — but J still loves his little DVD player, plus it means we get to use our phones ourselves (and keep whatever charge they have).
  • Safety thoughts, harnesses, babywearing, and more. I have yet to pull the trigger on an airplane harness (a special seatbelt-type system) for either of the boys, but I saw a video once that forever changed the way I travel with my kids. (I sadly cannot find it now; if it sounds familiar to you please let me know.) In the video, a cartoon mom sat reading a book while her baby also sat in her lap. (Placidly, like you do.) Cartoon Mom is so immersed in her book that she doesn’t notice turbulence is happening, and because her arms aren’t actively gripping baby, baby goes flying during the turbulence — whacking his little head on the roof of the plane. My takeaway from the video: Small things can go flying if the plane hits turbulence, and that can include your baby, your iPhone, or anything else — so try to keep a tight grip on any lap infant, and try to keep your other stuff (toys, iPhones, whatever) relatively secured throughout the flight. (We bought one of these back-of-the-seat organizers but honestly, we always forget it, so it hasn’t been that helpful.) I don’t know what current FAA or airline regulations are regarding babywearing on airplanes — but note that previous rules required you to take your kiddo out of the baby carrier for takeoff and landing, which may kill any plans you had to let your baby sleep in the Ergobaby the entire trip. (Here’s an old Babycenter post on point.)
  • Finally: A lot of airports have playgrounds or play areas for kids. They’re not always convenient to your gate/terminal, but it’s worth looking into if you’re unexpectedly delayed or are choosing a layover city. This article from Family Vacation Critic rounds up the ten best airport playgrounds.

Ladies, those are my best tips for flying with kids — what are yours? (Oh, and a question — I keep meaning to buy travel tattoos or Road IDs for my kiddos — do you have any you recommend?)

working moms share their tips for flying with kids

Pictured, clockwise: Applesauce / Stroller for car seat / Gate check bag for strollers /
Thermos bottlelarge, lightweight, durable nylon bag for carrying on / kiddie headphones.

Comments

  1. CPA Lady says:

    My one piece of advice: If you are traveling alone with your baby, even though it’s expensive to buy another ticket, if your kid is old enough to be grabby, do it. Alternatives inclue holding your hot, grabby, kicky, 8 month old on your lap for two hours on the tarmac, wedged into tiny airplane seats with some random 20 year old guy sitting next to you who is NOT AMUSED by having to sit next to a baby at all, let alone one that keeps trying to grab him, his arm, his watch, etc. and then starts screaming when deterred. Ask me how I know. Yay travel.

    I wish they would invent airplanes for people with kids and people without kids. I think everyone would be happier. The airplane bathroom could even have a changing table.

    • The airplane bathroom does have a changing table! I know because I once let my son crawl around on it for 10 minutes to get a break from being held for 6 hours.

    • Anons says:

      Also, do it because it is what the FAA recommends. The ONLY thing not strapped down on take off and landing are children under 2. The peanuts are locked away, but not your kid. Every year there are a few injuries (some rather serious) from turbulence.

    • Thanks for this. I posted a few weeks ago asking whether to buy my 13-month-old his own seat for a flight next month when I’ll be flying alone with him. This was the exact scenario I was imagining. The comments here persuaded me to do it. Also, on 3 of the 4 flights we’re on, we have the a 2-person row to ourselves, which will be nice. Now I’m just hoping that my son doesn’t decide that the plane is a suitable place to practice his pterodactyl scream (which he’s already very good at).

      • Is pterodactyl scream a developmental phase? I swear every kid about that age develops exactly that scream.

  2. Has anyone used the travel harness? We’ll be flying with the boys this fall and it will be the first time they need their own seats. Although our car seats (Britax Boulevard) are FAA approved we’ve been told they don’t fit in coach seats (WISH someone — Britax? — had told us that when we bought them). Alternatively, does anyone have experience buckling two year olds into the plane seat belts? My guys are both just over 36″ but skinny (95th % for height but only 45 or 50th for weight). I’m just not sure if they’d just slip right out, or if lap belts are even safe for very young children.

    • Am using one for the first time over the holiday weekend, will report back.

      I hope it works. His cars eat is absurdly heavy … can’t imagine having to do it for 2.

      • Those car seats are beasts. We always get the rental cart just to get the stuff from the curb to the check in counter. Stupidly expensive but utterly necessary.

    • Anons says:

      Some people get a cheapo lightweight carseat for travel , like a Cosco Scenera. YMMV, but I’d rather use a seat I know the history of if we are driving on the other end. I also don’t trust bag check guys with a carseat (they can be really rough on luggage and carseats are supposed to replaced if they are in a minor car accident), but that may just be me. The harness is FAA approved for children over 22 pounds, so it is probably a good option for the plane if you don’t need to drive on the other end (or have a good carseat option already for your trip from friends or relatives).

    • The KidSafe harness is not a great idea for kids who might sleep or who might not be able to sit still through a whole flight. Seriously, just get the Scenaras. They are light and cheap (I got mine for $20 from Wal-mart) and fit great over the top of a stroller sun canopy. Then you will have them at your destination – the install is supereasy and you will not have to use skanky expired rental seats or something grandma dug out of the basement. The Kid slept great in his every time and because we only used it for travel and the babysitter’s car, it was in great shape and gifted to the sitter to use for other kids.

    • Anon in Texas says:

      I love our Cosco Scenera for travel. Actually I like it in general, we use it in my husband’s car. Though a pain to carry around the airport (especially if just you + kid), it was SO NICE to have him strapped in, in a place where he was comfortable, during the flight. I did one leg of our flights gate-checking the seat, and all others installing the kid in the car seat. Even with hassle factors, I think the car seat on the plane is the best option for a less stressful flight for you and the kid.

    • Another BigLaw Parent says:

      We have the Britax Boulevard clicktight and have successfully brought it in on several plane rides so far (daughter is 23 months and flew in it at 18 months most recently at Christmas). It fits in most coach seats, but is a tight fit. I found a chart online that tells you the seat width by airplane type, so if you’re worried you can look at the planes that will be used on your route to determine if it will fit. We didn’t mind because we were all in one row, so no stranger’s space to encroach upon width-wise. (Any rear-facing carseat reduces the ability of the person in front of your child to recline their seat.) We got the go go babyz travel cart to wheel it through the airport, and then my husband carried it to our seat on the plane once we got to the end of the jetway. (The cart folds up quickly and easily and fits in the overhead bin.) Bonus: We didn’t need to bring the stroller because we just strapped our daughter into the carseat to wheel her through the airport. When you buy the cart, you may have to ask them for the extended strap, but they will send it to you for free.

    • Rosita says:

      My friend flew recently with the CARES harness and raved about it on facebook afterward. She loved it!!

    • We tried to use one for a flight from LA to London, and were told we had to use a mini-seat belt for the toddler that hooks onto your seat belt during take-off and landing (provided by the airline). Luckily the CARES was on loan from my sister (those things are expensive!) — she had better luck on her flights. Since then, we’ve just buckled our kid in her own seat (2.5 yrs and up).

    • I buckled my 2 year old into the regular old seat belt for 2 recent flights. I was able to buckle it tightly on him easily. We had no meaningful turbulence, so I can’t speak to effectiveness. I will say though that he immediately figured out how to unbuckle it and did so, often. When sufficiently distracted he left it alone. I’d say it’s a know-your-kid call as to whether they can sit reasonably still and not fiddle with the seat belt.

  3. If you’re flying with another adult, decline the airline’s invitation to ‘board first with children.” Send Adult 1 on first with all of the crap, and have adult 2 wait to board with small child until the last possible minute. This leaves kid able to run off those last bursts of energy, (and (s)he has less of a chance of eating all your packed snacks before the flight even takes off.)

  4. SoCalAtty says:

    This is really where TSA pre-check was amazing. I wore the baby and was able to walk right through. Didn’t have to remove shoes, laptop, anything. It was great! They just swabbed my hands. It took 30 seconds.

    We checked the stroller at the ticket counter, because I didn’t want to use it in the airport, and bought the padded/wheeled bag for that. Once baby is bigger I’ll probably want the stroller in the airport, but not with a 5 month old.

    The FAA requires you to remove the baby from the carrier for take off / landing, but, in practice over the 6 flights I took with him, it just meant unbuckling the clip in the back.

  5. Anonymous says:

    We have an old iPhone 4s that we saved and our toddler is only allowed to use it on planes and (seriously long) car trips. She has headphones and we preload all our purchased movies onto it. She will usually watch a movie, then spend 30 minutes playing with the phone and the one free game we put on it.

    She is otherwise not allowed to/exposed to playing with phones or iPads. We break this out when we’ve exhausted other options, including stickers, coloring, those magic marker coloring books (where you color clear ink), snacks, etc.

    We also pack fruit snacks to help with ear pressure– another special for airplanes treat.

  6. EB0220 says:

    I have so many tips here. In no particular order:

    1) I hate folding a stroller so I wear the kids until they can walk themselves.
    2) We usually rent/buy all gear at our destination.
    3) TSA – you go through the xray and they swab your hands if you’re wearing the kid/baby – you do not have to take the baby off.
    4) Screening liquids – if you are carrying formula, use the powder rather than pre-mixed containers. I almost had to fight a TSA agent over that one time. You can usually buy milk at most places and the squeeze pouches at starbucks, so I’ve started buying as I go rather than bringing a bunch of stuff.
    5) If you have a kid water bottle with a straw, always unscrew slightly to release pressure before releasing the straw. I have the kid’s camelbak bottles and I once had water shoot up and onto the people in front of us. Learn from me!
    6) Munchie mugs are awesome.

  7. Anons says:

    My tips (these focus on babies since older children can be a bit easier) after traveling more than 5 times before my daughter hit 14 months.

    *Decide if you should buy a seat for the baby. Buying a seat is the safest option and gives you access to your carseat without worrying whether it will get damaged in baggage handling. Buying a seat is recommended by the FAA–they have been trying for years to change the rules that allow 2 year olds to fly without one.
    *If you buy a seat for the baby, here is how you cart the gear: Wear baby in a wrap or carrier (on the front); bungee cord the carseat to your stroller; shove your first carry-on bag into bottom of stroller, wear a backpack as your second carry-on. Practice removing the carseat from stroller, getting the stroller folded up into a protective bag (optional) to be gate-checked, and getting the two carry-ons onto the plane. A second adult is very helpful but not necessary.
    *When you need help, ask the middle-aged woman making funny faces at your baby (unless she is super creepy). She might help you get something from your bag, load your carryon onto the plane, watch your baby while you go to the bathroom on the plane, or whatever.
    *Bring the obvious (food for baby, diapers for baby, extra clothes for baby, feeding gear, etc.).
    *Bring an extra shirt for you, just in case there is a diaper blowout or spit up.
    *Bring more extra clothes than you think you will need for the baby. Minimum of three outfits even for a short flight. We prefer the one-piece zip-up suits for convenience. Diaper blowouts are common on planes.
    *Two extra beverage cups from the stewardess can provide 30+ minutes of entertainment for a young baby. Seriously. So.much.fascination.
    *Look for apps that a young baby might like for your phone–there are a few that will entertain even a 6 month old. Peek-a-boo barn was a hit with my daughter as a baby, as well as most Duck Duck Moose apps (like the Wheels on the Bus and the Itsy Bitsy Spider). Soundbox is also nice since it just makes noise and will still do stuff even if your baby just randomly does things with the phone.
    *Learn how to set up and use Guided Access for your iPhone (or whatever the equivalent is). It locks your baby into an app without allowing access to other parts of the phone.
    *Painter’s tape is a good toy for the plane. Stick pieces everywhere and then remove easily.
    *Wrap toys in paper towels. Baby finds it fun to unwrap, plus you have paper towels to clean up messes.
    *Do not count on your child sleeping. Be prepared to provide entertainment to your child for however long the flight is. You are allowed to secretly hate any parents on the plane with a child that sleeps blissfully through the entire flight.
    *Bring “new” toys for the plane (even if they just hide for a few weeks so they seem new again).
    *Consider access to things that are normally forbidden to make travel fun (baby gets screentime, can play with keys, or other things that baby is usually not allowed to play with, etc.).
    *Amazon has these nifty padded blankets with a waterproof back and nylon front that fold up into a carrying bag. We used one of these for every trip for floortime for our daughter and this was one of our most useful purchases for her babyhood. Hotel floors can be so gross and you often want somewhere the baby can hang out.
    *Don’t forget to pack the baby monitor, if needed.
    *Let it go if things go badly. You could be the best-prepared mom and still have your child scream for the entire duration of a 2 hour flight. Everything will be OK. You can endure anything for 2 hours.
    *Make a shopping list of things that you will need to buy at your destination. For us, it was almost always necessary to do a quick shopping run at our destination for food, water, diapers, or whatever else we didn’t have room to pack.
    *Have contingency plans for anything you don’t have control over (such as having one parent run to Wal-Mart for a carseat or pack-n-play if the rental company or hotel doesn’t offer acceptable equipment).

    • In-House Europe says:

      +1 on the baby monitor!! Depending on where you are staying, having it avoids the “kids have to go to bed so we are all going to sit in the dark in the hotel room” phenomenon…

      Oh, and our first flight with DS was when he was 3 months old and was 12 hours long. When we boarded, the flight attendant said something to the extent of “they all fall asleep eventually.” Kid must have been determined to prove her wrong, because he was up all 12 hours, only quiet when nursing or being walked up and down the aisles.

  8. Diapers says:

    Oh, and diapers. Lots and lots and lots and lots of diapers. I had 6-7 diapers packed for a short flight and used 5 of them in the airport before the plane took off when my baby’s bout of constipation dramatically and repeatedly ended. Shudder. The joys of parenthood.

  9. We bought a seat for our 10mo old when we flew. We brought his car seat (Graco Snugfit30) and strapped it in using the instructions for when you don’t have the base. He slept about half on each flight in the car seat and at times was content to sit in it and play with his toys. It made us feel better that he was strapped in during takeoff and landing. The rest of the time he crawled around on me and my husband. He was at a grabby phase, so it also helped to have the whole 3 seat row to ourselves.

  10. In-House Europe says:

    We have travelled on long flights a LOT with our 2 kids, starting when the first was 5 months. This is late as I’m an infrequent reader of the moms page, but for anyone who looks at this…

    1. As someone mentioned above, extra clothes and diapers for babies are ESSENTIAL. We also had a blowout issue where our first literally went through THREE changes of clothes before we boarded.

    2. Related to that, save your carry-on space for what you really need on the flight. A rolly with lots of diapers and changes of clothes (including an entire outfit for the parents and several for the baby) is key for us. I add my work laptop to the rolly (company policy doesn’t allow me to check it), and have a purse with what I will want (Kindle if I am lucky with kid sleep time, passports, etc.). Especially if you have to transfer, you will want to avoid being loaded down with stuff.

    3. Related to transfers – I will literally pay several hundred dollars extra for a direct flight. The stress of having to take off and land and go through an airport twice is not worth the money saved IMHO!

    4. We rarely pack a stroller.. Below 2, I used an Ergo. Now we have a “Trunky” which is a cute kids suitcase that can hold the essential extra clothes etc, and the child can sit on it and either push herself or be pulled. It is fun and since it is only used when travelling, the kids are excited about it. This last flight one kid rode on the Trunky and the other on the rolly suitcase or walked.

    5. I may be in the minority here, but the idea of using a carseat on a planejust seems silly to me. When they are on your lap, you get an extra seatbelt that attaches to yours to use. When they are in their own seat, they are buckled in. And not to be morbid, but if the plane crashes the car seat isn’t going to help. Even with turbulence, I don’t see the benefit – even in strong turbulance we’ve never had a problem. Besides, without the seats, the kids can use the extra space of the seat to e.g. lay down with their head in your lap, or otherwise sit in different positions that make a long flight more comfortable.

    6. If you are still breastfeeding, try to plan it so that you start nursing when the plane takes off and again when it is landing. The sucking during feeding will help to normalize the ear pressure.

    7. Unlimited screen time. This is – like being sick – the time when our kids get to watch TV /play apps (the Elmo ABC is a hit with both my 6 year old and my 3 year old) to their hearts content. Since it is something special/new for them, they are involved for much longer. The longer/international flights generally have personal TVs with cartoons, but don’t count on them – on the flight we just took from Europe to the US, the system was down. Luckily I had pre-loaded 2 iPads with about 10 hours of cartoons/shows that they like and don’t usually get to watch.

    8. Kids meals! Lots of international flights allow you to special order a kids meal – the same as you would a vegetarian or kosher meal. While the regular meals may be OK, the kids meals tend to be better. Plus, they are brought before the regular meal service – bonus!

    I LOVE the idea of having one parent board and get the stuff stowed, and the other stay with the kids until final call so they can run around. Boarding early is nice in a “haha I didn’t have to pay first class to board first” kind of way ;), but the kids get bored quickly when the screens aren’t working yet and the plane isn’t moving.

    My kids love flying due to all the extra treats they get – we are usually very stingy with sweets for example, but pack extra stuff for the flight – as well as the screen time, the chance to just be in an airplane… I actually really have grown to …well, not love it, but certainly not hate it as much as I expected. :)

  11. In-House Europe says:

    One more tip! Then I will stop being all over this board.

    Small babies that need to be walked/held – get your husband to do it as much as possible! This is seriously unfair, but the reaction of flight attendants as well as passengers to a dad holding/walking a fussy baby is “aw, look at that great dad!” whereas the reaction to a mom doing the same tends to be more along the line of “why can’t she keep her baby under control/sit down?” Totally unfair but true – and this is a time when you can use the double standard to your benefit. :)

    • Small Firm Attorney says:

      You are genius. I’m bookmarking your tips for reference when I have kids! :)

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