I’m going to try and pull together the ultimate guide for you all about how to enjoy/ get through/ contemplate (delete as appropriate) travelling with a toddler on a plane. It doesn’t have to be just the one toddler either, this guide should hopefully make you confident and full of ideas for travelling on a plane with all your children from little babies to older, moodier teens.
At Kid Transit, we’ve tried to pull together a few of these posts before but none have been definitive. So this is the big one- you won’t need to read another ‘flying with children’ article ever again!
The guide is divided into different sections dealing with all the different aspects of the journey- you can jump straight to whichever section you need the help with using the links below or just work your way through all of it if you don’t know where to start.
We’ve recently done our first flight with our three-year-old. We went big and did an eight-hour long-haul flight to Orlando! So now we have a bit of experience in doing both day and night flights with our little one. We also know a lot of people who’ve done multiple trips with all ages of kids so we’ve been able to pool their ‘flying with children’ knowledge as well.
Depending on how far away you live from the airport, this trip could be almost as long as the flight itself! Factor this into how much entertainment and activities you need to take for your child. If they’re going to be sat in a car for a few hours and then on a plane for a few more it will all add up.
If your flight is early in the morning it may make more sense to travel down the night before and stop at an airport hotel. A lot of them offer deals that include parking for your car or have free shuttle buses to the airport.
Take a look at using other modes of transport as well. Airport bus and train services are usually pretty frequent, however, you will have to transfer all luggage and children further than if you use a car.
Another option is booking a taxi, even for longer journeys, this can work out at a similar price to driving and parking your car for the holiday. It also means you don’t have to drive, so for earlier flights you can catch a bit more sleep in the taxi.
If you do take your own car and park, make sure you keep track of your keys! We lost our keys on a holiday once, ended up hiring a car at the airport, driving home to pick up the spare set and then driving back to the airport for our car the next day!
Top tip: When parking your car take a quick picture of the section number you parked in, especially if it’s a big car park.
Before you get to the airport there are a few things you can do to make the check-in and wait easier.
Most airlines offer online check-in before you get to the airport to speed things up a bit when you’re there. Check all the details on your airline website to see how much you can do.
Check if you have to have printed tickets or whether you can have them on an app or email to make things easier.
Make sure you have understood all the details of your baggage allowance. With cheaper airlines, this is usually quite low, or they charge you for any checked baggage. If you’re taking a baby or toddler they seem to need so much stuff so be careful to weigh bags before you set off so you don’t get hit with extra charges at the airport.
Most things can be bought at your destination so decide if what you’re packing is really essential. We did a packing tips post recently- check it out for some helpful tips.
If you were unable to book seats when you booked the flight (some airlines charge extra for this), check to see how far in advance you can select them. We flew with Virgin Atlantic who gives you free seat booking 24 hours before, however, if you signed up for their Flying Club you could book them 72 hours before. Our seats were automatically booked on the flight back.
You can check out seat positions on a website like SeatGuru so you know exactly where all the seats are in relation to toilets, exits, galley etc. It’s also useful if you have a large party trying to book seats near each other so you can coordinate your bookings.
You should also think about whether you are taking a pushchair right up to the gate or not. We did in the end as it meant we had somewhere to strap our daughter into (as she’s a bit of a bolter) so one less thing to worry about. It also means that if your child might be napping during the wait for the flight they can.
We also took our car seat with us as we were hiring a car at the other end. Decide if you’re going to take it on the plane with you (check with your airline as to whether you can take it on the plane) or just check it in. Most airlines will let you check in a car seat and a pushchair AS WELL as your child’s normal baggage allowance.
Once you get to the airport- check your bags over as soon as possible. This means more hands to look after your kids with! Any hand luggage is easiest in a backpack style bag so you don’t have to wheel cases around as well as trying to stop your children from running amock!
If your little one is still comfortable in a baby carrier then use that as you will be able to have hands free for anything else.
If you want to have something to eat at the airport (a good idea for keeping everyone occupied), check that there are places to eat once you’ve gone through security. Some airports (especially abroad or smaller ones) hardly have any food places- consider signing up for a travel app like TripCase where you can upload all your flight and trip details and search detailed information on airport facilities.
Some airports have play spaces for kids so you can spend a bit of time burning off energy before the flight. In fact, with younger kids let them do all they can to run around so hopefully, they will be ready for a rest on the plane. Our daughter loved running around all the big departure halls, playing hide and seek or just looking at all the planes taking off and landing.
If you have older kids make sure you sit next to a plug or charging point so their devices don’t run out of juice as soon as you get on the plane.
Take empty drinks bottles with you so you can fill them up from the water fountains. Most airports will have these so you don’t have to spend loads of money on drink.
We had a Trunki with us (see the full review here). Overall, I wasn’t that impressed. I was going to pack it with all the things for our daughter but the way it opens meant everything would just spill out on to the floor so instead, it was full of spare clothes. It got some use being sat on or dragged around but not much. Maybe for slightly older kids it would prove more useful, for us it was just something else to carry.
If you know your child isn’t going to sit still for ages, wait as long as you can before boarding the flight. Your kids can still be burning off a bit of energy in the departure lounge instead of being forced to sit for an extra half hour or even an hour.
A lot of the advice I read before going on our flight was around taking loads of things for our daughter to do when on the flight. So that’s exactly what we did. The flight was around 8 hours and I hoped she would have a nap at some point as well as enjoy a meal. We booked her a child’s meal beforehand as it comes out first so means she didn’t have to wait for the trolley to get to us.
I packed stickers, an Aquadoodle, two kids magazines with the free tat on the front, loads of books, a makeup bag (as she loves playing with mine), snacks and our iPad. Here’s some ideas for kids apps to download onto a tablet.
When it came down to it, the iPad probably got watched a lot although she wasn’t that happy wearing the headphones we had bought her (these were new so may have been more successful if we’d given them to her beforehand). She wasn’t that bothered about the screen provided on the seat, however, I know for a fact that a lot of kids are really happy with this for the full flight. The magazines went down really well- mostly for the little toys on the front as did the Aquadoodle. The snacks were also a hit- I made sure to take things that took a bit longer to eat like raisins. We also let her wander up and down the aisles every so often so we could stretch ours and her legs.
I think the main thing we realised after being slightly apprehensive about it was that the things that she enjoys at home are also the things she will enjoy on the flight! Luckily, we also had our friend Shelly on the flight who took her off at nap time and came back with her sound asleep! We let her lay across us and she managed a couple of hours.
The only time she played up was when she needed to put her seatbelt back on for landing. We basically told her that the pilot would tell her off if she didn’t leave it on and that seemed to help!
If it is your first flight with a younger child there are some great books and YouTube clips you can watch to get them used to what they will see and do, especially if you think they might be nervous of flying. We actually had to dial down the excitement as she kept thinking that she was going on a plane for months before we went- so do what works for your child.
If your child has ear problems or is sensitive to pressure changes, make sure you have something that will help with this. Common things that help are encouraging your child to drink (milk if a baby) or chew something during take-off or landing. The action of sucking on a dummy will also help clear their ears. Encourage older children to yawn if the pressure is building.
Make sure you have spare clothes with you for both yourself and your child. Nausea can be common in kids anyway and I’ve heard a good few tales of children throwing up on themselves and their parents during a flight. Having wet wipes and spare clothes mean you don’t have to smell of vomit for eight hours!
If you’re potty training, take the potty with you- there’s always a quiet spot you can sit them down on at the back of the plane, don’t worry, the flight attendants will always be accommodating to children flying as keeping the kids happy keeps everyone else happy.
Don’t worry about nappy changes either, even though plane toilets seem really small there is actually plenty of room to change a nappy- on our plane, there was a little flip down changing table that went above the toilet. Pop on your travel changing mat and you’re all set. Just be careful with any movement happening from the plane.
We found that the most stressful part of the whole flight experience was actually getting through customs and the baggage hall. The relief of the flight being over gave way to our daughter being desperate to run around after being cramped on the plane for so long. We also didn’t get our buggy back until the baggage reclaim hall so had to keep her corralled through customs and during a small tram ride to the arrivals building.
All I can say is to keep calm (easier said than done). After a brief moment of panic as she made a run for it out of the customs queue in Orlando, (luckily another lady very sternly told her not to run away from Mummy which stopped her in her tracks) we had to keep hold of her at all times.
Waiting for the bags took ages as well but we had the buggy back by then and she could run around more while one of us waited by the carousel. Luckily all our bags and the car seat turned up. Our friends who we were meeting there weren’t so lucky and one bag was lost.
In case this happens to you make sure when you pack that each bag (and a cabin bag if possible) has a mix of outfits for everyone in your party. This means that you should have at least a couple of clean changes of clothes to wear before your bag arrives. Airlines will also give you a budget to spend on getting replacement toiletries or clothes so make sure you take advantage of that.
A lot of the frustration of this part of the journey is knowing you’ve arrived and not anticipating the amount of time it will take to still get out of the airport! With long-haul flights, you also have the time difference to adjust to making you feel tired and out of sorts. Just prepare yourself for the long wait and try to relax.
If you’re hiring a car the other side, remember that pick up could also take a while. At the bigger airports, quite often, only the main car hire firms have desks and car pick-ups right next to the airport itself. We had booked a cheaper car hire firm and had to take a bus to the collection point adding on an extra half hour to the journey.
Top tip: you can use your phone as a sat nav abroad without using up any data. Either download a free maps app such as Navmii with all the maps on when you have wifi or download a map of the area you are travelling to on Google Maps so that you can navigate when you have no data or WiFi. Just make sure you haven’t used up all the battery during the flight if you’re planning to do this!
If you’re travelling to your hotel or villa using something other than a hire car, make sure you have all the details available beforehand (for example if you’re catching a train or getting minibus transport).
Our flight coming back from Orlando was at 6:30 pm so a good time for our daughter to have a bit of sleep. If you are flying overnight with children try to make sure they know what’s expected of them so there are fewer arguments on the flight itself. If you don’t mind your kids staying up watching movies for most of the flight tell them. However, if you want them to get a bit of sleep then try to get a little routine in such as cleaning teeth, washing face and maybe even changing into pyjamas so they feel ready to sleep.
Our daughter did sleep for a few hours after food had been served and only complained a little bit about it. One thing to remember is that your kids will need to be wearing a seatbelt if there’s any turbulence so try to get them to sleep with it on or at least in an easy position so you can put it on them later. The flight crew weren’t too bothered that our daughter was laying down with the belt loosely on when the seatbelt light came on, however, the turbulence wasn’t too bad. They may have been more insistent on her being sat with the belt tight if it had been rockier.
Make sure you have stuff to keep you entertained and comfortable as well. Sounds silly, but if you can relax when your kids are occupied it will make you less annoyed if there are any delays or your baggage gets lost.
I struggle with flying- it makes me quite anxious and I have been known to have a panic attack on a flight before. However, I tried to make sure that this was not passed on to my daughter by faking excitement and keeping calm (on the outside)! It seemed to actually make me feel a bit more relaxed about the flight as well when I could see how little bothered she was about the plane taking off, turbulence, or the landing.
Try to sit in the seat that makes you happiest. For me, I realised that having a window seat and being able to see the wings actually helped. It meant any noise, or movement I could see what was happening out the window. For some people, they prefer middle seats as they can stop thinking they’re on a plane. So do what’s best for you so you can be calm.
If your child does start having a tantrum or your baby won’t stop crying please try not to worry. I’ve been on a lot of flights, as have friends and family, and I’ve never once heard anyone complain about crying or upset children. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve even noticed! Most other passengers will be listening to devices or sleeping and not even realise.
One thing to keep on top of though is if your child is repeatedly kicking the seat in front, they may not realise that this might be annoying the person in front of them so make it clear that it’s not acceptable behaviour.
When it came to jetlag on the way over we just went with it with no fixed plan in place. When you gain hours, the trip seems to work a bit easier for most adults to handle and seemed fine with our daughter. Her middle of the day nap was later when on the flight and she pushed all the way through to about 11 pm UK time so 7 pm Orlando time. For the first few mornings, she was up a bit early but not too much different to usual and went to sleep at around a normal time.
Trying to keep some semblance of a routine (with similar naps and similar night times) seemed to help. Just being relaxed in general (I know this can be hard if your child is a bad sleeper anyway) really does help. If you don’t mind the odd late night or a day when it all gets too much for your child then you should muddle through. As long as they know that sleep means just that.
Coming back (or if you’re losing hours) has been a bit harder. They get less sleep for the night flight and it’s more difficult trying to get a child to sleep when they still think it’s the middle of the afternoon! Again, try to stick to the right routine for things and they will adjust in the end.
Final thoughts on travelling with a toddler on a plane
Hopefully, I’ve given you a few tips and a good insight into going on a plane with children. Obviously, your experience will be different so let me know in the comments what worked or didn’t if you’ve been on a plane with children before.
It all comes down to planning the trip and remaining calm. Easy to say, not as easy to do sometimes! Don’t let the thought of a long haul flight with little ones put you off- it is only a small part of the trip that will be forgotten about once you are enjoying yourselves on holiday.