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tips for flying with a toddler, preschooler, or young child on an airplaneSo you’re flying with a toddler soon and a bit worried you might be forcefully thrown out the emergency exit at touchdown? I feel your pain. Since transplanting to the deep south 10 years ago, I have made more trips back to my native California than I can count. I took my oldest child to visit my ailing grandmother 7 times in my daughter’s first year of life. In fact, I just got back from another visit last week where I flew alone with my three little kids (6 and under), whose dad had to work. The number one question I get from friends and strangers alike is, “How do you fly by yourself with three little kids?” Below are a few basic principles that I’ve come to live by when flying with a toddler. In general, I find it helpful to think of flying with a toddler as hostage negotiations. Forget about your core values,  abandon your typical parenting style, give up on personal dignity, hygiene, comfort, or basic self-respect. Do whatever it takes to spare the souls of those other 172 innocent hostages seated around you, because you are all being held hostage at the same altitude… together.

Rapid-Fire Activities

Flying with a toddler is one of those times when its worth it to spend a few bucks on some brand new, novel, mind-blowing activities. The activities themselves will vary based on your child’s age and developmental stage, but the point is to have a whole bunch of quiet, easily-packable, readily available activities all individually packaged and ready to go in rapid succession. Make yourself a good pile of options, then double it, then take everything out of the wrappers, packaging, etc and have each individual activity bagged separately with all supplies ready to be found with one hand. When you get your little one engaged in something, resist the urge to lean back and take a breath. In fact, don’t ever lean back and take a breath when flying with toddlers. It signals weakness to them and will invite a sneak attack. Just when you look out the window or close your eyes, you closest 30 neighbors will inevitably be startled awake by the blood-curdling screams of a horrific killer-bee attack, which, at 34,000 feet sounds shockingly similar to a  toddler with a slightly leaking sippy cup or misplaced yellow crayon, but by then the damage is done. So, never, never, ever sit back and take a breath. Just keep a defensive posture with the next activity already locked and loaded in your hand or under your opposite leg. ready to blow your child’s mind yet again. Stay tuned for a future post showing all the awesome activities I custom pick for each of my children, ages 2, 4, and 6, and some of my favorites from those earlier ages.

Don’t. Check. The. Time.

I know, I know, we all do it- even more so when flying with a toddler. About the time you think you’ve got to be at least half way there, you grab your phone and do some quick “time zone math.” But before you try convincing yourself that you must be another hour off, just stop yourself. Don’t even look. I promise you it will only dash your dreams and leave you in an airborne abyss of despair. No matter how well its going, flying with a toddler just slows down the space-time continuum. You’re going to look at the clock and come to the harsh realization that you are only 42 minutes into that flight. Then, instead of staying one step ahead with the rapid fire activities, you will be distracted by the dilemma of whether to fake a bomb threat or a heart attack to get out of that plane early, and you will have to start all over after an emergency landing in Wichita. Just sit there and be pleasantly surprised when you feel the second most amazing sensation of your trip, the engines quieting down for descent- second only to the thud of landing.

Kids eat. You starve. Accept it.

Forget everything you know about nutrition. Flying with a toddler is not the time for Whole 30 snacks. Bribe your kids with their most coveted, most forbidden snacks. Bring a bunch, and skip the bulk bags and saving money. Buy the expensive single-serving packages you never buy. Know why? Because they’re shiny. Because they make better crinkling sounds than any ziploc bag. Because they’re neon colored. Enough said. Forget about your own meal. You can’t have the next 3 activities in your hand if your hand is holding a sandwich or an open cup of soda and ice. The minute an airborne toddler senses distraction, they will strike. Go hungry. Drive thru on the way to the airport and forget about eating on the plane. You don’t stop for a picnic in the middle of a war zone. Once you haul all your crap to the back row of the plane, you will conveniently be near the galley. Ask the flight attendant back there for a few cans of unopened water. Pound one before you even sit down. Then save the other to celebrate your survival upon landing. I have been offered free liquor by sympathetic flight attendants, but they’ve never once offered it to my toddlers, so what would be the point?

Bring a cheap, lightweight car seat

I’ve done it both ways. When your baby is under the age of 2, they can fly for free on your lap, so bringing a car seat might not be an option. Personally, I bring the car seat with the understanding that I might gate check it, but I also might just bring it on board the plane if there are empty seats to be had. Ask the gate agent at the desk right before boarding if there are empty seats, and if so, go to the back row with your car seat. No one will be fighting over the seat next to you and your baby. That gives you the option of baby on your lap or the even better option of baby in their seat if they fall asleep. It also lets you pee without another person on your lap. I have tried hauling my heavy Britax car seats. Just don’t. While I definitely see the advantage of surrounding my baby in steel in the event of a car crash, its probably not all that beneficial in the event of a plane crash, so buy the cheapest lightest car seat money can buy. (At only 7.6 pounds, this one allows the tray to come down flat enough to eat, has been the perfect airplane seat for us, and just comfortably held my 4 year old last trip when she got strep throat on the plane and just wanted to sleep.) Plus its cheaper than those FAA approved air travel seat harnesses that serve no purpose once you make it to a car, whereas a cheap travel car seat can be used in a rental car, grandma’s car, or an extra seat if a friend comes along.  Then you can skip the red gate check bag that shreds 5 minutes after takeoff or having to buy the expensive one that costs more than a cheap car seat. Just bring a cheap seat, (for the sake of the hostages) make the straps bigger and throw one strap over your shoulder or stroller handle to save yourself the time, money, and physical exhaustion of hauling your big expensive seat to the back row of the plane, where it will slam the elbows of 68 people sitting in the aisle on your way back there. I travel alone with my 3 littles, a double umbrella stroller, and my cheap car seat. The car seat has always been worth the little bit of extra effort. I’ve never once regretted bringing it.

Bring a “beater” stroller

preparing for airplane flight with toddlers with lightweight car seat and double umbrella stroller

Baggage handlers are brutal with strollers! So whats a mom to do besides carry a kid through an airport? Oh, yes- buy something else to protect their expensive stroller. Those cheap red “gate check” bags are completely worthless, and didn’t last for even the first flight on my car seat or stroller. Then I bought the heavy-duty expensive bags, which do keep the grime and grease away but don’t keep the contents from being thrown and slammed around. The bigger problem with those bags, especially if you are traveling without the help of another parent, is that you then have to stop at the bottom of the jetway, remove your child, and wrestle the stroller in or out of the bag while your child goes to find another plane that’s their favorite color. It only took me a few flights to ditch my expensive stroller at home and embrace the rugged beauty and simplicity of the beater stroller, which cost me a whopping $7.50 at a consignment store five years ago. I can pick that puppy up with one hand, flip the release, toss it into the pile at the end of the jetway, and walk onto the plane- all with a screaming, thrashing toddler safely hanging upside-down over my shoulder. And considering what I paid for it and how long I have used it for air travel, I do not care if it gets dirty or tossed around because its clearly indestructible anyway. Along those same lines, if you, like me, travel frequently to the same destination to visit the same people, consider buying something used to just keep there exclusively for your visits. After one trip home trying to haul and protect my precious stroller and car seat, I decided it was easier to just buy a second set used to keep there. I found my exact same model stroller, infant seat and bases for $75 on Craigslist which my dad then stored for me in between visits. Later on, I also found my exact same beloved fancy-pants tandem stroller used locally at my destination, which now allows me to travel with just a cheap double umbrella stroller for the airport.

BONUS TIP: Anytime you find yourself flying with a toddler, don’t be afraid to make $h*t up. You’d be amazed at the compassion your fellow passengers can muster up when told that you are flying to that well-known children’s hospital for medical testing. Far more than you’ll ever get by saying, “I pulled my kids out of school this week so we could go to Disney without waiting in those huge lines.” Remember, its for the “hostages.” Take one for the team and do whatever you have to do.

Do you have an epic toddler quote from your last flight? Mine was “This is taking forever! Can we just hurry up and crash already?” Share your favorite in-flight nightmares or secret tactics in the comment section below!


  • Legally Blind Mom of Three
  • Childbirth Educator & Doula
  • Former Special Ed Teacher
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