Flying with Kids: Tips for the Plane

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Tips and advice for flying with babies, toddlers and young children

The long international flight – or flights – is probably the most daunting and intimdating prospect of traveling with children. It needn’t be. Plan well and intelligently. Try to capture the excitement of being on a plane. Relax.

And if does take a turn for the worse, remember, it is going to end. It will be over and in the past and just a memory. So enjoy it. Or at least, try to live it. This is probably a big moment for your kids. Get caught up in their excitement too.

1. If you’re traveling as a solo parent with your kids – be sure to have the proper documentation. Crossing any border with kids but without both parents can raise suspicions with immigration officials obligated to enforce the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Be sure to have a permission to travel with children letter.

2. Take a taxi to the airport: Unless it is either prohibitively expensive  or you’re leaving from a small local airport, a taxi makes things much easier. If you phone in advance you’ll have a set time to leave. It’s door to door. And when you arrive back home, it’s so much easier than finding your car, your keys, hoping you didn’t leave the lights on or that someone  didn’t sideswipe it. Believe me I’ve done it both ways and this is how it should be done.

3. Consider taking a BABYBJÖRN or an easily collapsible stroller (the Maclaren Techno XT is my all-time favorite) to help get around the airport.

3. Get to the airport early (for your long international flights anyways). Probably pretty obvious, but when you have kids you might be tempted to swing a tighter schedule and limit the time in the airport. It is tempting and appealing. No doubt about it. But not worth it. Being in a hurry, while trying to negotiate so many details (tickets, bags, security, passports, boarding passes, food) is certain to add stress to an already demanding situation. This is part of your trip and can be fun and memorable in its own way – but not if you’re stressed and hurrying.
4. Pack some food and snacks. Mammals need food. (I saw this on the BBC.) You’re a mammal. Your kids are mammals. The airplane is the serengeti during dry season. You don’t know when your next meal is coming. Be prepared for anything.

5. Take milk if you think you might need it. A bit of a shocker here, but most airlines don’t carry or serve milk. If this is an important part of your childs diet grab some in the terminal before boarding the plane.

6. Bulkhead bassinet. This is an incredibly great setup – if you can get these highly coveted seats. It’s a sleeper that connects to the wall just in front of the bulkhead seats. Supposedly only good for kids under 6 months, we put our 8 month old in it and he was fine. He slept for almost 8 hours on a 12 hour flight from San Francisco to Taipei. It’s not just the ability to sleep that is a bonus, the extra room is great. It’s essentially a free seat. Phone the airline as soon as you’ve booked your tickets and ask about reserving them. Depending on the airplane there can be several different seats with access to a bassinet.

7. If you don’t get the bassinet you might consider taking a car seat on board, especially if you had already planned to take one on the trip. They sit in the seat just like in a car. I’m sure you’re aware of whether your child sleeps and relaxes in a car seat or gets antsy and annoyed, so I’ll leave that to you.

8. Ask for an infant safety belt. Most foreign airlines have an extra infant belt for lap-held babies that connects to the normal belt and loops around the child’s belly. (American airlines don’t seem to have them – or even know what they are.) Most injuries on planes result from being thrown around the cabin during unexpected turbulence. These belts, at least in theory, would seem to reduce the risk.

9. Don’t line up until you absolutely have to and try to be one of the last to board the plane. There are few advantages to getting on the plane first but there are plenty of costs. It’s best to stay out in the waiting room, let the kids roam, stretch, and burn off some energy. You’ll be cramped and congested on that plane for long enough — there’s no need to artificially extend that time. Board last and enjoy your freedom while you’ve got it.

10. Don’t take no for an answer from someone who isn’t authorized to say yes. Read that again. Profound isn’t it? OK, I heard it from a druggy trying to get some free needles at a drugstore, but still, it applies here. Try to relax. Go with the flow. Have fun. But if you feel slighted, you feel you haven’t gotten a fair shake, something’s not right – especially if it can make a big difference in the ease of your trip – raise some hackles, get to the bottom of it. And as the rule says, if an attendant says “no” it only means something if they had the authority to say “yes”.

11. Little known fact: You can have stuff put underneath the plane with the rest of the luggage at the gate (i.e. as you’re about to board the plane.) So anything big or awkward that you might need while in the airport but not during the flight (like a stroller), you can simply hand-off as you enter the plane. In the case of a car seat you can take it with you into the plane, talk to the attendants to see if there is a free seat for you to use it, and if not it goes underneath. Be sure to ask where to pick it up. Usually it will be sitting in the walkway as you exit the plane at your destination – not with the ticketed luggage on the carousel.

12. Play area at the airport. This is one of those things new parents notice and say to themselves “Has that play area always been there?”  Most airports have something, so even if you think a certain terminal doesn’t, ask at information or with your airline’s staff.

13. Relax. It’s said so much, you’re likely to write this off, but “really” Relax. Taking off in a plane shouldn’t be anymore stressful for an infant, toddler or preschooler than going on an amusement park ride, and you sure wouldn’t be planning coping mechanisms and packing stuff to distract a child on a trip to Disneyland. If they have a cold or congestion, then yes, giving them a bottle or soother during take off and landing is a good idea. But if you build the airplane ride up into something big and intimidating then it will probably seem big and intimidating to your child. Make it fun!

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17 questions and comments

  1. AvatarIs Car Seat Mandatory on Airplane

    Question: My husband and I will be traveling from Florida to Sweden with our 9mo. We have bought three seats but are unsure if we should bring our car seat.
    Is it mandatory if you’ve booked a seat for a baby?
    Our family in Sweden has a car seat we can use and our son is not in the habit of sleeping in his car seat. He is however happy to sit up and play for hours on end-something he doesn’t do in a car seat. Will he be allowed to sit in his own seat without a car seat?
    Of course, I’d hold him when seat belt sign is on, etc.
    Giselle A

    1. Santorini DaveSantorini Dave My Little Nomads

      A car seat is not mandatory but for a 9 month old I think it would make things easier. Be sure it is less than 16 inches wide so that it will fit. You’re allowed to hold him during any part of the flight (taxi, take off , and landing) if you want to.

  2. AvatarMisha

    To answer my own question (above) about whether or not flight attendants would allow our toddler to sleep on the floor of the bulkhead area… YES! We had great luck with this on United Airlines. I can’t say they were helpful with much else, but we were allowed to put down a sleeping bag for our 20-month-old. He spend much of the flight playing on the floor there with his toys (or sitting in MY seat while I sat on the floor and read). Then, when he got sleepy, we just put him to sleep there on the floor and he slept a good 5 hour stretch. The only time we had to pick him up was when we had serious turbulence. So it turned out to be a great way to travel our 12-hour leg from LAX to Narita, Japan with a lap-child!

  3. AvatarRobby

    Best advice-leave the (little) kids with grandma and grandpa, They make traveling unbearable for the rest of us. Babies? Leave them with grandma and grandpa when they’re old enough, until then-stay home.

    1. AvatarRebecca

      How arrogant.

  4. Avatarmisha

    Hi there. A quick question for Nomad Dad and fellow parent travelers: What has been your experience with flight attendants in terms of whether they will let your toddler sleep and/or play on the floor during long flights? We are flying from Denver to Hanoi and have tried to break up the flight as much as possible, with layovers here and there. That said we do have one 2.5 + 12-hour leg from Denver to LA to Narita, Japan. We’re flying with a 20-month-old as a lap child and have reserved the bulkhead (2 seats for me and partner). We are banking on our son being able to play, read and eventually *sleep* on the floor at our feet with a blanket or little sleeping bag (except for when turbulence sets in of course). Unfortunately, he is too big for the bassinet. Have you found flight attendants to accomodating on this front or hard-assed? We are hoping they will do what is in the interest of the entire plane, namely keep toddler happy! If you all have a lot of experience with harrassment on this front, we might reconsider the bulkhead, because the arm-rests do not move due to the tray tables in there, so it will be harder to have kiddo sleep across our laps! Thanks for your input!

  5. AvatarHelen from DE

    Great information for grandparents too.


  6. AvatarLouis from North Wales

    Our daughter is now just over 3 years and the last time we were on a plane with her was last February when she was almost 2 and a half. We find that the best way to get through a flight is with snacks, drinks (not too much though unless you want limitless trips to the loo with the kids), a comic or two, some favourite small toys (we let ours have her own backpack filled with some favourite toys from home that easily travel, I also spent a bit of time and a few pounds on eBay buying some travel toys) and of course, that fabulous invention… the portable DVD player…!

  7. AvatarLaura from Austin

    Love these tips and agree so very much!

    I echo the “relax” and “get there early” tips and would add: mentally walk through each and every step of the process and imagine what could go wrong and how you will deal with it. Very much helps with the parental stress level, which kids will pick up on. And then when you sail through all the transitions without incident, you will feel like you won the travel lottery!

    Also, on the stroller topic. We never travel with one unless it’s a car trip and packing light isn’t an issue. When ours were smaller (up to 2 yrs old – they are now 3 and 5), we used a backpack carrier, like a Kelty or even that cheap one you can buy at Babies R Us, or an Ergo used on the back. This is great for airport navigation (two free hands! no escapees!) and they can see everything that is going on around them, which helps significantly with their attitude. I flew solo with our two to Costa Rica one year when they were 1 and 3 and having one monkey safely up on my shoulders allowed me to hold the hand of the other one and still carry a coffee.

    They also work great for whatever your destination throws at you in the way of transport challenges. Strollers can’t be used well in metro stations, on buses, bumpy sidewalks, hiking trails, beaches, etc., but a backpack carrier works for all of these. I also think they are safer in crowded cities and at festivals. Noone can spill coffee or beer on your kid’s head if the kid is way up high! And they’ll generally fall asleep up there, too, just like in a stroller.

    1. Santorini DaveSantorini Dave My Little Nomads

      Hi Laura. I’m really big on baby carriers too. Especially in the airport. You’re right about the risk of spilling things on kids while they’re in a stroller. I’ve had a couple close calls on that one. Thanks for the great comment!

      Everyone should read Laura’s great tips on keeping track of kids in crowds and while traveling.

  8. AvatarNikki from Ottawa

    We’re travelling from Canada to Germany in November with our daughter, who will be 17 months. Originally, we had planned to get her her own seat on the plane, but we’re rethinking that plan because we won’t need her carseat in Europe (we’re travelling by train) and we’ll just have to haul around a really heavy carseat (it’s a Britax) or pay to leave it in a left-luggage room. Thoughts? Are we nuts to contemplate taking a (fairly busy) 17-month-old as a lap-held infant?

    I’m also not 100% certain that our carseat will fit into an airplane seat, but that’s another topic.

    1. Santorini DaveSantorini Dave My Little Nomads

      Hi Nikki. There are pros and cons for taking a carseat on the plane. Myself, I would save the money and endure any hardships you might have to go through. I always think there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll find a free seat beside you – especially since you’re traveling in November when there might be more empty seats.

      Ask when you check-in if there are any free seats you could sit near – though this is the least likely place to get a 3rd seat. Ask again at the gate before boarding. And then scan the plane when you’re finding your seat looking for any open seats. If there are some around ask the airline attendants if you could move. They’ll probably tell you once the doors are closed you can switch.

      The Britax sounds like a pretty bulky carseat and I’ve read that many people have found it hard to get the seatbelt around it. Look for a label that says, “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.” If it doesn’t have one you won’t be able to take it on the plane even if you wanted to.

      The one thing I’ll say for carseats on the plane – besides safety – is that they are a great (and familiar) place for kids to sleep. But once again, almost certainly not worth the extra money that you’d spend on another ticket. (Unless money isn’t an issue in which case I’d recommend go first class or business class and having lots of room for her to sit with you.)

      Hope that helps. Have a great trip!

      1. AvatarNikki from Ottawa

        David, thanks for your thoughtful answer. We had pretty much reached the same conclusions, but it’s great to hear it from a veteran traveller-with-kids!

        I appreciate the suggestions about how to get an open seat near us on the plane. A flight attendant once told me to reserve seats near the rear on the right side because the computer fills the plane front-to-back, left-to-right. (This was on Air Canada, flying domestic, I don’t know if it holds true for other airlines.) Don’t know how true it is but we’re going to choose seats on the right near the back and cross our fingers. I hadn’t thought of asking again at the gate about empty seats – we’ll do that for sure! I’ll let you know how it goes.

        Thanks again!

  9. AvatarMike

    We – my wife and two girls aged 13 & 9 and myself – just came back from a trip to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. Luckily I read your blog “Traveling with kids: tips for the airplane” prior to leaving.

    “Get to the Airport Early”. Our flight out of Vancouver left at 6:30 AM, so given some of the horror stories we heard about getting through security we wanted to be prepared. My wife checked with the Alaska Airlines agent the prior night who told us to be at the counter by 4:00 AM. No problem, I thought, we’ll just go to bed early. When we got to the counter at the targeted time, there were no agents in sight, just other waiting passengers. They showed up about 45 minutes later. With this new found knowledge (i.e. that tip #1 on your blog was erroneous) I relaxed and no longer worried about early arrival.

    On our return flight out of Cabo I took my time getting to the airport, plus I had to fuel up the rental car and drop it off. We went to the wrong terminal initially, got in the wrong line for our airline and then watched as Mexican security went thru each and every suitcase of the 200 some odd travelers in front of us. Let’s just say we made it on the plane with nary a moment to spare.

    “Take a Taxi to the Airport”. Nope, we drove. I had to walk thru the driving snow to get to the terminal after I parked, not to mention I was wearing a light wind breaker because I wasn’t taking my parka to the Baja. Then when we came home we had the joy of scraping ice and snow off the windshield, once again while far too under dressed for the conditions.

    “Pack Some Food”. Nada. Did you know that Alaska Airlines has delightful snack boxes with pretzels and seeds. I’m not sure if a bird would find this stuff filling.

    “Sit in seats A and C”. My daughter and I had A and B. I’m pretty sure the guy beside us on the leg from Cabo to L.A. was a Mexican drug lord.

    “Relax”. I will never relax whilst traveling again.

    Actually, on a closing note, we did heed your advise that time spent traveling is part of the journey and should be enjoyed. At least we discussed it and the girls gave it some thought, which I think is a good thing.

  10. Santorini DaveSantorini Dave My Little Nomads

    We did a trip to Irelend when we just had one child. He was about 13 months at the time and we had him on our lap the whole way. Not sure how we did it looking back. But I do remember us landing in Ireland and an older couple seated right behind us saw that we had a baby and asked “Was he there the whole trip? I didn’t even notice him.” – so it couldn’t have been too eventful.

  11. AvatarNatalie

    The bulkhead bassinets are FABULOUS! Many airlines have an age (under 16 mos) and/or a wt limit of 12 KG(~26 pounds). So ck w/ your airline and book early! Our little guy flew 12 hrs in one to New Zealand. He was 15 mos and 24 pounds…and just barely fit. It was hard for him to roll over or move around in his sleep so he only slept ~4hr at a go. That’s were the baby back pack came in handy. My husband and I would take turns rucking him around the plane…he cried v. little (too much interesting things to look at) and eventually fell asleep at which time we’d transfer him to the bassinet. Can’t imagine making a long-haul flight w/ him on my lap!

  12. AvatarElisa

    Great Advice!
    And you are right about bringing milk onboard.

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