Back in my single lady (frog) days, I can recall seeing that harried mother getting on the plane with a baby on her hip, bags on her shoulder and a toddler trailing, and thinking “oh please don’t take the empty seats next to me; let her keep walking.” Flash forward a few years, and Leap and I became those nervous parents taking our first trip with a baby. It was our turn to see the looks on people’s faces as we made our way down the aisle to our seats with a squiggly tadpole in arms. Many flights later, we are pros at flying with tadpoles, and now we try to smile and help those other parents, since we know what it is like to be in their place. We’ve learned what works and doesn’t work when flying with babies and kids. So whether you're hopping to Walt Disney World, Disneyland or all places in between, here are our tips for flying with kids and babies! (And don't froget, we're now selling discount hotel rooms and attractions tickets in top cities around the U.S.!)
Our Top Tips for Flying with Kids
Whether you have babies, toddlers or even older children, there is a lot you can do to relieve any anxiety about flying with kids and babies. Here are the rules, guidelines for safety and basic tips so you’ll have everything you need for a stress-free journey to and from your destination.
Overestimate baby supplies
You might be taking a four-hour flight, but you need to calculate travel time to the airport, the time it takes to check bags and get through security, the time it takes to board and load the plane and the time it will take to get transportation to your next destination. Then add a few more hours in case of delays or missed connections. Keep all of this in mind so you know how much formula/milk, diapers, baby food, and snacks you need. If you are traveling to see family, you may be able to have them make some purchases in advance so you’ll have diapers and special foods in place when you arrive, especially if you will be arriving late at night or on a holiday when you can’t make a stop at a store.
Feed babies during ascent and descent
The reason many babies cry on planes is that their ears hurt from the pressure change. But sucking and swallowing helps, so timing feedings or giving the pacifier during ascent and descent can help them equalize and stay comfortable. This is most important as you descend, because the pressure increases. Older kids can drink water, yawn or chew gum to help their ear “pop.”
Bring an extra outfit on the plane
Between spit up, spills and diaper blowouts, it can be challenging to keep yourself or your kids clean and dry. Pack an extra outfit for each person in your carryon just in case. If you get delayed in any way or miss a connection, these clean clothes will especially come in handy.
Bring these essential elements
There are a few items that are worth having when you're flying with kids, depending on their ages, such as:
- A disposable plastic bag — good for wet or dirty clothes, trash or anything messy
- Diapers (2 for each hour of the flight time plus extras)
- Wipes (for hands, faces, baby bottoms and surfaces)
- Sippy cups or reusable water bottles (to prevent spills)
- Bottles with removable liners for ease of cleaning/discarding
- Food, milk or formula
- Baby spoon if necessary
- Pacifiers (and clips to prevent loss)
- Baby blanket (and privacy wrap if breastfeeding)
- Sweaters or sweatshirts for each person (sometimes planes are very cold)
- Bottled water (either buy some after going through security or bring empty containers to fill in the airport)
- Any medicine you might need
Studies have shown that the tray table — the place where your kids may be eating off of or playing on — has the highest bacteria count of any spot on the plane (including the bathroom), so you might want to use some wipes to wipe it down first.
Talk to your kids about flying
If flying is a new adventure for your toddlers and preschoolers, the best way to keep them behaved on a plane is to talk with them about flying for the week leading up to the trip. Read books about planes, and go over the rules:
- Stay in your seat with the seatbelt on.
- Use a quiet inside voice.
- No kicking the seat in front of them (taking off their shoes helps as does keeping an eye on it).
- Don’t slam the window shade.
Your future fellow passengers will thank you.
Download apps and movies
Tablets and smartphones have changed the way we can entertain children on a long flight. A few days before the trip download new games, television shows, and age-appropriate apps. Get kid-sized headphones. Many earbuds are too large or uncomfortable for small ears. Get kid-sized headphones that go over their ears. Bring all devices fully charged, and carry on charging cords with you in case you find some charging stations in the airport or can charge your device at your seat on the plane.
Bring surprise new toys
Bring new small toys, stickers, books, puzzle books or craft items on the flight. One trick to keep markers from rolling all over the plane is to duct tape all the caps together and then pull out one marker from the group at a time. That way they can’t all escape, because they will escape and roll all over the plane in a short period of time if they are not secured. Trust me on this one. A deck of cards can also come in handy for games.
Bring non-sugary snacks and small meals
Chances are, you will not get fed on the plane, so bring kid-friendly snacks that are higher in protein and fiber to keep them full and to prevent a sugar rush of energy with no outlet for it. Avoid candy. For long flights bring sandwiches or a small meal.
Keep count of bags and personalize luggage
How many carry-ons or checked bags do you have? It is so easy to froget a bag in the shuffle. We’ve been there and don’t want to do that again. Knowing how many carry-ons, including gate-checked items you need to collect, can help you make sure you have it all. Do a quick count before getting on or off a plane and again at baggage claim. Double check all the seat pockets before exiting the plane. So many pieces of luggage look alike, so we personalize ours with ribbons, bows or even colorful duct tape so we can spot it quickly at baggage claim.
Consider checking bags
It used to be free to check bags on most airlines. Now just a few airlines offer this service for free. But with a stroller, car seat, diaper bag and other carry-ons, it may be worth it to eliminate the number of bags you are schlepping through the airport, taking through security or loading on a plane while bouncing a baby or toddler on your hip and trying to remove your shoes. Some airline credit cards offer free checked bag benefits, so that might be a more affordable route if you travel often. Once you get to baggage claim, keep your eyes out for a luggage cart, which can help tremendously in getting all your items to your next form of transportation.
You can check car seats or strollers for no charge. You are allowed one of each per ticketed passenger. If you need your stroller to get through the airport you can check it at the gate and pick it up as you exit the plane. If you are gate-checking a stroller, you can acquire a tag when you arrive at the gate rather than waiting to get one during the boarding process.
Provide children with their own carry-on bags
Give your kids backpacks, wheeled bags or small suitcases they can manage themselves. It helps lighten your load and helps them decide what really is essential for the flight when they have to haul the carry-on item themselves.
Follow car seat safety
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and American Academy of Pediatrics both strongly recommend using an FAA-regulated child restraint device such as a car seat or a CARES airplane harness. The CARES harness is for children 22 to 44 pounds. You may not use a booster seat because there is no shoulder harness. If you plan to use a car seat, purchase a window seat so that the seat does not block passengers. You will need to purchase a seat for your child under two if you plan to use a car seat. You may luck out and get an empty seat next to you (or ask at the gate if there is an empty seat you can use), but you cannot guarantee that will happen so if you want your child to be restrained, then you should buy them a seat.
You might want to use a car seat on a flight, but you do not have to and might want to check it instead. Why bring a car seat if you won’t be using it on a flight? You might bring your car seat with you for several reasons. You know its history and if it is safe. It provides a piece of familiarity to your child. Rental car companies charge for car seats by the day, so bringing your own can save money. And often the people you are visiting will not have a proper car seat for you. If you will be in a place with a lot of public transportation (like some large cities) you might want to leave the car seat home because children do not use car seats in taxis and busses. But be sure to check the car seat laws in that state you are visiting before you travel.
Consider pull-ups for a potty-trained child
Is there a parenting situation more stressful than taking a newly potty-trained child on a flight (minus dealing with illness or injury, of course)? You know the second that fasten seatbelt sign becomes illuminated or the minute the plane starts to pick up speed down the runway for takeoff your tadpole will have to go. While we are not fans of losing progress on potty training, a pull-up can save some mess and embarrassment if you do not have control of getting out of your seat. Make sure you use the restroom right before boarding and make frequent trips to “just try” once the seatbelt sign goes off.
Consider the best time of day to fly with your kid
Back in our younger days, we would take red-eye overnight flights from the West Coast to the East Coast with no problem. Then came the tadpoles and we had to adjust to the fact that one of them just won’t sleep on a plane until about 20 minutes before landing and then can’t wake up to walk through the airport. After an overnight flight with a wide-awake toddler who sang songs all night long (who then became a crabby, exhausted mess the next day), we had to change to a better plan that works for the kids. And as parents we need a good night’s sleep too. Taking an afternoon flight that put us at our destination for our normal scheduled bedtime assured us a much better night’s sleep. If waking up at 3 a.m. for an early morning flight is going to disrupt your kids’ schedule and have negative consequences on your trip, consider a lower-stress and less-disruptive time of day to fly.
Know the rules for flying with babies and children
Here’s what to expect at security and in general for flying with kids:
- Babies under the age of 2 may fly free as lap children. Bring ID (like a birth certificate) for the lap child if they are large for their age or approaching age 2, or the airline could make you purchase a seat at the airport.
- Kids under 12 do not need to take off their shoes at security
- Kids under 18 do not need ID for domestic flights, but they may be asked some questions.
- You may bring breast milk, formula, cow’s milk, juice or baby food for your baby. Remove it from your luggage for screening.
- Pregnant women may request to avoid the full-body scanner and be tested with a metal detector and/or pat down instead. This can be time consuming, so allow extra time for this. Some airlines will not allow travel after 36 weeks.
- According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), you should remove infants and toddlers from carriers and carry them in arms through the metal detector.
- If you do not want to take your child through the metal detector, you may request a modified screening procedure. You should never be separated from your children during the screening process.
- Baby carriers, blankets, car and booster seats Strollers need to be folded down (if necessary) and placed though the X-ray machines. Any item that does not fit in the machine will be inspected.
- If your child has a disability, medical condition or medical device, let the officer know the best way to relieve concerns during the process. Your child will not be separated from mobility aids during the process.
- A diaper bag or child restraint seat do not count against your carry-on allowance (but double check your airline policy).
- Only one lap child is allowed per seat section due to oxygen mask allocation. If you have twins or two lap children choose the parents’ seats in different rows or across the aisle from each other.
- You can usually find changing tables in the lavatories. Ask the flight attendant which one is equipped with a changing table.
- Even newborn infants need a passport for international travel.
Be polite and show good parenting behavior
If your baby or toddler is upset or crying or having a hard time, it is your parenting behavior that will put other passengers at ease and even elicit sympathy vs angry death stares. Babies cry and toddler have meltdowns. It happens. Being vigilant and attentive to your child’s needs will help prevent or quickly diffuse these issues. When I see a parent doing everything they can to soothe their child (offering food, singing, walking the aisles, offering toys, or trying to redirect them, etc.), I feel sympathetic to their plight. But when a parent simply reads a magazine while their child cries, jumps around, kicks seats or bangs on other passengers’ heads I get frustrated and annoyed with the parents. Be considerate and smile and assure other passengers you are on it and they should be kind in response. If they are not appreciative of your efforts, then just ignore them and don’t take it personally.
Be kind to other parents. You have joined the club of traveling parents. If you see a parent traveling alone with little ones, offer to watch their children so they can take a trip to the bathroom. I once flew alone with an infant, and I can tell you that your kindness will be much appreciated. It is impossible to hold an infant and use the toilet at the same time. When other people help you it really makes flying with kids a lot more enjoyable.
Above all, be patient
Keep in mind that flying with kids means more stress and moving at a slower pace than traveling alone. Being organized and knowing what to expect can lead to a smoother journey.
Do you have any tips for flying with kids and babies? Share them in the comment below! Did you know Undercover Tourist has hopped into top cities with discount hotels and attraction tickets? See our top destinations and book your next family trip!
Related: Guide to TSA Pre-Check for Families