9 Tips on Air Travel with Little Ones

Kids standing in an airport looking at a plane

Even under the best of circumstances, air travel can be stressful. Traveling is not easy for any of us because it's exhausting– especially if you’re traveling to a different time zone. Your body falls out of sync with your usual rhythm, but then you have to be able to adjust to the time at your destination quickly. Traveling is also problematic because your trip is unpredictable. You need to be prepared for long waits, delays - even trip cancellations. But when you’re traveling with little ones, it’s even more stressful! Small children don’t have the same concept of time as adults, so they have difficulty waiting, sitting still, and being quiet for prolonged periods.  As a former flight attendant, I know how challenging it can be for parents to travel with kids. So I decided to offer my combined travel and parenting expertise in a free online class: Nine Tips for Air Travel with Little Ones. Here is a recap of the class.

Why Travel with Small Children Can be Stressful

Small children are used to a certain amount of predictability in their lives, such as sleeping, eating, and playing at regular times. So any kind of travel - especially air travel  - can be tough on them. Babies and toddlers don’t have the language to express their discomfort, restlessness, or confusion, so they may communicate it with whining, crying, or tantrums instead. This can make traveling very hard for parents, and for other passengers! Here are some helpful tips for planning and managing air travel with your little ones. 

Helpful Tips for Travel for Little Ones

Tip #1: Reframe Your Expectations

Choose one word describing how you want the trip to feel, and return to this word as your centering tool. This will help you set an expectation so that you can plan and prepare for the trip from start to finish. Make it a positive word, a word that you can check in on throughout the entire journey. Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • What is the most important thing I want to walk away with after this trip?
  • What is the feeling I want to have if I label this entire experience with one word, one feeling?

Let’s use the word ‘magical’ as an example – a great word because it also conveys a sense of adventure. What can you do to create magic and a sense of adventure for your family? So even if things aren’t going exactly as planned, they can still be part of the magic and adventure. 

Tip # 2 - Create a Positive Connection with Others

Let’s face it, we ask a lot of ourselves and others when we travel with kids! So it’s a good idea to be aware of this and make an effort to be open and kind to your co-passengers and flight attendants. In addition to thanking them for their patience and understanding if things go rocky, consider ways to acknowledge them in the face of any significant inconvenience. Whether buying a beverage for the guy in front of you whose seat has been getting kicked all night or giving a coffee gift card to a flight attendant as you board, a small gesture lets them know you see them and can go a long way in creating goodwill on your trip–whether you’re traveling with kids or not!

Tip # 3 - Be Cognizant of the Bathroom Situation!

This is especially important if you’re traveling with infants. There is often no changing table in airplane bathrooms, so bring a changing pad. Some airlines, such as JetBlue, have changing tables in their bathrooms, but not in all bathrooms - so it’s important to ask. It’s also a good idea to double your child’s diaper. Consider using stand-up diapering in the lavatory if your child is old enough, and if not, close the seat and put the pad down–and there’s your changing table.

Tip # 4 - Forget the Sleep Schedule!

When planning a trip - especially if it's outside your time zone - you’ll need to throw your sleep calculations out the window! Your child may be able to sleep or nap at home, where you have a quiet setting and a routine, but all the travel excitement, loudspeaker announcements, bright TV screens, and airplane noise may be too disruptive. So if possible, try to fly during a usual wake window rather than your child’s sleep/nap time.

Tip # 5 - Bring Your Baby Gear 

If you are thinking of not taking your car seat and regular stroller with you, think again! Lots of baby gear checks or travels for free. Not only will it help your child because they are used to traveling in their own car seat, but you’ll also be grateful that you brought it once you reach your destination. For example, your child can comfortably catch up on any sleep they missed while you stroll them around in a park or museum.

Tip # 6 - Take Snacks and Drinks

Not only are snacks and drinks a great way to keep little ones soothed and entertained, but they also help relieve ear and sinus discomfort as a result of the change in air pressure during takeoff and landing. So bring extra bottles and sippy cups for water, milk, and formula. If you’re still breastfeeding, plan on nursing at take off and a half hour before landing. It’s a good idea for your kids of all ages to sip on liquids and have a snack as the plane takes off and after the pilot announces initial descent.

Tip # 7 Ask for a Bassinet

If you are traveling internationally with an infant, there is an added option airlines offer that most parents aren't aware of: an infant bassinet! If available, you would be placed in a bulkhead seat where you have a nice place for your baby to lie flat, which is really helpful on a long flight! So when booking your flight - make sure to request a bassinet under “added services”. And if you're flying locally on a double-aisle plane, there's a good chance they have them available as well, so it doesn’t hurt to ask!

Tip # 8 Activities and Toys

Entertaining activities and toys are a must-have for kids of any age! Whether it's air travel, train travel, or car travel with kids - ‘squirrel away’ your child’s favorite toys and bring them out every couple hours or so. They’ll not only be thrilled to see their favorite toys again, but they’ll also enjoy playing with them during their travels. The point is to ration their activities, so they don’t get bored. Examples of fun and safe activities for toddlers and up could include:

  • Coloring books
  • Paint with water kits 
  • Ziplock bags with small toys or simple craft kits

Make sure to also bring comfortable headphones for playing games and watching movies since the ones provided by the airlines aren’t as kid-friendly. You don’t want to be imposing the sound from movies or games on others, so this is important to put on your checklist!

Tip # 9 - Take pictures and Enjoy!

Last but not least, take lots of pictures during your trip! If you came up with a word or theme from Tip # 1 to describe your trip, let that be your focus as you take pictures along the way. When you look back on your trip, you’ll be able to highlight special moments and experiences – even if there have also been challenges or moments of stress. Capturing your trip is also a great way to help your kids remember and talk about their experiences. 

I hope these tips will help you plan and prepare so your trip with your little ones will be as fun, stress-free and comfortable as possible. Enjoy your travels!

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Carly B

Carly B

Carly is a postpartum doula and Certified Lactation Consultant (CLC) based in the West End of Richmond, Virginia.