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Flying with Toddlers — Survival Tips from an Expat Mom

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woman holding toddler on a plane
This mama is ready to land!

Will you be flying with toddlers soon?

Oh, mama, I feel your pain.

This is probably the most difficult age to travel — toddlers are so mercurial, so active, and yet still can’t really watch a tv show or understand the need to keep their seatbelt on. They are extra sensitive to changes in routine or lack of sleep, and air travel these days is incredibly stressful for anyone.

Looking for something specific? Jump ahead:

I’ve flown with my kids (currently age 4 and 17 months) SO many times, in so many configurations:

  • as a lap infant (or a lap toddler)
  • in their own seat
  • in their own seat with a car seat
  • international
  • domestic
  • long layovers
  • racing through the airport and missing our connecting flight
  • with an umbrella stroller, a huge double stroller, and no stroller at all
  • with a baby wrap
  • by myself

Just last month, I flew internationally with both kids, by myself, with a layover and all our gear…and a lap toddler.

Not gonna lie, it was rough.

We just took another international flight with the kids this week, but I’m comfortable with our routine now and I feel like our system really works.

Here are my best tips for flying with toddlers.

10 items to pack in your carry-on when flying with toddlers

Overhead view of children's items to bring when flying with toddlers: toys, backpack, diapers, wipes, changes of clothes, snacks, pacifiers, water bottle, diaper clutch, and blanket

Here is the full list of what I pack when flying with toddlers (this works for any kid under about age two, or until they can actually use an iPad to watch a movie).

#1. A TINY backpack with toys…and a leash

child's pink butterfly backpack and small toys

The toddler gets their own tiny baby backpack…with a leash. I don’t always use it, but when I have both kids at the same time, it can be really helpful.

In my last solo flight, I was trying to make a plate of food for my older kid while the toddler attempted to wander off, and the leash really helped to keep her nearby while I was balancing a quesadilla in my lap of the airport gate lounge.

These small backpacks also help limit the number of toys you bring with you. You do NOT need that many toys. They are going to play with anything and everything. I do not pack any other toys in the suitcase either — I promise they will find something to play with at Grandpa’s or in their hotel room.

For this trip, we’re bringing some interlocking links, a few small stuffies, stacking cups, and a small ball. Most of the toys double as bath toys as well. I particularly like those little stuffed animals, as they make great puppet shows.

Tips for baby and toddler toys on a plane:

  • Don’t bring any toys that you would be sad to lose, with the exception of a lovey, if your child has one.
  • Hang on to small toys from birthday party goody bags or stocking stuffers — tuck these away and bring them out specifically for travel
  • Check out the dollar section at Target, and allow your child to pick out 2-3 small items for the plane ride
  • Bring things that are small and easily cleaned (can be thrown in the washing machine or dishwasher, or can be wiped down with a Chlorox wipe after).
  • Choose open-ended toys
  • Avoid toys that make noise
  • Choose 3-5 toys MAX — I promise, that’s enough

#2. Lots of snacks

Travel days mean that my kids have basically unrestricted access to candy, juice, and chips. These highly coveted treats are like gold when you need to quell a public meltdown or try to convince a potty-training toddler to use the bathroom before boarding.

Don’t worry about ruining their appetite or about what sort of precedent this sets. Anything goes on travel day.

Bring more snacks than you think you need, but also keep in mind that your toddler will likely be very interested in the ginger cookies from the snack cart on the plane. Picking out a treat from the airport store can also be a great way to pass the time during a long layover.

I bring a few healthy-ish snacks, as well as a few other highly desirable treats for those emergency moments. I recommend keeping the super-desirable treats in an OPAQUE bag so that they can’t see them until you’re ready to dole them out.

baby food and candy

Snack list for our toddler:

For our most recent trip, we’re waking up at 4 am, and we will be traveling 16 hours, door-to-door:

  • two of her favorite kinds of pouch
  • a Lara bar
  • three small packs of various cookies (leftover from a birthday party goody bag)
  • a small bag of M&Ms
  • an empty water bottle

The pouch and the granola bar will work for breakfast if we don’t have time to get anything before boarding. We’ll grab lunch on our five-hour layover, and pick up some sandwiches to bring onboard our final flight for dinner. Everything else will be supplemented in the airport as needed.

I also bring an empty water bottle that I can fill up with milk or juice. I got really tired of my toddlers spilling apple juice in my lap during flights, so I wised up.

I used to bring a lot more snacks, but the kids were more curious about the Cheez-Its in the snack cart than they were with my old familiar treats, so now I go light.

#3. Diapers, wipes, & a diaper clutch

view of diapers, wipes, diaper clutch

I prefer a diaper clutch because I can just grab this when it’s time to change a diaper on the flight, rather than lugging the whole diaper bag to the tiny airport bathroom.

This is how I calculate enough diapers to bring:

  • One for before we get on the first plane
  • One for when we’re on our first flight
  • One for when we land
  • One for right before we take off on plane #2
  • One for plane #2
  • One for when we land
  • Three extras

That comes to nine diapers for a 16-hour day. I always bring a few extra in case our flight is delayed or we need to spend the night in the airport or our luggage is lost and we can’t find a store late at night.

When flying with toddlers, I have two carry-ons: a backpack and a large purse. I put most of the diapers and a pack of wipes into my backpack for the emergency stash. The diaper clutch is filled with three diapers and a small pack of wipes, and this goes in my purse. I keep my purse under my seat, and the backpack goes into the overhead compartment.

I do not fly with a diaper bag — too bulky. The backpack is easier, and using my purse as my carry-on means that I don’t have to pack a purse in my suitcase.

#3a. Bring pull-ups

Even if you’re potty-training or are even mostly trained, just stick those toddlers into a pull-up for the day.

It will not ruin potty-training. So much is new about the travel experience that I promise that wearing a pull-up is not going to be the thing that confuses them.

It just adds so much stress, begging a toddler to use the gross airplane toilet or trying to change them out of poopy underwear on a plane. (Been there, more times than I like to admit.)

There was one memorable flight with my oldest when she was two, and she had been potty training for about two months. I swore we didn’t need pull-ups for our quick direct flight from DC to Boston, but then of course we were delayed by four hours. By the time we boarded, it was two hours past bedtime, and my kid was DONE. She screamed “I HAVE TO GO POTTY” at the top of her lungs for the entire take-off sequence, and there was nothing I could do.

Put them in pull-ups. Seriously.

#4. Two changes of clothes

 two changes of baby clothes laid on the floor

Two extra onesies, a pair of shorts (it’s summertime currently), and a pair of pants. Throw in an extra pair of socks if you’re feeling fancy.

You really don’t need more. If one of the flights coincides with bedtime, I’ll add a pair of pajamas.

I keep one change of clothes in a waterproof wet/dry zip pouch in my purse, and the other goes in the backpack in case I need it.

I will say that I try to dress my kids cute when I fly, in hopes that their adorable outfits will win us some sympathy from fellow passengers. Worth a shot, anyways.

#5. A few bonus activities

child's book, sticker pad, water bottle, crayons, and ziploc bag full of pacifiers and pacifier clips

In addition to the toy backpack, I keep a few activities in my purse. Here are the ones that consistently work with my toddlers:

toddler playing with stickers on airport floor
These are just yard sale stickers — a total win for my toddler
  • a pack of stickers
  • a pack of crayons, leftover from a birthday party, as well as a coloring book from a goody bag
  • a roll of scotch tape (seriously)
  • a single board book with highly engaging pictures (this one has a mirror)

The stickers will keep my kids, both big and little, going for a long time. And scotch tape is magical — my kids can play with that for hours.

#6. A ton of pacifiers and pacifier clips

They will fall on the floor. They will get gross. Bring extras, and keep them within easy reach.

#7. Wet wipes and a mini bottle of sanitizing spray

Meyer's Hand Sanitizing Spray and several travel-sized Wet Ones antibacterial wipes

Despite being an ER nurse (or maybe because of that), I’m not a super germ-a-phobe. But I am also tired of my kids spending their vacations sick after they’ve licked the armrest on the plane.

Also, those tray tables are NEVER cleaned. And you have no idea how well people wash their hands after using the airplane bathroom.

I always board early in the families-with-small-children group. I then quickly spray down the seats, the seatbelts, the window, the carpet, the armrests, the buttons for the lights and air conditioner, and the tray table. Then I use a sanitizing wipe or a baby wipe to quickly remove any residue.

I highly recommend bringing the spray, because that will give you some protection against carpet germs in case you get desperate and need to put your baby on the floor for a nap. 😬

baby sleeping on floor of airplane with muslin swaddle
Flying in the middle seat, in coach, with a lap toddler? Desperate times call for desperate measures.

#8. A lightweight blanket

Planes do not provide blankets these days. I’ve begged and pleaded for a blanket for my kids on numerous flights, and it’s always a huge hassle. If you get lucky, your kiddo will pass out for at least part of a flight. It really helps to have a blanket to block out light, to make a little bed, or just to keep them cozy.

I like the Aden + Anais muslin swaddles because they’re so lightweight yet large.

#9. An umbrella stroller

I know this is controversial, but I find the umbrella stroller really helps if you have a layover. If it’s a direct flight, I might tough it out without the stroller.

The umbrella stroller gives you a place to strap your child in while you pee, and provides a spot for naps during layovers. It also gives you a place to hang your stuff while racing through to catch your connecting flight.

The only downside is getting it through security and waiting for the stroller to be brought up after you gate check it.

You absolutely must buy a stroller that you can collapse with one hand. You will be holding a cranky toddler in one hand, trying to keep them from disappearing into the crowd around security, while also folding the stroller with the other.

We love our Maclaren umbrella stroller and have found it to be worth every penny. If you choose the Maclaren, I do recommend buying one with a darker canopy color, as the wheels rub up against the canopy when folded, and it can start to get kind of dirty-looking.

#10. Bring the carseat

preschool girl smiling and holding rainbow bear in her carseat next to toddler child with pacifier in carseat, on the floor
It’s 4:30 am, but these two are ready to get to the airport

At the very least, check the carseat so that it’s there upon arrival. On my last flight, there was a miscommunication, and my family had to turn around and drive two hours home to pick up carseats before they could get us at the airport.

As for the ones you can rent at the car rental place…just think about what your kids do in your carseats. Do you really want a used carseat? Plus, the car rental folks are not carseat experts and they can’t help you install them. At least with your own seat, you know how to install them correctly. I have been really happy with our Evenflo travel carseat — super easy to install, and very light.

I’ve used the device that attaches to the carseat that rolls them through the airport and honestly…it’s meh. It’s helpful for about three minutes, but then you have one more item to disconnect and store when it’s time to check the seat. I think they can be worthwhile a) if you bring your carseat on the plane and b) don’t plan to bring a stroller. Otherwise, save your pennies and just get a cart from baggage claim.

If you are able to book a seat for your toddler on the plane, DO IT. In this case, I’d also bring your FAA-approved carseat onto the plane. Kids behave better in their carseats — they know what to expect. Check out this post on The Mom Trotter for more awesome tips about flying with a carseat.

Bonus Tip!

An extra shirt for yourself

If you have a long flight or your toddler is prone to motion sickness, consider sneaking an extra shirt into your carry-on backpack. When they spill apple juice down your front and your flight is delayed (again), you’ll be glad for something clean and dry to wear.

Tips for Flying With Toddlers

Book the good seats

Book the window/middle seat combo. This gives more space for your toddler to play without bumping into anyone, provides a surface to rest their head if they nap, and keeps them contained and away from the aisle. Yes, it means you’ll be in the middle seat…welcome to flying with toddlers!

If at all possible, book the bulkhead. You will have enough legroom for your child to sit down and play, and you won’t have to worry (as much) about them kicking the seat in front of you.

Pay for the upgrade to the comfort seats. I know, I know, money is tight and now you have to pay for your toddler to have the privilege of squirming in your lap for your six-hour trans-Atlantic. But this season won’t last forever, and that little extra legroom will make a difference. I’ve done it both ways, and those extra six inches help significantly.

Board early

It gives you time to clean the seats (see tip #7), to set up your space the way you like, and to find overhead bin space. I know some like to board later so their kids can run around more, but I hate shuffling past tons of people and trying to squeeze into my coach seat when someone is already sitting in the aisle.

Here’s how I set up our space when we get on board:

  • quickly spray down and wipe off the major surfaces
  • pack of wipes and a water bottle for me and my child into seatback pocket
  • purse with pacifiers, snacks, and diaper clutch under my seat
  • child’s backpack with toys under their seat
  • My carry-on backpack with back-up clothes/diapers into overhead bin
  • my phone into the seatback pocket, pre-loaded with a kindle book in case my child miraculously falls asleep

Airport Play Spaces

toddler climbing on play structure in an airport
Dallas Airport Terminal D Playspace

Not all airports have them, but you can ask the gate attendant or look it up ahead of time (or check on the free airport wifi). They are a great way to burn off energy in between flights. We recently had a blast in the playspace in terminal D of the Dallas airport — we met lots of other cool families and had a little picnic with our new friends to boot. It was really nice to let the kids run and climb and be a bit noisy without worrying about bothering other passangers.

Be prepared to entertain your child.

This is the day to bring out every silly song, every funny voice, and every engaging game in your repertoire. You will not be reading your book. You will not be taking a nap — unless your child does, too. Go into this day with a sense of humor and low expectations, and I promise it (probably) won’t be that bad.

Here are some of my go-to songs and fingerplays to distract my kid:

  • Little Bunny Foo-foo
  • The Ants Go Marching
  • If You’re Happy and You Know It
  • Pat-A-Cake
  • Ride Little Pony (best for the gate lounge)
  • I Spy (for the verbal kiddos)
  • Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes

No-Mess Toys for Toddlers

Here are some good choices for activities and toys for the airplane:

Water Wows

Water Wows are reusable, educational, and relatively no-mess — an my kids love them.

Magic Ink Coloring Books

My kids have stayed busy with these magic ink coloring books for a really long time, and I love the no-mess. They’re also conveniently-sized so they don’t take up too much room in your carry-on.

Seek & Find Books

Books are heavy, and toddlers can burn through stories quickly.

That’s why I like seek & find books for plane travel, as they give you lots of objects to talk about and are part-game, part-story.

Sticker Books

Sticker books are the BEST no-mess toddler activity for planes. For little ones, check out these Melissa & Doug sticker books.

For older kids (4+), check out these Melissa & Doug Peel and Stick activities — great for fine motor and long-term engagement on the plane. They do require a little more fine motor control and number awareness, so they’re best for older kiddos.

Wikki Stix

I love Wikki Stix, and they have a travel case version that would be perfect for killing time on a long layover or in the hotel.

Baby Apps

I also recommend downloading a few baby videos onto your phone or tablet for emergencies. I don’t love doing this because it’s hard to get headphones to work for a toddler, but when you’re stuck on the tarmac while they wait to take-off and your kid is going bonkers, this can really help.

There are a few baby apps that I like:

Keep Perspective

When I’m flying with toddlers, I approach the experience like I would labor: this is probably going to suck. But it’s going to be worth it at the end.

toddler in pigtails sitting in airplane seat surrounded by toys
What do you mean “difficult to travel with?” I think I’m a delight!

And often, it’s not that bad. We usually have a pretty good time hanging out and playing, without the distractions of housework or school schedules.

Whatever. It’s only a few hours, and you WILL get through it. Like I’ve talked about before, the benefits of travel with kids is SO worth the stress of the travel itself.

And most other passengers are pretty understanding of babies and toddlers. Yes, I’ve had the hung-over college student sitting next to us on a 7 am flight, who is NOT impressed with my toddler’s cute antics. And I’ve had the guy in front of us who immediately reclines his seat fully, even though I have a lap child. I’ve had to grit my teeth through tantrums and food throwing and chasing my toddler down the gangway for the WRONG flight, while pregnant.

What are your best tips for flying with toddlers?

Share in the comments below!

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