Airplane travel with a toddler in not on most people’s list of favorite experiences. In fact, it might be one of the most stress-inducing thoughts you can imagine. But fear not. While it certainly comes with some challenges, flying with toddlers is not as terrible as it sounds.
With the right preparation, you can set your little one up for the best possible outcome. And with a little luck, traveling with toddlers might actually be a pleasant experience.
For this article, I’m considering a toddler to be anywhere from about 18 months to 4 years. Any younger than that, and you might want the check out how to fly with a baby.
Without further ado, everything you need to know before traveling with a toddler on a plane… if you’d like to keep your sanity!
Does a 2 year old need a plane ticket?
Yes! “Lap infant” status is reserved for children under 2 years old (and they need to still be under 2 for the return flight if you’ve purchased round-trip tickets). Anyone over 2 needs a ticket, and they are usually full-price – although a few international airlines do a slight discount for children.
What’s it like flying with a toddler on lap?
In a word… uncomfortable.
If you have a very young toddler who still counts as a lap infant, you can bring them on board without purchasing a ticket. Make sure you call the airline as soon as you book your ticket to let them know you’ll be traveling with a lap infant.
This is not always advisable, however. I’ve been happy to fly with lap infants under 12 months, but then it gets trickier and trickier. And once they are getting close to 2, it becomes very challenging.
Toddlers are squirmy. They want to move around. They make messes. For any flight longer than about 2 hours, you might want to seriously consider if the savings are worth the challenge. For many families, paying for an extra ticket is not an option (in that case, see my tip for trying to score a free seat below). But if you have a longer flight and can swing it, for a child over 18 months especially, having a seat is a huge help.
Bring a sippy cup, but keep it cracked open for takeoff.
Bring a sippy cup along if your toddler is not yet able to handle an open cup consistently (and especially with possible turbulence). That way, when the flight attendants bring around water or orange juice, you can dump it into the sippy cup instead.
You might want to fill it before boarding the plane rather than wait for in-flight service, but if you do, there is a risk of it exploding into a fountain as soon as you open it because of the pressure change. Not fun for anyone.
Except maybe your toddler who will find it hilarious.
I have had this unfortunate experience, and I can tell you that the last thing you need when flying with a toddler is an entire bottle of orange juice spraying everywhere.
This doesn’t happen every time, as it depends on a few factors. Be sure to crack the sippy cup or water bottle before you take off. That way, the air pressure inside the cup stays stabilized with the pressure in the cabin, and no explosion occurs.
Relax your screen time limits… except before “bedtime”.
Screens are a lifesaver on flights. We trained our first child to be an excellent flyer because she hardly ever got screentime at home in her first few years, but it was almost unlimited on the plane. She was on her best behavior because it was a big reward for her.
Even as pretty strict screentime limiters at home, we are all about watching shows and movies on the plane. Whatever it takes to keep a toddler entertained, distracted, and happy.
That being said, screens can also seriously impair your child’s ability to fall asleep. They can suppress the melatonin needed to make your child sleepy, and they keep little brains engaged when they should be starting to relax. Doctors recommend turning screens off one hour before bedtime. Regardless of what time you want your child to go to sleep (this can vary because of time changes), aim to turn off the screen an hour before that time.
Sanitizer is your friend.
Airplanes are gross. Toddlers are gross. Bring your hand sanitizer.
Most flights these days hand out sanitizer wipes so that you can wipe down your seat area before you settle in. However, I have found that these often dry out before I’ve gotten all of the surfaces that I know my toddler will touch (or lick, because that’s my kid) at some point.
And I’m literally typing this on a flight (in 2022 Covid-era) that did not hand out wipes. Thanks Alaska.
Put a small travel pack of disinfecting wipes in your carry on bag and bust it out before you get to your seat. Bring your liquid hand sanitizer too, for good measure.
Small surprises can go a long way.
One way that some parents keep a toddler happy on a long flight is to bring some surprise gifts to open along the way.
This doesn’t have to be elaborate. It might be stickers or a new coloring sheet or new books that you bust out throughout the flight. You might even bring some new small toys. Window clings are another fun, simple option if you are in the window seats.
If you really want to make it exciting, you can even wrap them like little presents. This is a bit more effort, but it can do wonders for a toddler’s mood.
Just don’t wait until things get too crazy before you bust these out. We’ve found that once our toddler is in full tantrum mode, these mean nothing. But if we can catch her when she starts getting cranky but before she fully melts down, a small surprise can, at the very least, delay the inevitable for a while longer.
And sometimes that means you’ve bought yourself enough time to eat your meal, and that makes a world of difference.
Choose your battles.
There are going to be some battles throughout the flight, so you really need to let some things go. Maybe that means the belt is off for part of the time, while at cruising altitude. Maybe you are giving them more juice than you’d like to.
Some things are going to be non-negotiable. For me, safety and respect to nearby passengers are the battles that I need to win. But nap timing, watching shows, food choices… sometimes I just need to let my toddler win the battle to prevent a tantrum.
Try to get a free seat to spread out.
The seats you choose matter. Especially when you’re flying with a toddler.
Depending on the configuration of the aircraft and how many people are in your family, there is a trick to try to get a free seat to spread out onto. It’s not foolproof, and a full flight is a full flight.
But I have had great success with this trick, with it working out more often than not on the many flights we’ve taken. And there’s no harm in trying.
You basically want to make sure that you end up with a single, undesirable seat next to your child. So again, this depends on the seat layout of the plane. If there’s 3 of you, and a row of 4 across seats, leave one of the middle ones open.
If there’s 4 of you, and rows of 3 seats across, take the window and aisle of two rows, one in front of the other.
In either case, choose seats that are close to the back of the plane, where single middle seats are less likely to get chosen until there are no other options.
If someone comes to sit in the seat, they will see that they are stuck between a parent and a toddler and happily oblige when you offer to give them the aisle instead.
Will airlines seat toddlers with parents?
These days, many airlines make you pay extra to choose your seats. Often, this means upgrading from Basic to Economy, and that can be a significant chunk of change.
However, for some airlines, this is the only way to ensure that you actually sit next to your toddler.
This is one of those super frustrating ways that airlines jack up prices through fees. It seems insane that they could potentially seat you far from your child, but they can. Some airlines have a policy whereby kids under 6 will always be with a parent (regardless of what class of fare you paid), but it’s a minority of airlines right now. You can look it up by airline.
We’ve tried calling after booking to see if they would sit us together, and we were forced to purchase the upgrade to Economy. And this was with a major – not budget – airline. But I’ve also had friends call and get their seats changed for free. Either way, it is a hassle.
Nowadays, we always purchase the class of tickets that will get our family all seated together. Or we choose to fly with airlines that allow seat selection with their cheapest class, like American Airlines does.
Should you book the bulkhead seats?
This is such a good question. And a very divisive one, as it turns out.
Full disclosure: I love the bulkhead seats. I always booked them when flying with a baby. But now that we are a family of 4, and we always try for the free seat trick mentioned above, we never book the bulkheads anymore. The potential for a free seat outweighs my love of the bulkhead.
So what are the pros and cons of the bulkhead seats?
Well the advantage is that you will have plenty of space to spread out. We’re talking unlimited leg room, but also room to throw down an airplane blanket and make a little play space for your kid. This is especially true for those 10+ hour flights where the flight attendants tend to give a little more wiggle room about these things.
You also have the easiest access to the restrooms, and plenty of leg-stretching space to get up and walk around without disturbing other people.
On the other hand, some people hate the bulkhead seats. You are close to the bathroom, so you’ll probably hear a lot of flushing. You also will get people walking through your space or using your toddler play area as a stretching zone.
You also have to store your bag up above, instead of having a bag close by under the seat in front of you. This has never been a deal-breaker for me, as there is plenty of room to stand to get your bag. And some airlines have been totally fine with us keeping our bag down in front of us at cruising altitude, but this will depend on the airline (and I have only found this to be true for really long-haul flights).
Should I bring a car seat on the plane for my toddler?
There’s no one right answer.
Having a car seat has some great advantages. The first is safety. If there is a runway accident or rough landing, a car seat is the only safe option for a little one. The minimum weight recommendation for the lap belt is 40 pounds. But weight aside, a toddler’s body is not as able to handle the rough forces of a potential emergency as well as an adult.
According to the NTSB, 95% of airplane crashes are survivable. In any of those instances, the car seat is the safest option.
Another great advantage of having a car seat is that your child will be more comfortable. Airline seats are not the most comfortable for adults, and toddlers are worse off because the ergonomic design of many modern seats just doesn’t fit with their bodies.
A car seat gives your toddler a cozy spot to rest their head, just like in a car. It is also a more familiar feeling for your toddler, which can make a huge difference for many kids.
There is also something to be said for keeping a toddler contained on a flight. Especially when flying with a 2 year old, the longer you can keep them in their seat before they realize they could be running around the plane (or standing on the seat, or laying down on top of you), the better.
Eventually, on a long-haul flight, you’ll need to let your little one out of the car seat. And it might be hard to get them back in. So take advantage of the time that they are trapped for as long as you can.
There are some downsides to bringing a car seat. Obviously, you can’t have a lap baby (if your toddler is still in the under-2 range) if you bring a car seat.
It can also be a pain to install, and that can be really stressful while boarding. Be sure to take advantage of preboarding for families with young children if you need to install a car seat.
If you have a regular size car seat, there is a good chance it won’t fit. If that happens, you’ll have no choice but to gate check it. Consider investing in a travel car seat. My personal favorite is the Cosco Scenera Next. It’s super light (under 7 pounds), no-frills, and usually under $40. It is not the most comfortable car seat for kids, but it works.
If you are traveling internationally, you might encounter people who comment about your car seat. We have, multiple times. While car seats on domestic flights are not uncommon, in some countries it is basically unheard of and nearby passengers – especially any sharing a row with you – might question why you have it.
It is imperative that any car seat that you bring on board has a visible sticker declaring it as approved for FAA travel. I have never not had a flight attendant check.
Consider a CARES harness as an alternative.
What is a CARES harness? It is basically a toddler-sized seat harness designed especially for airplanes. It will contain your child where they are supposed to be, keep them much safer than the lap belt in case of an emergency, and pack up much lighter than any car seat ever could.
The CARES harness weighs 1 pound and fits into a 6 inch bag. It fits children between 22 and 44 pounds and up to 40 inches tall, and it takes about 1 minute to install. It is FAA-approved for use on any airline.
We don’t have any personal experience with a CARES harness, but I have talked to a number of parents who have. And most of them have used it happily without issue, but there are a few things to know.
Importantly, they will not work on every single aircraft or in every single seat (rear bulkheads, for example). Some people have gotten them to work in first class seats, but it really depends on the individual seats.
They also require you to install it around the whole seat, which means you will need to communicate with the person behind you. In a typical seat, it can go right between the tray table and the seat back, and not cause any issue for using the tray table. But you might need to explain that before you install it. This is a case where boarding early, getting it installed first, and then explaining what it is when the person arrives is a good idea.
There is a learning curve to getting these installed correctly, and of course you can’t really practice at home. But many parents love their CARES harnesses and very much prefer them to car seats.
What about airplane beds for toddlers?
Yes, these do exist!
But they come with so many caveats, that we’ve never personally felt they were worth attempting.
Toddler airplane beds are basically carry-on size suitcases that unfold or blow up to create a little bed that is supposed to fit between the seats. The most famous of these is the JetKids by Stokke (although there are many knock-offs now). This one also has room to store some carry-on supplies for the trip.
I love this in theory, because your child will get a more comfortable sleep on super-long-haul flights. However, it’s not a sure bet that you’ll be able to use it.
The Stokke website has a list of airlines that they say allow the product, although I have seen many families in travel groups complain that some of these major airlines did not allow it’s use. It will come down to whether the flight attendants on your flight know that it is an allowed item, and showing them a website with a list usually isn’t that convincing.
The other big downside for me is that it is one more piece of luggage to haul. We travel carry-on only with a toddler and a baby, and I don’t want to bring another item that we may or may not get to use. I find that our toddler is perfectly capable of falling asleep in weird positions, and with me as a pillow, she is just fine.
Many parents do swear by these, however. TravelMadMum has a great review of hers.
Seat kicking is a thing.
I’m pretty sure every toddler does this. It is frustrating and annoying. I have spent entire flights on edge, ready to catch the next kick and remind my kid to keep her feet still.
It’s just in their nature. Their legs are dangling uncomfortably off the seat, they’re stuck in one position for hours, and when they kick the seat it makes a fun sound.
So what can you do about it? For our kid, gentle reminders only go so far. The only way to completely prevent it is to have them in a rear-facing car seat… and some airlines will not allow you to rear-face on a plane. A forward-facing car seat, depending on the angle, might help. Or it might put their feet that much closer to the seat and make kicking more likely.
A CARES harness would help this a lot, because it will force your child to stay sitting back and upright in the seat. Keeping the lap belt on is also helpful. Bribing sometimes works.
Our toddler is such a bad kicker that we have turned to pretty much always getting two rows, and putting her behind one of us. Depending on the aircraft, sometimes it is no problem at all because she would have to stretch to reach, as long as she is buckled. But on smaller airplanes, it’s just tricky.
Ultimately, most people understand that having a young child behind them means they might get the occasional kick. If you are actively trying to redirect your child and stop them when they do kick, I believe people will appreciate that you are doing your best. But allowing your child to kick repeatedly without attempting to stop them is going to really piss people off.
Download movies before your flight.
Most airlines these days have a decent selection of kids’ movies and shows, especially for long-haul flights.
Most, not all. Back to this Alaska flight I’m currently on and complaining about: 6+ hours, no meal unless we pre-ordered (we didn’t), no seat back screens. Urrgghhh.
Even if you are on a flight with a great selection of movies, there is no guarantee that your toddler will be able to see them. The seat back screen is pretty high for them to look up at, and sometimes that angle is too extreme to actually see. And then if you have them in a rear-facing car seat, you’ll of course need a screen for them.
We finally gave in and bought a tablet for our kids because of travel. Between my phone, my husband’s phone, and the tablet, we can switch things around and have a selection of shows downloaded on Netflix and Disney+ to keep them entertained, with or without a seat back screen.
Bring headphones, and make sure they are the right type.
This is becoming more of an issue these days. I have twice now brought my Bluetooth wireless headphones for flights, and forgotten that you need wired headphones to connect to the seat back screen.
My husband’s phone does not have a headphone jack, and on this trip we didn’t think about it and brought kids’ headphones that need to connect to the jack. His airpods are too big for my kids’ ears, so his phone (with all of the favorite shows downloaded) was out of commission for this flight.
The point is: be aware of what kind of connection your chosen headphones for your toddler will need. If you intend to watch the seat back screen, make sure you have one wired pair.
Speaking of headphones for kids…
Get yourself some Cozyphones.
Cozyphones are, hands-down, my favorite headphones for toddlers or babies. You can read all about why I love Cozyphones here. But in a nutshell, they are comfortable, easy to use, and much less of a hassle than any other style of headphones that we’ve tried (and I have tried my fair share).
For smaller heads, it is a total pain to constantly adjust over-ear style headphones. And ear buds are even worse, as they typically don’t fit inside tiny ears. You will still need to occasionally adjust CozyPhones, but they are comfortable for kids to fall asleep in, they are the right size for very little kids, and they keep hair out of the face.
They are not perfect, but I will not fly without them for anyone under 3. And to be fair, my oldest preferred these to any other style until she was 5. We finally made the switch to LilGadgets over-ear style when my kids were 3.5 and 5.5 and they were both able to manage their own headphones. My 3.5 year old does complain that they hurt after a few hours, despite these being very cushioned. My kids never once complained about the CozyPhones.
Bring lots of healthy and delicious snacks.
Don’t rely on your airline to give you toddler-friendly food. Or in some cases, any food at all (still glaring at you, Alaska).
A hangry toddler is not the kind of passenger anybody likes. Waiting for the crew to bring around food that may or may not be something your toddler with tolerate is risky, and often the snack options are limited and unhealthy, or choking hazards for young toddlers.
But some airplane snacks are better than others. There is actually a lot of consideration that goes into the perfect toddler airplane snack, from messiness to customs regulations to nutritional value (foods with protein and fiber will keep your toddler from melting down a little bit longer).
Feel free to peruse my list of the best toddler-friendly airplane snacks – and what you might not think to avoid. But whatever you end up choosing, keep in mind that it needs to clear security. That means hard foods, or soft foods in less than 3.4 oz packages.
TSA does make an exception for baby food, and depending on the size/age of your toddler, you might be able to claim some foods as baby food and get them through. For example, my all-time favorite airplane snack is protein-packed pouches. But they usually come in 4 oz pouches. I always pull it out at security and declare it as baby food (for my 3+ year old even), and although I have often been given some grief about it from TSA agents, they have always allowed it through. But there is absolutely no guarantee that will work with a toddler upwards of 2.
In any case, be sure that you have more snacks than you think you will need, with a variety of flavors and plenty of healthy options to power through a long flight without a complete sugar crash in the middle.
Flights do not have milk.
We have yet to fly with an airline that has milk available. If you find one, let me know.
If milk is going to help your toddler sleep (or just not become an absolute monster), you will need to bring it on board.
Shelf-stable milk is a major thing in countries around the world, although it seems weird to many Americans. But it is a godsend for flights with a toddler.
You can find shelf-stable milk in most grocery stores, and my favorite is available on Amazon. It tastes a little different from the milk that you’re used to, but it’s good enough that your toddler probably will not notice the difference.
Practice wearing the mask for extended periods before the trip.
As of posting this article in early 2022, everybody 2 and older needs to wear a mask on the airplane.
If your toddler is not currently in a childcare setting where they are used to wearing the mask for extended periods of time, practice this ahead of time. There will be enough to battle your toddler about on the plane, and it’s not the ideal time to teach them how to wear a mask for several hours.
Look, for better or for worse, there have been stories in the news of families who have gotten fined or even removed from flights because their 2-year-old wouldn’t keep a mask on. I think those instances are rare. Like other passengers, I believe most flight attendants see parents of toddlers making a concerted effort and understand. But bringing a toddler who has never worn a mask onto the plane is probably not a great idea.
Even my child who is in a daycare setting that requires the mask all day needs some breaks. During snack times, I do allow her to keep it off while working through her snack. This gives her a break, and it is okay to keep it off while actively eating or drinking (which she might be slowly doing for 20+ minutes, but she is doing).
Bring multiple masks on the plane.
Another way to help a toddler who is not 100% comfortable with mask wearing is to bring multiple options and switch it up partway through.
Sometimes toddlers just need to feel heard. You don’t like wearing that mask? Fine – you can wear the Paw Patrol one instead.
Having a second (or third) option available can often be enough to postpone the moment when your little one flat out refuses to keep the mask on. If you can convince them that they are making all the choices, you win.
Do everything you can to prevent toddler jet lag.
Do toddlers get jet lag? Yes, absolutely. And it’s not pretty.
If you are flying anywhere with a time change, and especially a major time change, you need to plan ahead to prevent jet lag.
This is a huge topic and there are so many things you can do to help prevent jet lag. Please see my guide to preventing jet lag in toddlers and babies if you are enduring any kind of time change.
Keep your things accessible.
We always pack one backpack that has everything that our toddler might need during the flight. This is smaller than a carry on bag, and can fit under the seat in front of us.
Getting up into the overhead bin is a pain in the ass. I want everything I need within arms reach. Pack your “extra item” bag carefully, and keep everything that you are likely to need there.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all possible items are in this bag. We always have a spare set of clothes (for vomit or urine incidents), but those are accessed rarely enough that they are fine in our main overhead bag. Likewise with our toddler’s emergency rescue medication. We know where it is, we can get to it, but we don’t (thankfully) don’t need it often.
But books, coloring sheets, headphones, chargers, snacks, iPad, extra masks… these we need within arms reach at all times, ready to prevent a potential meltdown.
What is the best time of day to fly with a toddler?
Should you do a mid-day or red-eye flight? There is no easy answer.
Unless your flight is under 6 hours, then definitely do a daytime flight. No point screwing up the sleep schedule for a short flight.
But once we’re talking major, long-haul flights with significant time zone changes, things get complicated.
A well-executed red-eye where everyone (toddler especially) sleeps at the right time: that is the ideal flight. But red-eyes also have so much more potential for being an absolute disaster. Just ask me about the 12 hour red eye where my 18 month old didn’t sleep at all, and the literal week of recovery that it took to get us back onto a halfway decent sleep schedule.
You will need to decide what works best for your child, and what your level of risk aversion is. Daytime flights take up a whole day, but for a toddler who loves watching shows, they are a pretty easy option. Red eyes are a bit of a crap-shoot, but you could potentially save a day of “wasted” time.
Personally, for a flight of 10 or more hours, I will risk the red-eye. A 7pm(ish) flight where they will be worn out from a full day and maybe sleep for the whole flight: that’s perfect.
But for flights that would not be a full night’s sleep, I prefer daytime flights for a toddler. My little one is happy to have 8 hours of screen time (unheard of in our house), and we get to our destination at a reasonable time to (hopefully) have some dinner and go to bed, ready to start our adventures the next day.
You can read more about my thoughts on early vs. late flights in the baby jet lag article.
Take advantage of early boarding.
Shortly before boarding starts, there is a period of preboarding. This is usually for passengers with disabilities, veterans and their families, and families with young children that might need extra time to board.
Hint: if you have a toddler, that’s probably you.
Boarding with a toddler can be super stressful. Maybe you need to install a car seat or CARES harness. Maybe you need to wipe everything down while your toddler waits in the aisle, out of chair-touching range. Maybe you just need to have the time to get settled before everyone else impatiently crowds in around you.
That’s what preboarding is for.
As a family with very young children, you are almost always entitled to get on early. It’s of no benefit to anyone to have toddlers holding up the whole shebang, when you could be getting everything settled in while the first-class passengers are cozying up.
Sometimes the preboarding period happens very quickly. They might move onto regular boarding 30 seconds later, and then you’ve missed your chance (not that we haven’t pushed past the line to jump in as preboarding later). Your best bet is to get up close to the front when you hear them announce that preboarding will begin soon.
Not every airline will explicitly call out families in their preboarding announcement. However, even when they have not specified who qualifies for preboarding, we’ve asked (with toddler in arms), and they’ve ushered us through. Bottom line, feel free to preboard if you have a toddler, and it would be a truly rare occasion if they decided not to let you through.
Run out that energy in the airport before you board.
Alternatively, your family might decide it is best to be the last ones to board.
Why? You have more time to run out some extra energy around the boarding gate, and less time stuck sitting on the airplane.
If the prospect of trying to get your toddler settled after everyone else is in place doesn’t stress you out, this might actually be a better option.
Wait until almost everybody has boarded before getting into line. Less time on the plane means less squirminess later.
Some families do the split up tactic: one parent boards early to set up the car seat, get the bags stowed above head, and sanitize the seat. The other parent waits with the kid(s) until everyone else is boarded, letting them run out as much energy as possible, then slips on to the waiting, prepared seats.
We’ve actually never tried this, as we like to stay together and get on and settled (and onto the iPad) as early as possible. But I absolutely see the beauty in this level of coordination!
Wine (if that’s your thing). And try to relax.
Oh, wine. The thing that makes flying with a toddler tolerable.
In all seriousness, think about what will make you the most comfortable on the flight, and make it happen.
Maybe you need to switch off with your partner who sits next to (and is constantly managing) your toddler. Maybe you need to make sure you bring your noise-cancelling headphones and block out the cabin noise. Maybe, like me, a glass or two of wine is what you need to feel just pampered enough to make it through in a decent mood.
Whatever it is, prioritize yourself where you can. Flying with a toddler demands a lot of your time and attention and can be stressful, so do what it takes to make it as comfortable for you as possible. And if, for your family, that means flying first class – do it! There is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing your toddler in the first class cabin if you are willing to pay for it. They have just as much right as anybody else.
So, there you have my top tips for flying with toddlers. Whether you are flying with a 2 year old or flying with a 3 year old, there is a lot that you can do to make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone on board.
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