There is a short list of things that keep infants calm while flying… sucking, soothing, sleeping, etc. When we moved to Hawaii in 2012, my son was 11 months old and I prepared for the 6 hour flight as if he were still a baby (bottles of milk, his favorite blanket, a few familiar board books). It was a disaster. He was bored, over-tired but couldn’t sleep, and all he wanted to do was crawl and bounce. By the end of the flight my husband and I made a pact not to fly off the island of Oahu until he was years older. But then my sister set a date for her wedding in Seattle a few months later, so I went to work researching how I could make 6+ hour flights more bearable.
First let’s talk about temperaments… Is your child good at sitting still or does he never stop moving? Will the loud noises scare him or help drown out his loud voice? You know your kid(s) best: some of these idea will work better than others, and you will probably know fairly quickly which ones. Others you may need to try out for yourself. These tips and tricks will be most helpful for airplane travel with kids who are 10 months to three years old.
For airplane travel with kids ages 3+ check out:
1. Novelty is King!
New books, new candy, new (small) toys: these things will get you far. In the picture above right, my son is so tired and just DONE with the flight, but surprise! Here’s another shiny new book you’ve never seen! New experiences are like crack for toddlers. Whatever your kid is into these days, try to find some cheap, small versions that he or she has never played with before: matchbox cars, my little ponies, velcro sticks, finger puppets, etc.
Novelty in the food department is hit or miss at this age. I don’t recommend giving completely new food to your child on a flight HOWEVER, a surprise treat can be a life saver. A variation on a current fave, like a different flavor of Cheerios, or a new candy that you can slow play (skittles, nerds, or M&Ms) can buy you more time (which is the whole point of everything when you are flying with one or more kids). Make sure to bring lots of protein-filled snacks to make up for the sugar and to keep their bellies feeling full. For those that are younger, fruit pouches are easy snacks. Just make sure they don’t over-squeeze and get it all over the place. If you’re not careful it will inevitably end up all over your shirt and their pants – just the way it goes.
2. Prepare Your Heart for a Marathon
It’s going to be a challenge. If you are used to flying solo for work or with your spouse on tropical getaways, this is going to be a completely different experience. I know you know this, but you will still feel that pang of unfairness while you are desperately doing finger puppet voices and your neighbors are gleefully browsing the in-flight magazine. You are probably not going to be able to read a book or watch your own movie, unless you have more than a 1:1 ration of parents to kids. Creating excitement about the flight, reading new books aloud, trying the new candy, enjoying new toys, these things will make your child feel excited too. Unless you have a little angel child, your first flight with a 10 month old or older might make you want to bash your head against the wall of the airplane. Knowing this ahead of time makes it easier on everyone.
3. Wrap or Keep Surprises Hidden
One thing that worked REALLY well for us (and my friend Lynn) is to wrap small toys and treats you don’t want your child to see yet, and then dole them out one by one, which they can unwrap like it’s their birthday! You can wrap them in wrapping paper with plenty of tape. Or if you are worried about security finding your surprises questionable and demanding to unwrap them, you can use those paper sacks wine is wrapped in at the grocery store. You always risk security having to open up your wrapped items if they look questionable going through security. The key is to keep them out of sight, but wrapping them also gives them more stuff to do in-flight.
4. Games, Apps, and Movies
It’s no surprise that kids love electronics. Even for those of you who restrict usage normally, having a new movie to watch or downloading a new game on your phone or iPad can buy you a lot of time. You might want to invest in kids headphones that are made to fit their little heads. Some even have noise canceling features that keep the decibel level down in the loud plane. I recommend trying out different headphones beforehand. Some kids are ok with ear buds, but my son got extremely frustrated that they kept falling out, and screamed in frustration every time he re-situated himself and one would fall out of his ear. Not ideal. He also hated the shiny new kids headphones we bought for him, so sometimes you can’t win. In the photo above left (16 months) we played a movie with the sound playing just enough to hear it. Clearly my husband was more into Toy Story than my son. In the other photo he is ok with the ear buds (2.5 years old).
5. I Spy and Other Games
On our recent flight to Kauai we played a game where we tried to find dolphins, sharks, turtles, etc. in the ocean below as we came in for final descent. At about 300-400 feet in the air, the lady in front of me (who was listening in) exclaimed “I see a turtle, I really do!” Sure, lady. These “look and find” kind of games are especially fun for kids (I’m not sure why), even when he isn’t going to find many of the items I mention. I also included things to look for that he would find on the plane. For the older kids you could play a scavenger hunt or easy card games.
7. Plan Flight Times Carefully
To red-eye or not to red-eye? For those that have good sleepers (sleep anywhere, don’t have to be lying down, don’t mind random bright lights or loud noises) booking a red-eye flight might be a good idea. For those of you with picky sleepers or those that have kids that get extra grumpy when they are over-tired, I would recommend a morning flight (right after they wake up) or an afternoon flight (after they have had at least one nap).
8. Pack Light and Smart
To keep all those baby/kid things organized, I pack things into both large and small ziplock bags. A couple of years ago I found this blog that showed outfits packed into individual gallon ziplock bags and I have been doing it ever since. Throw one of those outfit bags into your carry-on for when they dump their juice over their head to protest not being able to move from their seat.
Some of the following items I have had great personal success with. Others have been recommended to me by my friends in the advice section below.
- Reusable stickers – these can be used in a sticker book and on the plane walls and windows. You might have to shrug off a dirty look from a flight attendant, because she doesn’t realize they will come right off, but let’s be honest it won’t be the only dirty look you get on the flight!
- “Lift the flap” books – only books they haven’t seen before so that each page and flap is a surprise. You can get these at the library or thrift store for very cheap.
- Color Wonder Marker and Paper – These markers will only mark on the special paper
- Triangle crayons
- Empty sippy cup or thermos – to be filled on the plane
- Pipe cleaners – These can be played with in so many ways! Also fun for the parents. For the toddlers that are still putting things in their mouth you just need to be careful as the edges are metal and pointy.
- Fruit pouches
- Suckers and gum – anything they can suck on that will help pop their ears.
- iTunes gift card – for new apps, movies, music depending on the age
- Kids headphones – this is definitely something you need to try on and practice with before the flight.
Other items to pack in your carry-on:
- Baby wipes
- Small towel or old burp cloth for inevitable spills
- Phone charger – for when your kid uses up your battery and it’s dead on landing
- Empty ziplock or wet bag to put wet clothes or towels in after cleaning up spills.
6. If All Else Fails
There were times when my son was just DONE and wouldn’t stop whining, thrashing, and trying to take blows at the passenger sitting next to me. Other times, all he wanted to do was kick the seat in front of him or creepily put his hand on my neighbor’s knee (!?), that’s when it’s time to remember that ONE DAY you will no longer be on this flight and you will be happy. Count to 100, avoid eye contact with other passengers, and take deep breaths. It also doesn’t hurt to have one emergency surprise for your child that you save for such occasions.
Here is a round-up of my recommended things to pack for a toddler’s first flight!
Other Things to Consider
Car Seat? Some people like to bring their car seat along in the plane and have their toddler sit in it for the flight. If you do this I recommend having one parent or travel companion go on the plane ahead of you to get it buckled in properly. I never went that route because my son would have screamed bloody murder if I had strapped him in. If you are flying on a red-eye flight and you have a good car seat sleeper… well then it might work for you.
Note for my military friends: My friend Michelle swears by Space A travel with her toddler. She says the engine is loud and most of the military aircrafts have room in the middle for kids to play, or lay down to sleep. This way of traveling has it’s drawbacks (not knowing if you will make it on a flight, not knowing if you will make it on a flight this week, etc.), but might be worth a try if you are eligible!
Here is more advice on airplane travel with kids from my well-traveled friends!
For the Younger Toddlers
Abi B: Fruit pouches… this has saved me so many times. Also the ergo. They didn’t (let me keep him in the ergo during take off and landing) but I could have him in it during the flight so all I did was take off the arm straps and put it back on once we were at cruising altitude.
Lynn W: I’ve traveled with Vivian since she was 5 months old. For the first year (3 flights) I just nursed her during take off and she fell asleep and slept most of the way!
Amber C: Traveling can be stressful enough. So my motto for the day is “pick your battles.” If it’s not life threatening to the child or anyone else, I don’t care. Also triangle-shaped crayons that won’t roll away.
Lynn W: For a toddler…lots of snacks! I go to the dollar store and get some new fun stuff and wrap them so she gets to open “presents” on the plane (did this for traveling a long distance in the car also). Suckers and crayons are a must have always in my purse.
Kelsy M: New things on the flight that the kiddo hasn’t seen yet, we don’t bother traveling with a car seat anymore (it got lost one time). We just rent one through the rental car place or borrow from family, SNACKS!!
Stephanie E: Just traveled to San Diego with a 2 and 4-year-old. I took a $15 iTunes card and bought new TV shows and downloaded DVDs to the iPad without the kids knowing. Packed a bag with kids favorite toys and coloring items. Watched iPad for first half and got toys out till we landed. The whole element of surprise was key.
Jacquie L: Change of clothes and simple food and new toys.
Teresa R: If they are old enough give them chewing gum or something to keep in their mouth. It will keep their ears from popping .
For older kids
Brittany J: Request kids meals, we always let our kids pick out a special toy/coloring book, snack etc. before so they were excited about it. Now that they are older, we download new games or movies on their iPods or tablets and they’re good to go.
Sara G: I always got a new DVD/movie just for the plane. Also that was the only time I would let Grace have a lollipop or gum.
For Hardcore Flights (12+ hours, non-pressurized, no bathrooms)
Abuk: I would ask what type of plane. The commercial or small aircraft (w/out restrooms) first. Each child must carry on their own bag of goodies it keeps us light – if we are in a non-pressurized plane this involves water for the trip, and an empty water bottle for bathroom breaks in addition to a small sack for motion sickness. The remaining space we pack as we would for a commercial flight. Our motto with our four is less is more! We let each child choose 1 toy to go in, we chose one activity (think stickers and a piece of paper for the youngsters) and lots of snacks in small size bags/ziplocks or tinfoil. Then they have the adventure of opening the item, nibbling a few pieces and discovering what is in the other bags/packets. We encourage our girls to read/listen to books on tapes (they are older) so they don’t get motion sickness. For long flights (over 12 hours of fly time) we attach a “sleeping blanket” for layovers that they can throw on the floor and make into a bed…or if we have to overnight in an airport for some reason (has happened more than I’d like to admit. ) If you are traveling internationally, request a kid’s meal (most airlines have them upon request) and a bassinet seat so the child (under a certain weight limit) can sleep lying down on the plane. These must be requested by calling the airline… Flying from the states out I have yet to find one that doesn’t provide this. Also bring each child appropriate headphones that can sit on their ears if they will be watching entertainment the ones airlines provide are often too small and child becomes frustrated. For longer flights we break it up by setting markers. “Ok, at ________ time we will do stickers… at _______time it is movie time or book time while I read, at _______time we will use the bathroom or walk the halls for long flights.” This helps even our youngest break a long flight into manageable chunks and items to look forward to while giving them freedom to fill in the time between the next activity with something appropriate to do.
Cheryl K: New toys, the kids Galaxy Tablet was amazing on our last trip. Snacks for long flights and I request the kids meal. I also try to choose red-eye flights for long haul flights so the kid sleeps through most of the flight and isn’t bored sitting for 17+hrs.
Do you have any advice for airplane travel with kids? I would LOVE to hear them!!