If you love traveling at all, you are going to LOVE traveling with your preschoolers. Sure they might ask you ‘why’ 10,000 times a minute and can be EXTREMELY stubborn about which foods are untouchable even if they were delicious yesterday. But kids this age LOVE exploring. Adults just don’t laugh out loud because they are so happy to see a beautiful beach or a super cool animal. I’ve not had many travel partners who start endlessly chattering with excitement when they see something new (though I’ll admit, sometimes it does drive me CRAZY). Watching your child thrive and learn in a new environment will have you just bursting with pride, even though it seems a bit silly. I absolutely love that I’m able to gift them a new experience that is teaching them so much about the world around them.
All that aside, the getting-there part of traveling with preschoolers definitely has it’s challenges. But, with these amazing travel tips and fun activities for flying with preschoolers, you can have tear-free travel days with your kiddo!
Preschoolers. They are so independent in some ways and can shock us parents with their occasional maturity, and understanding of complex concepts. And yet, some days, they will meltdown because it’s too cold outside to wear shorts. Sigh… But when it comes to trip planning, your preschooler is going to start understanding a LOT more.
1. Give them control over what they CAN control
You can involve them in the planning, prepping, and anticipation of your wonderful family vacation. Have your child help you set up a countdown timer on your phone – picking out a picture for the background is a great way to be involved. Let your child choose a few favorite tees when packing your suitcase. For your carry-on, allow him or her to pick out some of their snacks and a favorite toy. Getting involved in the process will make your child feel like they have some control. Plus, if they knowing what’s coming means they have something fantastic to look forward to. We love counting down the days in how many ‘sleeps’ are left before we go. And whenever I pull out an item that the children got to pack, they are absolutely THRILLED to see it.
2. Explain the process ahead of time, even the hard parts
Preschool-aged kids love knowing the routine. They are definitely capable of understanding, at least in part, that the hard flight is worthwhile because they will have SO much fun at the destination. So take the time to sit down and talk about what will happen, step by step. My preschoolers and I talk through the plane ride, and how it can be boring and hard to sit still. BUT they are allowed to play games on their tablets as long as they want, and can look out the window to watch take-off and landing and see if we are flying over the clouds.
Of course, we tell them about some of the fun things we’ll see and do on vacation as well. We love showing them videos because so many things are BRAND NEW to them, making it difficult for them to imagine. Perhaps it ruins the surprise, but they’ve loved looking forward to these trips. Plus, seeing a video just isn’t the same as seeing a thing in real life. Plus, sometimes seeing it on video ahead of time makes seeing it in real life that much MORE special. On our first visit to Disneyland, they loved being able to recognize a lot of the elements in ‘real’ Star Wars Land, after watching the video of it ahead of time.
3. Make a Map
My kids and I love using maps and have done it since the toddler years. But now, maps can become more detailed and more complex. Make your own, or just find a map and mark it with where you are coming from, where you are going, and how you’ll get there. It doesn’t have to be to scale, or geographically accurate – kids just love knowing what’s going on. My kids spend hours talking through the process and learning about each of the steps on our journey.
For our maps, we include the car ride to the airport (since it’s a 2-hour car ride for us), the airport itself, taking an airplane ride and if it’s a long or short airplane ride, any layovers, transportation from the airport, then something to explain what type place of we will stay at, and some of the things we will do while we are there.
At the airport
4. Dress kids in colorful matching clothing:
Preschool-aged children are more likely to be walking when you are out in crowded public spaces. They are often given a bit more freedom so they may be walking NEAR you but not actually holding a hand. Dressing them in brightly colored clothing will make it quick and easy to spot them in a crowd. And I don’t know about you, but for me, the whole travel experience is a LOT more enjoyable when you aren’t panicking about a lost child every 5 seconds.
If you have more than one child, and they’ll agree to it, match them. Here’s a scenario to explain why; my husband has one child, I have one. When they are walking, and NOT in brightly colored, matching clothing, we are constantly getting cut off and separated. When crowds are thick, you can end up pretty far apart in no time at all. Even worse- if one parent has two children, you can be cut off from them and separated in the crowd.
When children ARE wearing matching, brightly colored clothing, your family can be immediately visually recognized as belonging together. People walking past are significantly less likely to walk between members of your family, separating you. For us, it makes a HUGE difference in being able to easily stay together as a group.
5. Keep walking expectations realistic
We RARELY use our strollers for our preschool-aged twins – like basically never. But traveling often means a LOT of walking for preschoolers. Just walking through the airport is quite a trek when you are only 3 feet tall! Keep in mind that you are asking a lot of them. Don’t expect them to be able to just keep going. And if you are traveling at bedtime (or naptime if you are lucky enough to have a kid who still naps), I’d just bring the stroller. Don’t be the mom who has to carry an exhausted 45 lb child the entire length of the Houston Airport while singing because he cannot walk another step (yup I’ve made every mistake in the book!).
The same goes for walking while ON vacation. My family stays BUSY while traveling. It’s easy to forget that we are walking a lot more than normal and it can just end up being too much, even for your energetic child. On a recent trip to Disneyland, we walked nearly 12 miles, according to my Fitbit. My kids are pretty energetic and can walk PRETTY far, but there is absolutely no way they could have walked that distance without a stroller.
6. Skip the kids’ backpack
Having your child bring their own carry-on seems fantastic, doesn’t it? They are limited to what they can fit in a kid’s backpack AND you don’t have to bother with it. The reality is if your preschooler is expected to walk the length of the airport, he isn’t going to be able to handle much else. Strap a backpack on him, and you’ll wind up carrying your child and his backpack. My kids can walk miles with a backpack out on the trails, but the airport is totally different.
On the plane
7. Don’t Forget Entertainment
I’m not gonna say that entertaining a wiggly 3 or 4-year-old on an airplane is EASY, but if you are comparing to any age younger than 3, it’s pretty freaking amazing. Since preschoolers are old enough to understand that there is something great at the end of the flight, they generally have a better experience about the whole thing. Plus, lengthening attention span means you aren’t going through toys LITERALLY every 5 seconds like you would with a toddler.
We do allow unlimited screens on the airplane for our preschoolers while flying or traveling in general. Since screens are much more limited at home, this is definitely a novelty. However, sometimes they just aren’t that into the screens. So if you prefer no screens or your child just doesn’t care about them, don’t panic! Flying is boring, yes, but it’s also a nice time to quietly and calmly connect with your child. My kids love reading books together, playing with Play-Doh together or other small toys, telling stories, talking about the airplane, etc.
Here are some of our tried and true preschooler airplane activities
- iPad/Tablet and headphones with games. We love
- Mini Play-doh with cookie cutters (I only bring one play-doh and one cutter so I am not constantly reaching under the seat to find pieces that have fallen off the tray)
- Fishing Game: Fun game to play together with your child
- Magnet Playset
- Coloring book with triangular crayons
- Wikki Stix
- Sticker book with tons of animals. National Geographic has tons of these, and if you pick the right one, you’ll have hours (or at least an hour) of discussion and storytelling as they flip through the pages and choose stickers.
- Search and find books
- Non-fiction books for kids. My kids are big into animals, so we love picking out a book about their favorite animal of the month. These types of books are dense with information. You can take as much (or as little) time as your child’s interest allows. Sometimes it’s hard to just let them take their time going through books, so it’s a nice opportunity for your child to really explore!
- Play a game. We love playing I-spy or making up stories where we each get to contribute part of the story. Another favorite game is to talk through what we are flying OVER. We make up stories about what might be going on down on the ground below us.
- Nap. If your child will nap, enjoy it! Even if your child doesn’t normally nap, or they are falling asleep later or earlier than normal nap time, relax and go with the flow. Travel days are tough and staying on schedule is basically impossible. For some reason, travel really wears EVERYONE out. So your child is nodding off at 1 pm, even though they NEVER nap, he is probably just exhausted. He might need a need that nap AND will still be tired enough to go to bed on time (maybe – no guarantees there HA).
- Don’t forget a book or a movie with headphones for yourself. No guarantees but you JUST MIGHT get a break!
8. Always Bring Snacks!
As older babies, and toddlers, food was a fun thing that could entertain my kids while traveling. Now that they are older, eating is just a chore. There is no point in bringing a bunch of fun snacks if you know that your preschooler will not eat them. However, traveling can have unexpected delays. Often, there will no meal service on the plane due to turbulence, etc. You so you’ll want to be prepared. No one wants to let their child turn into a hangry monster.
Pack mostly non-perishable snacks that function as a meal (or two) if needed. I like to pack a few things that have a lot of protein, a few with a bit of fiber, and something that are higher calorie and just fill stomachs. It’s also a good idea to try to avoid nuts because you never know who will be on the plane with you.
- Kind bars
- Dried mango or other dried fruit
- Freeze-dried strawberries
- Little raisin boxes
- Crispy Peas
- Shelf-stable yogurt
- Whole wheat crackers
- Fruit snacks
9. Be Prepared for Potty Difficulty
Airport and airplane bathrooms can be super tough for younger kids. My kids are a bit sensitive to noise, and it seems SO many airport bathrooms are just exceptionally loud. The whole experience freaks my kids out, so taking them potty is a battle every time. And airplane bathrooms- ugh! I think everyone hates those. So talk to your recently-potty-trained child about these things. Perhaps they’d prefer to have a pull-up at least as a backup while traveling.
10. Standing Diaper Changes
For children who are not yet potty-trained, get comfortable doing a standing change. Airplane bathrooms are about the size of a quarter and the changing table is even smaller. You’ll be lucky if you can even get one of your preschooler’s legs on that tiny changing table. We use Huggies brand Pull-ups while traveling because they have velcro on the side, so you don’t have to take pants off to change, making standing up changes possible. I stand my child up on the toilet (with the seat closed of course) and ask him to hold onto me tight while I change him.
Give it a Try!
If you’ve traveled with your child before, you are probably going to be THRILLED with how much easier your preschooler is than they were in the toddler or baby years. And if this is your first time traveling with them, you’ve picked a great age to begin traveling! Of course traveling with a preschooler isn’t easy, but preschool-aged kids can really be a joy on vacation! Happy travels and best of luck with your upcoming flight.
And don’t forget to check out our tips for flying with toddlers, or babies, and some of our trips here and here.