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Travelling with toddlers can be intimidating to say the least. No one wants to be the parent of the screaming child on the plane. And if you live with a toddler, you know that tantrums do happen, despite your best efforts. Flying with toddlers is no vacation (ba dum tss). But with these tips, you’ll be ready for whatever comes at you on your flight with a toddler!
And, if you are traveling with TWIN toddlers, we’ve got you covered. Click here to go to the section on twin-specific tips.
After struggling through travel with our toddlers, I was curious if we were the only ones for whom the early toddler phase was the TOUGHEST. So I did a little survey, and found that NOPE- it’s tough for everyone!
Don’t get me wrong, actually traveling with toddlers can be pretty amazing.
Toddlers are amazing creatures, and excellent travel companions because everything is so new to them. No one can get excited about seeing a pineapple plant, a pile of rocks, or riding on a bus like a toddler can.
Plus the toddler years are an excellent time for them to be traveling. Their brains are developing unbelievably fast in their toddler years. Travel during that period gives them a huge opportunity to learn flexibility, tolerance, and an appreciation for culture and cultural differences.
But the actual GETTING THERE part? It’s rough. For us, peak flight difficulty was right at 18 months, and flying with two 18-month-old toddlers was a true test of patience for me.
At around 18 months of age, babies have officially moved on from little (mostly still) bundles of joy to noisy, walking little people with strong opinions and desires and absolutely NO impulse control.
1. Avoid Super Early Flights
There is no reason to make flying with toddlers any tougher than it needs to be. If you have to get your toddler up at 4 am to make the flight, they are likely not going to be able to fall back asleep. So you’ll have a child that is sleep deprived, and cranky for a day that wasn’t going to be super fun anyway.
Now maybe your toddler is a star-sleeper, and can nap anywhere, anytime. And that is wonderful BUT the airplane can be such a stimulating place that sleep can be tough for even the best sleepers.
Both of my toddlers were once awake at midnight on a flight (and we aren’t a late bedtime family, this was FIVE HOURS after their bedtime). The flight attendant laughed and told us EVERY toddler or baby on the flight was actually still awake. It’s not uncommon for little guys to have trouble sleeping on a plane.
Avoiding early flights might just mean your toddler does end up staying up way past his/her bedtime. But that means he’s only cranky for the last couple of hours, not the entire day. We find this works out better.
2. Make sure your tickets allow seat selection
Seems like a no brainer, but as airlines change their policies and rates, it can be confusing. Some airlines now offer a cheaper ticket class that doesn’t allow seat selection, and your assignment is given after check in, even for small children. Most airlines say they will do their best to seat children with their parents, BUT we don’t think it’s worth the risk, the stress, and the hassle.
Avoid ‘basic economy’ and just stick with ‘main cabin’ economy, or better, so you can choose your seats in advance.
3. Buy your Toddler a Seat
Toddlers under the age of 2 can fly free on domestic flights, if you hold them as a lap baby. And while it is super tempting to save some money on their tickets while you can, we do not recommend it once your baby hits about a year old.
Those airplane seats are small, with almost no leg room as it is. Put a wiggly, bored toddler in your lap, and neither you or the toddler is going to be happy. Just putting the tray table down as a play surface is TIGHT, or even impossible, and reaching down to grab a toy from your backpack is painful.
Spring for the seat for your toddler. You definitely won’t regret it!
4. Give your Toddler the Window Seat
Speaking of seat selection, make sure you’ve got the window seat for your toddler. Your toddler may just LOVE looking out the window and talking through the process of taxiing, taking off, and then watching the cars and houses get smaller and smaller. The window seat can be a HUGE boredom buster for toddlers.
And, if you DON’T pick the window seat, and a stranger ends up there, your toddler might just decide that they need that seat anyway and attempt to climb into the lap of said stranger. No one wants that battle.
If you pick the window seat, and your family is not taking up the whole row, you may end up needing to ask a stranger to get up so you can get out more often than they’d like. But it’s better than having to battle a toddler who is SURE that window seat is his.
5. Bring your Stroller
As active toddlers start walking more, and maybe even showing a preference of walking over riding, it’s tempting to skip the stroller at the airport.
But there are a million reasons why you’ll definitely want it even for toddlers who love to walk. Here a a few examples:
- Naps: Your toddler may end up falling asleep at some point (and it might not be on schedule), and you are not going to want to lug a sleeping child around while navigating the airport and collecting suitcases.
- Speed: If you end up having a delayed flight and need to run to the next one, or just need to sprint across the airport for any reason, it is SO MUCH easier with your toddler strapped into a stroller than in your arms (or trying to run with you).
- Distance: The airport can be a LOT of walking. Even if your child walks all the time at home, the airport can be MILES of walking and might exhaust your toddler.
- Toddler mental overload: The sights, the smells, the sounds, the new faces at the airport can be a lot of mental stimulation for a young child. It can be really difficult to focus on the job at hand- making progress walking through the airport, and can become overwhelming to the point that your toddler will just sit down on the floor and refuse to move.
- Airport transfers dangers: After a long day of travel, while leaving the airport, you might end up waiting on the curb for a bus, or crossing busy streets or parking lots while also dragging suitcases, car seats, etc. Having your child safely strapped into a stroller means your toddler can’t escape your grip and dart into traffic (because impulse control is sure to be LOW even for a toddler at the end of a travel day).
6. Check anything you can!
Pre-kids, I always traveled with a carry-on only. Pulling a suitcase or wearing a backpack was nothing compared to the hassle of going to baggage claim.
But when you are traveling with a toddler, everything is different.
First, you probably have WAY MORE stuff. A car seat, just a few favorite toys, diapers, clothing for the 15 wardrobe changes your toddler needs every day, etc. really adds up to a LOT of luggage. So avoiding baggage claim really isn’t going to be an option anymore.
Secondly, you are working MUCH harder when flying with a toddler compared to pre-kids. You will want your hands free to push the stroller, retrieve snacks and dropped toys, and generally be available to keep your toddler happy (and quiet) both at the airport and on the plane. Give yourself a break and ditch the luggage ASAP (at the counter) so you will have hands free ready for anything.
7. Have a plan for carrying a car seat (IF you are taking it on the plane)
Bringing a car seat on the plane for your toddler can be a really great option for some families. Experts agree that a car seat is the safest place for your child on a plane. And for many kids, its a familiar and comfortable place to sit for the flight.
(Note that bringing your car seat on the plane is DEFINITELY optional, and lots of families opt to skip it).
But now that your toddler is out of the infant stage, the days of car seats easily snapping into a stroller are gone. Carrying a big convertible car seat can be tricky.
But you do have a few options:
- You can buy a car seat travel cart, like this one for Britax models, or this one that works with many car seats. Your child can actually ride in the car seat, while you wheel it around, so it can replace your stroller. BUT these things are fairly cheaply made, and won’t compare to your stroller for ease of use.
- If you don’t plan to have your child ride in the car seat, you can buy a cheap luggage cart, like this one, to wheel your car seat around the airport
- If your car seat is lightweight, and you aren’t planning to have a backpack already, try one of these backpack carriers. I’ll warn you, even lightweight car seats are NOT a ton of fun to carry.
8. Protect Your Gear
When traveling with a toddler, you end up with a LOT of precious gear. And there is no heartbreak like the heartbreak when you find your favorite stroller torn, smashed, or damaged right before your dream Disney vacation. So keep it protected with protective gear.
Traveling with a toddler means you ALWAYS have to have a car seat. And when you check them, you can count on them getting tossed around by luggage handlers, which could cause damage you can’t even see.
Though nothing will give you 100% protection, we love these padded car seat backpacks. We love the backpack straps that make it easier to carry, and the wide zipper so the car seat easily fits inside.
For extra protection (and to save a little suitcase space), we sneak in our toddlers’ favorite blanket, pillow, lovey, or whatever. We’ve even put a pack n ‘ Play mattress topper in there- it fits perfectly behind the car seat, and works great for kids who don’t sleep well on the hard pack n ‘play surface. I’m not sure you are technically allowed to put things in the car seat bag, besides the car seat, but we’ve never been stopped.
For electronics you are bringing on the plane with you, make sure you have a protective case. Toddlers, under any circumstance, are prone to breaking things. On the plane, you can expect lower than normal focus and higher than normal frustration, so make sure anything they’ll touch has a great, toddler-proof case.
This inexpensive case has protected our kids’ iPads from TONS of damage due to dropping, even THROWING (not that I recommend that), banging, etc.
For electronics that you are leaving in your checked bag, just pack it carefully in the middle of the suitcase, next to soft clothing, so it won’t move around even if your bag is tossed around.
9. Burn off Energy at the Airport
Take advantage of all the time you’ll spend waiting around at the airport, and let your toddler burn off some of their energy before boarding.
Because walking through the airport might be TOO mentally and physically exhausting for toddler to handle, you’ll want to set aside a little bit of time for them to move around at their own pace.
We like to find a quiet corner of the airport, give our toddlers a couple of cars or monster trucks, and let them drive, or crash, or whatever active play they are interested in. Or we might have them walk from window to window to check out the views of airplanes taxiing or taking off. We’ll even use the patterns in the carpet to make up a jumping around game. Anything to get them moving around, and get a little energy out.
10. Have a Great Pre-boarding Routine
Before you board the plane, make sure you are as prepared as you possibly can be.
Change diapers one last time so your toddler will be clean and dry, at least to start. AND if you’re lucky (and your flight is short-ish) you MIGHT get to avoid changing your toddler in the teeny tiny airplane bathroom.
Or if toddler is potty-trained, make sure they get one last potty before boarding. And make sure the parents get to go one last time as well!
Fill up water bottles. And make sure you have all the snacks you’ll need for the flight.
Take advantage of the space in the airport to take one last look at your carry-on and make sure it’s well organized so you’ll be able to grab anything you need on the plane quickly.
And SKIP eating, at least for your child! For most toddlers, food is entertainment. Save it for the plane. Every bit of entertainment counts on the plane!
11. Dress in Layers
When traveling, comfort is important, both for your child, and yourself. Make sure you dress in comfortable layers. Temperatures can vary widely throughout your journey. Airplanes can be hot and sweaty, or quite chilly. You may be traveling to a beachy-hot vacation, but coming from a wintery wonderland. Somehow, your outfit has to work for all these temperature swings.
Toddlers are particularly intolerant of not having the right clothing for the weather.
We live in the Pacific Northwest, so for most of the year, it’s chilly at home. And because of that, we often pick warmer weather destinations. So here is an example of how I’d dress my toddlers for a flight:
- Lightweight shoes, like crocs with socks. Then I can remove the socks before landing at our destination to keep feet cool. Otherwise, I might toss in a pair of flip flops for the destination.
- We love simple colorful designs, so every top goes with every bottom AND the kids still love their clothes.
And don’t forget to keep yourself comfortably dressed in layers as well. I can do without shorts, but I HATE when my feet are hot. So if I can’t wear flip flops on the plane, I’ll always bring them with me.
12. Bring a Carry on that fits under the seat
When traveling with a toddler, your carry on bag is EVERYTHING. You will be reaching in to that carry on constantly for boredom busters, food, emergency supplies, etc.
You’ll want it easily accessible at all times (even when the seat belt sign is on or during turbulence).
We have an older version of this backpack and love it for flying with kids. It has a million pockets for keeping all the little things we need organized and easy to find, a chest strap for comfort, TONS of space for gear, AND it easily fits under the seat. It’s absolutely perfect for travel with kids.
13. Pack a Quick Change Kit
Diaper changes, or clothing changes on the airplane are bound to happen. And they are NOT fun. The bathrooms on airplanes are roughly the size of a postage stamp, with a changing table that MIGHT work for a Barbie Doll.
Make things a little easier by packing a quick change kit for your toddler. You will not want to have to haul a whole diaper bag or backpack into the tiny bathroom with you.
Keep a change of clothes with your changing kit just in case there is leakage. I like to keep the spare clothes sealed inside a ziploc bag OR, even better, in these reusable wetbags that can be strapped to a travel changing pad. That way, you can remove the clean clothing from the ziploc or wetbag, then use the bag to store any soiled clothing for the rest of your flight.
14. Bring Snacks!
For many toddlers, eating is entertainment! Heck- snacking can be a great distraction tool for lots of adults as well!
So even if you really prefer to have real meals every time when you are at home, travel is a perfect excuse to loosen up, and let your child live on snacks just for one day.
Bring your child onto the plane hungry (if you can without getting to HANGRY levels), so they are ready to eat.
We bring some that are fun, some that are healthy, and some that are kind of emergency distraction tools, like mini M&Ms, lollipops, or fruit snacks.
15. Bring New Small Toys
Keeping a toddler happy and occupied in a tiny space on the airplane is no small feat. But the excitement of NEW toys, even tiny ones can really help out. We shoot for one small new toy per 1-2 hours of flight time. This might seem excessive but you’ll be surprised by how quickly they’ll go through things while bored on the plane.
And you’ll want to carefully select the toys you bring as well. We look for toys that take some concentration, and that don’t require their entire body to move as a part of play. For messy toddlers, I also try to minimize the number of loose pieces, or at least have a plan for the loose pieces. For example, something like this is perfect keeping any small pieces contained, and can be left open on the tray for playing IN.
Here are a few of our favorite toddler airplane toys.
- Squigz: They stick to any smooth surface, and to themselves, and are tons of fun for all ages
- Finger Puppets: perfect for songs, animal sounds, or just silly imaginative play.
- Little figurines- pick your toddler’s favorite, such as Daniel Tiger, dinosaurs, or Frozen Little People.
- Flip-up or Slide Open board books, like Dear Zoo or What’s In My Truck are EXTRA fun for toddlers because they’ll have something to touch and manipulate in the book.
- Hot Wheels cars or little monster trucks are great for driving at the airport, and on the tray table, just as long as your toddler can resist the urge for BIG jumps!
- Sticker Books- we love the National Geographic ones because they are a bargain, and with over 1000 stickers, they last FOREVER.
- Wikki Stix kits are super fun to stick together and build with. The kits are great to help your toddler get started.
- A coloring book, coloring sheets, or just some paper with triangular crayons, so they won’t roll off the tray
- WaterWow books are a BIG hit for all ages, and just require a little water.
- A tablet loaded up with toddler-friendly games and shows. We know many families aim to avoid screens, but they are SUCH a great distraction for travel. For toddlers, we love the Daniel Tiger Explore app, basically all Sago Mini apps (but especially Sago Mini Farm, and episodes of Daniel Tiger, Dinosaur Train, Little Baby Bum, Octonauts, and Dave and Ava.
16. Try EarPlanes
17. Skip the line at car rental agencies
After you’ve tested your toddlers patience on a flight, you know what you DON’T want to do? Ask them to wait in line for an hour to rent a car.
Car rental lines (even when you have a reservation) are notoriously long. The whole process can be super frustrating for everyone.
Luckily, you can skip the counter and go directly to your rental car with services like Avis Preferred, National Emerald Club, and Dollar Express. The services vary by airport, and company, but the basics are you either go through a shorter, express line, or skip the counter all together and go directly to the lot. These services can literally save HOURS and are a total lifesaver for families with kids.
A few things to remember:
- Make sure you review and understand the specifics of the service you’ve chosen. Not all services are the same.
- Call ahead, especially if you are new to the program. Make sure your membership was correctly applied to your rental, and check on the rules for your first time using the program. You MAY have to wait in line to show your credit card the first time.
- Remember that not all airports have express services. Smaller airports are much less likely to have skip-the-counter services.
18. Be Mentally Prepared
It’s no secret- flying with toddlers is hard work. Do whatever you can to get some decent sleep the night before, and grab a coffee on the way.
Here’s what you can expect when flying with toddlers:
Expect to spend the whole flight singing, playing silly cheerful games, engaging with your child and all of the fun little things you’ve brought along, and generally staying upbeat even when your child gets frustrated, or overtired and unable to sleep. I love my kids more than anything in the world, but 3, 6, 8 hours of 100% attention can be exhausting! But it can also be a great bonding time. And if you go in with the right mindset, you might enjoy .. well.. PARTS of it.
Sleep for toddlers on a plane can be surprisingly tough. My toddlers VERY RARELY sleep on airplanes. And it’s not JUST my toddlers. Many toddlers struggle to sleep on planes. The excitement and unfamiliarity can easily make napping impossible for some toddlers, even those who ALWAYS fall asleep in the car.
Other toddlers sleep great on the plane. They take extra naps, and sleep from the moment the plane takes off until after it lands. This is SO VERY much not my kids, but probably that will be your kiddos. However, I think it’s better to be prepared for the worse- cranky toddlers who will not nap, and then be pleasantly surprised if things are easier.
19. Don't worry about judgement
When traveling with toddlers, there are bound to be a few people out there that give you the look. You know the one- where they are clearly annoyed that you exist and somehow you and your children are entitled to purchase tickets on the same flight as them. Don’t even worry about them. Seriously. Don’t give it one moment’s thought. I bet you are a good parent, and I bet you’ll do your best to care for your children during the flight, and there is nothing more anyone could ask of you.
And after traveling quite a bit with my kids as babies, toddlers, and older, we find that the vast majority of people we encounter are kind and understanding. If you are stressing before you even leave, don’t. I’m pretty good at worrying, but after having so many positive interactions with people telling us we are doing a great job, or noticing how hard we work during the flight, I feel pretty confident while traveling. And you should too! You’ve got it.
Specifics On TWINS
If you have TWIN toddlers, flying with them can be just THAT much more intimidating. But we’ve done it many times, made mistakes, and figured out all the little tricks so you’ll be successful on your FIRST try.
While ALL the tips above apply to twins as well as singleton toddlers, there are a few twin specific tips we wanted to point out just for the twin families!
20. Bring a lightweight double stroller
When traveling with twin toddlers, the stroller is an absolute necessity. Even if your toddlers prefer to walk, you’ll want it for the airport. If both happen to fall asleep, or become to tired to walk through the airport, the stroller is a lifesaver.
But, many double strollers are SO huge, they will be too big for a protective bag at gate check, too big to fit in the back of a rental car (unless you pay for the upgrade), and difficult to fold up in a rush when gate checking.
Travel double strollers just make the whole process SO much smoother and easier. And we definitely recommend purchasing one if you plan to travel very often with your twins. Check our recommendations for lightweight double strollers here (including some that be your ONLY stroller, budget options, and more).
21. Rent or Buy at your Destination
Twin toddlers require SO much stuff, it’s almost impossible to actually bring it all with you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t travel with your twins. There are tons of great options to make traveling with twin toddlers easier!
Diapers and snacks
If at all possible, buy diapers at your destination. Even if traveling internationally, you’ll likely be able to find something that will work for your twins.
Even though it may seem expensive to pay vacation-area inflated prices for your diapers, consider that diapers for twins is likely to take a BIG portion of your checked suitcase. And you’re likely paying upwards of $50 each way for that checked suitcase. So purchasing diapers there actually saves you money.
And since you are going to make a Target run anyway, don’t worry about packing too many snacks for your toddlers. Go ahead and pick up the necessities at the same time you pick up their diapers. And grab some milk, if you have somewhere to store it.
Somewhere to sleep
Bringing two Pack ‘n Plays was not something we ever seriously considered. They are huge, heavy, and just 100% not worth the hassle. And there are tons of great options for easy sleep solutions for your twins:
- Most hotels, and many vacation rentals, have pack ‘n plays or cribs. However, vacation homes will almost always just have one. Hotels often will not let you reserve pack ‘n plays- they are first-come-first-served. But, if you call ahead, you may be able to secure two.
- For many destinations, you can rent quality baby gear from companies like Babys Away. For a totally reasonable price, you can rent cribs or pack ‘n plays (plus any other toddler gear you might need), and have them delivered straight to your hotel.
- Our preference, especially for older toddlers, is to just get them a bed at our hotel. We love these inflatable bumpers because they fold up small, and really work for keeping our crazy-sleeping toddlers on the bed! Just tuck them under the sheet, and make sure everything is tucked in tight!
For more twin toddler packing tips and tips for once you reach your destination, click here.
22. One Backpack of Supplies for Each Child
In my family, we almost always travel with my husband and I, and our twins. So we have one parent per child. So we make sure that each parent has a backpack with everything needed for ONE child.
With this system, we never have to bother each other for a snack/toy/diaper, or worry if the other is in the bathroom or otherwise occupied. Everything is there, and organized exactly how we want it.
You can switch as needed, but make sure each adult has everything needed to care for one child, including extra clothes, diapers, toys, snacks, etc. That way, you won’t be constantly interrupting the other caregiver to ask for something, frustrating the twin with that caregiver.
Of course, we can and do frequently switch children, but the basic supplies are all the same, so the system works well for us.
If you are traveling with your twins alone (only one caregiver), you obviously won’t have that option. In that case, we’d recommend a very well organized, and carefully packed backpack so that you can quickly find everything for both children. And, you might even be able to pack a LITTLE bit lighter by sharing some things between the twins (i.e. if they don’t often spill or have diaper leaks, you might be able to get by with just one spare outfit for both).
23. Choose window seats, or 3 seats in a row
When traveling with twin toddlers under the age of 2, we don’t recommend keeping both toddlers as lap babies. This is an issue for a number of reasons- both you and the toddlers will be squished, uncomfortable, and miserable, and you can only have one lap baby per row, so you’ll be separated from your travel partner.
However, you MIGHT be able to get by with just buying a seat for one of the toddlers. Because you will have the seat for one of your twins, you’ll have the flexibility to switch out who sits in it, and have a bit of extra space in your toddler’s seat.
We loved purchasing 3 seats for the 4 of us (my husband, myself and our twins) when my twins were younger. For most planes, that’ll give you the whole section of seats, so no one else is sitting RIGHT next to you, and allows you to easily pass your twins between you.
Once you start buying seats for both your twins, the configuration that works best for us is having a parent with each twin seated in the middle (parent) and window seat (toddler). One parent and toddler will be the row in front of the other parent and toddler. This allows us to pass kids or gear back and forth, if needed, or just easily talk. And it means both kids get the coveted window seat, so no fighting.
Flying with twin toddlers is not easy. But it’s not impossible either. With a bit of preparation, and a lot of patience, you’ll be just fine.
Let us know- what works for you? What doesn’t?