Navigating the Airport with Kids

The airport can be intimidating. There are so many rules and things you need to know. So if you aren’t a frequent traveler, it’s easy to feel completely lost. Once you add in a couple of crazy kids, the chaos is just multiplied. It can make you feel like traveling is just not in the cards for you until your kids are MUCH older.

But getting through airport security, and traveling in general, is something you totally CAN do! As a mom who is a bit (or a LOT?) more on the anxious side, I know it can help a lot if you know EXACTLY what to expect. So we put together a list of top tips to help you prepare, and make sure you breeze through the airport and even with babies, toddlers, and kids of all ages.

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Tip 1: Check everything you can

Typically each person is allowed one to two checked bags (for an additional fee), one carry-on bag (check out the dimension limitations for your airline), and one small personal item (like a purse). Non-ticketed lap babies aren’t allowed any luggage (sorry mom and dad- they have to share with you!). And often, baby gear like strollers and car seats are not included in baggage limits. Check out Delta’s policy, American Airlines policy, and Alaska Airlines policy allowing free checked car seats and strollers.

So if you are traveling with a family, you are allowed a TON of luggage (though those luggage fees add up fast). Keep your hands-free while navigating the airport with your kids, and check everything you can. It’s just not worth the hassle of rolling big carry-on bags through the airport while ALSO keeping babies and kids happy and in the right spot. Check EVERYTHING you can and carry on only what you need for the flight (but do keep in mind that delays happen).

Not loving those baggage fees? Check your wallet for one of these credit cards that offer free checked bags, or consider signing up for one.

Tip 2: Pack so you can get around (even if it’s not for long)

Even though you’ll (likely) be checking your luggage, at some point, you’ll have to move luggage from your car (or a shuttle) to the airport luggage drop counter. And then after your flight, you’ll have to haul your luggage from the baggage claim area to a shuttle, or where ever you’ll be picked up.

And remember, if you are traveling with car seats, you’ll also be hauling those as well. We still travel with two car seats, packed in backpack bags for protection and easier carrying.

To make things easier, we recommend choosing fewer, larger suitcases when you can. We find that carrying one big suitcase is easier than carrying a bunch of smaller suitcases. And you save on baggage fees since you pay per bag- any size (within the limits) However, the BIG caveat is that each suitcase is typically limited to only 50 lbs.

Whenever we can, we limit ourselves to one large roller bag. It’s tough, and we can’t always do it, but it’s a goal.

To keep each family member’s clothing organized in a shared suitcase, try using packing cubes. Each family member gets their own color so you can quickly identify whose is whose, and keep everything in its place. We love these because they are inexpensive and durable, plus they come in several sizes and colors.

Sometimes we do end up needing two suitcases. In that case, we need a luggage cart for the airport, and some Tetris skills to carefully stack the 2 suitcases and two car seat bags on top.

Want some help minimizing your luggage? Check out our tips on how to pack light when traveling with kids.

Tip 3: Pack an Amazing Carry-on

When flying with kids, our carry-on bag is filled with everything we need for success on the plane.

We bring tons of snacks, toys, and entertainment to keep my kids happy and quiet on the plane. For younger kids, we’d recommend one small, new (or new to them) toy for each hour of flying time. It’s not enough (NEVER enough), but a fun little surprise really helps with the boredom.

Check out our favorite travel toys for kids here.

Happy, and busy kid on the plane = easy flight for you

We also make sure to bring plenty of snacks to keep kids’ tummies full. For some kids, snacks can be a good boredom buster as well. Plus we always pack a few emergency treats when patience runs out, or to make sure they are chewing/swallowing during take-off and landing to minimize ear pain.

Remember, there are strict limits on liquids in your carry-on. All liquid containers must be 3.4 oz or less, and all of your liquids must fit in a quart-sized plastic bag. Though there are exceptions for ‘reasonable amounts’ of breast milk, formula, juice, etc. when traveling with a baby.

Tip 4: Check in Early

You can, and should, check in to your flight online 24 hours before your scheduled flight time. You may be able to choose your seats if you haven’t already done that, and the earlier you check in, the more availability you’ll find. It’ll also ensure you keep your chosen seats. Plus it saves you the hassle of having to check in and wait for your boarding pass to print once you are AT the airport.

Tip 5: Check Suitcase and Carry-on Sizes and Weights at home

Once you’ve got your suitcase(s) and carry-on packed up and ready to go, double-check the weight and sizes against the airline’s limits.

Checked luggage

You’ll want to double-check with your airline and ticket type, but typically the weight limit is 50lbs. If you are overweight, even by a pound, the airline may tack on hundreds of dollars in extra fees. So you’ll want to take this weight limit seriously.

If you don’t have a luggage scale, you can just use an ordinary bathroom scale. Just weigh yourself, write down the number. Then pick up the suitcase and weigh yourself again while holding the suitcase. Subtract your weight from the combined weight of you and the suitcase to get the exact weight of the suitcase.

Carry-on luggage

Carry-on luggage size limits do vary by airline. However, the standard maximum size is 22 inches X 14 inches X 9 inches. Generally, there is no weight limit, but again- you’ll want to check with your airline. Some do have weight limits.

Before kids, we made the mistake of assuming the airline would be lax about our carry-on, and they were not at all. Our backpacks were not large, but not quite the right dimensions and were over the airline’s 22 lb weight limit. Both my husband and I ended up having to check our carryons and survive a 7-hour flight with just a small bag’s worth of entertainment and comfort items.

Tip 6: Prep the kids

Your kids may be nervous about flying (just like you!). Help them out by explaining the process to them, what to expect, and how long things will take. You may even want to assign older kids a job to help you out, and to help them feel a bit more in control. Kids who can read might help you look for signs for your gate, the baggage claim, etc. Or perhaps they will be on the lookout for a water bottle filling station, or a store with a snack once you’ve made it through airport security.

Preschool-aged kids thrive knowing what is coming next. And many will feel much better going through the steps once they have practiced at home, or memorized them. We love this book and this book for helping to explain to kids what they can expect as they go through the airport. You may also want to explain to kids that the plane can be very loud.

To explain how long the flight is, we use the number of episodes of their favorite show, or, for longer flights, describe the things they would have done at home in that amount of time. For example, we’ll be flying from the time we’d normally have breakfast ALL THE WAY until bathtime.

watching planes at the airport

Tip 7: Get to the airport on time

When it comes to airplane travel, things can move SLOW. There is a reason that airlines recommend you get to the airport 2 hours before domestic flights, and 3 hours before international flights. And if you are flying around the holidays, 2 hours might not even be enough. We’d recommend tacking on an extra hour for travel around Thanksgiving and Christmas, or any other big travel holidays.

For families with kids, especially little kids, trying to speed through the process if you arrive late is tough. Trust me, we’ve done it (and regretted it). Potty breaks need to happen and tired toddlers will not be able to run to make it to your gate on time, so you will end up CARRYING 35 lbs of wiggly kiddo.

Sometimes delays happen that are out of your control. But make sure you avoid getting there late when you can. Plan ahead, and err on the side of too early.

And if you are too early, there are lots of ways to keep your kids entertained at the airport. My kids love watching the airplanes take off, so we always find a big window where there are lots of planes to watch. We also like to bring small monsters trucks like these and let the kids drive them around in a quiet corner of the airport to get some energy out.

Lots of airports also have kid’s play areas, though, at the moment, many are closed due to Covid-19. But we can expect they’ll open soon.

Kids play areas are great for passing the time

Tip 8: Try TSA Precheck or Clear

Airport security lines can be LONG. And long lines mean bored, frustrated kids. So if you can skip the line, or reduce the amount of time you wait, it can be a huge frustration-saver for your family.

There are actually a couple of ways to basically skip the line.

TSA Precheck.

If you have TSA Precheck, you get to go through the usually MUCH shorter TSA Precheck line- usually 5 minutes or less. You also get to leave your shoes and jackets on, and your electronics and liquids in your bag. TSA Precheck is available at more than 200 airports.

However, you’ll need to apply and go in for an in-person interview ahead of time, have fingerprints taken, and do a background check. Only adults and children over the age of 12 need to apply. Younger children can go through TSA precheck with their parents.

TSA Precheck costs $85 for 5 years, BUT if you have one of these credit cards, you may be able to get TSA precheck for FREE!

Clear

Just like TSA Precheck, Clear allows you to skip long security lines and get through faster. But, it does work a little bit differently. Clear uses biometrics to identify you, and then you get to cut to the front of the line. You still need to take off your shoes and jackets, and remove liquids and electronics from your bag (unless you ALSO have TSA precheck).

You can sign up right at the airport- it only takes a few minutes. In fact, even the initial sign-up can be faster than going through the regular security line.

Clear is available in 50+ airports- so fewer than TSA Precheck. So you before you commit, you’ll want to check your most often used airports to make sure it makes sense for you. If it is available, it’s often faster than TSA Precheck, especially during the busiest times at the airport (like holidays) because there are only 1.5 million clear members (compared to 10 million Precheck members).

Clear costs $15/month for all adults over the age of 18. Kids under 18 can go with their parents through the Clear lane without paying. If you aren’t sure you want to commit, ask about a free trial- you can usually try for a month or two for free!

Tip 9: Get Your Documents Organized

Getting through airport security, and, well everywhere in the airport with kids can feel chaotic and rushed. So you’ll want to make sure you are ready!

Here’s what you can expect: At the front of the security line, you and your family will approach the counter together. There, you’ll show the TSA agent identification/passports and tickets. For domestic flights, children will not need to show identification. However, make sure everyone (including infants) have a passport for international travel.

Airport security can feel hectic!

Make sure all of your documentation, like printed boarding passes, passports, IDs, birth certificates, are easily accessible and organized so you’ll know right where to find them. You’ll want to be able to pull them out, and quickly put them away on the go as you move through the security process. If you are using electronic tickets, you will want it pulled up and ready to go on your phone as you approach the counter.

I love this inexpensive, and gender-neutral cross-body bag. It’s easy to wear along with a backpack, and gives you easy access to your wallet (for quick snack purchases in the airport), your phone, and all of your documentation for security. But it minimizes all the typical mom-bulk you might be carrying around in your everyday shoulder bag.

Tip 10: Divide and Conquer

If you are traveling with a spouse, or any other adult, split up some of the duties so that no one is overwhelmed. For example, I usually handle the kids while navigating trickier parts of the airport (bag drop counters, security checkpoints, etc), and my husband handles the documents and talking to TSA, gate agents, etc. One of us will refill water bottles and pick up any snacks we need while the other takes the kids to the potty.

Since we travel a lot, we have a pretty good routine. We each know our roles, so getting through security and boarding is a whole lot less chaotic for us.

If you aren’t a frequent traveler, or you aren’t used to dividing things up this way, come up with a plan ahead of time. You don’t want to be discussing roles or arguing during this already incredibly hectic time. Plan and practice, even if you feel silly doing it.

Tip 11: Be Ready to Remove Liquid and Electronics

You’ll need to pull out all liquids and all electronics from your carry-on as you go through security. And when traveling with kids, your hands are already full, so it can feel like a LOT. So you’ll want to have a good plan for this step

Liquids

You will definitely want to make sure you’ve followed the 3-1-1 rule for liquids in your carry-on bag. And you’ll want to make sure your liquids are packed all together, and at the top of the bag where you can easily slip them out without much effort.

There are some exceptions for babies and children when it comes to liquids you’ll definitely want to be aware of. You can bring ‘reasonable quantities’ of breast milk, formula, juice, and snacks (including baby food, squeezes, etc). However, you may find that not all TSA agents are well versed in these exceptions. Know the rules, and be confident, and you’ll have no problem getting through.

Electronics

Electronic devices larger than a phone (ipads, laptops, whatever) will also need to be removed from your bag and sent through the x-ray separately.

And getting those bigger tablets or laptops OUT of your bag can be tricky, especially if you have more than one.

This is the backpack I use as my carry-on when traveling with kids. It works perfectly because I can slip my kids’ ipads in the laptop sleeve, so they are easy to pull out as I’m going through security.

The bag is also fantastic because it has tons of great pockets so you can easily find headphones, special toys for the plane, tissues, extra masks, or whatever you are bringing without digging through the bag.

Tip 12: Babywear if you can

Next, you’ll have to go through the scanner. Babies and younger toddlers will typically go through in their parent’s arms. But older toddlers and kids will need to walk through on their own. TSA officers are typically pretty understanding during this process since it can be tough for younger kids and their parents.

If you are babywearing, you get to keep that baby or toddler strapped to you all the way through security. No folding up strollers, and shuffling to move kids from here to there, or hoping your toddler doesn’t make a run for it. Just walk on through with the baby stuck to you. I highly recommend babywearing as long as you possibly can. It really is the EASIEST way to get a kid through.

Tip 13: Be prepared to fold up your stroller

If you cannot babywear, or you have too many kids to wear them all, a stroller might be necessary. And bringing your stroller means you have to take the kids out, fold the stroller up, and stick it through the x-ray.

So if you are bringing a not-your-everyday stroller, or maybe you just hate folding up your stroller and always make your husband do it and now you don’t even know how to fold it up, you may want to practice ahead of time. It’s not a TON of fun to struggle to fold up, or open up your stroller while a line of people are watching you.

You’ll also keep your stroller fairly empty. If you get it loaded up with a million things while navigating the airport, you won’t be able to easily fold it up, and may end up doing a ton of rearranging and repacking once you reach the security counter.

And same for your kids- don’t get them TOO comfortable in the stroller with toys and blankets. It’s just more stuff to manage as you go through security. Keep most of the kid’s comfort items packed away in a bag until you get on the plane if you can. Or just try to minimize the number of comfort items you bring.

Tip 14: Wear slip on shoes

Adults and kids over the age of 12 will need to remove shoes and jackets, and send them through the machine.

Anything that helps you move quickly through security helps the whole process feel effortless and easy. And tying and untying shoes can take quite a bit of time. I love wearing shoes that can slip on and off in 0.5 seconds, even with a wiggly toddler in my arms.

However, remember that you’ll be taking your shoes off, and so will a million other people. So if the thought of having bare feet on the floor, where a bunch of other people also have bare feet is yucky to you, you’ll want to also wear socks. I LOVE my crocs for this. They are easy to slip on, comfortable, and perfect for almost every situation (at least every situation as a mom of little kids). And I can wear them with or without socks, so they work well for the airport.

Remember, kids over the age of 12 will also need to remove their shoes. So you may also want to ask your bigger kids to wear crocs, or any slip-on shoes as well so the whole family can speed through.

Tip 15: Eat before you board

The days of nice, free meals on airplanes are gone, especially for economy class. In fact, most of the time, you won’t even have the option to buy a meal or a snack on your flight. Typically you can expect a small snack (like cookies or pretzels) and drink service. But on flights shorter than about an hour, you may not be offered anything.

For my kids, when they are hungry, they are HUNGRY. So make sure you either have some hearty snacks for on the plane, or make sure they are fed a good meal before you board. Maybe even both. You definitely don’t want to be unprepared, and with no way to provide food when your kids’ hanger kicks in.

Tip 16: Be at your gate at least 30 minutes before departure time

Once you are through security, you are free to explore the airport, get a snack or a drink, use the bathroom, or just head straight for your gate. For larger airports, in particular, it can take QUITE AWHILE to get to your gate.

Airlines claim they board 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time. But the truth is they are usually later than that. Still, it’s best to be there, ready to board. Being in the boarding area means you’ll hear any announcements the crew might make. And if the airline needs to find you for any reason, they’ll call your name at the boarding counter. So you’ll want to be close enough to hear that.

Tip 17: Check Excess Luggage Area

After your flight, follow the signs towards the baggage claim. You will need to leave the ‘secure area’ of the airport to get there. So once you are out, there is really no going back. Make sure you have your entire family and have not left anything behind!

Each baggage claim carousel will have a sign noting which flight numbers will be placed on the carousel. However, larger items, like car seats, might end up in the excess luggage area. So don’t panic if you don’t immediately see your larger items. You might have to look around a bit to find everything. If they don’t show up, be sure to check in with the airline right away. Keep track of how much time has passed, as some have baggage time guarantees.

With a bit of preparation, you can breeze through the airport even with kids! Let us know in the comments what things you are worried about at the airport, or how your flight went!

Looking for more travel tips? Check out these posts on flying with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers!

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