Eight Tips for Flying With Young Children

Traveling by air with little ones can be great fun but challenging as well. While I'm sure we haven't flown as much as some, we have picked up some pointers along the way. Following are eight bits of wisdom we've accumulated.

1. Bring your own car seats. If you are traveling by plane, but will need a rental car at your destination, you will want to bring your own car seats. Oh, you can ask for them (usually paying extra) at the car rental place, but you really can't guarantee what you'll get, what kind of condition they will be in, and how easy/difficult they will be to install. Plus, some car seats require major effort to change the strap settings, and if they are incorrect for your child, you really don't want to be messing with that as well. The good news is that most (all? I'm not sure) airlines will check car seats for free (i.e., they won't count toward your baggage allowance). Now I know some folks like to carry their car seats on the plane and use them as they would in a car, but dragging car seats around the airport and onto the plane seems like a lot of extra work to me.

(Bonus Tip: Use large, clear plastic recycling/lawn and leaf bags to put each car seat in. This keeps all the straps contained and ensures the bottom and back of the boosters do not separate. The airlines will want to put a luggage tag on each one, so fasten the straps and poke a small hole so the giant sticky tag can wrap around the chest clip. For seats that don't have straps (like boosters) turn them over and wrap the luggage tag around the string holding the cover on. Don't forget to bring new bags for the return trip; they likely will not be reusable.)

2. Pack only as much luggage as you can handle. For us this is typically two suitcases, plus one carry-on per adult and one shared carry-on for the Agents. (Note: Having only one backpack means they will fight over who gets to carry it. However, given the Universal Law of Child Behavior, if they all had their own, then no one would want to carry them, and that means that Hubby and I would have to wrangle five carry-ons. This is the better deal. Trust me.) Also, suck it up and accept the fact that you will have to pay for the stupid cart. (I love how they are called Smarte Cartes. First off, learn to spell. Second, they should really be called "desperate carts" because that is the only reason you will pay $4.00 for something you use for like two minutes.) It's a complete rip-off, but unless you can balance a 50-pound suitcase on your head, there's really no way around it.

3. Choose your seats carefully. During online check-in, which you can usually do within 24 hours (unless you are traveling with a lap infant, then you have to check in at the airport), make sure you have seat assignments that make sense. Don't wait until you get there to learn that they mistakenly put one member of your party sitting by themselves. Also, have older kids who actually care about such things alternate who gets to sit by the window. If you are traveling with a nursing toddler who is expected to be in his/her own seat, have them sit with another adult if possible. You won't be able to nurse on takeoff/landing in that case (because they will need to be seated with a seat belt on) so don't torture both of you if you think they will ask.

4. Plan for drinks and snacks. Unless you want your child choking on it, dumping it, or throwing it at the seat in front of you, order any drinks for your small companion sans ice. Most flight attendants are savvy enough to know not to fill up the cups all the way, either, but you may need to request this as well. We've also asked them to fill up a sippy cup with a lid instead, and they are usually happy to oblige. Also, most airlines now only offer snacks for a fee. Long gone are the days of free pretzels. So, pack your own snacks. Something novel they have never seen, or are not typically encouraged to have, might be a good idea. Lollipops to suck on for takeoff and landing (or gum to chew if they're into that sort of thing; mine are not). Have some in your suitcase for the return trip.

5. Have a complete change of clothes for everyone. On our last flight, one member of our party needed a complete wardrobe change courtesy of a little turbulence plus a juice cup. Include everything, down to underwear. Don't forget a plastic bag to put wet clothes in. On a related note, if you are traveling with a child in diapers, you may want to have more than one with you. Not that I personally have made that critical packing error. Ahem.

6. If you have a close connection, pee before you get off the plane. I know . . . airplane bathrooms are awful: ridiculously small, no room to move, weird noises, not exactly spa quality. But, better to take your child in there before they do the "beginning descent return to your seats now" spiel than have them tell you as you're walking off the plane to get to your next flight, which leaves in fifteen minutes, "um, I have to go."

7. Bring entertainment for the littles. Your attention will need to be focused on your traveling buddies. If you think you are going to be able to read, or listen to music, or play games on your Kindle, clearly you have not flown with small children before. Yes, it's possible you might be able to peek at the crossword puzzle in the airline magazine if they are all sound asleep at the same time, but don't count on it. Even if you think your children are pretty good at entertaining themselves, air travel is a whole new dimension. Bring something they can use quietly: books, coloring, a doll or stuffed animal. Then do it with them. We've found the ultimate airline toy to be stickers. Pack hundreds. Seriously. 

8. Keep in mind that it's only one day. The longest flight I've personally done with all three Agents was from Naples, Italy to Norfolk, VA. (Hubby was there, too, of course. What? Do I look crazy?) But you know what? it was only one day, and it ended up going better than we expected. And most flights we will ever take with our children are nowhere near that long. If we can do it, so can you. And if you are ready to tear your hair out, remember: This too shall pass


  1. In doing international travel, I designated 1 adult to be in charge of the passports and all the accompanying paperwork. We only have 1 child right now, but it helped knowing my hubby was all over the passports so I didn't have to worry about where they were. :)

    Also a baby carrier like a Moby wrap or Ergo is helpful for getting on and off the airplane and through customs with little ones who aren't walking yet.

    1. We do that, too, even for domestic flights. Hubby is always in charge of IDs and boarding passes. I should have made that a ninth tip!

  2. This is so helpful! We're flying this summer. I don't know why I never thought about ordering their drinks not filled and without ice — brilliant. We now have a big enough family that choosing our seats means being spread out across multiple rows — I hope we chose the correct configuration!

    1. We were worried we'd have to deal with a 2 & 2 configuration, but we lucked out and had 3 & 3. I sat between the girls on one side, and Hubby and A had the aisle and middle seats across the way. I'm guessing we would have put Eva behind one of us if we had to, since she's the oldest, although I'm sure Julia would have entertained her seatmate. :-)

  3. We flew last November and we are flying again next week. We took our (then) 18 month old his own carseat so that he would be more comfortable and stay in his seat. We used our dinky little umbrella stroller to help get us across the airport to the connecting gate. I actually put the car seat in the stroller (sans kid) and piggybacked him across the airport. Once he even walked with his brother and sister, so I only had the car seat and stroller to worry about. It wasn't perfect, but it worked for us.

  4. It is only one day. Excellent thing to remember. And the snacks, entertainment and clothing changes are totally key!! You are SO RIGHT!! :)-Ashley