How To Make Air Travel with Young Children Easier
Raise your hand if you love flying with small children? …. Anyone … Anyone … Going once, going twice …. not sold.
Want some tips to make flying with kids easier? (Is that even a real question???). You’re in the right spot!
Air travel with young infants, toddlers, and even preschoolers is no walk in the park. But oftentimes, taking trips to fun destinations, to see family, or just to explore something together away from home is well worth the “adventure in flight.”
As of late, I’ve been flying with my boys, 2 and almost 4, back and forth between Chicago and Philadelphia through the airport juggernaut while M works out east and we search for a new house in the Philadelphia suburbs (which will become our new home in just a few weeks).
I also take them with me when traveling for business, now that I frequently travel for work to the city in which I grew up. Grandma and Grandpa get some time with the grandkids while I pound away in Excel and meet with colleagues.
Many people hear about my travel adventures and aren’t sure whether I’m desperate or crazy. They are certain, however, that I’m not making a well-thought-out decision. Air travel with young children is definitely not for the faint of heart, but it’s not as hard as one might think. With a little planning, you’d be surprised that most people can make it work.
It’s not easy! I’m not about to suggest that’s the case. And traveling with two takes plenty of patience, planning, and (of course) some empty threats and bribery (because really, when does parenting not involve a little of those things). Contrary to popular belief, however, it can be done with grace and without an entire loss of sanity.
To build my resume a bit before I dole out my two cents on air travel with youngins’, know that I’ve been through the TSA checkpoint with children on a somewhat regular basis over the last three years. Sometimes I travel with M and other times it’s just me and the boys.
Regular visits to family spread all over the country coupled with two international trips for vacations, boys in tow, as well as all the work travel and moving expeditions I mentioned above means my little ones know the ropes of airport security well. T’s so familiar, in fact, that during a recent trip to the airport, he calmly walked ahead of me through the X-ray machine and sat on the children’s chairs (painted like zoo animals) that hide behind the support pillar that he remembered from our previous inspections.
After a minor panic attack when I couldn’t see him among the crowd (which resulted in me being scolded by a TSA friend for leaving the sacred spot on the floor where I’d been instructed to wait while he yelled “hand check”), another more understanding agent pointed out my son. I quickly got back into “all business through security” mode, expertly outstretched my hands for the drug residue test while holding J, and then calmly went on my merry way when I passed (whew, big relief…).
With experience in my back pocket, I’ve compiled some strategies and tactics to make the process as smooth as possible. While the adventure will almost never be perfect, it can be done, my friends, so let’s get down to business.
Stroller or No Stroller???
I get this question all the time. I tried a multitude of options including a baby carrier (our Ergobaby), a big double stroller (we have this Baby Jogger City Select with two seats ~ stroller perfection in my opinion), and no stroller at all.
We don’t have an umbrella stroller, and I didn’t want to buy one just for travel. But it’s another reasonable alternative if it’s in your budget or it’s sufficient to be your everyday stroller. (Living downtown and walking everywhere, including to daycare on snowy and rainy days, we couldn’t make an umbrella stroller our everyday stroller. Otherwise, we may have chosen that path.)
I’ve found the right option depends, at least for us, on the circumstances.
- If you have several things to carry aside from the boys, the stroller is the way to go. I like having the stroller as a ‘cart’ to hold all our bags when needed.
- If you think you’ll be traveling during nap time and your little one will sleep in the stroller, then by all means, bring the stroller along.
- If your child is small enough that they will stay in a baby carrier, that’s probably ideal.
- If you have a long layover, that also might be good reason to bring a stroller.
- But once your children are old enough to walk on their own for a reasonable distance (about two years old or so), traveling without the stroller is marginally easier.
This past weekend, I took my first trip with the boys without the stroller. It’s definitely nice not to have to maneuver it through crowded spaces and break it down in security. My two-year-old needed to be carried about half of the time, but both boys stayed close enough for comfort. Before my older son (now almost 4) could walk the entire time on his own, I definitely needed a stroller. But now, I won’t be using the stroller for future trips.
Also, consider what you’ll want to have wherever you’re going. On our recent trip, we visited family and didn’t need the stroller during the time away. But if you’ll be doing lots of walking and the stroller would come in handy, that’s an important consideration.
If you do bring a stroller, be sure to gate-check it. You can take it through security, leave it at the gate on the jetway just before getting on the plane, and pick it up on the jetway before you’re even back inside the airport. It’s pretty great.
You’ll just need to stop by the ticket agent counter at your gate before anyone boards to get the stroller properly tagged for gate check classification. It’s super easy but important to keep in mind. They won’t let you on the plane without the proper tags.
If you gate-check a stroller, the airline doesn’t necessarily take great care of it (much like all the other luggage we check). We tend to put the seats (if they are removable) in car seat bags just before heading down the jetway for our flight.
One word of caution: Some airlines limit the size and weight of strollers they allow to be gate-checked. If it’s too big or too heavy, they’ll make you check it at the counter before going through security. Be sure to read the airline’s website before traveling to understand any limitations.
That being said (and this didn’t come from me), if they don’t see it before you go through security, they can’t make you check it at the counter.
Last time I traveled with my boys, I didn’t check any luggage. I’m pretty sure my stroller exceeded the weight limit, but I never approached the ticket counter to give them a chance to take it from me. Even if you do have to check luggage, consider if there’s a way you can keep your stroller away from the counter. Maybe one adult walks it around near the doorway with the child while the other adult checks the luggage? There are plenty of ways to work around this if that’s your preference, but just be sure to know what to expect so they don’t catch you off guard while checking luggage.
And definitely don’t tell them I told you any of this…
While we don’t have a collapsible wagon, I’ve seen parents use this in the airport, and it seems genius. Last weekend, another mom traveling with her two young children had this collapsible wagon. If you’re traveling to a beach and want something that will work for the airport as well as on the sand, this wagon with wider wheels could be a really awesome option that meets both needs.
What to Wear
Having the right clothes can make a big difference, especially for young babies. I suggest you put your baby in footie pajamas, even if it’s not cold outside. Oftentimes, planes are cold. The pajamas are warm, easy, and you don’t have to worry about losing socks or baby shoes along the way. Once the children are older and wearing walking shoes, this won’t be so important. I still like to make sure older children wear layers to keep warm on the cold plane.
As a parent, don’t wear something with a hood (a jacket, a hoodie, etc…). I’ve done this a few times, and it drove me up a wall. Throughout the trip, you’re constantly putting on and taking off backpacks, throwing bags over your shoulder, and putting cross-body bags over your head. The hood makes this all so much more complicated!
Further, not only do you have frequent gear adjustments, but they’re often in a bit of a rushed state (like when you’re getting off the plane and you know 100 people behind you are anxiously waiting to scramble off the plane too). Been there?
I always like to wear a long shirt with pants that I know have good backside coverage. I’m not typically wearing anything scandalous, by any means. But when I travel and I know I’m going to be chasing my kids, bending over, reaching up for things, and whatnot, I like to be extra certain I won’t be embarrassing myself.
What to Bring (and how to carry it)
This is a bit of art and will depend on what you need. But after many experiences with trial and error, I’ve got some pretty strong feelings about this one.
Bring special snacks for the journey. My boys love Annie’s Bunny Crackers. We don’t buy them for our house and make them a special airport treat. Granola bars, raisins, nuts, fruit leathers, and Goldfish are other common options for us. Last weekend, I introduced the boys to Lara Bars and they loved them! Avoid things like chocolate or candy that will only result in a melted, sticky mess.
Let each child carry their own small backpack. At two, my younger son is just getting old enough to carry his bag. In it, we include a handful of crayons, a few sheets of paper or coloring book pages, 2-3 paperback books, 1-2 small toys like a car or little doll, and these Lil Gadgets headphones.
The headphones are perfect for traveling with small children. They are light and inexpensive, so you’re not at risk of losing or breaking something pricey. But more fantastic, the headphones connect to each other so that multiple children can listen to the same music or watch the same movie without needing a splitter or separate devices. The iPad makes their bag a little heavy, so I carry that in my backpack.
Even if your kids are potty trained, I like having wet wipes on hand. Sticky situations pop up everywhere and wet wipes provide quick and convenient clean-up.
If your children don’t have small backpacks, you could also use a little cotton bag, like this DIY upcycled bag I made out of old t-shirts for the boys not long.
Especially for longer flights, we bring a light blanket. A light blanket, like this fleece blanket, makes a good pillow on the armrest or can be used for warmth if it’s cold. I took a red-eye flight with T a couple of months ago. On our way home from this visit to Los Angeles, and that blanket was a lifesaver as it took on about 100 different uses throughout the trip.
Fortunately and unfortunately, my work laptop and planner travel with me just about anywhere I go. Thus, I always have those stashed in my backpack along with a few other things (like our phone and computer charges and the iPad).
In addition, I have a Petunia Pickle Bottom Boxy Backpack that I use as a crossbody diaper bag. Wear a backpack but don’t keep anything in it that you need frequent access to in the airport. It stays on your back pretty much the whole trip, except when you’re sitting on the plane (of course). In a crossbody diaper bag, keep the essentials like your phone and wallet, tickets, pacifiers, and snacks for the kids that you’ll need to take out and replace regularly.
If you can fit everything in one bag, by all means, make that work. But I’ve found that making a conscious effort to have all items I need to access while at the airport in one place makes such a difference and greatly reduces the time and shuffling spent digging through multiple bags.
Presuming you need luggage, check it. When packing your bag, take one larger checked bag instead of multiple smaller bags. On airlines that charge by the bag, this saves money. Beyond the direct cost, even if the bags are larger and heavier, having fewer bags is much easier to maneuver around from baggage claim with a stroller and tired or hungry babies.
If you’re traveling more than once or twice a year on the same airline, consider getting the airline’s branded credit card. Generally, airlines offer priority boarding and (more importantly) one free checked bag with each person traveling. The card often has an annual fee. However, we almost always travel with the same airline and more than recover our annual fee cost in saved checked luggage fees. It’s not right for everyone, but it’s worth considering.
Car seats… oh car seats. What a pain?! Depending on where you are going and how you are traveling when you arrive, you may be able to rent a car seat with your rental car. If you need to bring your own car seat, get a car seat backpack!! I can’t advocate for this enough. We traveled for four years without one of these, and it was four years too long. We have this backpack and it’s a total game changer!
Security is a Giant Pain
This is true for anyone. But when you’re traveling with a stroller, a baby (or multiple children for that matter), and plenty of belongings, this is one of my least favorite parts.
If you encounter long lines, pull out those little snacks for the kids. Distract them. Maybe it’s an easy ploy, but it works.
Liquids are allowed through security when specifically for the baby. Things like breast milk and formula classify as medical needs and, thus, are allowable. TSA will check them with a machine that doesn’t actually touch the fluids or require bottles to be open, but you can take those things through with you.
If you keep formula or breast milk on ice while traveling, be sure the ice packs are frozen when you go through security. Explosive liquids don’t freeze, so ice and other frozen liquids are allowed through security. But once that ice pack melts and becomes water, they won’t allow you to keep it.
Use the wheelchair/stroller line. Not all airports may have these, but when they do they are much better than other regular security lines. Not only are they often shorter, but the TSA personnel expect more involved and high-maintenance passengers.
If it’s in your budget, sign up for TSA Pre-Check. It might be one of the most significant investments in your travel I can recommend. If you’re only traveling one time, it’s not worth your time or money. But if you’ll be traveling with children more than occasionally over the next five years, get this! It takes about 20 – 30 minutes and $85 for a five-year registration.
If you’re unfamiliar with TSA Pre-Check, it’s a US government registration process that allows you to proceed through more streamlined security lines in exchange for paying a fee and undergoing a brief interview process. You typically register in advance (though it can be done at many airports as well). The agent asks you a few questions, takes your $85 check and your fingerprints, and you’re on your way. I love that we proceed through security without removing all the special items (laptops, small liquids, etc.. from our bags) and taking off our shoes.
We registered for TSA Pre-Check in a downtown Chicago location a couple of months before a dozen or so trips on our calendar. The TSA Pre-Check office was a nondescript office with a small waiting area. Just about everyone who walked in, including us, asked if they were in the right place. There weren’t many signs letting you know where you were.
After waiting our turn, we entered an interview room where we answered a few simple and straightforward questions, paid our fee, and gave electronic fingerprints. Many offices accept walk-ins, though they recommend you register and sign up for scheduled appointments as these get priority.
We scheduled our appointment and had to wait about 3 – 4 weeks for availability. A friend of mine in another city had to schedule her in-office appointments about 6 weeks in advance. After our interviews, it took just a couple of days before we received our TSA Pre-Check numbers. They told us it could take up to a couple of weeks, but when we inquired further, they said it doesn’t usually take that long. That’s just a conservative estimate. Plan accordingly, but you probably need to register and sign up for an appointment 5 – 8 weeks prior to your travel in order to obtain your TSA Pre-Check number in plenty of time.
Waiting, Waiting and More Waiting
We all know young children aren’t great at waiting and sitting still for long periods of time. Let the kids blow off some steam before getting on the plane.
Many airports have small play areas, so we visit these when we can. If there isn’t one in your airport or it’s far from your gate, find an open gate near your gate and let the kids run around a bit. Typically, there is at least one gate in the area that’s between flights and doesn’t have a ton of passengers sitting around.
I sit down on a chair or on the floor near the wall and let the boys race down aisles of chairs or around boarding line poles. Check out the video from our trip to Miami and you’ll see that we let the boys go totally nuts in an open area in baggage claim while waiting to pick up our luggage.
Last weekend, our boys found another family with children of similar ages. They wanted to race (which quickly became a little aggressive for airport fun due to my child’s competitive spirit). Instead, I taught them how to do a relay race, so they could run fast yet still be on the same team. They loved it! No one around seemed bothered and most of the people in the area thought it was cute.
Explain the dangers of running off as your children get older. While it might sound kind of mean, it works (and that’s really what matters). I get down at their level, look them in the eye, tell them if they run too far away they could get swiped up and we may never see them again. I make it sound a little scary. My boys have loads of energy and never stop running, but T has this line memorized and typically doesn’t run off when I periodically remind him of the potential consequences.
Whether at the gate or on the plane, consider making air travel a “special occasion” when your children can have an extra snack, watch an extra movie, or use their pacifier a little more than usual. Being a bit more flexible with respect to rules can create some opportunities for excitement about a special occasion as well as the flexibility to use those extras as a crutch to get through a long and possibly stressful day for everyone.
Our boys haven’t entirely mastered the “personal bubble” space that is a social norm we all understand. They have a tendency to get very close to the person in front of them on stairs, escalators and moving walkways, and jetways. We implemented the ‘Zombie Arms’ rule. You are too close to someone if you put your zombie arms out and they touch the person in front of you. Not only do the boys like it, but it works!
About The Bathroom
Make a trip to the bathroom shortly before your plane boards. Change diapers and make sure everyone, including you, has at least tried to use the bathroom. I recommend using the family bathrooms, if available, but handicap stalls in the general bathrooms work fine too.
We all know airplane toilets aren’t exactly luxurious. More problematic though, you can’t really take both kids into the bathroom with you on the plane. There isn’t space. If it’s urgent (which isn’t unheard of with little ones), consider asking the flight attendant to stay with the other child while you take the first to the bathroom. They’re there to help, so use them.
Ear Pressure Questions
Most planes these days don’t have too many issues with ear pressure. It seems they’ve made the technology better, so it’s not a huge concern. But I still like to be prepared, especially for smaller babies, as the consequences can turn sour quickly.
Babies obviously don’t know how to pop their ears with changes in cabin pressure. Any type of swallowing will help your baby stay comfortable. Small babies could take a bottle, nurse, or suck on a pacifier (which generates enough extra saliva so the babies regularly swallow). As your children outgrow bottles, bring a sippy cup and a snack. Eating and drinking (effectively swallowing) prevent ear pain as well. We’ve been on loads of flights with our guys and, so far, these tricks have been foolproof.
Holding your nose and attempting to blow out your nose while it’s plugged is the most effective option (though this obviously won’t work for children too young to understand these instructions)
Your baby starts screaming. You start freaking out (in your head). I totally get it. You’re worried people around you are freaking out, so you’re freaking out. First, know that almost everyone on the plane has children, has been in your shoes, and totally understands. People more than a few rows away from you can’t even hear the baby over the loud noise of the engine. And the rare person who is truly annoyed with you can go pound sand.
No one on the plane is more devasted about the crying than you… I promise!
Here are some options to soothe them.
Sing to your baby. You don’t have to belt out the latest pop song. Up close in their ear, quietly sing the ABCs or Hush Little Baby. For my younger son, simple shushing seems to be the most effective.
Walk your baby up and down the aisle. This isn’t always an option when the seat belt sign is on. But it works wonders when it’s allowed. Every single person on the plane would prefer you walk past them with a quiet baby a billion times than sit in your chair unsuccessfully trying to soothe him.
If your baby really won’t calm down, head to the back of the plane and rock them in your arms in the back cabin near the flight attendants. They might help distract the baby by chatting to them.
While I know it’s uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to ask the flight attendants (or other people) for help. Whether it be going to the bathroom, getting extra water outside of normal beverage service, or just requesting a helping hand, most people are more than willing to help. You can typically infer pretty quickly who’s up for the task and who’s hoping you never even make eye contact.
The flight attendants are on the plane to help you (and make sure your experience doesn’t interfere with the experiences of other passengers as well). I recall a long flight a while back where a baby behind us cried and screamed endlessly for the first hour of the flight. The baby caused so much commotion that the flight attendant took him from his parents, held him in the back, and sang him the ABCs.
Thirty minutes later, she returned with a blissful baby who slept the entire remainder of the flight in his parents’ arms. Even if you don’t want the flight attendants holding your baby (which I understand), consider and ask for their suggestions if things get rough. They’ve dealt with more than a few crying babies on airplanes.
The Technical Stuff
Don’t forget a birth certificate or passport for lap children. Most airlines will require proof of age to verify that the child is an eligible lap child.
If you’re traveling internationally with a lap child, you still need to pay international taxes for their ticket. They don’t have a traditional ticket that offers them a seat, but there are taxes incurred for them to get on their plane.
The taxes are based on the price of the seat (so the taxes increase as the price of tickets goes up). In other words, be sure to pay the international taxes for a lap child when you buy your own ticket. If you have to pay it upon arrival at the airport, it might be much more expensive. I wrote a whole post about traveling internationally with toddlers that includes this nugget along with a host of other suggestions and tips.
Typically, you can check a car seat for free. Be sure to ask the ticket agent about details before paying as if it’s a checked piece of luggage. We learned the hard way and never got reimbursed by the airline. Lesson learned!
I like to get paper boarding passes. When traveling alone, I generally use an electronic boarding pass on my phone. But when I’m with the kids, it’s so much easier not to have finagle through your phone in security and at the gate when already trying to corral the kids through the process.
After many, many trips and lots of trial and error, we’ve started to get the flying groove figured out for our family. The best options for each family may differ based on your children and your family rules. But hopefully, the ideas above provide some helpful hints that will work for your family to have an easier and happier travel experience through the long, bustling corridors of large airports.
More Helpful Posts
If you’d like some more ideas about traveling with young kids, check out these additional posts about 12 Tips for Traveling Internationally with Toddlers and 7 Tips for Relaxing Travel with Children.
Very helpful! Found lots of great advice! Preparing for our family vacation to India this winter, traveling with our boys, six-month-old and 3 years old 🙂 Can’t wait 🙂
Oh my gosh! Thank you. And that is so exciting. I’m glad you found the post helpful, and I hope you have a wonderful time on your trip.
This is so helpful thank you! Do you by any chance have the name of the wagons? The links will not take me to a direct product, but I’m considering doing this for our upcoming trip.
I just updated the post with a new link that should work. 🙂 Glad this was helpful. If you have any other questions, do let me know. I’m happy to try to answer them.
Great article! We’re heading to the beach with our kids in a month and I was wondering about taking the wagon vs the double stroller so we can navigate the sand better! Going to call to double check with delta but feel encouraged you’ve seen them in the airport before!