Toddler Air Travel: What to Know Before You Fly

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If your travel plans take you and your toddler up in the air, read on for tips on flying high and happy.

When a toddler’s coming along for a trip, you want to get to your destination fast — traveling by train or car may not be quick enough for you. Enter air travel. Though you may have once dreaded sitting near little kids on planes, flying with a toddler doesn’t have to be a nightmare for anyone on board — including you. Here’s how to make toddler air travel more tolerable.

  • Book nonstop flights whenever you can — and schedule long stretches around your child’s nap. True, flight delays can foil even the best-laid plans for flying with a toddler, but if your tot can get even a short nap while in the air, it will be a wonderful reprieve. If you do have to take a connecting flight when traveling with kids, whatever you do, don’t squander a nap on a layover since that’s the perfect time to let your toddler get the wiggles out. If your gate is crowded while you’re waiting for your next flight, find a deserted spot and let your toddler run in circles, make noise, and relish his freedom for as long as he can (better he get it out of his system on the ground than when you’re in a confined space at 30,000 feet).
  • Make sure one of your seats is an aisle seat. Your little one may beg to see what’s out the window, but you’ll be glad you’re in the aisle seat by the zillionth time your restless toddler wants to get up and walk, asks for yet another item that’s stored in the overhead baggage compartment, or needs a trip to the bathroom (to use the potty or for a diaper change). If flying with a toddler takes up an entire row, you can have both the window and the aisle seats to yourselves.
  • Plan for the security line. A light umbrella stroller is your best friend when going through security — it will be easy to fold up at the last second and plop on the X-ray’s conveyer belt. (You’ll probably want the stroller to keep your kid moving while you’re in the airport. You can take it right down the apron and leave it at the plane’s door before you board, and it will be waiting for you at the door upon landing.) Slip-on shoes (for you and your toddler) are your second best friends at the security checkpoint. Also, don’t worry about holding up the line when traveling with kids — take your time, collect your wits, and try to make a game out of the whole thing for your toddler (“What else belongs in the bin? Mommy’s keys? Mommy’s purse?”).
  • Think carefully about boarding early. Perhaps the only advantage to traveling with kids by plane is the right to board first, thereby snagging much-needed overhead baggage space. However, early boarding is a mixed blessing, since it means about an extra half hour on the plane — probably not something you want to endure voluntarily with a wiggly toddler. If possible, divide and conquer: Send your spouse ahead with the gear, and you board at the last minute with your child.
  • Consider the flight attendants as your allies. If you’re alone, don’t be shy to ask the flight crew for help with your toddler. It can be nearly impossible to lift a bag and put it in the overhead baggage compartment while holding a child. Ask a flight attendant (or fellow passenger) to pitch in — they should be happy to help. While you’re at it, consider asking for extra pillows, blankets, or water if needed (that is if the airline isn’t charging for them).
  • Bring extra supplies. As with traveling with kids by car, bring as much food and as many toys as you can fit into your carry-on luggage for toddler air travel. Even if your flight isn’t scheduled to be in the air during a mealtime, plan ahead for delays, and bring portable meals anyway (such as mini sandwiches, cut-up vegetables, and cheese cubes). As for toys, don’t bring anything with tiny pieces that your child will miss when they fall under the seat (Legos, Matchbox cars…) unless you relish folding yourself into origami as you strain to retrieve them for the duration of the flight. If all else fails, use the in-flight magazine for scavenger hunts (find a frog!) or confetti. Plus, bring twice as many diapers as you could possibly need (that is if your tot’s still wearing them), endless wipes and hand sanitizer, at least one change of clothing for your child, and an extra T-shirt for you (forgetting the last item guarantees you’ll be thrown up on — or drenched in apple juice).
  • Ease ear pain. Bring lollipops for take-off and landing (or a sippy cup or a cup with a straw — you can buy the drink and pour it into your cup after you get through security). The sucking will help prevent your child’s little ears from hurting due to the air-pressure changes in the cabin during those times. Also helpful in keeping ears clear are crunchy snacks that require a lot of chewing. Or encourage your toddler to yawn by yawning yourself (ever notice how yawns are contagious?). This may help “pop” his ears if they get clogged on the plane’s way up or down.

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