The simple act of getting on a plane with a toddler has its challenges. Now getting on a plane for 8+ hours with your toddler, feels at times like a big hurdle. We’ve done several long-haul flights with our now 15-month year old and I want to share a few tips to make it (hopefully) smoother.
I really can’t say that I love to fly with my toddler (if I am being honest). My blood pressure rises just thinking about it. I don’t think I am alone as I’ve yet to meet a parent that does with their little one who may be a bit squirmish. But we continue to do it, as travel with our toddler has been so enriching and we love the memories made.
After doing two back-to-back trips to Europe this last year, I learned really quickly what works best for us. A few things that I absolutely pack now and things that well, took space and were never used.
With a few challenging flights, followed by several successful voyages, I want to share these tips to help you. If you’re looking to fly with your toddler this year, consider the below for surviving the flight!
7 Tips For Surviving Long-Haul Flights With Toddlers
Tip #1 There are no rules
Our only rule during travel days is that there are no rules. I learned this the hard way while I tried to rock my screaming child for her scheduled nap around hour 6 on a flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt. She didn’t want to nap and I get it, she was in a new space with screens and noises that she wanted to explore. The more I forced it, well, the harder she fought back.
So my rule now is, no rules. I don’t force sleep, I don’t force food, and I just roll with it. Sure, I offer opportunities for naps, and I offer nutritious meals, but she also has to want to take them. Has she stayed awake once for 13 hours? Yup, you better believe it. Did she eat 3 bags of smoothie bites on the last flight from Paris to San Franciso? Yup, so be it. Did she watch hours of her show on her tablet (even though we do no screens at home)? Yup, all the way from Paris to SF.
The no-rule mindset will really help with expectations and emotion regulation (for us adults!). The only thing we do on a travel day is to try to survive and stay as calm as possible. It’s not always easy.
Tip #2 Pay for the seat
How long does your child let you hold them on your lap at home? This is the first question I ask when other parents ask if they need to get a seat for their child. That answer will be the same for how long they let you hold them on the plane. I personally do not want to wrangle my child for 11 hours on the plane.
Another lesson learned the hard way on a flight back from New York. It was the longest 6 hours of our lives, as she jumped from our laps to our gracious rowmate’s lap. At that moment I would have paid the $400 for her seat. When we got home, the next morning I called United immediately to get her a seat for our flight to Paris.
For us, that age was around 11 months as she was in the cuffs of walking. She did not want to be held. So now for any flights over 2-3 hours, we get her a seat. We bring this COSCO Scenera car seat, and install it in the middle seat (if in the middle of the plane) or the window seat. She knows that it is where she will need to be seated and I believe it gives her a sense of security. She even took 2 naps this last flight in it.
I promise you, having a seat for your active toddler makes a world of difference. And I also get that sometimes, buying a seat may not be within the budget, so we do what we have to do. If you plan to bring a car seat, be sure it is FAA approved and has the sticker saying so.
Flying with a baby? Check out my must-have list for flying
Tip #3 A kid’s tablet is worth it
We’ve had a hard “no-screen” rule at home. At some point, I realized, that well it’s just not realistic on a plane and long travel days. So we invested in the Amazon Fire Kids tablet and wireless kids’ headphones and let me tell you, WOW.
Our toddler watched several shows quietly in her seat until she just fell asleep on her own. It was magic. We even had some time to ourselves.
On previous flights, I had brought several “toys” to help entertain. 11 hours is a lot of time to fill and the tablet is super helpful. I love that I can download not only shows but books and interactive games as she gets older. This was a game changer for us for flying with our toddler.
Tip #4 Bring all the food
I have an entire bag of snacks and food I bring on the plane. And we typically go through all of it by the end of a long flight. For the long haul flights, we try to eat one meal at the airport and I pack one meal for the plane with snacks. There are a few favorite containers and things that I love to use like:
- this leakproof bento box is so convenient for packing and we use it on the road constantly
- this water bottle
- these disposable placemats, I use them on the plane tray to keep things clean
- this collapsible snack cup
Tip #5 Use a small stroller that you can put in the overhead
Having a stroller that can be brought into the plane overhead is helpful for a few reasons. One is, when you arrive, you can deboard and use it immediately. It also removes the risk of any damage to your stroller on arrival. I find it nice to have our hands free getting through the airport.
There are only a few strollers that collapse so small that they fit in the overhead. It would count as one of your “carry-ons.”. The one we travel with is the Cybex Libelle, and I’ve considered the highly-rated Babyzen Yoyo as well.
Tip #6 Don’t overpack
It can be tempting to bring it all, but nothing is harder to find than something in an overpacked bag when the lights are dim. I find it really helpful to bring just the essentials, packed neatly in my favorite baby travel backpack. For me, that list is:
- table + headphones
- one activity, like crayons, sticker books, or sensory play for older kiddos
- diapers, wipes, + disposable changing pad (we use puppy pads)
- 1 outfit change
- food + bib (and formula if you use it)
- sanitization supplies like these Honest hand wipes
- portable sound machine
- meds like Tylenol
Tip #7 Pick your seat strategically
Considering where you sit will help in a few ways. You may not want to sit near the bathroom if you think your toddler may sleep on the plane. The extra foot traffic and noise will wake them. I like to use SeatGuru to have a look at different options that may work best for us.
I personally like to be somewhere in the middle of the plane on a window side if it is a 3-3-3 configuration. And I never use my upgrades when traveling with a toddler, nothing like keeping a small child quiet in business class.
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