traveling with a toddler

Ways to make traveling with a toddler by airplane go smoother

Tips to help you before and during your trip

Traveling with a toddler by airplane can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to go as badly as you might think. When planning your next trip with a little one in tow, remember these tips to make sure that traveling with your child goes smoothly for you and them.

One of the hardest areas to balance in my life after becoming a parent was learning how to prepare for traveling with a child. Before becoming parents, my husband and I would take a number of trips during the year. Given we have family and friends on both coasts of the US, it was necessary. I thought that we could still easily make quick trips to see family or friends without any further stress and preparation. How much more could 1 little human being add? Needless to say, after our first trip with our daughter, I learned I was not prepared properly. I was out of balance and needed to find balance in this area if we were going to continue to travel stress-free.

What are the 2 most common mistakes?

  1. Over packing
  2. Under packing

Yep, I have been the one with luggage to the extreme, almost needing 2 trips to the car at the airport. And, I have been the one that forgot a few essentials, such as a bib, extra outfit for the travel day (and almost the stroller).

Below are some areas that I feel are the most important to remember when traveling with a toddler. Remember, this is a family trip and everyone’s emotional, mental, and physical balance is essential for a fun time.

Know Your Toddler’s Needs & Desires

When you know more about what your toddler will need for the plane and trip, you have a better plan.

Packing and preparing to travel with a kid is not always easy. With the amount of gear that they require, it’s hard to determine what items are absolutely essential and which can be left behind or packed differently.

A helpful way to think about packing for a trip is by having three types of bags: essential, carry-on, and personal items that could be left behind or packed differently.

Packing for my daughter for the first time took me almost 3 hours, and that was only packing for two nights. She didn’t understand what was happening and every time I packed something, she would unpack it and put it back in her room.

How did I find a mental balance in preparing for our next trip? I created a ‘Basic Needs Checklist’ that I use for every trip (airplane or car). This allows me to quickly, and efficiently, pack her most basic needs. Of course, the trip requires more beyond this. These are just the basics to get started and keep you organized as you prepare for traveling with a toddler.

Basic Needs Checklist

Granted, as she gets older, her Basic Needs Checklist changes from time to time. Here is what is currently on her checklist, age 2 1/2:

  1. Drink Cup
  2. Snacks
  3. Activity/Busy Books
  4. Toys (more on this below)
  5. Blanket
  6. Stroller
  7. Travel DVD Player (More on this below)
  8. Headphones
  9. Extra Travel Day Outfit

Toys to bring on vacation

This is a common area to over pack in when traveling with a child. What toy is my toddler going to want to play with? What will she miss the most? How do I avoid a meltdown if I don’t pack the 1 toy he/she wants? These are all valid questions and cause for panic and stress.

The last time we traveled, I had left our daughter’s carry on backpack in her room for 3 days prior to our departure. We told her she could pack the toys she wanted to take. Her packing changed hourly, which was totally fine, because it was already in her room. I wasn’t trying to pack as she was changing her mind.

If your kiddo is too young to pack their own toys, my biggest suggestion here is don’t overthink it. Kids will want things they have a choice of. Don’t worry about what if they want toy B, but you brought toy A. We have learned that she will make choices based upon what she has in front of her, and doesn’t really think about what is at home. She is focused on what she has, not what she doesn’t have.

Say Goodbye to DVD/iPad/Tablet Restrictions (Temporarily)

This was a hard concept for me. My thought was, ‘our daughter is entertained all day at home without screens. Why would it be different?’ Needless to say, by our second trip we had a travel DVD player. This was a huge lesson learned, a bit of internal parenting struggle, but it really worked for the entire family. We also purchased the dual screen, so we could take advantage of watching the movie too with her! – double bonus!

Even with all the activities and toys one toddler can play with in a day, this goes back to they are sitting in a confined space for extended periods of time. Our daughter knows that movies are a privilege, and she doesn’t watch them every day. When the movie starts, she is frozen and glued to it. Her travel anxiety goes down, she isn’t fussy from sitting, she isn’t asking for snacks every five minutes out of boredom, and it’s also for our sanity. She still has her travel toys and activities, this is just another option.

Allow For Extra Snacks on the Airplane

Again, this was an internal parenting struggle. I’m letting my daughter watch all the movies she wants, now she eats however much she wants? No, not exactly. Typically, the times we tend to fly, I am not able to prepare our normal solid breakfast and the eateries are not open at the airport. Sometimes we’re lucky to get a cup of coffee! We’re hungry.

However, the plan for extra snacks is that during the duration of the flight you have boredom, you are watching other people eat, and sometimes chewing something really helps with the ear pressure, and also the comfort level of having a full belly.

We have learned that choosing our snacks wisely, allows us the ability to snack more than normal while not overdoing it. Things we consider are fresh fruit, nuts, granola bars, jerky. Of course, your snacks to consider here will be based upon your family’s preferences and needs.

Plan for what time you fly

This is a tricky one to balance. For the most part you don’t exactly have a choice of flight times. When we fly across the country, we always try to book the very first flight out in the morning.

This allows us to pack the car and make final home preparations while she is still asleep. She will also be asleep on the way to the airport. During the flight, she will usually fall asleep about halfway through. This also allows us to get a few minutes of rest and helps her adjust to the time change.

In addition, we try to schedule layovers around what would be a meal time, and give ourselves the time to get a solid meal and to get some more wiggles out.

Extra Time at Airport

I know, I know, we already have enough waiting time at the airport for just normal check in and security. If you have the first flight out, it’s already an early morning, why are we going to make it earlier??

Remember your active, curious, energy filled toddler is about to be confined to a plane for a duration of time. They have their wiggles to get out. Let them explore the airport. Let them watch the planes out of the window. This is a new experience for them, and they want to know about it. This could also be a stressful time for your kiddo too. Let them have a moment with their favorite toy, their drink cup, a snack, etc. Have them interact with something familiar to calm them before getting on the plane.

traveling with a toddler

Airplane Travel Tips to Research

Free Check-in of Infant/Toddler Car Seat

If you will need your car seat during your trip check with your airline to see if they offer to check the car seat for free (doesn’t count towards baggage number limits). We found the ease of using a car seat luggage bag gave us the ability to use the backpack feature to keep our hands free to roll the suitcases. By being able to check in her car seat, also saves us from getting a car seat from the rental car company, and allows her another ‘comfort of home’ she’s familiar with.

Free Gate Check of Stroller

Some trips we don’t really need a stroller, but it is great to have it just in the airport alone. For those early morning flights, it allows her to just ride through the airport check in and security process. Once we are at the gate, she usually hops out and begins her exploration, walking around. We also know the fun a toddler has pushing her/his favorite doll in their stroller! Even if we only use the stroller for just a couple of hours at the airport, it is so worth it.

Just check with your airline if they offer it, and what you need to do at the gate. Our experience on most domestic flights is we just let the gate agent know we have a stroller, and they put a ‘gate tag’ on it. Easy-peasy!

Family Pre-Boarding for the flight

If your flight offers pre-boarding for families with young children, take it! I didn’t understand pre-boarding with toddlers until we did it. She could walk on the plane at her pace, taking in her new environment, without ‘holding up the line.’ The extra time in our seats allowed my husband and I to get settled on the plane to where all of her stuff (snacks, drink cup, books, etc.) was all in reach. By the time boarding was almost complete she was comfortable and settled in, and telling everyone she was going to Grandma’s. (She is a very shy person, especially with strangers, so we knew this extra time allowed her to get comfortable).

Needs during the trip

You have survived packing and getting on the plane. You have now arrived at your destination! Though the most stressful part of traveling is usually the airplane ride, let’s not forget how to make the rest of the trip go smoothly too. Traveling can cause a toddler to become overstimulated. Let’s look a couple of ways to provide for their needs and wants while you are out enjoying a wonderful trip!

Sleep and Bedtime Routine

You’ve used a lot of resources to make this trip happen. You want to soak up everything there is to do and see. You want to get the biggest bang for your buck.

One of the quickest ways to spoil a hard-earned vacation is a tired kiddo. Take rest breaks and plan for your youngest travelers to have less stamina throughout the day in the beginning. One area we have found to help with this is trying to keep her schedule the same at home, especially regarding her nap/rest times. As they are experiencing this ‘new world’ through traveling, keeping their routine the same is a familiarity they relate to. I have even come to appreciate the moment of slowing down when traveling. I used to be the one that had to do and see everything, but I spent so much time focusing on what to do next and creating the ‘perfect itinerary’, that I missed ‘the moment’ and spent most of the trip frazzled.

See your trip from their perspective

Toddlers will be more willing to go along on your adventures if they are familiar with what is coming up. They need to know that it’s going to be fun, and not a dreaded task of being dragged along. Try telling them about the trip in advance, even if it’s just a few days. Make them feel like they are included in the planning process, and that you want their input.

Even at 2 1/2 years old, we let our daughter know we appreciate her doing ‘XYZ’ with us, and now we are going to take some time and do something she wants to see or do. Balance out the time, so everyone gets to do something they want to do/experience.

Relax and Enjoy!

Hopefully you don’t feel more stressed about your upcoming trip than you were before reading this. To really sum it up simply take a moment to:

  1. Plan Ahead
  2. Think of your toddler’s needs
  3. Take a moment rest and breathe

We have taken our daughter on several trips and each time we learn something new. We live and learn as she grows. The more she travels, the more she learns how to travel as well. She knows she gets extra privileges, and it becomes a fun time for her. Bon Voyage!

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