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Traveling with Small Kids on Airplanes

A lot of having a good experience traveling with kids is luck. Luck that they’ll fall asleep easily, that they won’t get sick, that there is an extra empty seat next to them. To prepare well for traveling you want to be prepared and take out as many variables as you can. There is lots of information on how to do this well but here are my tips and the bag of tricks we are using for our international flight.

-Consider when you schedule your flight. If your child has a hard time sleeping in strange places maybe you should fly during the day. (We chose to do a direct flight mostly during the night.) If you have a flexible schedule try to fly on midweek flight that will be less packed.

-Pay Taxes on the seat for your Lap Child. This isn’t well known but on international flights you are required to pay taxes on your infants’ “free seat.” If you wait until the day-of you will be charged the tax rate on a last minute ticket which could be around $700 instead of $150. I’ve heard horror stories of having to run to different gates to pay the fees during a connection. Don’t let this happen to you. We paid the taxes on Roman and then the airline mailed us the ticket.

-Set up a bed at your feet. Kids are small, set up a cozy bed at your feet and then you can stretch out over the extra seat.

-Ask if the airplane has a bassinet (some do, some don’t). Request it as soon as you book your flight. Then show up as early as they’ll let you so that the gate agent can assign you those seats. (The bassinet is a small bed for infants that folds down from the wall.)

-At all costs make sure they get a good night sleep the night before and a good nap the day of. Usually the screaming happens when they are over exhausted.

-New Toys and Books! You’ll need things that don’t use a battery to entertain during take off and landing. We have an entire bag of (cheap) new toys and books that are individually wrapped up in crepe paper so it takes time to unwrap each toy in addition to how long their attention lasts playing with each toy.

-New Movies and App’s! We’ve got the ipad stocked up several new apps and movies. (Also don’t forget these.)

-Extra Battery. Some airplanes now have plugs but just in case get one of these batteries that make your iphone batteries last two or three times as long.

-Fun Snacks! Besides meals, have fun snacks that your child thinks are special treats. (Expensive organic chocolate milk anyone?)

-Thermos. If you have a baby bring a thermos for warm water or milk. Fill it up before your flight. A stewardess can get you hot water but its nice to have it at your side instead of on their timetable.

-If you fly at night bring the things for your bedtime routine so they know its time to sleep. Think: spongebath, pajamas, toothbrush, and favorite books.

-Tylenol. Bring a tiny version of your medicine cabinet with you for emergency colds or earaches

In addition I wrote about three products we found indispensable for traveling with kids over at Babble.
These are the secret to keeping your kid entertained at the airport. (Plus they are so cute)

-We got one of these and it changed our travel experience completely.

-That’s so weird, the people in the next row don’t like the noises all those iphone apps make. You need some of these.

Got any good secrets? What are your favorite tips for traveling with kids?

(This is a picture of some of the toys we are taking all wrapped up in crepe paper.)

  1. Lauren

    January 31, 2011

    I don't have kids, but a very good friend of mine does – and she collaborated with a few parent-friends to compile a list of tips for travelling with kids.

    You can find the four-part series here:


  2. TinkerBlue

    January 31, 2011

    We just got back from two long flights between the US and Australia, the flight attendants specifically announced several times that it is against safety regulations for children or adults to sleep on the floor. They did ask several parents to get their children off the floor and that they must remain either on their parents lap or in a seat.

  3. Anonymous

    January 31, 2011

    A word to the wise about that bassinet. I reserved one when returning from China with my nine month old. It was on the center wall just below the video screen. When she sat up, the video played on her face. The rest of the time the picture above her face kept her awake–yes, for thirteen hours. So check where the bassinet will be! I found the key to happiness on those flights to be having a window seat for my daughter.

  4. Anonymous

    January 31, 2011

    great post! we have traveled extensively, both in the US and internationally with our kiddos – we have a 3 year old and a 6 month old.

    i think the BEST thing is the little gifts wrapped for the flight – this has saved us MANY times! we also have an ipad and load up on new movies and apps for every flight, so our 3 year old is kept pretty busy the whole flight. i have a case that i keep all of out "travel" stuff in – coloring books, books, magnetic books, etc.. this only comes out when we fly, so our 3 year old gets really excited every time i bust out "the special travel toys!".

    the 6 month old is easy – he sleeps a lot on flights and we have small toys, etc.. for him.

    we also bring food/snacks for the bebes AND for us, so we can all eat together, and we can eat yummy food.


  5. michelle

    January 31, 2011

    Amen! Awesome list. Agree with and love all these tips.

    One other tip to share: if you have an older child (3 and up), you can ask a flight attendant to take him/her on a walk around the plane to stretch their legs. Many are happy to do it if they aren't busy with other duties. A gf of mine was traveling by herself with her two kids and this allowed her to go to the bathroom with the other child.

  6. KREW

    January 31, 2011

    One thing that I learned the hard way is that the volume limit on the kid-friendly headphones is too low. While they stayed on my son's ears better than the ear buds stay in his ears, he couldn't hear the sound over the engine noise and there was no way to turn it up. So, great product, but not necessarily on a loud airplane.

  7. whitneyingram

    January 31, 2011

    When we would travel when I was little, I remember my mom had little packaged surprises for when we would have reached a certain amount of mileage or time. Like on the hour, we got something new. A treat, coloring cook, toy etc. Knowing that was coming made the trip easier and we had something to look forward to.

  8. Blogful

    January 31, 2011

    A box of cute bandaids proved to be a long-playing-time toy. Pipe cleaner is fun for older more creative kids. The other problem with bringing a bunch of stuff is getting it out and put away without making a total mess, so smaller is better.

  9. Adrianne

    January 31, 2011

    Great post! You're right about luck. We've tried night flights but at that point we're tired, everyone else around us was tired and the kiddo … wide awake! We had a lot of fun with cheap stickers, esp ones with goggly eyes that shake.

    And my warning: beware of sippy cups with straws that pop up. They seem to pressurize in the airplane so when you flip the straw up, it sprays everywhere, especially the row in front of you! Not a great way to start out a flight!

  10. sophia

    January 31, 2011

    crocs for easy on/off.
    jackets/hats, etc all off and shoved in carry-on before security.
    if kids are smaller, hold all of their things in your ONE carry-on. less really is more when it comes to traveling.
    oh yeah. blank paper and crayons.
    one more: frozen fully cooked edamame…acts as a temporary icepack, then healthy snack after thawed.

  11. sophia

    January 31, 2011

    security doesn't like blue-ice.

  12. katie

    January 31, 2011

    such a great post! my mom used to do this with us, too. to this day, she's still baffled by parents who don't think ahead & bring toys/little gifts/etc to entertain their children with on the plane. wish more parents were like you guys!

  13. Jill

    January 31, 2011

    Really great ideas, you're a genius mother. I just had a flight with my 15 month old and was ready to climb out the window because she wouldn't fall asleep.

    She did love to color on large post-it notes and then we would stick them up on the seats.

    When my husband and I fly together with her, we always book the window and the aisle seat, and leave the middle seat empty. In many cases it stays empty, when it doesn't the middle passenger is always happy to switch with one of us. I ALWAYS talk to the gate attendant when I am flying on my own with my girl, so far I have always had an empty seat next to me after talking to them.

    Good luck!

  14. Maeve

    January 31, 2011

    great post. We are traveling on a plane with our little one for the first time this month. Thanks for the tips.

  15. Mike and Debbie

    February 1, 2011

    Fabulous post! I love the idea of wrapping the little toys in crepe paper…I'm definitely doing that from now on!

    We have lived in Germany now for about 3 yrs and so we've flown with our now 2 yr old a ton. Before she was into movies the best tricks we found were making a fort using the tray table and a blanket..She sat on the floor, (which may be against the rules, but no one bothered me about it!) we put down the tray table and covered it with her blanket. She loved her secret hiding spot! The other trick was letting her decorate her seat with stickers. (Just clean up for the next passenger coming along!)

    The hardest thing was to keep her belted when taking off & landing. Dum Dum Lollipops were the key. Or Ring Pops. Pure sugar, I know, but it was the only thing that worked to keep her busy!

    Also, on Delta you can request a kid's meal when booking your flight. They'll bring their meal out first so that you can get them settled (although she's not a big eater while flying). They serve stuff like chicken nuggets and mac'nCheese for the main course. They throw in a little candy bar usually too. It's airplane food, but it was also another distraction!

    The nice thing about the long flights is that most passengers understand and waaay more forgiving than domestic flights!

    Happy travels and have a fabulous time in France! We're just a 6 hour drive away if you need anything!

  16. Sara Spalding

    February 1, 2011

    such great tips!

    I've travelled a bunch with our 3YO and 14 month old. We always try to get on the plane at the very end of the boarding process. The more time the kids can spend running around in the airport, the easier the flight will be. When you consider that the boarding time is often nearly 30 mins, it makes a real difference.

    We try not to bring luggage that we have to put in the overhead bin, so we just hang out in the loading area until most everyone else is on. If we're travelling together, my husband will often get on the plane earlier to get everything situated, and I'll hang with the kids and scoot right on at the end. and letting the gate agent know what we're doing helps too.

    of course, doing this means that you have to have be organized so that you get situated quickly, but we've found that it makes a big difference.

    happy travels!

  17. Jenny

    February 1, 2011

    Get a headphones splitter for the ipad so two kids can listen.

    I bought some wind up toys that turn before they fall off an edge so the kids or babies can watch them on the tray when the novelty of everything else has worn off. The ones that flip are also rad. They are cheap and small and if they get lost or stepped on the world doesn't end.

    We travel with slip on shoes and I always have to wear a lot of layers because I inevitably get thrown up on multiple times, or some other disgusting bodily fluid ends up on me. Not even kidding.

    masking tape and post it notes were a huge hit on our flight for the kids.

  18. Hadley Duncan Howard

    February 1, 2011

    We've schlepped our kids all over the globe, and had fantastic experiences. We'll be living in London next year, and will take them even further. Kids enjoy traveling if their parents do.

    I (more specifically) answered this question for a friend here:

    One thing I'd add: in my experience, and no matter the age of the child, *always* fork out the money for his or her own seat. A lap child is a nightmare for the parent as well as the child (and, therefore, everyone around them). I wouldn't want to sit on someone's lap for 18 hours, so it's logical to think a child wouldn't, either.

  19. o charm

    February 2, 2011

    we've also lived internationally with 3 small kids for 5 years– and made that trip over the ocean more times than i can count. your tips are great!

    i would add:
    — never ever forget the extra change of clothes!!! inevitably we have needed that many, many times (and i regret didn't always have it!). i remember hanging wet pants on the seat back in front of me, wrapping my toddler in airline blankets until they were drier, putting back on the pajama pants. . . it almost seems like we used a pillowcase once. . .

    –also don't ever forget the tylenol. my baby screamed for 6 hours straight one time. yes. it was miserable. and we had forgotten the tylenol. we haven't since.

    –always try to call ahead to reserve seats. it seems every time we show up at registration everyone else has done this but us. they usually won't give you the bassinet ahead of time, but you can put in a request.

    –always try to sit at the bulkhead of possible. it's a great spot for kids to sit on the floor, stand in front of you,etc. though keep in mind the armrests in these seats don't go up, so you can't spread out on them. and as far as putting your child to sleep on the floor? airlines tend to be very strict about this. i remember flying once at 6 mos. pregnant with a 1 1/2 year old, 10-hour-flight. she was too big for the bassinet, could hardly fit on my lap, and they wouldn't let me put her on the floor. the man next to me offered to hold her for me.
    –and lastly, buy the extra leg room if they have it. SO, SO worth it for the long flights. with kids it's just essential.

    best of luck!

  20. Traveling Mama

    February 2, 2011

    I loved all your tips and found myself nodding continually and it looks like there are some great suggestions here from your readers as well! We started traveling with our daughter when she was 10 months old (she's 9 now) and we have had two more kids since. My best suggestion is to keep your sense of humor and remember that even when they cry or fuss for half the ride, the plane ride has to end- eventually.

    I always pack their favorite blanket or stuffed animal in the carry on too, but we always put a back up in the check in luggage. They don't get to take it out of their bag until we get on the airplane and then we have a "head count" before deboarding.

  21. Zoë Yule

    February 2, 2011

    Just a quick comment to keep in mind the security restrictions on liquids and gels these days – these apply to baby food, thermoses full of water, pre-mixed formula – the works! You can think you've got it all organised only to have the lot confiscated before you even make it on a flight. Great list of tips – wrapping the toys is ingenious!

  22. Lisa

    February 2, 2011

    I hit the dollar store before a big trip and stock up on new cheap toys. I'll have to wrap them next time.

    I also bring a change of clothes for the kids and at least a clean shirt for me and my husband.

    I also like to bring a favorite small blanket for each kid. They can be used to make a pillow, cover up, play peek a boo, etc.

    Finally, if you run out of things, the Duty Free shop on international flights often has a Lego set. It will be the most expensive Lego set ever, but it will be well worth it!

  23. Hans Kortlevers

    February 3, 2011

    Yes, indeed luck plays an important role. But luck is sometimes a bit lazy. Especially on a trip with the kids.

  24. Janelle Holmboe

    February 3, 2011

    Hi Jordan- Love the tips! Thanks so much. When I traveled with Tate alone for the first time, I made "Wailing Baby Survival Kits" for the people sitting around us. They were a hit!

  25. Nicole Marie

    February 3, 2011

    give a bottle at take off and landing! it prevents earaches

  26. christy

    February 3, 2011

    Benedryl 😉 ah! All jokes aside, we specifically include over lays…to run, move, and get the squirmies out.

  27. InCircle Interiors

    February 7, 2011

    great post! thanks for the tips and can't wait to go through the comments for more tips!

  28. Flight Attendant

    February 8, 2011

    Never put kids on the floor to sleep. It's against the rules because it's unsafe!
    -kids' hands or feet could get stepped on if they reach into the aisle
    -airplane floor is germy and gross. Would you put your kid down on the floor in the subway?
    -in case of decompression, you and your kid will be unable to reach the oxygen masks. You have about 30 seconds of consciousness – not enough to pick up your kid and put masks on both of you.
    -turbulence – kids will get tossed around

    If your cabin crew are any good at their job (=keeping you safe), they won't allow it anyways.

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