First flight with a baby can be daunting, so many parents wait till their little baby becomes a toddler. It’s a mistake if you ask me. I’m yet to meet anyone who thought that flying with a baby was harder than flying with a toddler.
12 to 20 months is THE most difficult age to travel with kids. Babies sleep a lot and need to be changed and fed. Toddlers on the other hand don’t sleep that much and need to be entertained and keep moving. On top of wanting to be on the move nonstop.
We flew with our first toddler over 10 times before he even turned 2 and many more times before he turned 3, then flew a bunch with the second toddler. This is not an article based on a one-off flight as there were many things that came to light after various flights, different airport experiences and different procedures depending on the country.
Flying with a Toddler: All Your Questions Answered
- Flying with a Toddler: All Your Questions Answered
- Flying with 2 under 2 or Twins
- Essential Gadgets for Flying with a Toddler
- Keeping a Toddler Occupied at the Airport
- How to Entertain a Toddler on the Plane
- Bring Lots of Airplane Snacks For Toddlers
- Milk, Formula and Diapers
- Travel Stroller
Have Realistic Expectations
Let’s be real for a second and think of your expectations before you fly with a toddler. If you’re used to flying with a baby that just sits there and falls asleep, keep in mind that you WILL be entertaining your toddler the entire time.
Flying with a toddler is possible but it is exhausting.
How to keep a 1-year-old entertained on a flight? Simple answer – they might simply not be entertained by the whole experience and there’s not much you can do about it.
How’s flying with a 2-year-old? Simple answer – it’s tough, but you can do it.
How’s flying with a 3-year-old? Honestly, if you survived the 2 year old, flying with a 3 year old is blissful. I would fly with my 3 year old all over the world, because he’s self-sufficient and can occupy himself but I won’t say the same about my almost 2 year old now 😉
That might sound daunting, but that’s the reality. You can be the most prepared person in the world and the toddler might not be having it that day no matter what.
After our flight from Europe to the US when Dylan was 14 months old we actually gave up on flying with ours for a few months, because we had enough (and we’re very determined people who travel all the time). He wanted to run around the plane and wouldn’t stay seated. He slept maybe 30 minutes out of the entire flight.
Best Time to Fly with a Toddler: Daytime or Red-Eye Flight?
For shorter flights, many parents claim they like morning flights not to mess with bedtime, but for us, red-eye flights have been best without exceptions. The toddler will fall asleep eventually if you tire them out by running through the airport and then stay calm most of the time at the airport when we get our luggage and ride home. Then he wakes up briefly but goes back to sleep.
Some parents like to plan trips during nap times, but I think it can easily backfire when kids are distracted. My toddler is one of those who stopped most naps at 20 months and will only occasionally sleep for 20 minutes during the day at the most, so I cannot help you in the nap department I’m afraid.
Getting a Toddler to Sleep on the Plane
Getting a toddler to sleep on the plane isn’t an easy task. Most toddlers will fall asleep right when you’re landing – we always laugh about it with other parents on board.
If you’re changing time zones then it really doesn’t matter when you fly and truth be told, most of the time you have no choice because flights are at the same time and only once a day.
If you’re traveling with just one toddler you may try the Flyaway Kids, but quite frankly even though we fly a lot we never thought that was much help. Keep in mind that many airlines approved it, but many have actually banned it – including United Airlines. So if you take it you might be asked to deflate it and put it away.
There’s also JetKids which is gaining more and more popularity along other ride on suitcases. I was skeptical about getting one, but once we did it always comes with us now with two kiddos.
Pros and Cons of Taking a Car Seat on Board
We don’t bring a car seat on board for a baby or a toddler, because it doesn’t work for our kids. I also hate dragging it around the airport, but some parents swear by traveling with a car seat onboard all the time. The chances of being hurt on the plane are next to 0% if you look at actual statistics and my kids hate sitting in their car seats, so why torture them on plane as well (we tried once, never again).
If you have a full-size car seat you need to lug it around the airport. While you can buy a stroller for it and strap your kid to it, it’s really not as convenient as it’s a giant item.
If you’re worried about having a toddler restrained it’s better to just get an FAA-approved seat harness and check your car seat for free – either at the gate or check-in counter (I personally say check-in counter) so you don’t have to drag it around the airport like a mad man.
NOTE: Not all airlines approve it – for example, Lufthansa doesn’t allow it and many airlines require you to contact them in advance as they only allow it on specific seats.
Should you bring a car seat on holidays? It depends. If we travel to places where we’re renting a car, then yes. But if we’re going to places like Asia where it’s mostly tuk tuks, or spots where we know we’ll only be traveling on public transport then no, there’s no point. I explained all the rules and tricks in a separate article.
We travel with a car seat because it’s costly and annoying having to rent it at the destination, but never bring it on board with an intention to use it as a seat. We have a foldable WayB Pico carseat (full review here) that fits in the overhead compartment. It’s expensive, but if you plan on traveling a lot it’s a must.
It’s not the most comfortable car seat for sleeping, but it does the job of keeping the child safe on rides where we need to. We did take it on a road trip and it was just fine. Once Dylan is old enough we’ll switch to mifold for sure.
Newly Potty Trained Toddler on the Plane
We flew with our toddler when he was only a month into potty training. He was doing great at home and daycare, but on a plane, clothed, was a different story. I highly recommend pull-ups for the plane and airports.
It will not destroy your potty training routine. It’s for everyone’s sanity. There might be lines to the toilet at the airport and you don’t want your toddler to pee his pants.
Either way, do bring a change of clothes just in case. On our recent trip to the ZOO my toddler went through 3 pairs of pants even though he was in pull-ups and went to the toilet various times. I still have no idea how it happened, but it did, so be prepared for such situations on the plane.
Flying with 2 under 2 or Twins
If you have two kids under 2 then it’s slightly more complicated. If both parents are flying with two lap infants, you cannot sit together in one row.
Yes, you need to sit either on the opposite sides of the aisle or behind one another. It was something that really took us by surprise.
It’s due to the lack of two infant oxygen masks in one row, but ironically, many airlines will let it slide if you purchase a seat for one of the babies – but then you cannot get a bassinet. Truth be told, the infant mask doesn’t suddenly appear if you purchase the seat and they’ll still be too big for the adult one, so it’s a bit of an oddity.
Flying Alone with Two under Two
While it’s possible, it’s not always possible and requires some extra money and gear.
Not all airlines will allow you to travel with two infants on your own, so that’s the first thing you need to check.
If they do, they always will ask you to purchase a seat for one of the kids and you can have another one on your lap.
However, not in Canada. You cannot fly alone with two under two so if you have twins or kids close in age you just cannot fly alone without exceptions. Even if you purchase them both seats.
According to Canadian regulations, the ratio of an infant to parent has to be 1:1 for evacuation procedures.
Essential Gadgets for Flying with a Toddler
Keeping a Toddler Occupied at the Airport
It might be an unpopular opinion, but especially when flying with kids I like to come to the airport not too early. It drives my own husband crazy and we definitely disagree on that, but I feel like the last thing you want to do is already have a bored toddler before you even get on the plane. It happened to us twice already because flights were delayed.
Make sure your toddler has time to burn off some energy in the airport. Some airports even have their own mini playgrounds for parents’ sanity, but use the moving ramp if necessary.
When you travel with a baby or toddler, you are in fact a priority customer. Technically, because things can be different in reality and they might decide to board everybody – it happened to us various times, so don’t count on it.
Same with security – know where all your liquids are, don’t wear things you need to remove (like belts) and unless you have to don’t intend to have millions of liquids in a carry-on bag. You’ll have to remove it all while making sure the kids don’t run away – and that’s not fun.
Similar to when you fly with a baby, I don’t recommend boarding first with a toddler either. Boarding can take up to 40 minutes and you can spend this time letting your bub run around the gate rather than trying to climb everyone’s seats and losing his mind trying to get out of your row.
How to Entertain a Toddler on the Plane
Don’t ever listen to a person who recommends playdoh or markers for the plane. Seriously, I was given such advice by some people and I’ll spare you the details about the outcome. Just don’t do it.
If you ask other parents what to bring on planes or road trips for a toddler, one thing keeps popping up for a good reason – a tablet.
Even parents who limit screen time for their kids will tell you that it’s a must-have item for your own sanity (and other passengers’ sanity).
Keep in mind that kids are different. My friend’s kid can be glued to Little Baby Bum for two hours, but my Dylan won’t do it for more than 20 minutes. Have some new games and apps installed.
We have an Amazon Fire Tablet with the case and it does help though no matter what, even if it’s just for half an hour here and there (and later when you actually want to take an active toddler to a restaurant).
Remember when I said markers are a bad idea? Even if they’re the write-on wipe-off type, you never know what surface your kid will choose to write on instead of the board.
Reusable stickers do the magic in our case. With reusable ones I won’t need to worry about my child sticking it somewhere where he should as they’re easy to remove.
Board books are fun too! Difficult to tear, they’re able to withstand a lot of tossing, chomping, or banging. If you’re headed for a trip, books about exploration, busy cities, or simple travel stories give your little one an idea of what to expect while traveling. Grab a few different books while traveling.
Finger puppets are great! The five or ten minutes of relief you get from your kid talking to themselves instead of talking to you is a godsend.
These animal-shaped soft finger puppets are plush enough for use, especially these cat-shaped finger puppets. And if the puppets are going on your hand, what’s more magical than hand unicorns?
Water Wow Boards
At first, I wasn’t too sure about these Water wow boards. They are good and the fact that your kid has to use water instead of paint to reveal the design on the cardboard is so good.
But I’ve noticed that if the little one uses it too often, the cardboard tends to take time to dry. So if you get these, remember to get the multi-pack so that you can alternate. The second and third will help keep the bub occupied while the first one dries out.
Color Wonder Markers
Toddlers and markers never make a good combination. But there’s a magical marker out there that allows your toddler to color on paper without coloring their skin and yours, or for that matter not even fabric or furniture.
The Crayola Color Wonder Markers only work in conjunction with the Crayola paper, and won’t color on anything else! It’s also cheaper to get the set instead of the markers and pages separately. This set of 5 Crayola Color Wonder Markers with 18 pages is perfect for a mess-free holiday!
You could also try the Crayola mess-free touch lights that play music while your toddler draws on by touching it with his or her fingers, but this may only be okay for the airport and not on a noisy flight.
Magic Sketch Boogie Boards
Boogie Boards are a more technical version of the magic sketch Crayola Markers. Not as colorful, but they’re good too. The little ones can draw and paint on them, or simply scribble for as long as they want. And once they’re done, they just press a button and watch their art magically disappear.
These toddler boogie boards are like the old PDA phones. The boards for age 4+ offer a bit more color, so you could skip the initial one and get that too!
Good for developing motor skills, the buckle toy teaches color coordination, numbers. and more. You’ll also find some versions of buckle toys that moonlight as a tiny backpack.
Probably the most important item in your flight arsenal, these toddler headphones are perfect for playing nursery rhymes, or just soothing music so your kids can relax.
If you want headphones that make your little or look good too, so you don’t have to take them off for travel photos, try these Bluetooth LED light cat ear headphones or these cute unicorn headphones.
Bring Lots of Airplane Snacks For Toddlers
Must bring snacks for the plane, even if they serve food. Don’t bring anything too messy or sticky or easily mashable.
We usually get popcorn, goldfish crackers, grapes, broccoli. On top of his favorite sippy cup that doesn’t leak.
Milk, Formula and Diapers
Our rule is to bring enough supplies to last for the flight and first day.
I know some parents who bring formula for their entire trip for a baby or toddler.
While you can technically bring as much as you can in your checked luggage and a “reasonable amount” in a carry-on, as airlines like to put it, personally I think it’s insane, and I always want to ask a question – what if this formula gets discontinued, then what?
Babies are just fine all over the world and you can easily get formula at most typical holiday destinations. Both of my kids eat different formulas their entire lives and they’re just fine. We intentionally kept switching formulas for the first month or two to keep them used to changes.
European formulas that are available in Latin America and Asia are actually better than US formulas as they contain no sugar due to regulations. They also contain a better iron allowance. This article explains this in detail in case you’re worried.
Also, most popular formulas are available in different places with slight modifications (depending on the countries regulations), but under different names. For example – formula called Bebilon in Poland is called Aptamil in Italy.
Same with diapers. I’m yet to see a place where you cannot find diapers, even if you’re using organic diapers, bamboo diapers, or other fancy diaper types.
I cannot stress enough how important is to have a travel stroller. There are many reasons why you don’t want to travel with a giant full-size stroller that I already described in a separate post, so it’s a must-have item.
From all travel strollers on the market (and I tried various) I wholeheartedly recommend Babyzen Yoyo if you have just one kid and Zoe Tandem if you have two kids.
Any questions? Let me know!
Wednesday 23rd of March 2022
Hi Anna! Thank you for writing all these tips. We are traveling to Moorea and Bora Bora with our 10 month old baby and our 3 1/2 year old Toddler. Trying to decide if we should just purchase the single travel stroller or the double. Which did you bring to Tahiti?
Thursday 23rd of February 2023
@Anna Karsten, HI Anna, how come Ergobaby Metro+ Compact is not on the list that you tried? Curious. Thank you
Thursday 24th of March 2022
Definitely a single :) 3.5 years old can walk just fine and there are no long distances anywhere so no point in a double. It would be a giant issue maneuvering it everywhere and fitting in the car. We brought a Yoyo stroller for the baby.
Tuesday 22nd of June 2021
Wow, that's a lot of experience you have! Thanks for sharing. We're preparing for our first flight with Mia, she's 14months now and really needs to be entertained! On the other hand we've finished sleep training lessons with this amazing book: https://www.parental-love.com/shop/toddler-sleep-training and I believed (for the first time!) it may work. Also we will be flying with another couple with kids - is it better or worse? I'm afraid of overstimulation the most...
Tuesday 27th of July 2021
I'm using exactly the same book right now! And also I am planning our plane trip soon. I hope Susan's book helps us to keep it quiet and civilized. Also thanks for the information about banning the inflatable minibeds. I've been thinking about it a lot since most blogs recommends it.
Tuesday 22nd of June 2021
I think it's better - peer pressure if other kids go to sleep or stay quiet will keep her calm :)
Saturday 5th of June 2021
Hi great article!! I had some questions that also related to your Baby's in Italy post back in 2019...Any tips about nursing a baby or pumping milk in Italy ? Do they have breast pumps for rental or should I bring my own? I know the plug outlets will be different and I don’t want to outlet to fry my pumps! I have heard of some horror stories of nursing moms pumps not working with the outlets over in Rome? We will be traveling to Rome FYI for 9 days
Saturday 5th of June 2021
Apologies, my comments don't show as approved. Just replied to the breastpump comment.