Up in the Air Part II: Flying with Toddlers

As I was sitting at the gate awaiting the departure of our return flight from Orlando earlier this summer, I gazed upon my 22 month-old son with pride as he sucked on a toasted bagel while yelling out directives through the window to the luggage trucks roaming the tarmac below. He had been so well behaved on our solo journey to visit friends in Florida that I did not think I would have anything useful to add to my series on travel. I had timed the flights perfectly, packed appropriately, and never even had the chance to test my standing-on-the-toilet poopie-diaper-change prowess, as my child’s bowels had cooperated as swimmingly as he had. Traveling with a toddler is a breeze as long as your kid is as exceptional as mine, I thought. Next stop, Paris! 

Then we boarded the plane. 

Now I feel like this post should really be an apology to the various passengers and crew members aboard that flight. To the man seated beside us, I am sorry for bragging about how well-behaved my child would be when in reality he spent most of the flight testing the upper limits of your noise-cancelling headphones. To the flight attendants, yes, I am aware of how difficult it is to clean 400 goldfish crackers from loosely woven upholstery, and I am sorry that we went the extra mile to crush each individual fish into a fine, orange powder that forms a powerful adhesive when mixed with drool and our seat-mate’s upended scotch and soda. To the man in the seat in front of us who just attained his status as a Million Miler with Delta, I can only hope that the 65 minutes you spent with our tray table slamming into your seat because it was the only way to quell the ear-piercing screams of “Outside!?” and “That Way!” emitted by my little lovebug helped you reevaluate your priorities in life and decide to spend less time traveling and more time at home with your family. 

By the time we landed, the only shred of advice I could muster for air travel with toddlers is: Don’t. Just don’t. 

But if you have some overwhelmingly compelling reason to take your limit-testing little angel on a plane, I have a few thoughts that may make your experience slightly less soul-sucking and masochistic. 

A Non-Comprehensive Guide to Air Travel with a Toddler 

(For tips on flying with the younger set, please see Up in the Air Part I: Air Travel with Infants)

Air Travel Basics: 

  • Ticketing—Children under the age of two years do not need a ticket on domestic flights, but you do need to notify the airline that you are traveling “Infant in arms” and that should be noted on your boarding pass. That said, depending on the size of your child and the length of your flight, you may want to ante-up and buy your kid a seat. In the past 6 months, I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to buy C his own seat before he reaches his first legal milestone. The FAA repeatedly declares that having your child strapped in a car seat or FAA-approved travel harness is much safer than flying in a parents’ lap, but their concern only goes so far as to make official-sounding recommendations, not to put pressure or regulations on airlines to offer seats to children at reduced or even reasonable rates. It’s hard to justify a $400 ticket to Charlotte for an 18 month-old who will spend the entire four minutes you manage to keep him in his seat shrieking, “Uppie Mama!” like he’s been abandoned in a pool of alligators. That said, most of our flights in the last year have been between one and two hours long. I think for any flight beyond three hours, I would probably hire a baby-sitter and leave the kid at home. Barring that option, then for a long flight I’d say pawn your car title and buy him a seat.
  • Security—Despite the fact that my child weighed 30 lbs and I was 12 weeks pregnant, I still strapped on the Ergo and carried him through security on our last flight. I also brought the stroller as it served dual purposes as a luggage cart and a jungle gym while waiting at the gate. 
  • Car Seat—And you thought hauling the infant carrier was a colossal pain in the ass! Unlike your Chicco Click-n-Clack that weighed about 8 lbs and came with a handle, your Graco Titan XXL convertible car seat weighs 47 lbs and is comprised entirely of round, smooth surfaces. However, as with the infant carrier, you do need a car seat at your destination, unless you are visiting someone who has one to share that is not expired. Car seats provided by rental car companies are generally only a step above a cat crate in terms of safety and comfort, and anyone who trusts taxi cab drivers with their child’s life should have their executive functioning skills evaluated by a professional (sorry New Yorkers, but seriously, at least try to use one of those dog harnesses when you put your kid in a cab). Your gargantuan car seat still checks for free, and there are a plethora of options available on the internet to make transporting them a bit easier. I use this J.L. Childress Gate Check bag for both gate and baggage check, or check out this J.L. Childress Ultimate Car Seat Travel bag that my friend with two toddlers recommended and then if you love it, send me one as a show of appreciation. 

Timing Your Flights: 

  • Planning for Poop—Depending on your origin and destination cities, you may have some leeway as to what time of day you plan your flight. With toddlers, there are two major considerations for flight times: Poop and Sleep. If you have one of those magical toddlers who poops on a daily schedule, you may be inclined to plan your flight times around this body clock. I do not have one of these toddler unicorns so I may be underestimating the importance of this particular function, but I suggest you place sleep ahead of poop. You don’t want to lull yourself into thinking that both your child’s bowels and the airline’s schedule will move like clockwork, thus failing to properly train for the big event by practicing changing an explosive diaper on your child while he or she is running through a crowded food court or hiding under a row of chairs in the smoking lounge.  
  • Planning for Sleep—Planning around sleep also has draw-backs, of course, depending on the time of day you choose. 
    • Morning: Flying in the morning seems most logical for your typical afternoon napper, but if your kid is like mine, morning is when his Energizer battery is most charged, and you’ll end up spending much of your flight prying his tiny hands away from the emergency release lever on the door of the airplane. 
    • Afternoon/Toddler Naptime: Flying at naptime only works if your kid is capable of falling asleep in random public places, and in my experience if you have one of those kids, you don’t actually have a scheduled napper, so you’re free to fly whenever. 
    • Evening: Flying during the witching hours may be your only choice for Eastbound international flights, but otherwise it’s a terrible idea, unless you’re cool with letting your toddler participate in happy hour, and then hey, no judgments here. 
    • Overnight/Red Eye: I have not had the opportunity to experience this particular joyful milestone yet, but everything I have heard from my much-braver friends is that for red eyes and international overnight flights, you must sack-up and buy your child a seat, even if he’s under the age of two. Trust me, you do not want to be the reason your plane has to divert to Reykjavik because your sleep-deprived toddler threw a mini-bottle of Merlot at an air marshal’s head. 

In Flight: 

  • Cabin Pressure—Remember how before you had kids you used to hear some poor little elf’s cries begin just after take-off and you’d roll your eyes and say something asinine to your companion like, “they ought to ban babies from airplanes?” All adults should be required to endure take-off and landing without being allowed to pop their ears, and it would be doubly useful if their ear canals were still straight like a young child’s instead of curved so that there was more fluid build-up to make the pressure change especially painful. The best way to help your toddler clear his ears during changes in cabin pressure is through sucking or chewing—anything to flex the jaw. If your child won’t take a pacifier, try getting him to crunch on small pieces of ice (this works well for older kids, too—I have fond memories of chewing on chardonnay-tinged ice cubes whenever I flew with my mom as a child) or a hard snack like pretzels. Vigorously rubbing his ears seemed to alleviate some of C’s pain, although it may have just been jostling his brain and causing some kind of oxygen disruption that served as a satisfactory distraction from the feeling that his face was going to explode. 
  • Entertainment—If your child will stay calm and watch television for any extended period of time, ignore all AAP recommendations or hippie parenting philosophies to the contrary and load up your nearest device with Thomas the Tank Engine and Elmo. Even if the only thing that captures your tot’s attention for more than four seconds is vintage midget porn, I do not think anyone on that plane will report you if your child is sitting quietly in your lap bopping along in his headphones to bow-chicka-bow-wow. Unfortunately for my fellow travelers, my child must be gearing up for the Waldorf School or something, because the only thing he likes to do with an iPhone is chuck it across the plane toward the cockpit door. 
  • Snacks—Food is the only weapon I have in the fight against air travel meltdowns. This is a time when all notions of health or good habits should be tossed out the window at 30,000 feet—Fritos, Twinkies, those little chocolate-filled wafer things that Delta sometimes has that are probably made out of heroin they taste so good, anything goes when you’re flying with a toddler. Every single time my kid opened his mouth I popped something moderately edible in it, and about half the time it stayed in his body. The other half he would chew for awhile then politely spit whatever Biscoff-flavored mush he’d created into my hand and continue his demands to go “That way!” and “Outside?!” with calorie-infused vigor. 
  • Toys—Everything I found on the internet about air travel with toddlers insists you bring a bunch of new and exciting toys in the diaper bag to keep your little one distracted. As far as I can tell, the only distraction my toddler gained from the tiny cars and trains I handed him lasted about two seconds while he watched in rapt fascination as each toy sailed over my head and into the eye of an unsuspecting passenger enjoying his post-Bloody Mary nap. In my opinion toys take up valuable space in your carry-on that could be better filled by extra Go-gurt tubes and a bottle of Benadryl, but hey, you know your kid best, so if he loves shiny things, be sure to hit the dollar bins at Target before your trip. 

Traveling Alone with a Toddler: 

All of the stuff I suggested in Up in the Air Part I  applies here—use the Amazon Prime account I know you have if you ever listen to anything I say to ship diapers/wipes to your destination ahead of time, check your luggage, and use your stroller as a luggage cart. The only thing I’d revise is the bit about asking for help, because as I learned in Orlando, when other travelers see you arrive in the terminal with a toddler, they run screaming to the nearest airport chapel to pray you’re not on their flight. Babies are cute and children can be entertained by watching Frozen on repeat on the iPad, but a toddler on board ranks right up there with an east coast hurricane and lifting the ban on using cellphones in-flight as every frequent flyer’s worst nightmare. You may be on your own with this one, but hey, you have a toddler now, so you’re basically a parenting expert. 

For more information on airline regulations and recommendations for traveling with children, be sure to check out the links to helpful resources at the bottom of the travel page under 'Quickies'. Bon voyage! 

Written by: Kathleen