Air travel as an adult requires patience and fortitude. The combination of long lines, surly agents, and cranky passengers can make even the most seasoned traveler question their vacation decisions. Add a toddler to the mix and it can feel like you’ve just doused the whole experience with lighter fluid and lit the match.
Travel and lifestyle expert Natalie Preddie weighs in: Her sons, Charlie, age two, and Jamie, 10 months, have already traveled to almost a dozen countries between them. “Once, Charlie didn’t want to sit in his seat and screamed every time we took off and every time we landed,” she recalls. “We had two flights that day.” When flight attendants stepped in to help, he “howled like he was being tortured. It was awful.” By the time they arrived at their layover and were met with an hour-long customs line, both mom and son were in tears. (Planning a family trip? These 15 destinations are fun for all ages.)
The stress of flights does not help the parent or baby, notes Kimberly Tate, travel writer and podcaster at Stuffed Suitcase and Vacation Mavens. This mom of two cautions that kids often take their emotional cues from adults. “If you are stressed and angry, they’re going to pick up on those emotions. If you remain calm and act rationally, they’ll likely try to do the same.”
It’s the kind of information that most parents only learn along the way. There is no manual for how to keep your kids’ first flights easy, but with every travel hiccup comes a chance to do it better next time.
Preparing for takeoff? We canvassed travel experts and pro parents for tips to help make your next family flight as stress-free as possible.
Before you fly
Get seats together (even if you have to pay for it): While some airlines will help at the gate, your safest bet is to do it yourself. “If you don’t see seats together when you buy your tickets, call the airline immediately to see what an agent can do for your family,” says Tate. Also, consider paying for that extra seat for your toddler if you can afford it. Yes, kids under age two can fly free, but not all kids do well on a lap. A seat opens up the possibility of using their car seat on the plane, a space they already know. Consider coughing up the cash for comfort.
Practice before departing: “Look at the planes beforehand,” suggests Preddie. “Normalize the experience as much as possible.” Role-play life at the airport (lining up to walk through security) and on board (mimicking the sound of the seatbelt sign before sitting quietly) at home. Tate also suggests checking out library books or kids shows where flying is a part of the story. She explains, “Helping prepare your toddler for what’s going to happen can help them feel more in control during the experience and can help them find the cues as to what’s going on, so they’re not stressed or worried by the new experience.”
Ask questions: Social media means access to your airline or TSA is easier than ever before. Use it to your advantage. If you have something that you want to bring with you and you’re not sure, snap a photo and send it off to them for pre-approval.
At the airport
Burn off energy: On the plane, tight aisles and restrictive seat belts force everyone to be still. While you have time and space, let kids run. Look for children’s spaces in terminals where they can bounce and climb. Matt Villano, a writer focused on family travel, recalls killing time at an airport by walking his daughter around under the guise of looking for a princess in the terminal. “Finally, we found this old lady who said she was the princess. [My daughter] could not believe it. It was pretty awesome.”
Board first or last: Most airlines will offer a chance to board ahead of general passengers, but taking them up on that offer is up to you. If you’re traveling solo and trying to manage a toddler, boarding first with time to stow your bag and settle in might make sense. But if you’ve got a second adult with you, consider letting them board with the bags, while you maximize the time your little one can run free.
Limit the layover: Even the best airports will grow tiresome. Try to limit time in between flights to whatever is necessary. One parent suggests that the sweet spot for layovers in the airport terminal is under three hours. If your layover is longer than eight hours, you should consider booking an airport hotel room.
On the flight
Make allies: “When you board the plane, be sure to smile at the flight attendants and even mention if it’s your little one’s first flight,” suggests Tate. “They might have a special surprise to give them and it gives them a heads up that your child is a new traveler.” Flight attendants are often the extra hands you'll rely on during the flight if you need a bathroom break or to reach a baby bag. Treat them with care.
BYOE (Bring Your Own Entertainment): Villano packs mini swag bags for each of his girls; these may include new pens, markers, and stickers—perfect for creating art on the fly. (An easy activity: Construction paper folded and ripped into strips with tape to create paper chains. At the end of the flight, they’re gifted to the flight attendants.) Preddie makes sure she packs a surprise new toy or two on board. Both swear by having extras of everything (snacks, diapers, wipes, clothes—for everyone) on board. “When you think you have enough, bring more,” says Villano.
Put on a show: Even parents who limit screen time at home should reconsider on a long flight, says Preddie. “Don’t be a martyr. Use it.” Stockpiled episodes of your child’s favorite show could buy you the in-air respite you need. Make sure to have headphones that will fit little ears and peak at a low volume, as well as all the cords you need to keep things charged.
Set the stage for naptime: Want the kids to sleep? Make it feel like bedtime. Let them change into their pajamas ahead of the flight, bring their favorite stuffed animal, and pull out their blanket or book. The more things feel familiar, the better.
Keep it clean: The last thing you want to bring home is illness. Villano says he travels with Clorox wipes to disinfect the areas where the girls will be sitting. “And never trust a toddler with an airplane cup,” he says. Make sure you’ve packed a cup with a lid to prepare for turbulence.
Wait for the signal: Air pressure can be painful for kids, but parents often jump the gun in offering a soothing aid (such as a pacifier, bottle, or breast). “Sometimes an airplane will taxi for a long time, thereby using up all the milk and water before leaving the ground,” one mom shares. The best advice is to wait for the captain to say “flight attendants, prepare for take off.” Then encourage the child to swallow to relieve ear pressure.
Heather Greenwood Davis is a family travel expert and a contributing editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her on Twitter.