Please note this site has financial relationships with American Express and this post may contain affiliate links. Read my Advertiser Disclosure policy here to learn more about my partners.
I have recently been getting an increased number of emails about how to prepare for an infant or toddler’s first flight. At first I thought it was a weird coincidence, but then the light bulb went off, and I realized it was because the holidays are coming up, and those who have stayed put with their little ones as long as possible are now facing their first flights across the country or beyond. That makes now the perfect time to review some good tips to prepare everyone in the family for your kiddo’s first time at 36,000 feet.
- Look at your flight time and think about how you are going to structure your travel day. I recommend keeping as normal of a schedule for your young child as possible. Some people like to try and delay nap time so that the kiddos will hopefully sleep on the plane, but there is a high risk of having an awake, but overtired, child on the flight if you take that approach. Only you know your child best, but try to keep them on as normal of a schedule as possible in terms of sleeping, meals, etc. on the day of travel. If your flight happens to occur during a normal nap time, then keep your fingers crossed that your child will get some shut-eye on the plane, but prepare accordingly in case that doesn’t happen since they will be in a very different environment than normal.
- Decide (or review your decision) about whether or not to purchase a seat for your child who is under 24 months. Children under two fly free domestically when they are a “lap child”, but lap children do carry at least a 10% fee when traveling internationally. This sounds small, but can be pretty significant, especially if you are traveling in a premium cabin, even on miles. Most airlines are pretty good about allowing you to use an open seat for your “lap child” if it is available, but the chances that there will be an empty seat during peak holiday travel are pretty slim. If you don’t purchase a seat for your young child, then don’t expect one to be available for you to use. While very young and non-mobile babies may do pretty well in their parent’s lap, older toddlers in the 12-24 month range may have a harder time sitting still in a lap for hours at a time. Additionally, some toddlers are large enough that sitting in a lap isn’t really practical. It you have the means to secure a seat, especially for kids over 12 months, it will likely make your travels much more comfortable assuming your child is not of the personality type that just wants to be held 24/7. Not only will your child have their own space, but you will also have additional space under your toddler’s seat for all of your carry-ons. If you do decide to fly with your child a lap infant, then make sure to have their birth certificate with you so you can prove they are still under two years of age. Otherwise, children do not need their own IDs for domestic travel until they are 18. However, if you are flying internationally, they will need a passport regardless of age.
- Review the baggage and carry-on policies for your airline. Every airline has their own carry-on luggage policy for both regular passengers, and some policies that relate specifically to lap children and standard infant equipment such as strollers, car seats, etc. While you should review your airline’s policy specifically, you will find that most airlines are relatively generous with baggage allowances for young travelers. Even the notoriously stingy Spirit Airlines allows one stroller and one car seat to be checked for free, as well as allowing one diaper bag per infant in addition to the other allowed personal carry-on item. However, keep in mind that additional regular carry-ons with Spirit range from $35 – $100 each! You will often find that you can either check the stroller upon check-in, or you can “gate check” the stroller and/or car seat so they will be waiting for you at the gate when you get off the plane. Note that American will not gate check larger/jogging type strollers. I prefer to gate check so that I have the items to help get through the airport, but if you plan to “wear” your baby through the airport then it may be easier to check the items from the beginning. Keep in mind that typically airlines state that they are not responsible for damage to strollers and/or car seats.
- Check your seat assignments to make sure your family is seated together. If you haven’t traveled with others in a while, it may be a shocker that it is pretty difficult to get seats together for your whole family if you aren’t willing to pay extra for “premium seats”, this is especially true if you have booked the Basic Economy type fares. It may also be surprising that there are no written requirements (that I am aware of) on US airlines that children must be seated with their children. In fact, when our daughter was less than two years old she was seated rows apart from us on a full flight. We were able to trade seats to be seated together, but technically you may receive seat assignments apart from even your youngest children. i recommend being very proactive in getting seating assignments together. It is worth a call to the airline if you aren’t able to get complimentary seat assignments next to your children online. The earlier you do this the more likely it is that your party can be accommodated. Ultimately, if you are not able to get free seat assignments together then you may be faced with either paying a surcharge to secure “premium” seats together, or try your luck with the gate agent and/or passengers on board being willing to switch seats with you. While most people are accommodating to help keep parents next to small children, since holiday flights are often full of other traveling families, I personally would want to do anything necessary to secure seat assignments together ahead of time. On some airlines the premium seats even get you more legroom, which can be very helpful with little ones who like to kick the seat in front of them!
- Plan activities for the entire length of the flight. The age of your child will dictate what activities you need to plan for the length of your flight, but plan out your “child entertainment” agenda ahead of time for the estimated time of our flight, plus some buffer for delays. For infants, the activities may just consist of bottles/nursing, bouncing, walking, sleeping, etc. However, for toddlers you must have many activities planned to hold their interest. Some popular options include: Play Doh, new small toys/figurines, colors, books, colored pipe cleaners, snacks, WixiStix, downloaded iPad apps, DVD’s (with headphones), etc. I know it is tempting to travel as light as possible, but truthfully for the first couple flights it is better to have too many things to do for the kids on-board, than not enough. It is also good to have some new toys that they have never seen before so that they may hold their interest longer. Special treats for toddlers (like M&Ms) can also be good tools to prevent/delay all out meltdowns. The cardinal rule of on-board activities is to never move onto the next activity until your child is unhappy and/or has totally lost interest in the present activity. For toddlers, it is also helpful to have really prepared them ahead of time for what the flight will be like. Make it sound exciting, and it will be.
- Car seat vs no car seat. If you have purchased a seat for your child (or you want to try your luck at a free adjacent seat) you will have to decide whether to bring a car seat, another FAA approved restraint, or to not restrain your child. Car seats can be bulky to get through the airport, but there are many affordable gadgets to make that process simpler. Many children will sleep better and be more comfortable in a car seat than without (not to mention it is safer if you hit turbulence). The FAA approved CARES Harness is much easier to maneuver through the airport as it will fit in a purse or backpack, but my experience for toddlers is that it doesn’t encourage sleeping as much as a car seat does. The Doona can be a fantastic investment if you travel frequently with your baby. Be aware that when using a car seat for toddlers that there is a very high likelihood that they will be able to reach (i.e., kick,) the seat in front of them, so be prepared. While I do generally prefer to bring the car seat on-board for our toddler, we usually choose to travel with a lighter, smaller, and less expensive car seat than the Britax we use at home. We use the Cosco Scenera which can sometimes be purchased for less than $40 online. Read this post for tips on which gear to get for travel with your car seat as well as to learn more about the pros/cons of using them on your flight.
- Getting through the airport. If possible, get dropped off at the airport as opposed to having to deal with parking and lugging all your stuff to the terminal. Use the curbside check-in for your luggage (and bring a few dollars for a tip), and then you only have to enter the airport with what you plan to bring on-board. At times the TSA agents offer a shorter lines for families with small children, but don’t count on it. Additionally, if you qualify for Pre-Check then that can really cut down your waiting in security lines. Assuming you don’t qualify for Pre-Check, then be prepared to remove all liquids, take off your coat, shoes, etc. You will also be required to collapse the baby stroller and send it through the screening device. If you are wearing your baby, they should allow you to keep wearing your baby through security, though there are exceptions to every rule. Children 12 and under can keep their shoes on, but I know my child always wants to take hers off since everyone else is doing it. Some airports are very liberal about the liquids you can bring through for infants and toddlers and some are very stringent. You may just pass through with everything you need without incident, or you may be required to have a full bag search and pat-down since you are bringing through liquid in quantities greater than three ounces. Once you are through security, I recommend either going to an airline lounge that has a family room, or finding a corner of a boarding area to keep your group together. If possible, keeping toddlers active in the airport is important so that they can burn off steam before sitting on the plane. I do not recommend eating in the airport since eating on the plane can be a great way to kill some time, but you likely want to purchase your food in the airport to bring on-board.
- Early boarding. Not all airlines offer early boarding to families, but many still offer it either on a case-by-case basis or at some point later during the boarding process. My advice is to get at least one person on-board as early as possible to set-up the car seats and/or CARES Harness, secure space for the car seats, etc. Some families prefer to keep the actual children off the plane until the last minute, and that is a good strategy as long as you aren’t waiting until the last minute to try to get space for bags and install car seats, especially if this is your first time traveling as a family. If you need to try and trade seats on-board in order to have children seated next to parents then I also recommend starting that process as early as possible.
- Surviving the flight. Unless you are really unlucky, if you have prepared adequately for the flight, then it should be one of the easier parts of the trip. I know most people facing their first trip with a child worry about the actual flight itself the most, but once you are settled in your seats and have activities and snacks at your disposal, it shouldn’t be too terrible. The exception is if your child is very tired/cranky or has trouble with their ears on take-off or landing. We make sure that our daughter is drinking/nursing on both take-off and landing. Even now that she is older we still have her with a sippy-cup or juice box on take-off and landing if she is awake. We also like to make sure that our daughter is dressed as cute as possible for the flight as it seems to make nearby passengers smile a bit and makes us feel a little better! Just be sure that the “cute” outfit is also comfortable and easy to maneuver for diaper changes (which need to be done in the lavatory, not in the seat). I recommend not utilizing any large electronic devices for entertainment during boarding since you will have to turn them off for take-off, and will not be able to turn them back on until you are at 10,000 feet. iPads are an exception that you should be able to keep using since they are small devices. If you are lucky enough to have a child that falls asleep on the plane then do everything you can to not disturb them, even if that means you are trapped in an uncomfortable position. While they are awake go through your planned activities, walk around the plane, look at the in-flight magazine, etc. If you run out of activities then just start all over. If you are traveling with more than one adult then take turns being the one in charge of keeping the child happy and/or trade-off which children you are responsible for just to keep everything as fresh and interesting as possible.
- After the flight. Unless there is a reason for you to get off the plane ASAP, it is sometimes best to let the rest of the plane unload before schlepping your kiddos and gear down the aisle. If you are lucky enough to have someone picking you up at your final destination, then you are both smart and fortunate. The toughest part of the trip can often be getting the whole family and all the luggage onto the rental car bus, installing car seats in the rental car, etc. If you have to pick-up a rental car at your destination, it can be easiest to have one parent stay with the children at the airport while the other takes the car seats and goes to get the car. Just make sure that the one left at the airport has a chance to go to the restroom and get settled first!
Those with kids know that no amount of preparation can ensure the flight will go smoothly. However, I can guarantee you that no matter how it feels in the moment, the flight will not last forever. It will land and you will probably never again see everyone on-board. While there are some grumpy folks out there, most other travelers are very sympathetic and understanding of the trials and tribulations of flying with a young child (assuming they see you trying everything you can to keep your child happy). There will likely be a point in the trip that you feel like it was a mistake to ever leave the house, but at the end of the trip you will almost certainly be glad that you did.
I would love to hear stories about your first trip with your child as well as any tips you have for first time family flyers!
If you want more details on many of the tips mentioned in this post, check out some of the more detailed posts below:
Traveling with a Lap Child (Planning)
Traveling Alone with a Lap Child (Review)
Little C’s Traveling Friends: