Confession…Flying With My Almost Three Year Old is Almost Easy

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I have to confess something – traveling with my 33 month old is almost easy (no, I don’t normally count in months). There are a bunch of things about caring for my toddler that are not easy at all, but flying with her is insanely simple. I am certain that some of that is just very fortunate luck, but given how “go go go” her personality normally is, I have to think that some of it is from knowing the routine and what is expected during the flight. In other words, I think you can train many toddlers to be good travelers. That is very good news since flying with an untrained toddler wouldn’t be very fun!

I think part of what has made it simple at this point is that she has done it many times, but there are some things that we do that seem to help. So, I wanted to share some of those tips in case they might be helpful to other toddler travelers.

  • We have her take as active a role as possible in the traveling process. This includes helping decide which toys and clothes to pack, having her put everything in her bag (though I often have to pack everything neater when she isn’t watching), and having her carry her bag through the airport for as long as she will tolerate. We also let her carry her boarding pass to the TSA agents, and she gives her own name when they ask. Those are all simple things, but they make her feel like a part of the process.

  • When we are in the airport, we spend time in the family room of the United Club, if possible. This is usually a room with toys and a door where she won’t be in anyone’s way, and we don’t have to keep telling her, “No, stay here. No, come back. Don’t go over there.” If we can’t get to a family room, then we try to find a corner of the club with no other people to bother until just before boarding time.
  • While in the airport we have her walk/run around as much as possible to get her energy out before sitting on the plane. I would much rather her walk laps around the terminal than sit and quietly play with toys while waiting for the plane. There will be enough sitting one we board, so the airport is the time to stretch her legs.

  • We have her use the restroom right before getting on the plane so that she (hopefully) doesn’t have to go right in the middle of boarding or while the fasten seatbelt light is still on.
  • We always have a new toy for her on each trip. She knows about this toy well in advance, and gets to look forward to opening it on the airplane. This makes the flight itself something to really look forward to. For the last few flights she has been getting a new My Little Pony each time. These are small and inexpensive, so it makes for the perfect “plane toy”. Little Disney Cars toys have also been good plane toys for us on previous trips.
  • Have a “no electronics until we are in the clouds” rule. We don’t let her start watching movies or playing with any electronics until 10,000 feet. It would be a recipe for disaster to have them on during boarding and then have to turn them off when the door closes. This is also beneficial because she has started to just fall asleep shortly after boarding as she knows there isn’t much to do right away.


  • I have said this many times, but we continue to stick with one activity until she doesn’t want to do it anymore. On our most recent flight C was happily just sitting there snuggling with her blankie and her Daddy asked if she wanted M&Ms or her new toy? I wanted to slap him with a copy of Skymall as those were items to not be used until necessary. Repeat 10 times, do not move on to the next activity until absolutely necessary. Let happy toddlers remain in their constant state until they start to become unhappy.
  • Have a virtually limitless supply of yummy snacks and drinks available. This isn’t just important in the event that the kiddo is actually hungry, but it is also just a good way to kill some time. I give her little cheddar bunnies to eat one at a time so that it takes longer.
  • We have also taught her that there is a “no crying on airplanes” rule. In fact, if you ask her what are the rules on an airplane, 9 times out of 10 she will say that crying is not allowed on airplanes. I think she should go on the road teaching other babies that important lesson. For the most part she practices what she preaches in that respect.

I’m sure this post will totally jinx our next flight, but I wanted to share what is working right now for our almost three year old. If you are a parent who is still dealing with traveling all the gear, diapers, etc. with an infant I promise it gets easier. The closer the kiddos get to three, the easier it gets…at least in my case. Of course, that still doesn’t mean that the process is seamless (I still think getting the rental car is often the worst part), but the actual flying part really isn’t so bad anymore. I’d love to hear what other tips are working for your young children while flying!


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  1. I have to ask how you like the penguin luggage. I was going to buy that for my nephew but the reviews on ebags weren’t so great. How is it holding up to the travel?

    • @Jason, we love it. It does get scuff marks pretty easily, but for us that isn’t a huge issue. If that is an issue for you, then you probably will be frustrated. Otherwise no complaints!

  2. ” I wanted to slap him with a copy of Skymall as those were items to not be used until necessary” – hilarious, and so true. Bookmarking this for our friends asking for toddler tips.
    Are you ready to start taking her on long/multi-leg flights yet? Time zones are your next challenge.

  3. As a former mom of toddlers (now college students – where did the time go!) and fellow points enthusiast, I second all of your comments. I traveled with the kids from toddlerhood to adulthood, and they too can still recite the airplane rules: No crying, no kicking seats, no pounding on tray tables. I used to save the happy meal toys and dole them out on planes. They sure do miss the United Club now that they are moving off the Mommy payroll, however.

  4. Nice post. We just had our first on Monday! This week has been a lot of fun.

    We have a trip planned IAD-CLT-STT in November. Any tips for first parents traveling with a 7 week old? Thankfully we are in first, but I already feel bad for the other first passengers. :-/

  5. This post made me grin. I’ve been following your blog since you joined BoardingArea, and waiting for you to say something like this. My daughter is 4 1/2, and I’ve been taking her on mileage jogs for about a year now. It’s remarkable how easy it gets with some practice!

    I feel like there are three general things that make traveling with a toddler/preschooler relatively simple. First, it’s so much easier if the parent[s] are happy and mellow! Mileage runs are actually a lot easier and more fun way to introduce your kid to flying than — say — schlepping the whole family to a stressful Thanksgiving with the in-laws. Second, inside almost every kid is an airplane geek waiting to be discovered. My daughter can spend half a flight wondering what kind of plane we’ll fly on next. And third, practice makes perfect. After 50K miles, my kid feels like (and acts like!) a professional.

    That last point isn’t all positive, though… ever since we got upgraded on a 752 with BusinessFirst seats, she gives me these “DYKWIA?” looks whenever we end up in coach.

  6. Great article! We let our 4 yr old son run all over the airport! We have always told him “airplanes make you sleepy”. He sleeps each trip even if just a little bit. We have a video called “Shae by AIr” and we watch it right before a flight. It’s great at walking your child through the process of flying.
    We agree that training kids to be good travelers pays off! We’ve flown all over the States with him, to Asia & to Australia. He is a good little traveler!

  7. For a flight with my 2(ish) year old son, I got a bag of candy from somewhere with bulk bins – I got a huge variety (candy corn, jelly beans, skittles, m&ms, etc). We played “guess the candy” where he’d close his eyes and I’d feed him one and he’d try to guess what kind it was. He fed me some, too. It was a fun way to dole out the snacks very slowly. He just turned 6 and he *still* talks about playing that game and we only did it that once!

  8. @Sarah, the universal but unwritten rules of travel. 😉
    @JD, congrats! If you are having a bunch of fun the first week, I am guessing that your baby isn’t colicky and is doing okay. 😉 That would mean that flying at 7 weeks should be okay. Just give yourself plenty of time at the airport and hope to nurse/bottlefeed and have the newborn sleep most of the flight.
    @Robin, MR with a kid, you are still much braver than I!! If I was certain there would be no delays or cancellations, then maybe, but we’re not quite there yet. Ha ha!
    @Teresa, I will have to check that out!
    @Stephanie, I like that tip. 😉
    @Rob, most parents really do their best to keep their kids from being “that kid” on a flight. 😉
    @Grant, ha ha. It may look a lot like this dshilgdksl hifdlsfjdsl higldsjg.

  9. Our boys are almost 4 & 6 yrs now, and traveling has gotten so much easier! Now instead of being *that family* schlepping through security lines and the airport, we almost blend in! My youngest loves to play “what kind of airplane is that” with his daddy…specifically asking if it’s a 737 or 757 or MD-80, etc. On our last flight we boarded and he turned left to go speak to the pilot without hesitation. When I caught up with him, he was sitting in the pilot’s seat asking about the buttons. (Clearly he had a very friendly and accommodating pilot & attendants and no, he was not a disruption.) We are confident enough in our boys now that we are planning a trip to Scotland next summer…the first international family flight!

  10. Our son was always well behaved on planes at this age because we had the luxury of training him over many flights. But our 3-year old girl can be a nightmare. The biggest problem is that she sometimes refuses to sit down in her seat (a real problem while waiting for takeoff) or refuses to stop speaking loudly or yelling. Of course it is hard to distract her when there are no electronics allowed, tray tables up, etc. Welcome any suggestions.

  11. It’s amazing that, however terrible 1-2 years is for traveling, 2-3 is like a vacation! I wanted to share the routine I use with my VERY active almost-3-year-old boy. We’ve taken 12 round trips so far this calendar year, including multi-leg trips cross-country. I’ve found that the key is to clearly establish the “rules” up front.

    1) No crying on the airplane – just like you said. Yup, that’s against the rules, and the pilot doesn’t like it. He needs us to be quiet so he can fly the airplane.

    2) The seat belt sign – The pilot is telling us to sit down and put on our seat belts. (Yes, I rely a lot on the mystique of the “Pilot.” I’ve showed my son the seat belt sign and he recognizes when it’s on. If that doesn’t work, I ask a flight attendant to gently scold him for “not listening to the pilot.”

    3) No food before takeoff. When we’re on the ground is time to watch them load the luggage (I try to get a window seat on the right side of the plane so he can watch the suitcases being put on the plane), read books, or look at the other airplanes. We also have a great book about airplanes that goes through the whole packing-airport-takeoff-landing process, so we read that and it helps subtly remind him what will come next. He also sees that the characters in the book are wearing seat belts, not eating until the plane takes off, they’re sleeping and being quiet, etc.

    4) After takeoff, we can eat. This is a valuable time-burner until we get up to 10k feet. As soon as the wheels leave the runway, my son’s asking for his “special treat.” Food easily lasts until we can turn on the DVD player.

    5) Have a fully charged DVD player and iPod touch. Enough said 🙂 I got the iPod for free and I don’t use it for my music, so I don’t have to worry about it getting broken. I downloaded a computer program that lets me save YouTube videos to the iPod, so I have a whole stash of 1-3 minute Sesame Street clips that he can scroll through and select on his own. I also add videos of whatever he’s interested in at the moment. Currently it’s juggling, so I downloaded several videos of kids juggling. He loves watching them and having the control over which video he watches.

    6) Talk through everything. I probably describe what’s going to happen at least 10 times on the trip – In 10 minutes we’re going to line up to get on the plane, when we get on the plane where are you going to sit, what are you going to see out the window, does the pilot like crying, when do we get to eat our special treat, etc. Actually, it starts before we even get to security, because I want him to be well-behaved for that part of the trip, too.

    Flying alone with my son has become quite smooth!

    @Boraxo, I suggest talking to a flight attendant before your flight and letting it’s OK (in fact encouraged) for them to give your daughter a gentle “talking-to.” I also use the pilot and flight attendant announcements to say that they’re asking everyone to please be quiet. (I figure if I can barely understand what they’re saying, then a 3-year-old doesn’t have a chance! That lets me “interpret” it for them).

  12. This is another excellent entry into what is still a fine blog.
    I am a senior citizen, and what I am mindful of is that at some point a child either discovers their own passion for travel or they develop their own passion for something else.
    My sister and I had the same opportunities for travel; but my sister developed a distaste for traveling. My niece also cares little for travel. So, I enjoy being the “odd” uncle who travels and has stories. I’ll be around if one of my niece’s kids develops an interest in travel.
    It will be interesting to see how things turn out with LittleC.

  13. I like the “no crying on airplanes” rule! I’m stealing that one for use with my 3 1/2 year old (even though there really isn’t much crying anymore). We already had a rule about that little seatbelt sign lighting up and she’s fully internalized the meaning of that, so we should be all set soon.

    I also allow my daughter to take off her shoes going through security – she thinks that is a treat because she gets to be like the grown ups. She is just old enough to remember the time when everyone had to take off their shoes, and had trouble with the rule change that allowed her to keep her shoes on. I tried to fight her on this for convenience-sake, but I finally gave up and embraced her travel quirk.

  14. Agreed, it’s not that bad. And, of course, the experiences on either end (and even on the plane) more than make up for any hardships.

    I do miss being able to nap on flights though…

  15. We have airplane rules for our daughter too! Hers are: 1.) No whiney-whiney (no whining) and 2.) No nudie-nudie (since the first time she was old enough to have a say in her outfits she told me she didn’t want to wear any clothes on the plane!). She knows the rules and willingly recites them. She’s flown coach and first and is better behaved than some adults I’ve flown with!

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