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Flying with kids is always an adventure, but some adventures are bumpier than others, and flying with a toddler can have its share of turbulence. I peg the hardest age to fly at roughly when babies start to crawl and become more mobile by about 9 months around until somewhere between 18 months and 24 months when they start to be able to communicate better, rationalize, and potentially even accept bribes for good behavior. That 9-18 month age range is tough for sitting still on an airplane, but thankfully things start to even out once they turn two, though you still need to be prepared with a bag of tricks and strategy because even though this isn’t traditionally the hardest age to travel, it is still far from the easiest.
Explain what will happen next
Kids this age love to know what will happen next and are full of questions and excitement, so use that to your advantage to read books about flying before the big day, let them help pick out some toys for the flight, talk about airplanes, and really build up the big event before it arrives.
On the day of travel, allow some extra time to not rush through the airport, take time to look at the planes, and try and enjoy every step of the journey instead of rushing through it stressed and hurried. Once you get to the boarding gate and even onto the plane, keep explaining what will happen next and what is expected of your toddler. For example, let them know that once we get on the plane we will put up our bags, strap into our seats, and then you can watch some cartoons on the iPad while we wait to start flying in the sky.
Fly well rested
Most two-year-olds take an afternoon nap, and I know how tempting it can be to try and line-up the flight with naptime. That isn’t a horrible strategy, but just be aware that falling asleep promptly at 1PM every day at home or daycare does not necessarily translate to falling asleep at 1PM in an airplane seat. You can just as likely end up with an over-stimulated and over-tired two-year-old as one who sleeps through the flight. I have found that those who are good car seat sleepers have the best chance of sleeping on a plane in their car seat, but there really are no guarantees at this age.
Whether you time your flight during a naptime or not, be sure your two-year-old is well rested on the day of travel. Whenever possible try to ensure a normal night of sleep before the big travel day as an over-tired toddler can lead to seriously undesirable outcomes. Not to scare anyone as the likelihood of this happening is very small, but if you ever pay attention to the news stories of families with kids who are kicked off the plane, it is almost always a kid in this age range who I can virtually promise was overtired and acting a fool as a result.
While we are on the topic, flying well rested applies to the parents, too. I know there are always tons of things to do the day before a family trip, but you will have way more patience to meet the needs of your toddler in the sky if you got some good rest, too. Trust me.
I don’t care if you are in the nicest first class in the world and have triple confirmed a child’s meal would be loaded, just assume there will be nothing edible for your two-year-old onboard. Often times, there is nothing at all remotely child-friendly to eat on an airplane. If there is, just consider that a bonus, but pack as if there will be nothing for your kid to eat for the entire time you are flying plus a few hours since you never know when you will draw the unlucky stick and get a long tarmac delay.
I recommend bringing very familiar and easy to eat meals on board. Anything too sweet, too greasy, or simply too messy is probably not the best option. I have been blessed with a two-year-old who currently deals with some degree of motion sickness on flights, so I have learned that a simple and somewhat bland meal is better than a rich and overly delicious selection. You may have better success packing a meal from home rather than relying on fast food in the airport if your toddler has a sensitive tummy.
Wiggle it out
Before your two-year-old has to sit relatively still for hours, let them wiggle it out in the airport. Thankfully airports are usually big with plenty of room to stretch your legs, so let them do just that and walk as much as possible on the way to the gate.
If you have access to a lounge with a family room such as the Amex Centurion Lounge in DFW as shown here, that can also be a great place for a kid to be a kid before trying to behave like a tiny adult.
App it up
I know some parents are more restrained with electronics for their toddlers that we are, but at least while in the air, I can guarantee there is nothing easier than simply letting your two-year-old play with an app or watch a cartoon on a tablet. Just like with food, I don’t recommend relying on the airline to provide any in-flight entertainment or movies, though of course sometimes they do. Come prepared with a fully charged and loaded iPad or other tablet with some movies downloaded and at least a handful of child-friendly apps. Some of our favorites for kids in this age range are Peekaboo Barn, Tiny Hands, ColouringKids, Animals for Toddlers, though I’m sure there are other really great ones out there so feel free to share your favorites in the comments section.
Back in the days before tablets, we relied on portable DVD players and DVDs for toddler in-flight entertainment and still we do at times, especially as a supplement to the iPad. Again, just make sure your devices are fully charged and of course have some child-friendly headphones at the ready (here are my favorites). I’ve found it is best to have a couple tried and true movie favorites at the ready as well as a new show or two that you think will be a big hit.
Colors and toys
For longer flights, you may need more to do than just a bright and flashy screen, so it is a good idea to stash a few small toys in your bag of tricks. Just like with the movies, I recommend a few small favorites and then a new surprise or two that they ‘earn’ by being good onboard. I am not at all against bribing a toddler to keep it together in the air for a new My Little Pony or Paw Patrol toy!
Colors and coloring books can also be good, especially for an older two-year-old, but just be ready to be a real supervisor of that activity since you don’t want to be the one responsible for a newly colored forest green airplane window or tray table.
Not the time for potty training
Some two-year-olds are potty-trained while many are still happy in their diapers, but regardless of where your toddler falls in that spectrum, I strongly recommend at least a pull-up while flying. Even the most perfectly potty trained child may have trouble holding it when the seatbelt sign is on longer than anticipated. It is very comforting to know that even if an accident happens, you won’t be dealing with an epic outfit mess as a result. I also recommend changing your little one’s diaper just before boarding so that maybe you can get lucky and skip that task onboard. Airplane lounges generally have the best bathrooms in the airport, so if you have access to one, use it!
Speaking of mess, you will want an easy to grab change of clothes for your toddler, a plastic sack, and maybe even a shirt for you that you can get to in a carry-on bag in the event of a big spill or other mess causing incident. We deal with this more than the norm thanks to some motion sickness, but some extra clothes, a trash sack, and even a burp rag or receiving type of blanket are great things to have within hands reach when flying with a two-year-old.
Carseat, CARES Harness, or seatbelt
If you can logistically lug it onboard, the most comfortable and likely safest spot for your two-year-old on the plane is in their car seat. My girls both did the best at this age in their car seat, though it isn’t always practical to bring it onboard, especially if you are flying as the only adult with multiple children.
Thankfully, there are are other options available such as a FAA approved CARES Harness or even just using the regular seatbelt. There is no rule that you have to have a special restraint for your toddler, so doing so or not is your own choice. The CARES Harness is a great compromise if you want the extra safety from being more secure but don’t want to haul a big car seat onboard.
If you do spend the miles or otherwise splurge to sit upfront with your two-year-old, be aware that the fancy seats more frequently are not compatible with carseats and CARES Harnesses, so check with your carrier directly for that information, or it can often be found on their website.
Enjoy the ride
Flying with a two-year-old can be a challenge, but it is also a lot of fun. Getting your humans and your gear onboard is often the hardest part, but once you pass that hurdle, try to relax and enjoy some of the ride in the sky with your little traveling companion. Look at the clouds together, see the house and trees shrink as you ascend in the air, and enjoy the one-on-one time with your kiddo(s).
I am looking forward to the next flight with my two-year-old and I’d love to hear your tips or questions for flying with a kiddo in this age range, too. If you want to read a bit more on similar topics, I’ve linked a few posts below.
Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.