Tips for Flying With Children

The ultimate guide to flying with children

We returned this past Saturday from a wonderful trip to Boston, Massachusetts! Mike worked at his old job while the kids and I visited my sister and friends. I was thinking on the flight home that I have now been on more than forty flights with small children – flying with baby and toddler siblings as a child (I have six younger siblings, and the youngest is 15 years younger than me) and many times with my own children as an adult. I have learned a few things in the process, and I thought it might be nice to share those lessons in a post.

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Tips for flying with children

Pack light

Here is our typical per person packing list:

  • Four shirts
  • Four pants
  • Five pairs of underwear
  • Five pairs of socks
  • Two pairs of pajamas
  • One jacket

My packing for trips with kids has some great specific tips. Packing cubes are great for keeping everything organized. Gallon ziploc bags are a more affordable alternative. On this trip I just rolled everything and didn’t use bags, which works but is less organized.

Each child gets to carry a backpack on the plane, which will hold:

  • Spare outfit (you will thank me when your luggage is lost or when someone spills their drink on the plane)
  • Jacket. Planes can be chilly!
  • One soft toy
  • One sticker book (new for the trip) – we love these from Usborne
  • One water bottle (empty. I put the complimentary drinks in these for the kids. They are used to drinking from their water bottles and the cap really helps avoid spills.)
  • Two picture books or chapter books or one e-reader.

In my bag, I have:

  • Laptop
  • Granola bars
  • Cheese sticks
  • Gum (give to kids to chew during take-off and landing)
  • Post-it Notes (kids draw pictures on these and create mini galleries on the seat back in front of them.)
  • Book or crochet project for me. I find that my kids are much better behaved if I have something of my own to work on (so they don’t see me being available to provide personal entertainment the entire flight).
  • For longer flights, a small surprise – often a new Toob full of small plastic animals.
  • TRASH BAGS. At least two. They do come around for trash on planes, but if you are flying with kids it is really nice to have somewhere to put it until the flight attendant shows up to collect.
  • Mike brings a tablet in his bag when he flies with us (as he did for this trip).

Car Seats

If your baby or toddler has their own seat, I highly recommend getting a window seat for them so that they can sit in their car seat on the flight. My toddlers will often sleep through the flight in a car seat, and it is much easier to keep a toddler buckled into their car seat than in the so-easy-to-remove airplane seatbelt. Their car seat is also a comfort item that can help them feel safe and at home on the flight. Do check the width of your car seat – every once in a while there is one that is too wide for airplane seats.

Car seats are a pain to lug through airports, but I carried ours by the straps until this last flight when a friend lent me their car seat trolley that turns the car seat into a stroller. I should have invested in this a LONG time ago! You can also buy this harness that replaces a car seat. I have never used one, but they get good reviews and have passed safety checks, and I know people who love them.

We were able to check our stroller for free along with our suitcase, so I didn’t have to take a stroller through security. The car seat works beautifully as a stroller on smooth airport walkways. The Cares Safety Restraint System is a much smaller FAA approved harness, but it incorporates the airplane buckle, which is much too easy for children to unfasten and it is much less comfortable for most children than their own car seat. I’m still glad it exists as an option!

Car seats for older kids are free to check at the check-in counter. For kids who are old enough to sit in boosters, I highly recommend these inflatable boosters so that you don’t have to haul those huge plastic things through the airport!

Before the Flight

If your child is flying for the first time, borrow or buy a few books about flying so that they know what to expect. Here are a few my kids have enjoyed:

I try to do something active with the kids the day before the flight – we go swimming, go to a playground, or find a splash park. I also try to give the kids down time at home (or in our hotel room). I have some pretty introverted kids, and they need the quiet time to survive all the hours of being out in public where they have to be on alert.

At the airport, we make our way through security and then play at the airport play space if there is one. Otherwise we often find a spot near a window to watch the planes take off and land. Smoothies are our favorite airport treat – they feel very refreshing!

During the Flight

I always give my kids something to chew during take-off and landing, because this helps their ears adjust to the air pressure changes. My older kids get gum; younger kids (who swallow gum like candy) get cheese sticks or fruit snacks.

Don’t entertain kids right away! Let them entertain themselves for as long as possible! My kids enjoy watching the luggage load onto the plane, reading the flight safety guide, and looking through the airline-provided flight magazines. When they first get bored, have them play with the items the brought in their own backpacks. Only bring items out of your own bag if you have to. On this flight, two-year-old Anna spent ages drawing on our boarding passes:

Sometimes the simplest activities work best when flying.

With charming results:

Hours on a plane can lead to creative kids!

Technology

While I like to keep my kids screen-free, long flights are one time when screen activities can make sense. We keep the kids screen-free on road trips, but then they are allowed to talk loudly, sing, and there are often interesting things to see out the windows. On a flight, they are expected to stay still, be quiet, and there is little to see out the window beyond take-off or landing. Technology can also be very useful if you are on a flight where movies you would rather your kids not watch are being shown on public screens. Just be aware that, once the technology comes out, it is hard to put it away and kids will be glued to screens instead of interacting with one another, or possibly sleeping.

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On our flight home from Boston, Anna played with Felt Board on Mike’s tablet, and Emma used my laptop to work on a book she is writing. And I’m pretty sure Johnny is playing Angry Birds (also on Mike’s tablet) in this photo.

After the Flight

Whether the flight was a nightmare or went smoothly, you survived. Congratulations! Go over what worked and what needs to change the next time. Take your child to a park so they can run and be as loud as they like. Enjoy visiting a new place or catching up with family and friends!

Do you have any tips on flying with small children that you would add to this post?

MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

8 thoughts on “Tips for Flying With Children”

  1. Lots of great tips! I’d also suggest getting to the airport early so that you have time to let your little ones walk around and burn off some energy. As well, many airports have kid-friendly play zones that are a fun place for them to get in some active play before needing to sit still on the airplane – ask where they are while you’re checking in :)

  2. You are so smart to pack an extra outfit per child in their backpack handcarry! Our luggage was lost and we didn’t have that extra outfit and now we learned our lesson. I would further advise packing 3 or 4 extra underwear and socks in the carry-on since it’s very small and light and hard to buy sometimes when your luggage is lost for days.

  3. We’re pretty screen free too, so it’s always a big deal for my kids when they are allowed to use one. And I agree a new sticker book is amazing for kids!

  4. Elisa | blissfulE

    Terrific tips!! I don’t have anything to add (except a small rant on how annoying and unfriendly it is when they play inappropriate content on the unmissable public screens in the airplane!). We make our meals last as long as possible – raisins are a favourite snack to pack because they can be doled out and eaten over a long period of time.

    Will be referring back to your post next time we fly!

  5. Pingback: Flying with Kids: How to stay calm on an airplane - Kids Yoga Stories | Yoga stories for kids

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