Tips for Flying with a Toddler

Long-haul, international travel with a toddler comes down to two very simple things: patience and a sense of humor. Let's be clear that those are simple things, which should not be confused with easy things. Remember that whole distinction in Julie & Julia? I thought that was the best part of the book and it's stuck with me. I spent hours, literally hours following Coco around the plane in circles. It was better than the times when I had to force her into the seat on account of the fasten seat belts sign as she flailed, screamed and tried to scratch my face off. So, yes. Patience and a sense of humor are simple, uncomplicated tools that will make flying with your toddler easy. But they are also rather difficult to manage at times! Keep reading to get my full list of tricks.

Fresh air and movement before take-off are key!
Pay attention to the timing of your flight, and if at all possible, avoid early morning. Our flight took off at 11:45, so we started out at the observation deck so Coco could have some fresh air and seat- and restraint-free time before we took off. She's a very active child and needs lots of time outside, so that worked out well.

Ask for an empty seat for your child and stick to your child's usual nap schedule.
When we checked in, the ticketing agent moved us to a seat in a row of two and blocked a seat so that Coco would have a seat. That really saved us. Babies under two fly free(ish) on your lap. But your lap is not that big. ;)
I also find it really helpful to follow the normal nap and eating scheduling to start out. The jet lag will catch up soon enough, but allow your child to follow their normal rhythm as long as possible. And try to sleep when he or she is sleeping!

Don't bring lots of toys and don't interfere when they find something interesting!
Lugging around a huge carryon is a nightmare, so just pack one favorite toy (small doll for Coco) and a few books. Instead, let your toddler play with things around them. For example, the buttons on the armrest are great fun. And so is putting the headphone jack into the port and then taking it out again and doing it all over. Just make sure you stay out of it. If your child is engrossed in something, let them be! Only get involved if they are truly frustrated and need your help. Otherwise, that concentration for 5 or 10 or 15 minutes is your chance to look out the window, or read a book or just have a moment's peace. Don't ruin it for yourself! 

Have a travel buggy and carrier with you.
We brought the Maclaren and the Ergo with us. The Maclaren was taken to the gate and brought back out to us on the jetway after each flight. The Ergo was essential for boarding and walking her around to get her to sleep once it was "nighttime" for her. Having the Maclaren is the only reason we made our connection in DC. I ran all the way to our gate, while Coco chirped happily as we zoomed along, and arrived sweaty for the final boarding call. Phew! On the second flight, I didn't have her in the Ergo as we boarded and she ran (in a matter of four seconds) from where I was standing to the back of the plane where the rear door was open for the Gate Gourmet truck. The flight attendant who grabbed her told me she was headed straight for the big-enough-for-a-baby-to-fall-out-gap between the truck and the aircraft. Shudder! So, wearing the Ergo isn't just for when they're tired. That happened in the time it took me to put my bag in the overhead bin! Goodness. And, finally, when our flight was delayed from Denver to Spokane (somebody shoot me) I had the head bobs and literally could not stay awake any longer. Luckily, Coco was sleeping in the Ergo so I just lay down on the floor and fell asleep with her. If we hadn't had the Ergo and the Maclaren, it would have been miserable, maybe even impossible!

Bring snacks and water and milk in a bottle.
Plane food is plane food. Bring something your child will eat and bring bottles and cups they're used to drinking from. We brought Coco's Sigg for water, an Avent bottle for milk, oatmeal to add hot water to, sliced strawberries, a banana and chocolate covered rice cakes to bust out as a distraction during tantrums. Thankfully, we didn't have any full-scale tantrums and the flight attendants were more than happy to give a refill on milk. :)

I really thought that having the iPad in this children's case would be the key to a peaceful trip, but she wasn't the least bit interested in tapping away on a screen. She wanted to move! Keeping her out of business class was a bit of a challenge, but after a few laps she understood she had to loop back through coach and needed less and less redirecting from me. So the first leg of the flight, from Zurich to DC, was consumed mainly by following her while she ran laps. Not the worst thing and I didn't have to worry about deep vein thrombosis. Haha.

Our second flight was more difficult. We only had two hours in DC to get through passport control, which meant a long line stuck in the buggy for Coco. Then we had to go through customs, recheck our bags and get back through security before sprinting to the gate. That flight was full and Coco was restless and hungry. They didn't feed us, but only had food for purchase with a credit card. As luck would have it, I had cash, but had accidentally left my credit card in Zurich. So, that was when having snacks really came in handy. 

The last flight, following the delay, we were both exhausted. The gate agents were so lovely and ended up giving us an entire row to ourselves when I asked for an empty seat for Coco. We slept almost the entire way to Spokane, which was really needed as we had been traveling for nearly 24 hours. 

It's not the most fun thing you'll ever do, it makes you swear you're going to move back home immediately and it takes a few days to feel rehydrated and normal again, but it's doable. You absolutely can fly internationally with a toddler. Just relax, take a deep breath and remember to laugh.


  1. Great post for parents who struggle with travelling with their toddlers. It doesn't need to be difficult.


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