General Advice on Airplane Travel with Kids

General advice from Park Slope Parents members on airplane travel with children, including airline rules and regulations, sleeping and the essentials to bring with you on board.

kids-airplane

(image via Wikimedia Commons here)

 

Airline Rules and Regulations

 

Always check with the airline you are going to travel with about their policies for traveling with children: from what you can carry on and amenities on board. We advise to always check ahead of time:

Delta

United

American

Virgin

Jet Blue

Continental

 

Most airlines require the reservation and purchase of a seat (often at discounted fare, however) for a child 24 months or older.  Some airlines, especially with international travel, require an affidavit letter from the absent parent if the child is traveling with only one of two parents. Be sure to check with your airline!

 

Many airlines do not allow parents to wear the infant in a front carrier (such as a Baby Bjorn) during takeoff.

 

Travel Tips / Advice:

- Plan on delays, so leave early. Strollers, bottles, bathroom visits, and kid meltdowns can slow you down and you don't want to miss a flight or train because of it. Also plan longer layovers in case of delays with kids. 

- Discuss the plan with the kids so they know what to expect. Talk about standing in lines at check-in, going up in a plane (and that is safe), staying in a hotel or with family, etc.  Outline thoughtful behavior (no kicking seats) beforehand. 

- Get them excited about flying with a great book. Members recommend:

"I got him the book 'Maisy Goes on a Plane' and it worked out so well! We read the book starting a few weeks prior to the flight, and so when the flight day came, I kept telling him "[You are] going to fly like Maisy!" -- he was genuinely excited to fly and to watch the planes while walking through the airport, it was really cool to see."

"Wanted to recommend The Airport Book, which has been a pretty popular book in our house for its combo of cute and silly detailed illustrations, realistic travel steps, and a subplot search for the character game.

I personally like that a lot of the grown ups look grumpy or distracted since even though I like to fly, that has been my observation too when people watching at the airport!"

- Bring fun snacks that kids like to eat and snacks that take a long time to eat, like lollipops. A plane delay means you won't get served snacks, so have them with you. One member relates about traveling with an 18-month-old: "I packed his own food, that way I wasn't stressing about finding him food at the airport and getting that figured out, I just took out his packed food in his lunch container from daycare and he was happy."

- Bring a new toy: wrap it in paper to occupy some time opening it and make it more exciting.

- Have a project for the plane. Some ideas: put stickers in a home-made "sticker book."  Bring some construction paper cut into card size and make cards for whoever you are going to see. More ideas can be found HERE for how to keep your tots busy on board. 

- Put pictures of people you are going to see in a small plastic photo album and look at the pictures on the plane.

- Remember the lovey! Traveling can make kids anxious, so having their go-to comforting item may make the difference. Keep track of that sucker!

- Portable devices, iPads, or laptops that can play videos can be a lifesaver. Remember to pack the cords!

- Go with the flow; kids can find entertainment in the strangest places. The glass hotel elevators may end up being the thing that your kid wants to ride on more than a roller coaster. You may find the hotel pool is more exciting to your kids than the amusement park. Subway surfing may be better than the carriage ride.

- Don't overschedule. Travel can be fun but also draining. The "Go Go Go" can burn kids (and parents) out quickly, so leave gaps for some rest and relaxation. 

- Let older kids plan. It allows kids to feel like they have agency in their trip and can take some of the burden off you. 

 

Boarding Advice:

- Pre-board to give you and your child plenty of time to settle in before takeoff.  

- If your child is restless, have one adult pre-board with all the bags and equipment and have the second adult board later with the child.

 

Seating Advice:

- Bulkhead Seats: They provide extra room but are now considered Premium Economy by many airlines & are an additional fee to be paid when you book or when you choose your seats online.  Some airlines won't assign these seats until checking in at the airport, and many airlines have an age restriction for emergency rows, so if you want one, arrive extra early.  Always check with your airline.  If your child still fits in a bassinet you can place one on the floor and let her nap in it. Or you can set up a blanket on the floor and let her nap there too. (Bring a warm blanket or a sack.)  However, in some bulkhead seats the arm rests won't go up and a car seat will not fit.

As one parent shared about bulkheads: "Our baby was able to sit and wander a bit on the floor. We also ended up with a whole row to ourselves because the flight wasn't full.  When we go to France I will likely book a seat for baby so we maximize our space."

And if you have a younger child: "Depending on your child’s weight (limit of 20-30 lbs depending on the airline/aircraft), you can request a bassinet that attaches to the wall in front of the bulkhead seat. Alternatively in that seat you have room to put down some blankets so your child can lie on the floor."

- Sitting at the back of the plane is good for others because the engine noise sometimes lulls children to sleep.

- Seat your child in the middle seat if possible, since those seats are often not occupied on partially booked planes, and there's less chance of your child annoying the person in front. Try booking seats A & C when you travel because, unless the flight is packed, the airlines won't put someone in the middle (B) seat and you can use it for your child. If the flight is full, someone always will let you switch seats. Some airlines require window seats for car seats.

- "If you can afford it, get your kid their own seat: I know infant in arms is tempting as hell. But particularly on the long flights, they get wiggly and there is nowhere for them to go and this is what has led to the worst meltdowns on my flights. With the extra seat, I have a car seat I can put my son into sleep/nap (this one has amazing safety reviews and has been deemed the 'best travel car seat' by the NY Times Wirecutter blog), which gives me some downtime if he sleeps (and also means there is a slim chance I can go to the bathroom without him while he's sleeping), and there is a little more accepted room for him to roam if he is antsy. PLUS, if there is any turbulence I know he can be belted in and is much safer than in my arms. If you don't want to bring a car seat on board, there are also FAA Approved toddler harnesses, that keep kids in their own seats and safe and car seats can be checked for free."

 

Ear Comfort:  

- Have the child eat or drink during takeoff and landing. This includes nursing, sucking on a pacifier, drinking from a bottle or cup, or just eating a favorite snack.  There are also specially designed ear plugs for kids to hep with equalizing during takeoff and landing.

- "Feeding on takeoff and landing helps with ear pressure: Mark this in the 'duh' category, but getting the timing on this right can be tricky as hell with the length of taxiing on the runway. I tend to break the sippy cup out when they tell me we're second in line for takeoff. I also have noticed that kids are more sensitive than we are to pressure on landing... so keep an eye out for when your kid starts feeling uncomfortable in the descent and expect to need a little more water or milk than you think you might in that direction."

 

Flight Entertainment and Distraction:

- "We don't really do screens at home but for the flight I downloaded some Netflix movies on my phone (animal shows, he loves animals) so that if I ever got desperate I had something. I only used it a few times, but still it was good to have."

- "These headphones work great and they can fall asleep with them on."

- "New books and especially stickers! The iPad unfortunately doesn't keep her attention but she was happy to play with them for good stretches of time. She also zoned out and watched Finding Nemo for 20 minutes without sound from the seat tv."

- "If your child will tolerate them get some kid headphones (my son has used the Puro brand noise cancelling ones from a young age and doesn’t seem to mind them) - even if they aren’t into the iPad they might like music or stories. One thing my son has always liked on the iPad besides actual shows is just flipping through photos of himself/family. My son was also into the Water-Wow books, and you can get restickable stickers with scenes to stick them on. And yes, definitely food food food."

 

Bathroom and Changing Area Advice:

- Change your baby RIGHT before you get on the plane. Many smaller/older planes don’t’ have changing stations in the bathroom.

- Ask flight attendants in advance which restrooms are equipped with changing tables.

- If the flight is not full and there is a bathroom emergency, change your child in the middle seat.

 

Sleeping and Flight Timing:

- Plan the flight, if possible, to accommodate nap schedules.

- Some parents recommend using Benadryl to help your child sleep. However, test it out on your child before the trip, because it makes some children hyper.

- Bring a child's "lovey" and milk to encourage naps.

- If your child will sleep in their car seat, by all means bring it along. You get a break if you don't have to hold them while they sleep.

- "Book an earlier flight than makes sense to you. By the time they 'turn off' the plane for sleep it’s close to 11/12 NY time and my son was too excited and interested to sleep before then and ended up having a tough time getting to sleep."

- "On the subject of timing, one mistake we won’t be making again is taking an early afternoon flight back to the US. By the time you get off the plane and into the immigration line it’s already or past bedtime on EU time, and any delay or getting home from the airport is cue for major meltdowns in our experience. Leaving in the morning from Europe gives you a little more leeway."

- "If it's more than a 7 hour flight, we do it at night. From about 18m on we purchase a seat, add an FAA approved carseat (we love our Combi Coccoro) and they sleep just fine.  We normally leave around 8pm so its not really that different than their bedtime here."

- "I had booked a redeye, hoping that would mean he would sleep and the flight would be easier. He did not sleep at all and we were all completely miserable and strung out. From now on, I will always travel during daytime because it's just easier to accept that a nap may not happen than to be staying up all night. (I know that my kid struggles to sleep in any unusual circumstances, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that he didn't sleep. If your kiddo will typically sleep anywhere, maybe a redeye does make sense!)"

- "I walked to the back of the plane to rock him to sleep and then got back in my seat, he slept on me. He sleeps in a crib at home but I thought this was the only way I could successfully get him to sleep on the flight. But this was just a nap."

- "We went to Peru (home country/ 8 hours direct fight) twice (one before pandemic). My best advice is to travel during nights, my daughter traveled on my lap those times and fell asleep very quickly when in plane. We are still breastfeeding so maybe that helped."

 

General Tips & Considerations when flying:

- You can take the stroller to the gate - so if you are bringing one, it’s convenient to do so. Here are one parent's recommendations when it comes to gate-checking strollers:

"I would usually regular-check the carseat and gate-check the stroller. Sometimes the airlines try to send a gate checked stroller to the carousel… since I was always by myself with a lot to carry I would beg them in advance not to do that! I also recommend cover bags for the gross factor - you can also stuff lightweight extras such as diapers in the carseat bag."

- Take a change of clothes—one for the kids and one for you! As one parent says: "Barf happens. Be ready for it. You will like your flight a lot more if you aren't stuck in clothes with poop or something else weird on them should something happen. :)"

- ALWAYS take enough in what you carry on to last you a night (or two) if they lose your luggage.

- When your child is old enough to be moving around a lot, don't board the plane until the last group of people is called. This will give you at least an extra half hour of time not being cooped up on the plane. 

- Most airlines are least crowded on Thursdays and Saturdays—so these are often the best days to fly.

- Try Baby B’Air to secure your child to your lap belt during the flight. Or try a sling to secure your baby on take-off and landing.  Many airlines do not allow wearing an infant in a Baby Bjorn front carrier!

- Try to avoid having to wash anything on the plane (bottles, cups, etc) - bring extras or disposables. The bathrooms on planes can be really disgusting and just not ideal for such usage.

- Traveling Internationally: Some countries require a certified birth certificate (or a passport). It's good to get a copy of your existing birth certificate so you have a back up.

- If your baby is crying inconsolably, try taking them to the back of the plane and walking with them there. The noise of the engines and the vibrations are often soothing for babies. Also, the engine noise will drown out your baby's cries and you'll feel better!

- Take extra bags for dirty diapers (especially if you have to change in the seat).

 

Final Words of Comfort:

- "Give yourselves grace, expect the unexpected, and don't apologize for a kid being a kid: I am not saying let your child kick the seat in front of you the whole flight, but if she gets fussy and cries or gets excited and yells, so what? Also, the shortest flight I was on was the worst flight for my then 10-month-old (meltdown city)... but he was a dream on the six-hour flights to San Francisco. It is a total crapshoot.  Do the best you can and cut yourselves a break... because honestly, I think our moods translate to our kids, and the more relaxed you can be, the better!"

- "Don’t overthink it and most people in plane are either understanding or they don’t even notice as they have their own headphones and stuff to do. Any other judgmental looks, ignore them. Not worth worrying :D

It’s only a few hours, they night seem long in the moment, but it will go well!"

 

Related reading from PSP:

Flying with Baby

Tips About Pumping While Traveling and Flying with Breast Milk

Strollers on Airplanes

Car Seats on the Airplane

Passport Information

General Advice about Airplane Travel

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