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The most stressful part of traveling with a toddler is, hand’s down, the plane ride. Plane travel is stressful enough as a solo adult with all of the rules and regulations you have to follow with TSA. Add in a toddler or a baby in unfamiliar surroundings who probably needs a clean diaper, a snack, or a nap and you have a recipe for disaster. But it can be done with preparation, planning, patience, and great gear.
Before you book your plane tickets, you have to decide how your kid will travel on the plane. If your kid is under the age of 2, they can fly as a lap infant. If they are over the age of 2, they must have their own seat.
Look, I never flew with Declan as a lap infant. Neither one of us was going to be comfortable that way. Buying him a seat meant having a designated place to put him and meant having a little extra room for myself and my husband. The beauty of having a large bank of points and miles is that you can buy that extra seat without thinking twice about it.
Regardless of whether you purchase a seat for your kid or not. There are a few things that everyone needs to successfully make it through the airport and onto the plane with a toddler.
1. Bring Something To Transport Your Toddler Through The Airport
Your first option is a stroller. In the two short years of Declan’s life, we have been given or purchased four strollers. FOUR. That’s absurd. Most parents know that when you have an infant you need one of those “travel system” strollers so you can just click the infant car seat in and go without waking your baby up. Well, my dad broke that stroller so we bought another that could do the same thing but was a little smaller. Then we bought a jogging stroller. Why? I have no idea. We don’t jog. Finally, we bought a fancy, expensive umbrella stroller. But it is a game changer.
The GB Pockit Stroller was pretty much made for airplane travel. It’s small, easy to fold, and fits well in a tote bag that you can take on-board as your carry-on or “personal item”. If your toddler has a seat, he or she also gets a carry-on and “personal item” so keep that in mind as you prepare. We recently took this stroller to Hawaii and back and it has replaced all other strollers in our lives. We left it at home for our last Disneyland trip and we were miserable.
Car Seat Caddy
Your second option is a car seat. If you’re going to use your car seat on the plane, I strongly suggest ditching the stroller and investing in a car seat caddy. I received one of these as a hand me down. Mine is 7 years old and going strong despite the fact that I broke it on an escalator at Dallas Love Field Airport. My dad was able to epoxy the wheel back on and that fix has been more successful than the epoxy he used to “fix” my first stroller.
You just strap the car seat onto the caddy, strap your toddler into the car seat, and wheel your way through the airport. Every single time I have used this product someone has stopped me to tell me how awesome it is. Declan loved it and I loved it. Unless you are using a car seat and stroller that just click together, the car seat caddy is the way to go.
Finally, if your kid is flying as a lap infant, you might find it easiest to just carry them in a baby carrier. Keep in mind though that you will be asked to remove them from the carrier for takeoff and landing.
2. Bring Something To Keep Your Toddler in Their Seat
Your first option is a car seat, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you should buy your toddler a seat if you expect to use your car seat. Yes, you are supposed to be allowed to use a car seat if there is extra space on your plane, but, these days, you cannot expect that to be the case. Use points and miles, buy the seat, and don’t worry about it.
Second, your car seat must be FAA approved. There should be a sticker on it somewhere that indicates it’s approved for airplane travel.
Third, it will probably not fit rear facing so be prepared to install it forward facing. Just check you manual for instructions. Rather than bringing the whole manual with you, I find it easier to just take a few quick pictures on my smart phone. You can read more about these first two issues on the FAA’s website here.
Finally, trust me when I say that the size of your car seat matters. That behemoth car seat you keep in your personal vehicle and never move will probably not be appropriate for airplane travel. Airplane seats are very narrow. Most airlines publish their seat widths on their website so check with your airline before you fly.
Compact Car Seat
We first flew with Declan just a few days before his first birthday. He was already about to graduate from his infant car seat to a convertible car seat. Our upcoming flight was the perfect excuse to buy a car seat that was both compact for airplane travel and safe for automobile travel. We found the Evenflo Tribute LX Convertible fits both requirements. That plane ride from California to Maui was wonderful.
Sadly, that car seat did not make it home due to a diaper blow-out on the way to the airport. Instead, we had to replace it with another car seat that was much wider and very uncomfortable to sit next to on a 5 hour flight. We hate it to this day. But it is currently installed in my car because car seats are pricey. Our Maui Car Seat Disaster was the perfect situation for shop online, pick-up in store, but I’ll explain that in another post.
If your kid is over the age of 1 and weighs more than 22 pounds, your second option on the plane is the CARES Harness. It’s very easy to install and comes with a big label indicating it has been approved for airplane use. Yes, the flight attendant may ask to see it. The downside of this harness is that it doesn’t have a crotch strap so if you have a toddler who likes to wiggle out of things, they might figure out how to escape. A solution is to put a blanket down on the seat before you put your toddler down. Pull one end of the blanket up between their legs and fold it over the seat belt to create a makeshift restraint.
3. Bring Something To Protect Your Checked Gear
Hopefully by now, you’ve decided whether you’re going to take a car seat or a stroller with you through security or onto the plane. Whichever one you leave behind, you can check for free, but you want to make sure your gear is protected with a car seat bag or a stroller bag. Also, make sure to attach a luggage tag to this bag. Sometimes a checked car seat or a checked stroller will come out in the over-sized baggage area of baggage claim so don’t panic if it doesn’t come out with the rest of your luggage. Just follow the signs for over-sized baggage and you’ll find your gear.
4. Bring As Many Things as You can Carry to Entertain Your Toddler on the Plane
Other than restrictions on the size of your carry-on and personal item, you can never bring enough things to entertain your kid, especially a toddler.
Depending on your toddler’s age, you will probably want to bring a phone or a tablet just for them to use. We like to recycle electronics in our household so all of Declan’s devices are older versions of mine.
For his first flight, and several road-trips, we put my old iPhone 3 in this case from Fisher Price. Fisher Price also has a bunch of free apps to entertain infants and toddlers. Just search for “Fisher Price Laugh & Learn” in your app store. The downside of this case is that you can’t plug-in headphones which are required on an airplane. You can try to get away with it, but just be aware the you might be asked to turn the volume off. Also, don’t be that person.
Now that Declan is old enough to be entertained by a movie or TV show, we bring my old tablet with downloaded content. We’ve tried all of these headphones, but he just refuses to keep anything on his head.
I’ve actually used the third set myself when my headphones were out of reach and found them to work well and be pretty comfortable, but I’m not the kind of person who cares much about headphones.
Books and Markers (and Window Clings!)
Aside from electronics, you can bring coloring books and markers to entertain your toddler. This set from Crayola includes a surface for them to color on, a place to keep things contained, and uses color wonder markers so there will be no mess to clean up.
Also, try to pick up some new books or new toys that your kid has never seen before. This is a small set of books we’ve used before. Two other options are post-it notes and window clings. Your toddler will probably love to stick them on everything. I prefer them over stickers because they can easily be removed without leaving behind any damage or residue.
5. Don’t Forget the Snacks to Keep Your Toddler Full and Busy
Never underestimate the power of a snack. Bring more than you think you will need and don’t feel guilty letting your toddler eat things they wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed to have. Plane travel is no ordinary time. That being said, don’t over feed your toddler. I fed Declan a ridiculous amount of formula on his second flight when we returned from Maui to California because I hoped it would make him fall asleep. It did not. Instead, he stayed awake the whole time and promptly vomited all over Reese as soon as we landed.
When traveling with a toddler, you are allowed to bring baby food and formula over TSA limits which you can read more about here. But anything you bring will be subject to additional screening. This means shooting lasers through liquids to test for explosives. If you aren’t cool with that, leave the liquids behind and bring powered formula. Same goes with that sippy cup. If it contains any liquid, it gets the lasers. Even if you offer to dump it out. Again, if you aren’t cool with that, fill it up after security.
Certain applesauce and yogurt pouches fall under TSA limits on liquids and don’t require refrigeration. This makes them a great option to store in your carry-on.
Now you have all the gear you need to get your toddler on a plane and, hopefully, keep them entertained. Where will you go first?
For more travel tips, check out my 10 Tips for a Well Organized Suitcase and my 10 Hotel Hacks To Help Your Toddler Sleep (And Keep Everyone Happy) and learn how to Lighten Your Suitcase With Shop Online Pickup in Store. Or if you’re thinking about traveling without your kids, check out Travel Without Kids: Ditch Your Kids and Your Guilt.