Air Travel with Baby, Toddlers, and Young Children

We just returned from another fun week traveling with a toddler (seriously), and I would love, love, love to inspire you to do the same…time and finances permitting, of course. You see, having children does not mean that you are destined for a life stuck at home, and you don’t have to be Sir Edmund Hillary or Jane Goodall to be up for a fun, family adventure.

Naturally, the task gets more difficult as you have more kids; however, I would like to think that despite all the extra gear and fuss, traveling with your children is (almost) always worth it…for everyone. So how do you find creative ways to get everyone out of their familiar surroundings and into a new, exciting part of the world?  For our family, creativity often comes in the form of how we finance travel. We tag along with my husband on regular business trips and use credit card miles whenever possible. Last week, while in Minneapolis, MN… we printed online coupons for the Mall of America aquarium, the Minnesota Zoo, and the Minnesota Children’s Museum. We also actively seek hotels with kitchenettes and/or free breakfast (the savings for this can really add up with older children). Also, if you are truly budget limited, creativity can also mean “traveling locally” with your kids, simply to offer them new learning experiences. I can tell you that fish, sharks, and all the animals of the zoo can come alive for your little ones with just a day’s visit.

So, the next time that your spouse suggests that you fly out (with the kids) to see family in California… do it! With a little bit of preparation…and a good checklist, you can travel anywhere. With that, you might expect that a former Naval Aviator would be “really into Checklists”… so here is one that I have compiled and recently revised for all ages (also found on Kim’s Finds). Keep in mind, this list was originally inspired by multi-leg, cross country flights with a baby (so it is fairly comprehensive). Feel free to adapt for your needs and shorter, one leg flights.

Kim’s Packing Checklist for Air Travel with Baby (and older kids)

  • Diapers – One for each hour in transit, plus extras in case of delays
  • Wipes – bring more than you think you will need, a medium sized pack, can be used to wipe hands and messy faces, too
  • Diaper rash cream – baby’s bum-bum may need some extra TLC for the flight
  • Diaper pad – to put under your baby during diaper changes, the lavatory changing tables that fold down from the wall are ridiculously small and probably haven’t been cleaned in months
  • Plastic Ziploc-type Bags – for spit-up clothes, poop clothes, dirty washcloths, dirty diapers, sticky feeding spoons, etc.
  • Ziploc bag with disposable sanitizing wipes (especially during cold and flu season) – whether you prefer Clorox, Babyganics, or generic wipes…I always wipe down the area before baby is seated…arm rests, tray tables, anything she might touch. When traveling alone, you will have to do this step once baby is seated in your lap…or not at all, if you are really rushed.
  • Small bottles of Hand Sanitizer – I like Babyganics hand sanitizing foam, with no alcohol.
  • Blankets (for baby) –  I bring (2) thin receiving blankets for multiple uses: to lay your baby on the seat, cover your baby, cover yourself while nursing, to shade baby from sunlight or a neighbor’s reading light, to make a play mat for the airport floor during long layovers, and much more.
  • Washcloths – for spit-up, nursing coverage, solid food clean-up.
  • Tissues – Runny noses everywhere! Can also be tucked away into your pocket for other uses.
  • Extra pacifier (if your baby uses one) – you may also want to pack some pacifier friendly wipes, if you just can’t handle airplane germs on your baby’s binky.
  • Something Old, Something New (small toys and books) –  I recommend bringing your child’s favorite (small) toys and books in a small, ditty bag…to keep them all together.  You may also want to visit the Dollar Store before your flight to stock up on some new items for the trip. Suggestions for Baby: a colorful hanging toy with many arms, a favorite textured toy, a small OXO spatula to chew on. Suggestions for toddlers: airplane books (Airplanes by Byron Barton, Airport by Byron Barton, Amazing Airplanes by Tony Mitton and Ant Parker), finger puppets, a collapsible hand puppet (Elmo is our favorite), small hand-held books, a travel size magna doodle, an iPad with toddler apps. Suggestions for older kids: thin, light books, a deck of cards, a favorite coloring book, a travel magna doodle, a handheld DVD player, an iPad with educational (interactive) apps, load a card with fun digital photos (you will already have your camera for viewing). Suggestions for “You were just rushed on to the plane with no opportunity to access toys”: barf bag puppets, “Where is thumbkin?”, “I spy” with the Sky Mall or airline magazine, ask your attendant for a cup, ice, and a straw, suggest that your toddler buckles the lap buckles (again and again), challenge them to unzip your jacket, sing a song, etc.
  • Clothes, socks, and booties or shoes – bring (2-3) changes, especially if your baby is prone to spitting up. Leaks can also happen with greater frequency, due to the constant sitting/squishing the diaper around on your lap. Also, if your baby likes to rub or pull their socks off, I recommend wearing pants with feet on the plane.
  • Formula, water, and juice if appropriate. (tip: put apple or fruit juice in a bottle to “back-up” your ascent & descent nursing/formula feeding plan). Bottom line: you want to keep baby swallowing during the climb-out and approach phases of the flight.  Also, not sure about what you are allowed to bring onboard? TSA’s web site states, “When traveling with your infant or toddler, in the absence of suspicious activity or items, greater than 3 ounces of baby formula, breast milk, or juice are permitted through the security checkpoint in reasonable quantities for the duration of your itinerary, if you perform the following: Separate these items from the liquids, gels, and aerosols in your quart-size and zip-top bag; Declare you have the items to one of our Security Officers at the security checkpoint; Present these items for additional inspection once reaching the X-ray. These items are subject to additional screening. You are encouraged to travel with only as much formula, breast milk, or juice in your carry-on needed to reach your destination. You are allowed to bring gel or liquid-filled teethers, canned, jarred, or processed baby food in your carry-on baggage and aboard your plane.”
  • Extra bottles, nipples, and sippy cups if needed for multiple children.
  • If nursing, a Breast pump (if you use one, remember baby may not eat regularly during travel) and a nursing pillow – I used a “My Best Friend” inflatable, travel pillow and loved it! My older, heavier baby was hard to hold in nursing position properly, so this durable “blow-up” pillow was a life saver on multiple cross country trips (my husband grew up in Montana). This pillow also gave her a comfortable place to sleep during long layovers (You may not need this for shorter, one leg flights).  Also, consider putting all things “feeding” into your breast pump’s backpack. This will help consolidate food/juice/formula items for TSA…and if all else fails, just start talking about “breast stuff” and they should move you right on through the line.
  • Baby food and snacks – bring your child’s favorite solid foods.  TSA allows enough baby food for a day’s trip, including juice (leave extra time to go through security). The brand “Plum Organics” makes great foods in squeezable pouches. Other not-too-messy snacks for the plane: puffs, yogurt melts, Cheerios, or whole wheat bread in a ziploc bag….all to get your little one chewing during cabin pressure changes! For older kids, bags of veggies (cucumbers, carrots), chilled grapes, pretzels, raisins, Craisins, peanut butter crackers, orange wedges, apples dipped in lemon juice, etc. make great non-sugary snacks.
  • Baby pain reliever, Saline Nose Solution, and supplies for treating minor injuries – Prevent leaks by packing medicines and toiletries in plastic bags.
  • Sling or front carrier – this works great while boarding the plane (after you have checked your stroller in at the gate, especially if you are traveling alone with your baby)
  • Car seat for safer travel by car or plane – use the straps to wear it like a backpack, or bring your car seat/stroller travel system, if you are not concerned with too much bulk
  • Collapsible stroller – we use a cheap umbrella stroller for longer, cross country trips that do not require a lot of stroller use. However, for one leg trips, or for trips that will require a lot of stroller use…bring your favorite stroller. Just make sure to cover it with some type of bag (black grease will otherwise find its way to your canvas hood and seat. Trust me on this one!)
  • Energy-boosting snacks for You if traveling alone with baby, you may not have time for a food stop during a short layover.
  • Change of clothes for You – don’t think it can’t happen to you…baby’s inner ear is extremely sensitive, and they can puke all over you faster than you can say, “Bluh!”. Also, put each of baby’s outfits into individual plastic bags so you don’t have to hunt for small socks, etc… and consider buying “mesh packing cubes”, if you travel often. We use Rick Steve’s packing cubes; they keep items separate yet together inside of a backpack (one cube is all toys, one clothing, one blankets & burp cloths, etc. Ditty bags can also be used for this purpose.
  • Camera, battery charger, and an extra memory card.
  • Cell phone and charger – Take the phone number of your baby’s healthcare provider in case you have questions while you’re on the road.
  • Diaper Bag – You might want to consider transferring your typical diaper bag to a rolling carry-on bag. I do this when traveling alone with baby, so that I can roll the “diaper bag” behind the stroller vs. having a heavy diaper bag on one arm and a heavy baby on the other. Ouch, my arms hurt just thinking about that! Packing cubes can help organize items inside of a bigger bag.
  • Special Treats: these include “emergency items” that can be brought out to ease a meltdown situation….cookies, puffs, or lollipops to lick (while supervised), a new toy, a DVD player or iPad with Baby Einstein movies or an Elmo app… you get the picture.

Other Tips:

  1. Car Seat, or No Car Seat?  If you need a car seat at your destination, then you can bring it and “Gate Check” it just prior to boarding (for a lap baby without a ticket). Otherwise, my husband and I usually look for creative ways to not have to bring a car seat. We rent a car seat when we rent a car at our destination, or we borrow one from family members (or their friends). Also, when traveling to big cities (ie. NYC), we…(admittedly)… put our baby in our laps and pray for safe taxi rides and subway trips. Of course, that’s not very PC…the FAA (and many others) will tell you to buy an extra ticket for your 18 month old, keep them safely strapped into their car seat for two flights, and all will be well….but that’s not really how it works.
  2. Infant ticket, or no ticket?  Call me frugal, however we enjoy taking full advantage of the “Children under 2” travel free pass. With that said, we always try to make friends with the airline employees and request a seat change for a “full row” (depending on the plane configuration).  This almost always works. If not, then I wait until we have boarded the plane…and then I shamelessly ask someone to switch seats (which works well when my husband and I are traveling together).
  3. When to plan your flight? Flights that are earlier in the day are less likely to be delayed. Otherwise, with a younger baby, you might consider booking a flight during nap time. With toddlers and pre-schoolers, I would suggest a flight time after wake-up, or following a morning nap, if possible.
  4. What to wear?  Dress comfortably, of course, however that doesn’t mean that you should roll the family straight out of bed and directly to the airport. Just as with a job interview, people are more likely to be helpful if you (and your kids) are dressed respectably.   I am not suggesting that we return to the 1960’s, wearing our Sunday best, however a little bit of effort in this department can go a long way.
  5. When to board?  If there are two of you, you might consider sending one aboard early (to ensure plenty of room for your carry-on luggage, to wipe down the area with sanitizing wipes, and to “set up” for takeoff…placing snacks, books, and sippy cups in the seat pockets for the climb out)….and one to stay back with your child.  Toddlers, especially, will appreciate the extra time to walk, play, and explore the airport, as a child should not be expected to sit and sit for hours without needing to move around. If you are alone, I would board early to set up shop and get baby comfortable with their surroundings.
  6. Prepare children for air travel and involve them in the trip planning. Before your trip, read books about airplanes to toddlers or preschoolers. Visit a local airport. Get your child excited about flying and teach them about all of the phases of the flight.
  7. Prepare your fellow passengers, if you anticipate some crankiness from your children. If you know that your child did not have a nap prior to your flight, or if they have been sick, etc. then consider addressing those around you with something like this…”There might be some crankiness today, however please know that I will do my best to quiet things down for you.  I appreciate your understanding.”  Most likely, the folks around you will be much more tolerant of any crying fits or “I need to move around now” meltdowns.
  8. Finally, when all else fails…just remember….there are 6.75 billion people in the world. Just about everyone (at some point) has traveled or will have to travel with young children.

One response to “Air Travel with Baby, Toddlers, and Young Children

  1. Kim – thanks so much for this! We’re preparing for our first flight and this is very helpful!

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