Flying on Airplanes with Young Children

As an A-lister on Southwest (back when that meant taking more than 50 flights per year), I never was overly bothered by a crying child on an airplane. However, some people have a lower threshold of what they can tolerate. That threshold can be easily breached by the nearby child who is unable to perform all those things that naturally fall within a mature adult’s capacity — to sit quietly for a prolonged period in a particular seat in cramped quarters in an enclosed environment with very few things to do or see. Instead, a child may feel the need to talk loudly, engage neighboring passengers (whether or not the passengers like it), wriggle, refuse to respect the fasten-seat-belt sign, cry, yell, or otherwise be a very young person on a very boring airplane flight.

“Buckled In” by Scott Sherrill-Mix

The recent murmuring about what some people perceive as a need for child-free flights is not entirely new. There have been previous arguments for child-free zones on airplanes. Both arguments raise the issue faced by many parents of how to best travel with their children.  It’s not a pleasant experience to get dirty looks from other passengers. Or despite the great love we feel for our own, parents can need a break from their childrens’ airplane antics as well.

While I no longer qualify as an A-lister, having family and a house in other states resulted in my logging a fair share of flights with child in hand. From the first few flights of his infancy to the more frequent trips in his preschooler days, we have taken anywhere between 4 to 20 flights per year as a family. In that time, I have learned a few tips and tactics, both from experience and other frequent fliers.

“Toddler’s first airplane” by Scott Sherill-Mix


1. Different Travel Distances for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers – Although it seems counter intuitive, travelling longer distances on an airplane can be easier with a small infant than a toddler.  Infants can nurse or bottle feed on take-off and landings, and swallowing can help relieve the air pressure building in their ears which leads to crying.  They can fly free on our laps, and may also sleep easily and often throughout the trip with a minimum of wriggling.  

Toddlers, on the other hand, may want to get up and move around more often, so shorter flights can be preferable. It can be much more of a challenge keeping a toddler happy and entertained in his seat when the “fasten-seat-belt” light comes on.  Due to his increased need for space and physical activity, buying a seat for a toddler can make a long flight more bearable, even if he still technically qualifies for free travel as a lap child.

“Seatback” by Sean Munson

Preschoolers will need their own seat if simply due to age restrictions for free travel (up to age 2). They may be able to handle longer flights in their seats than toddlers, having greater ability to entertain themselves in one place.  Overall, I find cross-country flying easiest with my preschooler. He is now happy in his seat the whole flight and is a good enough walker (and I have strong enough arms) that we don’t need to lug around a stroller. I found the same trip most challenging with a toddler who had difficulty sitting in place.  Designing vacation travel around different distances for your children as they age is something to consider.

2. Mystery Bag of Goodies — A selection of new, age-appropriate toys and books can help keep kids interested and happy in the air.  As a toddler, my son enjoyed walking around the plane and peeking around his seat more than playing with the toys we brought, but he did play a short time with his stuffed animals and sketch pad.  He was also interested in viewing (and ripping up!) the pages of the on-flight magazine and playing with the safety card instructions.  The shiny packages of in-flight snacks became toys to him. As a preschooler, he enjoys coloring at his seat with water-pens, sewing or other travel-friendly crafts, listening to music (especially The Wiggles), and reading books.

“what was in my bag” by Ariel Grimm

3.  Wholesome Meals/Snacks – Adequate food became one of my top travel worries once my little guy was eating solid meals.  Knowing that he was hungry while I was stuck in my seat without  the right foods for him (at the time, I only carried snacks and purees) was an awful feeling.  Also, airplane snacks just don’t make the cut for a healthy and filling meal. Some airlines like Virgin America have decent meal-type snacks for purchase, but there is no guarantee that what you want will be available, especially for kids with allergies. 

I now have learned to pack our own food in an insulated lunch bag.  Cut-up hot dogs, cheese, cold meats, fruit and vegetables do a good job as a meal. Child-sized servings of yogurt are also a life-saver for filling a hungry belly when it is lunch-time but we are still a long time away from landing. Goldfish crackers and fortified cereal packed in small, hard, plastic containers are also good to have on hand. Boiled eggs are healthy and portable, along with sandwiches.  Instant oatmeal can also be made by travelling with an oatmeal packet (or use starter baby cereals in a plastic bag) and asking the flight attendant for a cup of hot water.  Food can be prepared either at home or purchased from a supermarket’s hot/cold food bar (such as at Whole Foods) when on the go.  Be sure to bring utensils!

“064” by Kelly Polizzi


4. Layover or Direct?  This choice can be highly individual, depending on the child’s energy level and cost of direct flights.  On one hand, a layover can provide opportunity for everyone (especially toddlers and preschoolers) with an opportunity to walk and stretch. On the other hand, it can be disruptive for a child who wants to sleep.  If the layover comes at nap time, noisy terminals can make it impossible to sleep, leaving the parent with a cranky, crying child.  

Compared to flying direct, each separate leg of travel increases the risk of delays which can make your child cranky and irritable. A long trip that suddenly becomes even longer can seem unbearable to a little one and result in nonstop crying when finally on the plane. We once had a 7 to 8 hour trip become a 14 hour trip due to delays from our layover. While I sympathized with the people around me who had to hear my child miserably crying, I felt even worse for him.  Anytime we can fly direct, we now try to do so.  It  can be expensive, but budget-friendly airlines like Southwest, Jet Blue, and Virgin America make it a little less painful.

“On our way to America” by Lars Plougmann


5. Time of Day for Flying – One of the greatest travel tips I received was from my executive-platinum-frequent-flying brother-in-law. Fly the first flight of the day for your route. Not only does this avoid delays caused by traffic patterns due to flights ahead of your flight, but it also means clear travelling en route to the airport. In car-heavy cities like Los Angeles, this can mean getting to the airport within 20 minutes without traffic instead of an hour-long drive in traffic.  While taking the first flight of the day can mean rising in the dark before the birds chirp, we have found that the quiet, early morning travel to the airport and plane ride to be vastly more enjoyable for our child than loud, busy mid-day travel when both traffic and chatter is high.  It makes for a calmer child, and is more conducive to helping him nap, compared to travelling at a busier time.

For many more travel tips that go far beyond these, I recommend Travels with Baby by Sherry Rivoli. This book is an incredibly thorough and helpful resource for travelling with kids. I only wish I had discovered it sooner. It is available in both hardcopy and e-reader format.

About the Author
Darlene W. Cancell is an attorney turned stay-at-home mom, and most recently the blog coordinator for Parent Talk.

Do you have special tips for travelling with children? Please share them in the Comments section below.  

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