What do we know about flying with young kids? We have lived experiences flying with infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners. We have been on six international flights to places as far away as Hawaii, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. But our trip never starts at the airport. Where we live in the midwest is a long way away from Chicago O’Hare International Airport. We always have to do some combination of driving and buses. This typically adds somewhere around 3 to 4 hours before we even get to the airport!
We have done a lot right and have also learned from our mistakes along the way. Below are the top 10 ways that you can improve flying with young kids. But first our flight history and some background about how we fly.
Our Flight History
As of May 2022, our previous trips include:
- 2017: Hawaii with Kyra (while 11 months old)
- We also had flights between islands when here
- 2018: Sri Lanka with Kyra (at 22 months old)
- 2019: South Africa and Lesotho with Kyra (at 2 years old)
- Becky was also 5 months pregnant on this trip
- 2020: Belize with Kyra (at 3 years old) and Verity (at 9 months)
- 2022: Mexico 2022 with Kyra (at 5 years old) and Verity (at 2 years old)
- Did this trip twice
- In June 2022 we return from Mexico to Chicago with Spirit Airlines
We have flown with
- Alaska Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- Qatar Air
- American Airlines
- United Airlines
All trips have been for at least a month except Belize which was cut short around 3 weeks due to COVID-19. We have flown home for emergency reasons like a global pandemic (Belize, 2020) and a death in the family (Mexico, 2022). Both times we were flying in less than 24 hours from when we booked the unexpected return flights. Both also involved a nighttime long-distance bus trip. Yep, we have had some experiences!
Flying with small kids for us has always been in the most basic economy seats. We have never flown business or first class (not even before kids). We have never been upgraded on our trips. Usually, flights have been full or mostly full. Becky and I have even been on separate flights (she was with both kids).
We know our kids and ourselves, this is critically important. We know that Kyra and Verity can sleep anywhere including on planes. This means both naps and overnight sleep. Becky can also sleep some on planes but it is not the most restful. Brock is not able to sleep on planes in most cases.
When the kids were under 2 they flew as lap kids. This means they sat on our laps. They had a separate seat belt that simply hooked into one of our seat belts. When kids fly as lap children they are free domestically. Internationally, lap children cost 10% of the adult ticket. Starting at age 2, you must buy a full-price seat. When you are dealing with kids over age 1 think about if they can truly be a lap child for the whole flight. You may decide to buy them a seat even though it is not required. We didn’t for Kyra when we went to Sri Lanka, but it goes back to knowing your child. We have never taken a car seat on a plane and don’t recommend it. With that out of the way, let’s jump into the first tip for flying with young kids…
Tip #1: Don’t be the problem
Kids Pickup on Your Emotions
Flying with young kids can be fun. This is especially true if you frame this as a fun experience. But it is hard 100% of the time you make it hard. Anyone who has kids knows that they pick up on their parent’s emotions. If you are not excited to fly, your kids will not be excited to fly. If you are stressed on the plane, your kids will be stressed on the plane. Complain and well you get the point.
You are always modeling behaviors for your children. We find this to be the truest when we show negative behaviors. Kids will pick up on and likely emulate what you do. Model the positive behaviors you want from your kid. And know if you model bad behavior or show stress you have no one to blame but yourself when your children do the same.
Start With Yourself
So are we saying you have to be perfect? No. But, the most important first step you can take as an individual and as a parent is to sort yourself out. Start with yourself. This might seem like a basic point, but if you get it wrong almost everything else will not matter.
Think about any additional triggers or stress points you are likely to have. Plan out a response or adapt a plan ahead of time so you can stay cool. If you have problems flying get the psychological help you need before you go with your kids. You need to be calm if you want kids to be calm. If you have motion sickness issues make sure you have the right medications. For those who are likely to get dehydrated, make sure you have the fluids you need. If you tend to get hangry make sure you have snacks. Take care of your own needs (for food and drinks). Make your mind and body a priority from the start.
Set and Manage Expectations
Think of this as a learning experience for your kids. Nothing something to be dreaded, or the bad part of the trip. Our kids loved airports, planes, and the whole experience because we model that for them. Our kids still know the same boundaries apply on the plan as off. But it is vital to give mental freedom to your kids so they can enjoy the experience. Let them ask questions and explore (mentally if not physically). Even if they are buckled in you can look at seat buckles and talk about how planes work.
However, don’t expect things to go perfectly, especially for long trips. Celebrate the parts of the trip that go well and use positive reinforcement. Realize things will go wrong. When that happens, do your best to stay calm and look for ways to break a cycle of negativity before it spirals. You may have to ride out a meltdown even if you do everything right. It happens. But does this 15 minutes of bad outweigh the other 5 hours of positivity before it? It should not in our view.
Focus on Your Team
Stay positive and calm with those outside of your family as well. This includes other travelers, flight crew, TSA, and anyone else you encounter. A smile and politeness will get you so much further than negativity and anger. Again, think about the example you are setting for your children. Think about what you are teaching your kids when traveling together. That said, do not worry about what other people on the plane think. You do not owe them anything other than being decent. Focus on yourself and your kids.
Tip #2: Pick the right flights
We do our best to pick the flight that will work well for us as a family. Like we said above we buy the cheapest types of flights (basic economy). But that doesn’t mean we always buy the absolute cheapest flight. We look at important points like:
- Number of connections and time at connections
- Leaving and arrival times
- Airline company
What we love is when it all comes together for the connections, times, and airline company. Even if it costs a bit more we might book this. The longer the flight the more consideration that should be given to the points below. However, we are not likely to pay significantly more to get this perfect. We are simply looking for the best combination possible at the right price when flying with small kids.
We are willing to pay a little more for non-stop flights. When that is not possible or when it is too expensive, we do one-stop flights. We have never done a 2 or more stop flight with kids and we would never want to. If there was no other way, we would try to break up the flights with an overnight hotel.
When we have to do connections we like about 3 hours in between flights. This gives us about 30 minutes to get off the plane. Another 30 minutes to get to the next gate. Around 30 minutes for snacks and drinks. Usually, planes start boarding 30 to 40 minutes before they leave. The extra hour is for the flight being behind which happens a lot. The least we will book is 2 hours. Any less is not enough for a family flying with young kids to make a connection. Between flights, we want no more than 4 hours. This is because we don’t like sitting around airports for a long time. We like to keep the total trip time as short as possible when flying with small kids.
Leaving and arrival times
When possible we like to pick flights that make sense from a time perspective. If we can arrive in a new country after a long flight in the afternoon or early evening that is the best. It gives us some time to find our hotel, settle in, and then go to sleep. Length of flight also impacts this. For shorter duration flights we like to have them in the middle of the day, but we have more flexibility. For longer duration flights the arrival time is one of the most important points. We hate arriving in the early morning (from 2 am to 7 am). This is because then we have to force the kids to wake up to exit the plane. Then they have to stay up all day. After a short night of sleeping on a long plane ride, this is likely to be a rough day.
Set the schedule you want from the first day. Arriving at the wrong time can really mess up your sleep schedule. It also can cause huge jet lag. Adults and older kids should never sleep after arrival until it is nighttime. For naps, keep them from turning into sleep, especially on the first day there. We would do 1-hour tops for kids over 1 year old.
With babies, you need to have a plan. The quicker you can force the adjustment the better. Otherwise, they may sleep all day and be up all night. Not great for having a relaxing vacation. On a positive note, we always found our kids adjusted quicker than we did. I think this goes to our no sleep until nighttime in the new location rule. The one exception was when Kyra came back from Hawaii it took us a while to get her adjusted back to the Central Time Zone.
Some airline companies are better than others. Especially for longer trips, it can be worth a little extra for a better airline. This ranking from Skytrax is one I reference when picking. But to be clear I have not looked deeply into their methodology. My mention here is not an endorsement or some type of referral link. These ranking are in general and not specific to flying with small kids.
As an example, we did pay slightly more to fly with Qatar Airlines on our long-haul trip to Sri Lanka. At that time they were the #2 Skytrax ranked airline in the world. Flying with them was a better experience than flying with the typical US-based carriers would have been. Specifically, they put us in rows with more space on 3 out of the 4 flights. And even for the exception, the people moved so we could have more space. Qatar also offered a bassinet for Kyra to sleep in for the first flight overnight. This was one they installed into the wall giving us more space.
Also, these airlines typically have better food and friendlier staff. Even small things can make a flight more fun. For instance, I got free beer on the Alaskan Airlines flights when going to Hawaii.
Tip #3: Prepare your kids
Kids have great imaginations. But how do they know what flying is or will mean? We read to them about flying and the process. These were age-appropriate short books. But they helped the kids focus their imaginations on what the process would be like.
Make sure to talk about how it will go and what happens. Don’t get too technical. We focused on elements the kids would like. For instance, they love escalators so we talked about getting to go on them. We talked about how we would check the big bags and then not see them again. This could have otherwise been a shock to them. Not being able to take water through security checkpoints was another topic. We talked about how we would board a plane early since we had small kids.
Give the kids a chance to ask questions. Be patient because you may have to answer the same questions over and over! But we have found doing this allows us to see potential issues and explain things. Sometimes the smallest issue could be something that they fixate on. Typically it is always something you can workaround. But you can only be proactive if you know about it.
Tip #4: Build flexibility into your schedule
It is so important not to have to rush on the day of the flight. A little planning goes a long way when you are flying with small kids. Make sure you are at the airport at least 3 hours ahead of time for international flights. Be there 2 hours ahead for domestic flights. Is it likely that this will be more time than you need? Probably. But it might not be and with kids, it is better not to rush. Plus especially in large airports gates can take a long time to walk to. For us, whenever we need our kids to move the fastest is when they seem to move the slowest.
Our whole thing is to have this be a learning experience. We like it if they can stop at points and ask questions. They like being able to help push the bags. They like being able to help fill the waters (we look for refill stations after security). And as any parent knows the more help you get the slower you go. Don’t put yourself in a spot where you have to rush. Because doing this robs them of the opportunity to get the most out of the experience. Plus if you are rushed and stressed out before you even get on the flight, good luck having a nice flight.
Another consideration that can take longer for families traveling is seat assignment. We do not pay extra to pick our seats. However, once you have done the initial check-in you can usually go to the counter to get this done. But doing so can add another 15 to 45 minutes to the process. Just make sure to take care of this when checking in.
Tip #5: Learn about security checkpoints and stay calm
Understand the TSA basics
We see a lot of people being really worried about going through security. This is especially true when flying with small kids. People wonder what can I bring (link to TSA site for “What Can I Bring”)? Will they search my bags? Will security personnel physically search my children? In truth, this is just about always an easier process than people imagine. Our feeling is that too much mental energy can easily be wasted here. One quick point though for those wondering. You can bring breastmilk and baby formula through security, although they may swab each container. For more questions about flying with young kids here is a special TSA link.
Have a system
We have a system for going through security. We get all the bags to the point where they can be put on the belt. Then Brock goes through the scanner. Then the kids. While they are doing that Becky makes sure to get everything on the belt. Once she is sure the bags are through, she goes through the scanner. Meanwhile, Brock has the kids on the other side and gets the bags as they come off. This has worked so well for us.
When there are questions Becky usually gets them since she is the last one through. She also knows the answer since she packs our bags. We usually realize we will have a bag gone through by security so we put items likely to be inspected in the same bag. Things that could cause inspection are wet wipes, applesauce pouches, breastmilk, and so on.
Consider TSA Precheck
So despite our system’s success, we did something new in 2020 before our Belize flights. We became part of the TSA Precheck system. It takes 3 steps and it costs $85 for 5 years per person ($170 for a couple). Here is the summary from their website:
- Apply Online – Submit an online application in 5 minutes & schedule an appointment at any of 380+ enrollment centers.
- Enroll in-person – 10-min in-person appointment that includes fingerprinting for a background check.
- Travel with Ease – Add your Known Traveler Number to your airline reservation to enjoy faster, more seamless screening.
Being TSA Prechecked allows you to enter a different security line. According to the TSA Precheck site, 94% of people who do this are through security in less than 5 minutes. You do not have to remove any of the following from your bags: small liquids, laptops, belts, shoes, or light jackets. Kids under 12 go through with their parents, and this does not cost extra. Overall this has been a good decision for us given how much we are flying with small kids.
Tip #6: Plan for altitude changes
How Pressure Changes
When you fly the pressure on your body changes. At sea level, you are at 1 Atmosphere of pressure. When you fly the pressure decreases on your body (like you are at altitude). The cabin in planes is pressurized to help your body adjust. But with this pressure change comes the need for your ears to equalize to handle this. Your inner ear and outer ear must stay in balance. The middle ear and Eustachian tube is where this happens. Long story short, your ears need to adjust or “pop” to accomplish this. For many adults, this might happen automatically. Some move their jaw or chew bubble gum. It can also work to take in a breath, close your mouth, and “blow out” while holding your nose shut. But young kids often can’t do this as easily. Kids have more narrow Eustachian tubes. They could also be clogged with mucus due to an ear infection or cold. They could also be blocked by enlarged or swollen adenoids. Looking online I saw articles that placed the percentage of kids who experience pain between 25 and 55 percent. For most kids, this is more prevalent during landing.
But relax. As you will learn below no expensive medicines or fancy technology is needed to help kids on flights. Even something as simple as making sure kids are awake for take-off and landing makes it less likely that they will have issues. This is because people swallow less when sleeping. Even swallowing can help people’s ears adjust.
Helping Babies and Infants
Parents need to think about how to have kids equalize. Some have ears that simply adjust and no help is needed. If your infant is crying right after takeoff or during the descent they most likely need their ears to equalize. For us, though we didn’t want to leave this to chance.
For infants who are still breastfeeding this is a great way to help them equalize. When we were ready for take-off she would put the kids on. By the time they were done, we had usually reached cruising altitude. This could also be repeated when landing. For non-breastfeeding parents, you could still make a bottle for the kid to drink during takeoff and landing. Another option is a bottle or sippy cup with water or juice. Something so they are making the sucking motion to help the ears adjust.
Helping Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Other Kids
For kids past breastfeeding age, we use other options. As mentioned above sippy cups or bottles can work. However, our main go-to is a pack of gummies (fruit snacks, gummy worms, or whatever) during ascent and descent. This chewing motion is enough to help the ears adjust most times. It has been 100% effective for us.
Kyra loves that she gets an “extra sweet” on flights. It goes so far that when people ask her why she likes flying this will sometimes be the first reason she gives. Verity has adopted Kyra’s excitement for this. The most difficult part at this point is making them wait until we are in the air to get their gummies!
For other young and older kids, the following could all work as options:
- Eating gummies (works for all ages)
- Chewing gum
- Wiggling jaw
- Sucking hard on anything (sucker, straw, or other)
- Close mouth and hold nose while “blowing out” pressure from nose
Tip #7: Make it comfortable
Consider Food and Drink Options
No one is comfortable when they are hungry or thirsty. This is especially true for kids. Make sure to have what you need for drinks and food. More than that think about the logistics of how you access this. It might be a smaller bag that you can take out and put by your feet. All the food or drinks in the world only helps if it is accessible. After you get food and drinks on the flight don’t be afraid to ask for more later on. We usually walk to the back to do this. Our kids love to walk down the aisle and get more snacks.
Consider Emotional Comfort
You want to be emotionally comfortable as well. We make sure to bring stuffed animals and blankets on the trip. Usually, each kid has one of each or at most 3 total. These also need to be accessible for when kids want them. We usually get them out as soon as we board the plane. We like to board the plane early so we can have our carry-on items close to us. This also gives us time to get the kid’s items out. Doing so helps make sure they are comfortable for take-off. Each airline has its system for when parents flying with young kids can board.
Consider Physical Comfort
From a physical standpoint think about how your child handles heat and cold. Also, think about what clothes will allow them to be the most comfortable. As an example, a normally cold infant or toddler who is a lap child could be very warm due to being on a lap for a whole flight. The time of day of the flight also affects clothing choice. For long daytime flights being able to change diapers is important. For overnight flights, pajamas could be great though. Have extra clothes that allow you to change as needed depending on the temperature of the plane.
You also want to be sensitive to noise issues. You may want to have things packed to control noise. But be careful about not having earbuds or earplugs in kids’ ears during ascent or descent when flying with small kids. Ears need to be able to adjust to pressure changes.
Make sure to think through when you will have the child use the potty. We typically stop at a bathroom just after getting through security. Just before we board the plane we take the kids to the bathroom. If we think the kids will be going to sleep on the flight we take them just before we start this process. When the plane is ready for descent it is another good opportunity to use the facilities. As a parent make sure you also go before you need to when the kids may be falling asleep. Otherwise, you could be between waking the kids up and being really uncomfortable!
For lap children, they will have a seat belt on for the flight that is attached to the parent. Think about which parent the kid wants to be attached to. For us, this was always Becky, aka Mom. Part of this is because then she can breastfeed them for take-off and landing. As mentioned above this helps their ears to equalize. Then think about what you can do to make them comfortable. Make sure you can support them while awake and asleep.
Tip #8: Have entertainment
Typically, we don’t think it is our job to keep our kids entertained. But on flights, we do take some extra responsibility. Especially for very young children on long flights. This is a place where it is critical to know your kids. For very little kids basic new items they have not seen can entertain them for hours. For instance, Kyra spent hours playing with her lap seat belt on the way to Hawaii. Cups, magazines, and so many other items around you could entertain infants.
Bonding time as entertainment
When we think of entertainment we think of it from the kid’s perspective. For instance, Brock has spent hours on flights checking the kid’s toes for “yuckies”. This simply means he looks between the toes for specs of dirt or fuzz. The great thing here is that this requires no special items, and can be done anywhere and any time. It can, and has, been done repeatedly for our kids when young on flights.
Plus it has a calming effect on the kids. It is physical contact, but not of the hugging or snuggling variety, which is easy to overdue on long flights. The kids also have this thing where they check each other’s hair for “bugs” like monkeys do. Again no special items are required. A back rub, leg bounce, pat, or another form of physical contact could also work to pass the time. It also helps to strengthen your bond.
We like to have a variety of things to do. But this can be hard with limited space on these basic economy flights. We take physical books and our Kindle. We take some toys and some games, but not ones that have small parts or easy to lose items. Water Wows are a great option. They only take water and the pages dry so you can redo them. Buying some small, cheap used items that the kids have never seen works well. This is especially true for babies.
Technology as entertainment
Now to get controversial. Our 6-year-old has a phone! So does our 2-year-old! I can see the mad comments forming now….but let me explain. These are just small tablets. They are old phones that we no longer use. They are not set up with data, text, or phone service. We have them locked down so they cannot search or use social media. We control what can be installed. An important note here. What we learned is that you have to install and open apps while on WiFi, not just install them. Also, some do not work offline, so it is best to test this before the trip. Live and learn!
For long trips, these phones help when the kids want time to themself. You can also take advantage of in-flight options (for example games, tv, or other things). Although we find that limiting screen time is critical. Much more than an hour is too much, especially for the littlest kids. We like to pull the phones out after we have exhausted just about everything else. Think of technology as a small part of the trip. It should not be the main entertainment when flying with small kids.
Apps We Use*
- ABC Mouse – paid app after free trial
- Must be online for main app; can download other offline ABC apps with paid subscription (like ABC Mouse Mathematics, ABC Mouse Music Videos, and more)
- Khan Academy Kids (Free)
- Available offline; has some extra features when online
- PBS Kids Games (Free)
- Available offline
- PBS Kids Videos (Free)
- Video is available online and only in the US
- Kidloland (Free for one part of app)
- Available offline
- Starfall ABCs (Free)
- Available offline
- Lego Duplo Connected Train (Free)
- Available offline
- Fish School (Free)
- Available offline
- Kids Balloon Pop (Free)
- Available offline
- Duolingo (Kyra uses for learning Spanish
- Only available online
Other apps we have seen recommended, but we do not use.
- FabuLingua (Paid)
- Setup for kids; we use Duolingo instead
- Reading Eggs & Mathseeds (Paid)
- Looked similar to ABC Mouse – decided we don’t need both
- Hopscotch Coding for Kids (Free) – iPhone
*We use Android phones. All app information current as of 5/23/2022; subject to change
Tip #9: Make it special
We do anything we can to make flying with small kids special. And we don’t limit ourselves to what we can do on the flights. We like to start with the commute to the airport. If we happen to stay overnight before our flight, we get a hotel with a pool.
At the airport, we look for things the kids like, for instance, escalators or conveyors belts. Sometimes people are giving out items like coloring books or crayons. We get these when they are an option. When we get to the gate we usually spend time looking at the airplane we will go on. The kids love seeing the plane and how big it is.
On the plane
We always see if we can meet captains (and we usually get to). Airlines used to give out pilot wings which were awesome. But on our 2022 flights, we have been told this is no longer a thing. On the flights to Sri Lanka, Qatar gave out stuffed elephants and coloring books. On the way to South Africa, KLM gave out a card memory game. Never be afraid to ask if an airline has something like this. But for the ones above they provided this without asking.
We like to have tricks up our sleeves. For instance, on the flight to Hawaii, we brought a toy that Kyra has not played with before. On the way to Sri Lanka, we had the apps discussed above on Becky’s phone for Kyra.
Tip #10: Make it a team effort
When it comes to flying with small kids make it a team effort. We talk about being a team frequently. When we accomplish something we talk about how well the team did first. We also like to praise individually when it is due. Everyone, even very young kids, likes to be part of something bigger. They want to be involved. They want to feel like they helped. Do what you can to make this happen. I remember Kyra at just under 1 year old pushing a large suitcase through the airport. It took so much longer, but we were under no real deadline. So why take that away from her?
When the youngest is struggling sometimes the best help comes from older siblings. You just need to ask. Kyra can get Verity calmed down or do things that we sometimes cannot. The more involved each kid is the more responsibility for a good result they take. Think about what is age-appropriate, but look for ways to make it a true team effort.
Make sure your kids know that parents see each other as a team as well. Becky and I will even fist bump or tell each other good job as much as possible. We talk about how we are working together. We support each other when the kids are being rough on one of us.
When it comes to flying with young kids you have to always take a learning mentality. If you do what we talked about above you have the best chance at success!
Brock & Becky Waterman