Survivor: Toddlers on a Plane Edition

What is scarier: Toddlers on a plane or snakes on a plane??

I vote toddlers.


I recently embarked on a trip to Florida and took our 21-month-old daughter along for the ride. I was excited to visit my grandparents but absolutely dreading the travel. I know my child’s limitations, and currently she can sit still for about 2.5 minutes before maxing out on quiet time (on a good day), so the thought of sitting her on my lap in close quarters with a bunch of strangers for nearly three hours with no possible escape sparked some anxiety. But, good news–we survived!

Our survival was no stroke of luck though! It took careful planning and endless amounts of patience and snacks. Even though Skylar stubbornly refused to nap on both flights she ended up doing really well thanks to the bag full of tricks that we were armed with.  If you plan to put your toddlers on a plane, here are a few tips from our first flight:

Fly direct, schedule smart.

This isn’t the time to skimp and save; if you can find a direct flight, you should take it. I’ve heard from many that it can be helpful to book flights over naptime or when your child is more likely to sleep (hello red eye). But this didn’t work for us, because our daughter has some serious FOMO (fear of missing out) which kicked into high gear with all the new surroundings and totally overrode her sleepiness, even though our first flight was over naptime and returning flight required us to be at the airport by 5 am. Moral of the story: know your kid’s schedule and choose your flight accordingly.


Get there early and let them run.

It is time consuming to get through the airport and security in any circumstances, but as we all know, everything takes longer with a toddler in tow. The extra time at the airport will give your child a chance to exercise (find an empty gate area or ask if there is an airport play area) in between the car ride and the flight. Don’t restrain them during this time – let them get as much running, yelling, and wiggling done as possible!

Decide if you want a separate seat.

Children 15 days – 2 years old may fly at no charge if not occupying a seat. However, airlines generally encourage the use of an air travel-approved car seat or CARES harness (and full-fare seat) whenever possible. After doing some research, we opted to go the lap child route and rented a car seat at our destination for the ground travel portion of our trip. You’ll want to make sure you have at least one seat on the aisle so your toddler is able to get up and walk, access the restroom, and so on. If you decide to travel with your toddler as a lap passenger, be sure you bring his/her birth certificate; if they are not clearly under the age of two you may be required to present proof of age or buy another ticket.plane

Stock up on basics.

Each fare-paying passenger traveling with a child may travel with a diaper bag at no charge. The diaper bag will not count as the passenger’s personal item or carry-on, so stock up! Bring plenty of diapers and wipes if your toddler is not potty trained. Consider pull-ups if they are transitioning. Don’t forget a change of clothes for each family member in your carry on, or at least a clean shirt for mom/dad or you’re guaranteed to be covered in vomit or apple juice (it’s just how the world works). Load up on the hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes so you’re able to wipe down the seat/tray that your toddler will be using the most and at least attempt to minimize the germs they pick up. Keep in mind that not all airplanes have a changing station in the restroom, so diaper changes are nearly impossible with a toddler – we did our best to avoid this situation by making sure we did a fresh diaper change just before boarding the plane.

Flight attendants are your allies.

We did not purchase a separate seat for our toddler, but as we boarded our flights we asked the flight attendant if there were any extra seats – after everyone boarded the flight attendants allowed the stranger next to us to move to another empty seat (on both our flights) which was an absolute blessing! Honestly I can’t imagine how things would have gone if we didn’t have that extra space for Skylar to stretch her legs, stand up, and even for her diaper bag to be within arms’ reach! Don’t be afraid to ask–with a big smile!


Keep them busy.

Purchase a few new toys or activities that you can present to your toddler on the flight. Avoid toys with small pieces that will inevitably end up getting lost on the plane. Sticker books, magnadoodle, latches board , and a small doll were hits for us. We usually are strict about screen time, but made a necessary exception for our travel, too. I highly recommend a portable DVD player or downloading a few toddler-friendly apps onto a tablet or smartphone in advance of your trip (charge it up before your trip and switch your device to airplane mode before boarding).

Don’t forget the umbrella stroller.

We picked up a cheap umbrella stroller before our trip, and it was one of the best purchases we made. You can get them even cheaper, but this one was has a cup holder and isn’t super gaudy like the others I found. It was light weight, compact, and best of all, I didn’t care if it got damaged during our travels! (#winning) I recommend against checking your stroller (I’ve heard so many stories of strollers/car seats being damaged or lost when checked) – but just check them at the gate. This way you can load it up until you board and have it waiting for you as soon as you unload to keep things moving as quickly as possible. In fact, we opted not to check bags to minimize the stops at the airport, too! One thing that surprised me was that we had to empty the stroller and fold it down to go through the security scanner along with our carry-on bags. Our toddler even had to take off her shoes and walk through the check point on her own, so plan accordingly.

Bring all the snacks.

Variety is good; at least you know your picky toddler can find something that suites their mood. Limit the sugar (hyper toddlers on a plane are terrifying) but keep a few special treats on hand for bribing. It’s helpful to have a small sucker or a sippy cup with a straw during take off and landing (or a pacifier if your child still takes one) to help their little ears pop. If you bring a sippy cup you can purchase milk/juice/water before boarding to fill it. I prepackaged some of Skylar’s favorites snacks into the small snack-size bags (I used these bags so the opening was smaller which lessened the chance of a messy spill) and then packed all of those into one gallon sized Ziploc bag that went in my personal item (stored by my feet). It was handy to be able to see everything easily and have it within arms’ reach! I also packed an identical bag of snacks for the flight home and was thankful that I planned ahead.plane

Be realistic.

Planning ahead is important for successful toddler travels, but it’s equally important to keep your expectations in check. Toddlers are not wired to sit still for hours on end, so it’s ok to walk the aisles when the seat belt sign is off, it’s ok to bribe, and it’s ok to use screen time without limits. You might pack five new toys and only need two because they’d rather rip up the Sky magazine and play with your hair the entire time. Little legs WILL kick the seat in front of them, but keep your cool and do your best to minimize the annoyance for other passengers. Sometimes meltdowns happen and other passengers might not be friendly, but remember that you likely will never see them again!  I found that as long as I was smiling and upbeat, my toddler and those around me followed suit.

What your tips for traveling with toddlers?


Jessi is a creative, organized and enthusiastic girl mom with a soft spot for country music and all that it entails. She's a single mom to two sassy little girls (born in 2014 & 2018). She's putting down roots in West Branch, Iowa, just a few miles from her hometown of West Liberty. Jessi works in fundraising, event coordination and community development and enjoys hiking, crafts, bargain hunting, party planning, and taking in the simple joys of life. She is admittedly addicted to funny memes, is passionate about philanthropy, and is completely smitten by the adventure of motherhood.


  1. Thank you so much for this! I’m flying my 3 year old toddler to California on a 4 1/2 hour flight (wish me luck..) and I’ve been pretty nervous! I’m really glad though, I’ve been doing most of the things you’ve mentioned. I’m purchasing a portable DVD player, and a couple new games for her Leap Pad. She is hardly ever allowed to play with her Leap Pad, so it will be a really engaging treat! We’re also are past the diaper bag stage but are not fully potty trained, so I purchased and extra large bag to carry everything that we will need. I hadn’t thought to ask about the extra seats on the plane- that’s a GREAT idea! I will say though, the last time I flew the stroller was more of a hassle than it was worth. My daughter wanted to RUN, and it was hard to keep up with her and keep the stroller and our belongings together in the terminal. I’m also a single mom, so these adventures are generally alone. So I think it’s a great idea if you have someone to help you. Thanks again for posting this!

  2. I’m intrigued on the rental of a car seat at your destination. The 2 times we’ve flown with our daughter we have gate checked her seat. How did you go about renting one? How did you assure yourself that the rental seat was safe? The next time we fly with kids we’ll have 2 of them so renting the seats might work better than getting 2 car seats through multiple airports.

    • Stephanie, most car rental companies will give you the option of renting a carseat and will talk you through the models available. We actually went through a local rental site since we were visiting family in a tourist area (Florida) the company came recommended and our family members were able to have the carseat inspected and installed by professionals at the local fire department before we arrive. 🙂 It worked out really well!


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