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Guest Blog Post: Tips for Flying With Toddlers

by on May 31, 2011 · 22 comments

in Family Travel, Guest Blog Posts, Points Guy Pointers

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Today’s guest blog post is from my sister-in-law Danielle, who also happens to be The Points Guy membership liaison or as her occupation is listed on Facebook, “TPG Gal Friday.” Danielle is the mother to my beautiful goddaughter Keira and nephew Conor and the kids flew for the first time last weekend, so this post is all about her experience and tips for success. Even though I’m not a parent, I still found the story entertaining and hope you do too! Feel free to share your comments or tips for traveling with toddlers in the comments section.

A Practical Guide to Air Travel with Not So Predictable Passengers

This week Brian mentioned that he was recently in St. Augustine, Florida for his sister’s destination wedding. Well, since I’m married to his older brother Mike, I was also in that sunny locale for the nuptials and I’d like to share my experience getting there and back from southern New Jersey. Warning: my lengthy story differs drastically from The Points Guy’s typical travel tales in that my carry-ons included my two very adorable, but also very rambunctious and opinionated toddlers; Keira and her younger brother Conor. As this was our first big trip as a family I was determined to do it right. Or as right as possible when it comes to a two and three year old. So I studied, I researched, and I strategized, because seriously, who wants to deal with a cranky child (or two) in an airport and on an airplane? No one – not even their own mother ;) However, I also saw this as an opportunity to expose my little ones to a very different setting and experience, one that could be fun and exciting, instead of frightening and anxiety-ridden. With these thoughts in mind I went about planning a way to make our trip to Florida as entertaining, stress-free, and smooth as possible – for everyone involved. Family, flight attendants, and the traveling public included. Here were the results:

TSA? TLC: Make use of the family line when getting through security. The line will be a shorter and the TSA agents manning it will be used to unique passengers and extraneous carry-ons (strollers, wheelchairs, etc). Coming and going we were able to zip through security using these pathways. Remember, the youngsters will have to walk through the metal detector and will need to remove their shoes along with everyone else so lace-ups should be banned. Keira and Conor loved being asked to take their shoes off and we made a game of putting them in the bins and watching them go through the x-ray machine. You are allowed to bring food and drink through security if it is for feeding your child, but try to keep any liquids larger than 3 oz in unopened containers (i.e. juice boxes or water bottles for formula) so you can avoid additional checks and be prepared to declare the liquids to security. I opted to just bring empty sippy cups and bottles through and purchase juice/milk to fill them with once on the other side.

Another personal tale about security – it was our experience that the TSA agents seemed willing to expedite the process of getting our family moving. After Keira, Conor, and I were through the line I loudly exclaimed, “Ok guys, now you just have to be good while we wait for Daddy!” An agent approached us and asked where daddy was. My husband was actually behind two extremely elderly passengers in wheelchairs getting full pat downs waiting his turn for the search (backstory: Mike has a metal rod in his leg which always sets off the metal detectors – how did he get it? Well, this one time his younger brother Brian … jk) Immediately the agent identified my husband, took him over to an unused security block and conducted the scan. I told Keira and Conor that Daddy was in time-out, everyone had a laugh, and we were on our way.

Dress for Success: The airport is busy – make sure your kids are dressed even busier. Bright colors, distinctive patterns, and overall loud attire is best. You need to be able to keep your eyes on your offspring. And if someone wanders off, it can only help to be able to provide a specific and unique description of your lost little one to  security. Also, kids get hot and cold in record time making layers a must. Strip off the long sleeve while they’re cooking on the tarmac and then have a blanket for them to snuggle in-flight. By all means; cut out the tags ahead of time and avoid scratchy fabrics or anything with uncomfortable buckles or beading. And always, always, bring a change of clothes for your kids in your diaper bag or carry-on. Keira and Conor have found ways of getting themselves dirty that still amaze me. On the flight home Conor dumped a full yogurt parfait on Gigi (unfortunately grandma lost on that meal gamble). Maybe parents and caregivers should have a change of clothes at the ready too??

Excitement in the terminal

Under Wraps: My main concern was keeping my ants in their pants children occupied during the 2+ hour flight from Philadelphia to Jacksonville (and back). I decided bribery was my best bet. A trip to a local Target yielded a variety of toys that I knew were winners and more importantly; small and noiseless. One of the best finds was a pair of coloring books with “magic” markers that only work on the provided paper (you can guess why these would be ideal). Books and stuffed animals are also a good idea. I put each item in wrapping paper so every so often Keira and Conor could quickly be given a surprise present to distract when they decided they wanted to start kicking or slamming the airplane window. Note: to avoid ticking off the flight attendants make sure to bring your own small garbagebag so you can easily clean up after each gift and you aren’t leaving wrapping paper and other litter behind.

In-Flight Entertainment: Fortunately we purchased a MacBook right before the trip to Florida, so I was able to slip this lovely piece of machinery into my carry-on (Samsonite backpack with a laptop sleeve) and pull it out when the flight became a bit tedious. My son delighted in the novelty of watching a brand-new DVD in such a unique environment, and it easily bought me 28 minutes with my magazines. Note: Caillou has a great episode under their “traveling series” for preparing your kids for flight (check youtube) – it features takeoff, traytables, sitting still, etc. I highly recommend preparing your munchkins with a cartoon or movie so you can remind them that, “Caillou had to wear a seatbelt!!”

Simple IFE

Tantrum on the Tarmac: Speaking of which, I made a egregious error with the seatbelt. My two year old Conor is by far the more “excitable” of my two children and so I let him stand on his seat and “play” while everyone else was boarding (families are allowed on first = awesome!). This was all fine and dandy until I had to wrestle him into a sitting position and strap a seatbelt on him when the captain gave the take-off go ahead. That’s when it got messy. He had a full-blown tantrum and screaming/flailing fit for the two hours (ok, so maybe it was only 10-15 minutes) it took until we had taxied onto the runway and taken off. Had I simply sat him down and made a game of the buckle the second we were at our seats there would not have been a battle of wills later on. This also taught us another lesson…

Seating Strategy: We had the luxury of flying with multiple family members so for the ride home we made sure to sit one of them in front of Conor so at least it was family catching the brunt of Conor’s indignant fury. Note: airplane seats are designed to accommodate a carseat (provided your child isn’t flying as a lap baby – and from what I hear some airlines have bassinets that attach to certain seats for the littlest of passengers) so feel free to bring yours onboard to strap your infant or toddler into it if you think there is no chance they will be able to sit still. Just check the label to make sure your brand is FAA ”aircraft” approved. We made the personal decision that two seats were too much to carry through the airport so we added toddler seats to our Alamo rental car reservation for about $10 per seat per day. Well worth the $80 for this special weekend and the carseats were safe and very clean.

Keira in her element with Gigi ... and ready for Uncle Brian to take her to Paris!

The Quick and the Dirty: So apparently there was a changing table in the front bathroom of the airplane. I was lucky enough not to ever see it. We used the family restrooms located near the terminals to swiftly change both kids immediately before and after the flights and put them in one size larger diapers for extra absorbency just in case we were stuck on the plane a bit longer than we had anticipated. Just make sure the larger diapers are secured properly to prevent gaps. Note: under almost all circumstances is it unacceptable to use your tray-table as a changing table. Bring extra wipes, an extra changing pad, an extra garbagebag, an extra pair of clothes, and extra diapers (sensing a theme?). The airport is not the place to run out of pull-ups. It’s also not the most ideal place for dirty diaper – so maybe avoid foods that you know will make them go before and during your airport/airplane adventure. Obviously mother nature can’t be predicted or controlled, but at least give yourself a fighting chance!

Southwest Performed North of Our Expectations: This wouldn’t be a true TPG post if I didn’t mention and quickly review the airline we flew; Southwest. Overall, I was very happy with our flying experience. Everything went smoothly, we took off on-time, and the crew was very friendly. There were actually quite a few little passengers onboard so I think the Southwest staff was well-versed in family travel. For example, when I asked for apple juice the flight attendant presented me with a plastic cup with a lid and straw – perfect for Conor – and slipped me (with a smile) a seemingly unlimited supply of pretzels and pita chips. I also didn’t get a single dirty look when handing over my personal garbagebag of snack packaging and the aforementioned wrapping paper. Since there were 8 of us flying, we opted to pay (thanks, Pop!) for an “upgrade” to A seating so that everyone in our travel party could board first and choose seats together (see seating strategy) and near the front. I also made extreme use of the fact that Southwest allows you to check two bags per passenger for free – checking 6 bags in total (my fellow travelers are probably cringing while they read this – it was quite the sight at the airport). And to start Keira and Conor off right, I’ve signed both up for their very own Rapid Rewards account so they could each receive the 250 point bonus, just like Uncle Points Guy wrote about here!

Final Tidbits:

1) Avoid earaches by bringing a lollipop, pacifier, bottle or some sticky/chewy food item that requires your child to swallow and flex his or her jaw to help pop their ears during take-off and landing.

2) Keep it as simple as possible. I know I went on about extras, but make sure to stay organized and focused. You don’t want to be dropping burping cloths and binkies all over the place. I used a lot of gallon ziplock baggies for everything from the empty sippy cups to Keira and Conor’s change of clothes.

3) Practice the Mommy Stare. You can’t blow your top and yell at your kids on an airplane when they throw their shoe at another passenger, no matter how much you want to. So you may want to start practicing that “fear of God” stare you know you are capable of now so that you can break it out when silence is the best reprimand – the flight attendants won’t take him or her to the cockpit for timeout – I tried!

4) Tire them out! I put my husband in charge of this. Get those wiggles out of your toddler’s limbs before take-off. A quick trip to the park in the morning, jumping jacks at the gate … anything to expel that extra energy. Word of caution: this is a slippery slope – be careful not to OVERtire them.

5) Snack Attack: don’t count on the airline to have something for Thing 1 and Thing 2 (and Thing 3) to eat – especially on short domestic flights. Check online to see what restaurants and convenience stores are located in the airport in order to find something that suits their palate. Just save yourself the aggravation and stay away from foodstuffs that leak, drip, or smell …

Overall, watching Keira and Conor’s faces as we took to the air and sailed through the clouds was pure magic, and well worth any mishaps along the way. I would and will absolutely fly with them again – and next time it will be with a little less fear and much more excitement and anticipation. How could I have ever worried when they are related to The Points Guy?

Please feel free to add on to my list – I’m sure everyone would love to hear more ideas and experiences.

The Points Guy and his soon-to-be world traveling Goddaughter

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Glenn

    I can’t really add much in the way of tips. But I was on a pair of US flights over the weekend to TPA and back. Several small children on board and the flights were both 100% full. On the whole I was impressed. The kids were all generally quiet and seemed to be well-behaved. Not a lot of screaming and crying and carrying on. So kudos to all the parents out there doing a great job of keeping their kids entertained.

  • http://www.mommypoints.com Mommy Points

    Love it! I have written almost the exact same post. Sounds like you had a good game plan and it worked – yay!

  • http://kellyprojectsolutions.com/KPSBlog/ Robert

    As a parent who has taken to the air with 3 little ones all under 5 yrs old, I can say this is a great post! From TSA lines, to clothing, to entertainment (I like wrapping them as surprises…like Christmas on the plane) this was a good read.

  • Ciara

    Great stuff! All my questions answered and more! I recently passed up a trip to Florida because that meant flying with a baby. I had no clue how to make traveling happen without losing my mind so my family missed out. I love how the article was so detailed with each step; the gift idea was genius! And I think when my daughter gets a little older “The mom stare” will come into play nicely :)

  • james

    Just a word of advice – the rules are fuzzy when your child is older than 2 re: feeding with juiceboxes. Last year, when travelling with our almost 3 year old from CUN-DFW-LAX, we had US name-brand unopened boxes we had in a separate ziplock. We were told in Cancun security we could only take 2 via carrry-on (a determination based on use for 1 flight). When we landed in Dallas, we went outside security and bought another 2 name-brand juice boxes. One of the TSA agents (who was obviously having a bad day) told us we couldn’t take any on the plane. I immediately called a supervisor over. They said juice boxes were not a covered liquid for the care and feeding of our child as she was not classified as an infant anymore, and they were tossed in the trash. We’ll definitely be carrying a copy of the TSA rules you linked to & will follow your advice on the sippy cups.

  • Iowan

    Once a FA told my ‘super-energetic’ son that the tighter he wears his seat belt the faster the plane goes. It has worked every time since.
    He was also thrilled to hear an announcement that he was the junior captain.

  • Robert London

    All good advice – except stay away from apple juice – it is all sugar and try to fly during nap time that always worked great for me

  • hobo13

    Definitely useful, since hobo13 Jr. just arrived last month. His first trip is in two weeks!

    I’d be curious to hear your analysis of your family’s decision to fly Southwest. I guess none of them have status, so the free bag thing tips the scales? Do they even compare prices of the legacies, or just blindly book Southwest? (which a lot of people seem to do given that they don’t play with the GDSes). Just curious. Not that I look at them too much, but in my very limited experience Southwest is not always the cheapest, no matter what they’d like you to believe!

  • Bill

    Great post.

    One thing we’ve started to do with our two kids is bring their car seats and checking them on the plane. Many airlines don’t charge baggage fees for the car seat and then you have the one you are comfortable with in the rental car. Plus you save the $10 per day per seat. That adds up pretty fast with 2 kids if you are gone for a week. Additionally, I’ve found installing the seats from the rental companies difficult to install and get tight enough. I like our own car seats because they are easy to install and keep tight.

    One other suggestion… Click the straps together so they are not loose and bring a large garbage bag to put the car seats in while on the plane. Keeps everything together in case something comes loose. Many carriers don’t have the bags anymore.

  • John F

    Don’t forget you can’t plan anything with kids, We kept our son awake a whole day for a night flight to UK came on board he was playing up terrible for 2 hours finally fell asleep, on the way back he fell a sleep in car, put him in carriage and lucky security at LHR didn’t wake him and woke up just by boarding was the best kid ever on the entire 8 hour flight last 15min fell asleep again.

  • M

    This was a great post to read since I just got back from an international flight (Lax-HKG) where getting there took 14+ hours! I test ran my 16 mth old on a domestic Southwest flight first and after success, decided to give it a shot.
    Something I was told often, was to bring benedryl, in case I was desperate. I did’nt feel comfortable with that idea so I too just prepared as best as I could and it was a success!

    Biggest things that have worked for me:
    -booking a flight around nap time
    -letting them walk with me around the plane
    -socializing with other babies and kids
    -having all snacks in small containers accessible
    -and if all fails, the MacBook with videos since the screens on the seat are too high up

    I had nightmares of being the parent of ‘the baby that wouldn’t stop crying’ and receiving the death glares but when we landed, the couple across from us actually congratulated us for the peaceful flight! Now we’re preparing for a RTW trip with the little guy!

  • james

    There’s a nice Flyertalk forum on Traveling with Children:

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/travel-children-221/

  • andy

    One thing we’ve learned is that our kids will eventually kick the seat in front of them. Easy solution: take off their shoes. Once a kid kicks a steel seat while barefoot / sockfooted, they don’t do it again :)

  • The Points Guy

    @ Glenn: I’m glad you enjoyed your flight and really happy those parents stepped up! Though the best laid plans …
    @ MommyPoints: I look forward to checking out your blog!
    @ Robert: 3 under 5? Wow, I’m impressed. How many adults? We had an 3:1 ratio on our flight ;)
    @ Ciara: For a long time I couldn’t wrap my head around how we would possibly manage to fly with both of them. I am so glad this opportunity came along and forced me to face the flight – very empowering and actually fun for everyone! Lots of concentrated effort … but fun was in there, too!
    @ James: I was a little worried about my daughter, because she actually still has to eat infant formula for medical reasons and she’s almost 3 and I was sure that would raise some eyebrows. I ended up getting a Dr’s note even though I wasn’t even trying to bring the liquid formula through – just the powder. Turns out TSA didn’t blink an eye – I really do think it depends on the agent, and how their day is going as you pointed out!
    @ Iowan: I love the seatbelt idea! and I didn’t know airlines would still make an announcement. I remember hearing my name over the loudspeaker when I was little though – too cool!
    @Robert London: noted :)
    @ hobo13: We were all very fortunate to be flying via the “grandparent air” fund, but after seeing your comment I asked my in-laws why they chose Southwest and the answers included: for the direct routing and times they wanted the flights were cheaper than with USAir or Delta, the free checked bag policy (since there were 3 golf bags, multiple hanging wardrobe bags, and suitcases going with us – not to mention I was also considering bringing our double-stroller and pack ‘n play), the roominess of the seats and generally always friendly staff, and the fact that you can check-in 24 hours ahead of time and secure “a” seating – or just pay for it for about $10-$20 a seat like Gigi and Pop did – which means you are almost guaranteed front of the plane spots. Have a safe flight with jr!
    @ Bill: thanks for the information and suggestion about the carseats. If we were gone more than 4 days (and doing more driving) on our trip it probably would have been worth it to bring our own toddler seats and save the $ and hassle of an unknown harness situation.
    @ John F: I admit that the “unpredictability” factor is why I did’t bring the flying time = naptime debate into the article. When I asked my friends and neighbors about whether their kids slept on various flights the answers were all different. I think it depends on the child and circumstances. If the flight had been longer we would have gone for the carseats since I know my little ones will doze in those. The baby behind us snoozed the whole time. Go figure!
    @ M: I’ve heard the benedryl argument too, but like you I didn’t want to promote it. For better or worse, I do admit to giving Conor a shot of baby tylenol before the flight down however, since he’d been attacked by a mosquito swarm the day prior to flying and I knew he was very uncomfortable. He also has eartubes and we’ve been through the fire and back with ear infections, so I wanted to head off any possible discomfort from the altitude changes … Sounds like you have had some great suggestions of your own. I really like the one about letting your child show YOU the plane :)
    @ James: Thanks! Don’t tell The Points Guy but I actually did not check Flyertalk beforehand … sorry! sorry!
    @Andy: Good one!

  • TPGirlFriday

    Haha, I have to claim ownership for the responses that were just posted. For some reason they showed up as Brian, even though they were my own. Please don’t hold The Points Guy responsible!!
    Thanks,
    Danni

  • Larry

    Some more tips:

    - Make sure the kids are well prepared before flying by reading them lots of toddler picture books about planes and airports. Then, make a sport out of locating all the things (like the “lift-up trucks”) that they saw in the books.

    - Always be clear and forthright about the schedule with kids (“we’re going to be on this airplane for a long time and we’ll have to stay in our seats for most of the time”).

    - Bring read-aloud books for the flight.

    - Always fly two-behind-two: this gives you two window seats for takeoff and landing, the ability to have the kids sit together (for when they’re a little older) or apart as appropriate, and the ability to isolate both of them behind parents if they turn out to be “kickers”.

    - Flight crews love to have children ask to see the cockpit when deplaning (no one asks any more after 9/11), so you can offer that as an incentive for good behavior. Since you’ll be traveling with checked bags, you have a few minutes to spare when deplaning anyway.

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  • Jennifer Saranow Schultz

    I call apple juice in a cup with a lid and a cocktail straw a “kid-friendly airplane cocktail.” Ever since a flight attendant offered it to my daughter a while back, we’ve been hooked as the drink entertains her for at least 20 minutes or so, forever in toddler airplane time. More on that, and a link to your post, here: http://hintmama.com/2014/03/21/todays-hint-a-kid-friendly-airplane-cocktail/

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