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Here's how to keep a toddler comfortable -- and quiet -- on an international overnight flight

March 08, 2022
8 min read
Little boy sitting on an airplane watching something on digital tablet
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If you’re a parent who has ever flown with a toddler, you know that keeping them comfortable is the key to a (mostly) stress-free flight. But that can prove to be a considerable feat, especially for long hauls.

Not only is the 2-5 age range tricky because younger kids are often too big for the bulkhead cot and too big to curl up in a standard economy seat, it’s also harder to settle on adult sleep solutions like laying on the tray table or leaning against a pillow on the wall of a window seat with a tantrum-prone tot.

So, when I was looking into an overnight flight to Scotland for spring break in April, I was desperate to find a sleep solution for my 3 1/2-year-old.

Luckily, there are a lot of options available, though they all have major caveats. Here are some of the solutions I found during my research and which approach I'm planning on taking with my child for our upcoming trip.

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Buy an inflatable seat extender

A great way to create a lie-flat seat for a toddler is to purchase an inflatable seat extender that acts as a mattress. While there are a variety of brands, including Fly Tot, Flyaway Designs and Plane Pal, they all essentially function the same. You use a pump to blow up a gadget that takes up the space between the toddler’s seat and the seat in front. Some (like Plane Pal) just fill the floor space, while others (like the Flyaway Kids Bed) extend to cover the seat to make a more level sleeping surface.

A great way to create a lie-flat seat for a toddler is to purchase an inflatable seat extender like the ones from PlanePal. (Photo courtesy of PlanePal/Facebook)

I immediately gravitated toward the Flyaway Kids Bed option, as I could see my son fitting comfortably on it, but there were a couple of concerns that soon came up.

A friend who tried out the product said it was a nightmare to blow up on her flight even though others have raved about how easy it was to use. So, if I decided to go with the Flyaway Kids Bed, I'd run the risk of it not working out as planned. Then there was the even bigger drawback of several airlines not allowing inflatable seat extenders. British Airways and United Airlines, two carriers I considered for my trip, were both on that list of airlines that don't permit the product on board, meaning this solution wouldn't work for my family.

Use a JetKids BedBox 

This option from Stokke is very similar to inflatable seat extenders, as it creates a lie-flat surface by taking up the floor space. However, the JetKids BedBox doesn’t require a pump. Instead, it is designed as a ride-on suitcase that transforms into a fold-out mattress in about five steps.

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You'll not only avoid the headache of spending a lot of time setting up the product on the plane, but you'll also enjoy the added conveniences of extra storage and assistance moving through the airport with your toddler.

There are a few catches, though. People have complained about the JetKids BedBox not being as sturdy since the wheels roll, and you’re stuck lugging an extra bag around if your little one doesn’t want to ride on it. It’s also at least $100 more than the inflatable options, and several airlines (including the two I looked at for my trip) don’t allow it. This last downside was the main deterrent to me going this route.

Related: Top travel gear for families

Bring your car seat

If you don't want to pay extra for a seat add-on, you could always rely on your trusty car seat. After all, toddlers somehow find a way to fall asleep in them at inopportune times, so it may help in the long run to eliminate the need to wake and move them.

Just be sure your car seat is Federal Aviation Administration-approved (typically, there's a sticker on the side that notes this). In many cases, the car seat will have side-impact cushions to prevent head bobbing, and it may also have the option to set it in a slightly reclined position.

Unfortunately, my child is a bit too wiggly, so I worried it wouldn't be sufficient for us. Instead, I decided to continue exploring my options.

Related: Making family travel easier with car seats and strollers

Fly in business or first class

You may be saying “Duh!” to yourself right now, as flying in business or first class seems like the obvious (and top) option. Many airlines that offer overnight flights have lie-flat seats in those sections, making it easy for toddlers and grown-ups alike to get a good night’s sleep.

When I was looking at flights for April, British Airways had its more private Club Suite option available. Incredibly, it was about $2,000 cheaper per person than United’s lie-flat business offering for the same dates (though the United flight was nonstop to Edinburgh, Scotland, while British Airways' route included a layover in London). However, the price tag of $3,800 per ticket (or $11,400 for my family of three) was simply too much for me to justify.

British Airways Club World Suite lie flat seat option. (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

Of course, I considered using points, too. Since we weren’t traveling much during the pandemic, we accumulated a little more than 375,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. If I had transferred my points to one of Chase's partner airlines, such as United Airlines or British Airways, I could have covered the cost of one ticket, but I still would have been on the hook for two full-price business-class tickets. By booking through the Chase Ultimate Rewards platform, I could have lowered the cost even more to about $5,800 for the three of us to travel. While that was way more reasonable, the total was still too expensive for my liking, so I nixed that option.

Related: Is business class worth it for families?

Book an extra economy seat

Although too big for the airplane cot, toddlers don’t need all that much more room to lay flat. When we flew with my son recently, he just needed a few more inches of space to sprawl out across the seats. So, inevitably, my husband and I squished together to give some of the middle seat to our little traveler.

That experience got me thinking about the possibility of booking an extra seat in economy. Many airlines offer this option, though the process for snagging an additional seat varies by carrier. For United Airlines and British Airways, for example, you need to call to book an extra seat. While it would cost around $1,000 more to purchase an extra round-trip economy ticket, that price is still considerably less than what I'd spend buying three business-class tickets, especially if I used points instead of cash.

I could always hope it’s not a full flight and request we're moved to a row with an empty seat at the gate. We'd save money, but finding a free seat the day of our flight is not guaranteed. For such a long flight, I'd rather know for sure how much space we'll have to work with.

Bottom line

While I’m still finalizing my family's plans, I’m leaning toward booking us an extra economy seat. I strongly considered using points to bring down the cost of business-class seats, but the price was still too high to justify. Were we traveling a bit farther to a country in, say, Asia, I might feel differently about making that splurge.

The add-on products available to buy were very tempting, but since the airlines I'm considering do not permit them, I had no choice but to take those options off the table. I would have 100% gone with an inflatable seat extender had it not been for United Airlines' and British Airways' policies, as those seem fairly comfortable without breaking the bank. Had my son been a bit younger and more likely to sit still, bringing his car seat may have made sense.

The option that will work best for you and your family will, of course, vary depending on the trip you're planning and your family's needs. Fortunately, there are several options available, so with the help of this guide, you're bound to find something that will work for everyone in your group.

Featured image by Getty Images/Westend61
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.