How To Survive Long Flights With A Toddler

This is my most popular post on the blog. Ever.

And today’s post has been my most requested.

Here’s the thing. I never had the authority to write about surviving long flights with a baby or toddler, given that this was Rho’s first long haul trip.

Since he was born, Sri and I seized a free week to travel by ourselves. To reconnect as a couple, catch up on sleep, read a veritable library of books, or explore a new place.

I have no regrets about that decision. But after our trip to Hawaii, I’m also keen to travel more frequently with Rho.

For as challenging as this trip was (and it was), it was also incredible. We came home much closer as a family, and I felt like I knew Rho so much better than I did before.

I discovered that he sees animals everywhere – trees are giraffes, hills are hippos, and lions are everywhere. That a slice of cheese pizza is something he’ll never turn down – ever. That drinking milk too close within two hours of getting in the car will definitely make him throw up. That he can handle a little disruption in his schedule.

I learned that I can handle said disruption as well. I’ll just need an extra glass of wine that night.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that my kid is a rockstar traveler. And that upgraded seats are worth every penny (thanks, Mom and Dad). And that it’s absolutely worth traveling with your kids, even if they won’t necessarily remember the trip.

Here’s everything I learned about flying with a toddler – the good, the bad, and the messy.

What We Brought

Getting Through The Airport

The stroller was the last thing to be packed in the trunk, so it could be the first thing we took out. Once Rho was in the stroller, I packed up his travel carseat (best $35 I’ve ever spent) and put it inside this padded bag, along with our wet bags filled with beach toys and swim diapers. We checked in the carseat bag, along with our own individual suitcases, and kept Rho in the stroller until we got all our bags on the screening belt. My husband took Rho through while I folded it up, and held him while I gathered our bags and got it set up again.

Too bad Rho had zero desire to get back in. We used the stroller to hold our bags as he walked (ran) through the airport.

Our first flight ended up being delayed, so it was a good thing that Rho got to run around as much as he did. He sat still just long enough to eat some pasta, and for Sri to pop over to Starbucks and get some milk for him (they filled up one of his milk cups and our empty S’well bottle). I changed his diaper and folded up his stroller right before we boarded. Once the BabyZen is in its travel bag, it’s as small as any carry-on suitcase and the flight attendants won’t force you to gate check it. Sri held Rho while I got his harness set up, and we settled him into the seat before we settled in.

The stroller stayed folded up during our two quick layovers (SFO > OGG, SEA > JFK). It was, however, in heavy use during our long waits in Kona and Honolulu, and while we waited for our luggage at all of our final destinations.

Entertainment

Rho didn’t sleep a wink during the first flight (EWR > SFO). Which means I didn’t sleep either.

The tablet was my last resort. I managed to entertain him with putting the Minions movie on his entertainment screen, which occupied him for a solid hour.

The WaterWow painting cards bought me another 30 minutes. But he flat-out refused to play with the Play Doh himself, and requested me to sculpt the animals of his choosing.

“Lion! Zebra! Baby lion!”

Once he was bored of my sculpting skills, I handed him the Kindle Fire. We downloaded a slew of puzzle and animal games, which he happily played for most of the flight. We did return to the painting and Play Doh again, and took a few snack breaks.

During the shorter flights, the tablet was all Rho played with. He did sleep through the SFO > OGG and HNL > SEA flights, and slept/played during the last flight home.

Since we checked in our AWAY suitcases, I removed both batteries and charged them up for the trip. They were lifesavers for Rho’s Kindle Fire, both during the flights and during our long days exploring Hawaii (#protip)

Eating/Drinking

As long as we had a steady supply of milk for Rho, he was happy.

We did get into our snack stash, and saved the bread and yogurt from our meals for him. He ate when he was in the mood, and rejected the food when he wasn’t.

Toddlers.

The flight attendants were happy to fill up my S’well with hot water, and I’d rinse out his milk sippy cups with the scalding water while we were in transit. Once we landed at our destinations, I’d give them a good scrub with this travel bottle brush and baby-friendly dish soap. They were also happy to fill his sippy cups with water and milk as needed, and even saved freshly baked cookies and bread for him.

Not forcing him to eat helped keep meltdowns at bay. And when we left him alone (Play Doh requests aside), he was in good spirits.

Traveling is basically the only time I’ll let my kid boss me around.

Changing

3 extra outfits may be overkill to pack, but I’m glad I had them.

There was a nosebleed on our first flight, which required a fresh set of clothes for Rho and a new shirt for me.

Then there was a leaky diaper on our last flight home.

And before we flew out on a redeye, we changed him into a cozy sweatsuit.

We took full advantage of our longer airport stays (and the Delta Sky Club/family bathrooms) to change Rho’s diaper. We did have to change Rho’s diaper twice in-flight, but mad props to Delta for having changing tables in all your 757 bathrooms (though they are intended for teeny babies, not crazy toddlers).

#momtip – wear a tank under all your tops, so you can always change your top without having to pop into the bathroom.

Sleeping

When it was dark outside, Rho fell asleep.

And when it was light, he was awake.

We learned this quickly on our first flight, so Sri and I made sure one of us was adequately caffeinated to entertain him on a long flight. We also discovered that he refused to sleep while wearing the CARES, but would sleep soundly with just the lap belt secured.

I draped his favorite blanket on him first before the airplane-provided blanket for extra warmth.

Letting him run around in the airport before boarding also helped him fall asleep (and stay asleep) during the flights. We had a few instances when he’d wake up in the seat and cry, but he’d quickly fall back asleep once we held him.

And kept holding him.

There’s nothing I won’t do to keep my kid quiet during a long flight, including holding him for 3/5 of those hours. My Kindle Oasis kept me entertained during those long snuggle sessions (when I wasn’t watching Rho sleep). I read this book and got halfway through this one during our flights.

This is just our experience, from one trip, with one kid. I would love to hear from you – how do you prepare for long travels with your little one? Please share your wisdom in the comments below! Sharing is caring, and traveling with kids is hard ;)

  • Alissa Schaible

    Question – any particular reason you decided to check your car seat? We have the same Cosco seat that we use for travel, and the harness as well, though we only tend to use the harness when we don’t need the car seat at our destination. Otherwise, I prefer to bring the car seat onto the plane, it seems to work well for napping and such.

    We’ve never done quite as long as Hawaii, but we’ve done NYC>PHX numerous times at various ages, and last spring did NYC>LHR wih our kids at 7, 4, and 14 months. For the London trip I had the kids wear pjs both ways (the Hanna Andersson ones are great for this!), for comfort on the plane and easy bathroom trips/diapering (overnight diapers are great for the plane too). We’ve gotten a lot of use as well out of small whiteboards and the Crayola dry erase markers. Toddlers are basically the hardest age – on our way home from London, my older two sat across the aisle from my husband, my little guy and me. The man who sat next to them looked terrified at first, but when we landed told us they were the best seat mates he’d ever had – they take up no space, and only asked him once to open a pack of pretzels!

    • hithaonthego

      If we’re flying economy, we definitely bring the carseat onto the plane with us. In this case, we had lie-flat seats so we opted to check in the carseat (and use its bag to pack extra items).

      Amazing tip re: overnight diapers – I didn’t even think of that. Thanks so much for sharing your tips!

  • We’ve only taken our daughter to Florida from Virginia, so not too long. But we’re going for the first time as a family of 3 this April so I’m bookmarking this post! She’s 4 now and will have her tablet so I have zero issues with keeping her entertained but my son is 2 & loves to move. I have no clue how we’re going to handle him for his first flight- yikes!

    • hithaonthego

      Rho and your son sounds like they’d be buddies. We let Rho walk and play as much as possible before boarding, which tired him out. I think it’s the only reason he was so calm on the actual flight. Wishing you all the luck!

  • We’ve used this dolly since my son isn’t a fan of his stroller- loved it! https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000JJK9EY/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    • hithaonthego

      Thanks for sharing it!

    • I second this! We use it in place of a stroller at the airport and it’s been a lifesaver with both my kids. Plus, they’re more familiar with their own car seat and more likely to fall asleep on the plane. Another game changer has been to use a wool diaper cover while traveling (usually we only use it at night to avoid leaks). This put an end to both 2am crib changes and leaky diapers on flights.

      • hithaonthego

        Awesome tip! Rho’s more used to his stroller than his carseat (city kid life), but I completely get it. The wool diaper cover is a brilliant idea – ordering some now!

  • Joyce Knoer Ozturk

    Great tips!! We have traveled a lot with my almost 2.5 year old and its been pretty smooth most of the time – we’ve only dealt with a few full-on meltdowns in 50+ flights so I consider it a success so far ;) Things that have helped us a ton:

    Always bringing the carseat on the flight (yay for the cosco scenera) to keep him contained and help encourage sleeping!! Even when he was still a lap child w/o a ticket, we always asked at the gate if there were any extra seats so we could bring on the carseat. Almost every time we asked about this, we got lucky and got a free seat to use with the carseat. Unless the flight was overbooked or totally sold out they’ve always accommodated us. So awesome.

    Bring little/new/cheap toys (matchbox cars, etc) wrapped in wrapping paper or aluminum foil so they also spend time unwrapping each new toy before playing with it.

    I second the Water Wow pads! Plus extra pens so that when one inevitably falls to the floor and rolls into the abyss, you don’t have a meltdown on your hands. We have this 3 pack: https://www.amazon.com/Aquadraw-Aquadoodle-Replacement-Water-Pens/dp/B00DM5MYWC/ref=sr_1_5?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1516045621&sr=1-5&keywords=water+wow+pens

    Stickers – I went to the party supply store and bought a bunch of $0.99 sticker books in his favorite characters. Great for everyday diaper bag use too – perfect distraction for restaurants and waiting in line ;)

    And of course, so many snacks – especially ones they don’t get at home very often. Soon many snacks!!

    • hithaonthego

      These are all such fantastic ideas! I have never thought of wrapping up the individual toys in aluminum foil. Genius.

      Thank you so much for sharing them!