15 Tips to (Actually) Enjoy Flying With Toddlers

You can make travel memories with your kids without too much of a headache. Just plan ahead.
Lee Huffman
By Lee Huffman 

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Traveling with my toddlers has been one of the biggest sources of joy (and frustration) in my life. As much as I love traveling on my own, there's something special about experiencing destinations, attractions, food and more through their eyes.

To encourage more families to travel with their children, we created this guide on how to fly with toddlers. The goal is to make travel easier so you'll go on more trips and create more lifelong memories.

1. Get passports for everyone

If you're traveling internationally, remember that everyone needs a passport — even toddlers and babies. Getting a passport can take a while, so be sure to apply for your child's passport right away. Currently, posted passport processing times are as follows:

  • Routine processing: Six to eight weeks.

  • Expedited processing: Two to three weeks.

In extreme situations, you may be able to receive a same-day passport within three to five days of travel.

The U.S. Department of State has a handy tool that shows where you can apply in person for a passport based on your ZIP code. Both parents or guardians must be present when applying for a passport for children under 16 years.

Because kids grow and change quickly, children's passports are good for only five years and can't be renewed. This time frame is much shorter than the 10 years that adults enjoy with their passports.

» Learn more: How to get a passport

2. Consider TSA PreCheck or Global Entry

TSA PreCheck and Global Entry are two examples of Trusted Traveler programs that allow flyers to move through airport security more quickly.

Children 12 and under can use the TSA PreCheck lanes when traveling with an eligible parent or guardian. Children 13-17 can as well but must have the TSA PreCheck icon on their boarding pass.

Global Entry, however, requires that every traveler be signed up, even young children. This nuance tripped us up when we were traveling home from Mexico when our daughter was 6 months old. Although it was an innocent mistake, the customs agent wasn't too forgiving.

TSA PreCheck is $78 and Global Entry is $100, and both memberships are good for five years. Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck and is highly recommended if it's possible that you'll travel internationally in the next five years. The time savings at customs is well worth the $22 price difference. Numerous travel credit cards reimburse cardholders for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fees. If you have multiple cards with this benefit, you can use a different card to pay for each of your family member's application fees.

3. Have a notarized letter for solo-parent travel

If one parent is traveling with your toddler while the other is staying home, it's important to get a notarized letter that confirms the non-traveling parent's permission. I travel frequently with my kids while my wife is at her 9-to-5 job, and this document has come up frequently on international trips.

4. Download apps and shows, charge devices

Before your trip, charge all of your electronic devices, including tablets, portable chargers and cameras. Many streaming services, like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, allow you to download movies and TV shows to watch when you're away from Wi-Fi.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Having a charged-up device and multiple hours of entertainment is a sure way to keep your toddler happy while flying.

Many airlines offer hundreds of movies, TV shows and songs free of charge. However, some airlines have removed seatback devices and rely on personal devices instead to provide this entertainment. Be aware that you may need to download the airline's app ahead of time to use these features.

If onboard entertainment is a key differentiator when flying with toddlers, consider booking tickets with JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines or Southwest Airlines — our top three picks in our analysis of the best airlines for in-flight entertainment.

5. Pack smart

Packing for adults and children can be complicated. Toddlers often need multiple changes of clothes every day due to spills, accidents and changes in weather. Packing cubes help to compress clothing to save space, and it may help to have a dedicated suitcase for each child.

When choosing where to stay, consider options that have on-site laundry facilities. This way, you can reduce how much you need to pack, as you can wash clothes midway through the trip.

6. Bring a car seat — or rent one

Many parents have car seats that they know and love, so they're inclined to bring them along. Car seats offer a safer in-flight seat for the child and one that they're familiar with, which can help reduce the stress of flying. However, car seats are bulky, so it may not be worth the effort of bringing them on board.

If you want to check your car seat instead, get a car-seat bag. It will protect your car seat from dirt, moisture and damage. Plus, you can often fit additional diapers, clothing or toys in the space where your child sits.

For parents who are renting a car at their destination, consider renting a car seat from the rental car company. If you're a AAA member, you get one free car seat or booster from Hertz, Dollar or Thrifty with each rental. Once your child graduates to a booster seat, compact, adjustable car seats from companies like Mifold can also be a good option.

7. Consider shipping items to your destination

While it can be an added expense, shipping some items makes life easier while traveling — especially if you're going to be away for a few weeks. Items that are disposable and bulky but lightweight make the most sense to ship, but any effort to lighten your airport load can be useful. Ideas include diapers, wipes and snacks, or heavy coats and shoes.

Before shipping, contact your hotel, vacation rental or other accommodation to make sure it can hold items until your arrival.

8. Seek out playgrounds inside the airport terminal

As parents, we know that our toddlers have tons of energy, which can spell trouble when they're sitting in a metal tube at 30,000 feet for hours at a time. Many airports have kids' play areas so your toddlers can burn some energy and be ready for a nice nap during the flight.

If there aren't any playgrounds at your airport, take your toddler for a long walk. My kids loved the moving sidewalks when they were younger (and sometimes even now). Just be respectful of others who are using the area to get to their flight or leave the airport.

9. Head to airport lounges for snacks

Airport lounges are a great way to spend time before your flight when flying with toddlers. There are several credit cards with complimentary or discounted lounge access. And many include complimentary admission for up to two or more guests or family members.

Inside the lounge, there are usually free drinks, snacks, Wi-Fi and other perks. Some lounges even have dedicated kids' areas. Keep in mind that many travelers are there on business or just want to relax, so make sure your children are on their best behavior.

10. Hit the bathroom before boarding

It seems like Murphy's law that as soon as the plane starts to taxi, one of my kids announces (often, loudly) that they need to use the potty. This creates the uncomfortable choice between a glaring flight attendant and a possible accident on the seat.

To avoid this scenario, find out what time your flight starts boarding and use the restroom 15 minutes before then.

11. Keep their favorites handy in a small carry-on

Even when we check luggage, we bring backpacks for each of our kids that are stuffed with their favorite toys, games, books and snacks. It's a good way to keep them occupied — and their bellies full.

Having a strategically packed, lightweight carry-on also helps us avoid paying sky-high prices (literally and figuratively) on snacks when flying with toddlers.

12. Have a plan for ear pressure

Often, babies and toddlers have problems with ear pressure on takeoff and landing. This is partly because they don't realize the need to swallow to relieve this pressure. Breastfeeding, drinking from a bottle or sucking on a pacifier can help them with this process. I've also found EarPlanes to be an effective tool for regulating ear pressure for our family.

13. Indulge them

While parents often have rules about "TV time" and food for their children, when in the air, it's OK to bend those rules. The last thing you — or your fellow passengers — want is a screaming or crying toddler who isn't getting to watch yet another episode of "Team Umizoomi" or "Bubble Guppies."

At your destination

14. Be prepared to carry them off the plane

Traveling takes a lot out of everyone. Some toddlers are energized and ready to go the moment they reach the terminal, but most are tired from the process. As such, there's a strong possibility that your kid will need to be carried off the plane.

To keep your hands free(r) when traveling with a toddler, consider checking all bags beyond any strategically packed, small carry-ons. That way, you'll have one less thing to carry — or forget — when deplaning.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Many airline credit cards waive checked bag fees for the first bag of each passenger.

15. Involve them in the planning

Although most toddlers can't read, they can still be involved in planning your family's daily activities. Give them some options and let them select what your family does. Or plan some free time in your schedule and let them take the lead.

They'll love "being in charge" — and you never know where they'll take you. How's that for adventure?

How to travel with a toddler, recapped

Flying with a 2-year-old or other toddler-aged kiddos can be challenging, but also highly rewarding. It takes extra time to pack and plan your trip, but you'll get to experience both new destinations and some of your old favorites through the eyes of a child.

Don't wait to travel until they get old enough to remember the trip. While your toddler may not remember anything, they'll still enjoy being in the moment. You'll have memories that last a lifetime, and you can always take pictures and videos to share as they get older.

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