The number one question I get from people who want to travel with their children pertains to the actual flying aspect. My husband and I have taken over 40 flights with our three-year-old and two-year-old; so here is what we have learned from our experiences put into a guide on flying with toddlers and babies.
1. When can a baby travel?
We first traveled with our baby at 12-weeks-old, after she had her vaccinations, for a family event on an almost 9-hour-flight from London to Atlanta. To me, traveling with a smaller baby has been significantly easier than traveling with a mobile baby/toddler. Different people have different preferences on the right age for their baby’s first flight. Regardless of what you decide, here are some things to consider for your baby’s first trip!
- Check the airlines policy: Different airlines have minimum age requirements to travel. Check their website or call their customer service number.
- Discuss with your doctor: Assess if your doctor recommends any specific vaccinations or has recommendations on this topic. Many suggest 4-6 weeks is suitable for healthy babies, with no complications. And don’t forget about the mother’s health, post-delivery! There should ideally be time to recover as much as possible.
- Assess your specific child: Every child is different. Some newborns/young babies sleep nonstop. Others are colic. Many are in between. Try not to make any travel decisions until the baby exists, and you can observe their general tendencies and overall health conditions.
- Get necessary paperwork: For a US domestic flight, an infant will need proof of their age, whether it is a birth certificate or perhaps hospital records. Confirm ahead of time what the flight needs. For an international flight, an infant needs a passport.
Getting an infants passport requires a birth certificate. This is not always received the day the baby is born; so in the meantime a person can fill out the passport application and take the baby’s passport photos. Place your baby on a white sheet and shoot from above – usually passport offices are flexible with infant photos. Once you get the birth certificate, you can submit the complete passport application to the nearest office that accepts them (a quick Google Search should help you out). If you are in a rush, you can always pay an extra fee to expedite the process. Make sure to check if appointments are necessary or possible!
This being said, because of our circumstances of being an expat in London and needing to travel back for a family event in the US, we were able to quickly get our 11-week-old a temporary passport from the embassy. This might have been related to COVID rules; but it does not hurt to check if you need a quick solution.
2. Booking the tickets
Do you buy your child their own seat?
For children over 2-years-old: For most airlines, when a child is above two-years, they need their own seat, buckled in properly or sitting in their carseat in the seat.
For children under 2-years-old: Generally, the options for children under the age of two-years are as follows:
- When purchasing your ticket, book as ‘infant in lap’ and pay the taxes. If the baby is seated in your lap, many airlines will give you a seatbelt extender to place around the infant.
- Book a separate seat for the baby and, if you bring your carseat on board, place your carseat for the under 2-year-old in that seat.
Keep in mind, your infant will receive a ticket, even for ‘infant in lap’ and can only board the flight with a ticket, just like the rest of the family!
Our experience: Because most of our travels have occurred with both our children (who are 20 months apart), the most logistical and cost-effective option has been to book a separate seat for the older one and ‘infant in lap’ for the younger one. My husband and I rotate holding the younger one. On several occasions, with the help of airline staff or kind passengers, we ended up in a row of four for just our family.
Pros and Cons of Bulkhead Seat:
Why we like it: When our kids were babies, we would request to be seated in ‘bulkhead’ and receive a bassinet that the air hostess attaches to the front wall after take-off. I liked to take my own wipes and sheets for hygiene purposes, and really enjoyed this luxury of placing the baby down! You have to check different airline policies, but I never had issues calling ahead and requesting this, free of charge. Different airlines have different rulings on weight and costs, etc.
Why we don’t like it: Now that the kids are too old for the bassinet, bulkhead seating is not our preference due to a few reasons, despite the extra leg room.
- You have to store all items in the overhead bin for take-off and landing. With young kids, when they are in bad moods, and need a particular item, that time period can feel like forever and frustrating when you just need a bottle or wipe, etc. If you end up sitting in bulkhead, I suggest making a smaller bag of the absolute essentials you can keep under your seat.
- You have to keep the TVs and trays folded down during take-off/landing. Our tablets stopped working and the kids ears were popping at landing, and I wished I had the TV for distraction or the table for them to color on.
- Our Fly Away Designs sleeper bed couldn’t be used, because the distance from the seat to the wall in front was too far.
3. What are you allowed to bring on the airline?
Even for an ‘infant in lap’, you will be allowed certain amount of luggage to be checked-in or carried on. I recommend, in addition to thoroughly reading the website policies on what is allowed to bring, call the airline to confirm what you can bring. It could save a head-ache from miscommunication during the actual travel. We usually check-in everything we can.
For the actual flight, we usually take the following on board:
- The stroller (either the BabyZen YoYo Travel Stroller, which can be folded in the overhead bin or our Cybex Gazelle Double Stroller, which needs to be checked-in at the gate in a proper cover)
- Diaper bag with immediate essentials for the kids (Diapers, wipes, changing pad, snacks, stickers, water bottles, sippy cups)
- Carry-on with extra supplies of what is in the diaper bag
- Baby Bjourn Baby carrier (up until I baby-wore my kids at 14-months-old)
- Parents personal items
4. Packing & Deciding Gear to Take
Packing Check List
When we go on our travels, we generally take:
- 1 large suitcase with all our gear (if the trip is longer than a couple days, than we might take 2 large suitcases)
- 1 carry-on suitcase with ‘extensions’ of the items n the diaper bag (i.e., outfit changes, extra diapers, snacks, etc.)
- 1 diaper bag with the key items we need quickly (i.e., a few diapers/wipes/changing pad, water sippy cups, snacks)
- 2 personal items for each myself and my husband
- Stroller (and when our baby was younger, also the baby carrier)
Here is the general check-list of what goes inside each item:
- Moms clothes & accessories
- Dads clothes & accessories
- Kids clothes & accessories
- Oatmeal packets for daily breakfasts
- Toiletries for the family
- Toddler sleep sacks for the kids
- Portable potty seat: Store the seat in its own plastic bag.
- Extra change of clothes: Extra outfits and extra bibs might come in handy. If you can fit in, a spare outfit for mom and dad might be good too.
- Sippy cups & bottles: Don’t forget a portable brush to be able to do a quick cleanse throughout the flight.
- Disposable mats: These sticky adhesive disposable mats are some of my favorite items to have with me! They can use it on the tray in the airplane and eat directly off of it, as well as play with their toys on there and you can feel less anxious about the hygiene of the tray.
- Snacks: An assortment of their favorite snacks, as well as new snacks. Ideally low on sugar, and filling, to keep them satisfied and their energy levels manageable!
- Portable inflatable bed: We love our new Fly Away Sleeper, a portable, inflatable bed that the kids can sleep or play on during the fight. For the full review on this, visit my blog post Fly Away Sleeper Review.
- Body harness: This body leash is controversial, but works for my toddlers. The older one doesn’t need it as much, but my younger one runs away FAST. This backpack body harness allows me to manage her in the airport area without feeling overwhelmed that she will escape me.
- Coloring books & non-toxic crayons: Both my kids love to color, and for some reason, love to eat crayons. Having non-toxic crayons lets them color and when they try to sneak it into their mouth, I am less panicked. These water marker coloring books are a less messy tool too!
- Buckle boards: I LOVE these Montessori buckle boards, where the toddlers can practice different types of buckles and knots. Such a great way to keep them entertained and develop their motor skills.
- Sticker books & extra stickers: Sticker books for the kids is a favorite activity for mine! However, they struggle with taking the stickers off the pages within the book, so having an extra set of the Stickers on plastic sheets, that they can use to place in the sticker book works better for us
- Amazon kids tablets
- Diapers/Changing Pad/Wipes: Put enough for the flight in your bag that will be by your feet, and extra in the carry-on.
- Water bottles & sippy cups
- Stickers to quickly hand to the kids
Within the suitcase, carry-on, and even diaper bag, I have started to become dependent on packing cubes to keep everything organized. Packing cubes have been a game changer. Not only for our check-in suitcase, but for our carry-on and diaper bag!
5. Things to consider when bringing a carseat, stroller, and/or baby carrier
Country Guidelines: Every country has their own guidelines on whether they require a carseat and for what ages. Check the guidelines in the country of your destination on carseat rules for a car rental, ride-share, and public transport.
Personal Comfort: A lot of this decision has to do with personal comfort. Depending on how often you will need a carseat at your destination, you will have to decide if you want to take your own or rent one at the destination or book private transfer options with the carseats. Some places are relaxed with carseat rules, so some parents might opt to not use a carseat at all, and seek an alternative way such as public transit. Additionally, it may be the parents preference to keep their child in a carseat in their own seat on the flight. For this, you would want to bring your own.
Our Experience: For us and the trips we usually take, I prefer to arrange transport from the airport to our hotel, usually a private transfer which provides the carseat. From there, I prefer to stay in a lodging that is primarily walking distance or public transport accessible for our double stroller. It saves us the headache of taking two carseats around with us where ever we go.
Which Strollers Do We Use: Because of our kids ages and the fact that they still take afternoon naps, we always take a stroller with us. Based on the destination and our itinerary, we decide between the BabyZen YoYo and Cybex Gazelle Double Stroller. For each stroller, we have a YoYo buggy board and a Cybex buggy board for a child to sit on.
Pros & Cons of BabyZen YoYo: We love how lightweight this stroller is; that it can fit in the overhead bin of a plane; and it is easy to store in car trunks. The things we don’t like about it is that it does not lean back as far as I would like, and there is very little storage space underneath. It also is a single stroller, so when we take this with our kids, we need to use the Buggy Board for one of them to stand on.
Pros & Cons of Cybex Gazelle Double Stroller: We love that this stroller allows for both kids to sit; how many configurations there are; how flat it lies down for them to sleep; and the amount of storage space underneath. We dislike how heavy the stroller is and how large it folds up so that we have to strategize storage/trunk space of cars.
I wore my kids until they were each 14-months-old. I LOVE it. Having your baby confined and snuggled against you enhances our trip, IMO. For a full review on the two baby carriers that we used, see my review on the Baby Bjourn Baby carrier or the Ergo baby carrier. At the end of the day, I prefer the Baby Bjourn, because it is easier to put on yourself. I would keep the baby in the carrier on my lap in the flight because then my hands are free to move around. If my back started to ache, I would take a break from the carrier or swap with a travel partner.
6. Getting through Security/Airport Process
One of the hardest parts of travel is the logistics of getting through security. My husband and I have a divide and conquer approach. Until we are checked-in, his primary focus is the luggage and getting us checked in. We make sure that he has all the documents and information on his phone or hard copies. He uses the passport organizer to keep all our passports, COVID Vaccination cards, and other important documents together. As our family has grown, and we need more documents to travel as expats/COVID times, this has been vital! While my husband manages those aspects, I manage both kids, which the difficulty of this task varies day by day.
- The Line: When you get to security, ask if there is a special line for families.
- Stroller & Baby Carrier: Our standard airport process for when our baby was younger was for the toddler to be in the stroller and to baby-wear the younger one. We are generally asked to fold up our stroller and remove the baby from the baby carrier. I always ask the TSA agent if I can leave the gear open or continue to wear her, and they can ‘swab’ the item after security. Different airports have different rules, and some permit this ideal scenario, while others do not.
- Breastmilk and Formula: Pumped breastmilk is permitted on the flight – you just need to be ready for it to be inspected. When I used to transport it, I kept it in freezer friendly pouches, placed it in a cooler (make sure it’s airline approved, with a cool pack). It is always a good idea to double check CDC’s guidelines on safe ways of handling breastmilk. I also took formula on the plane, along with water bottles for the formula, and as long as they are kept and inspected separately, it is not an issue.
- Items for the Security Line: The thing that saves us time and energy in the security line is to use clear packing cubes (or Zip lock bags) in the diaper bag and carry-on. All snacks in one item, all liquid/pouches in another, electronics in the next, etc. Make sure you look at the oz amount of any liquid item you have beforehand (I lost a brand new size of Infant Tylenol bc of this error).
Once we make it through security, my husband and I feel like we can breathe a bit, until the boarding process begins.
7. Boarding the plane
Boarding the flight is the travel piece that always gives my husband a bit of anxiety. To make the process more manageable, similar to the security line, we have fine tuned our routine.
- Arrive at the airport as early as possible so that before boarding we can get the kids fed and use the restroom for potty/diaper changes.
- Get to the gate in advance of boarding time, because if ‘family boarding’ exists on the flight, it will occur on the earlier end.
- Regardless of which stroller we take, the lightweight travel stroller that can go in our overhead bin or the heavier double stroller that needs to be checked-in at the gate, we need to fold up the stroller and get them in their stroller cover. For our larger double stroller, I bought a durable stroller cover on Amazon.
- Demonstrate the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy while my husband focuses on getting the gear on the flight ,and I focus on getting the kids on the flight. On a few occasions, both kids were napping, and I had to hold them both at the same time, while my husband held the double stroller on his back. Needless to say, we felt like super-heros.
- If we are gate-checking the stroller, ask the gate attendant if they know if we will receive the stroller at the destinations gate or baggage claim. It differs at each airport, so it is nice to know in advance.
- When we board the flight, my husband loads up all the gear where it needs to go, while we settle in the kids – and take deep breaths that we made it on!
8. Managing the kids on the flight
For our family, the goal for us on a flight is to survive it, with our happy/healthy toddlers that are creating minimal chaos. When we are on land, we have a fairly firm schedule for sleeping and food and rules on sugar and screen time. When we are on the flight, we are more relaxed.
Here are our key methods:
Baby-wear infants: I baby wore my kids until they were 14-months-old, because it helped to keep them confined (as much as possible). At take-off and landing, they may ask you to remove the baby from the baby carrier, to properly use the ‘infant seat-belt’ on your lap; but this varies airline to airline. I used the Baby bJourn carrier with the younger one and the Ergonomic 360 with my older kid.
Breastfeed or bottle-feed at take-off and landing: To help with ears popping, I always nursed my babies as the flight took off and landed. I imagine sucking on a bottle will have a similar impact. For an older toddler, a sippy cup of milk/water or a lollipop could help relieve the pressure, as well.
Take favorite and new snacks: During our travel days, my kids eat WAY more snacks than actual meals. As long as it’s some form of calories and energy, I am okay with that. I do try to bring healthy snacks along with us in our carry-on, especially ones that are new to them or that they REALLY love, so that they eat and enjoy.
Be prepared with activities: I love to stock up our carry-on with tons of activities for the kids, including: Coloring Books, Montessori Buckle Boards, Stickers (These stickers that I linked don’t leave residue where ever they are stuck), and Suction Toys for the Window.
Allow screen-time for age-appropriate toddlers: It is recommended to avoid screen time for under 18-months-old. After my kids hit that age mark, we try to keep their screen time limited to when is necessary. I always try to get my toddlers excited about the movie options on the flight. Depending on the show availability, they may or may not be interested; so I like having their Amazon Kids Tablets charged and full of their favorite content.
All in all, flying with babies and toddlers is not an easy task; but when you do the preparation and work, and are committed to being as positive as possible, it doesn’t have to be an awful experience. Soak in their faces as they watch the planes fly, explore the airport and airplane, and stare out the planes windows. It is part of lifes special moments as we turn these tiny humans to travel lovers.
In addition to chatting with your physicians and doing research on your specific destination, always feel free to comment below or DM a message if you have questions on traveling with young children.
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