How to survive air travel with a toddler


Julie Mitchell

Julie Mitchell

Blog author Julie Mitchell

Julie is a producer of blogs, films and children in Los Angeles.

Published December 4, 2015|6 min read

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The secret to traveling with children over the holidays is having just the right amount of absolute, all-consuming fear. You can over worry and your worry can actually manifest your toddler's back molar breaking through mid-flight. You can under worry and underestimate just how sick your child's car sickness can be. Or you can worry just enough to power your survival mode for the duration of the trip, and then treat yourself to a large glass of wine upon arrival. And by "large glass of wine" I mean a glass of wine the size of a bottle of wine, which some people just refer to as a "bottle of wine."Here are some tips on how to survive air travel with a toddler.

Before you leave

Now is NOT the time to start anything new. Don't try to sleep train, potty train, or wean off the bottle or pacifier when you are traveling in the next month. Trust me on this. Trust. Me.Use lists to pack. If you have any chance of an enjoyable trip with kids, you have to be organized and prepared (even if it goes against everything you've ever stood for). Consider making a list for each room of the house; things you need from the kitchen, things you need from the bathroom, bedroom, garage, etc. Put an asterisk next to things that need to be within easy reach (i.e. things you need to be at your feet in the plane or car).Remember the things I always forget. Don't forget to pack the kid's toothpaste and shampoo, and the medications you use on occasion: Children's Tylenol, allergy medications, EpiPens and inhalers, diaper creams. Ask your pediatrician if it would be a good idea to travel with an antibiotic (which you would only use in case of an emergency sinus infection Christmas morning in Canada).If you are using formula, pack more formula than you think you need. That's the one thing that's very hard to find if you end up stuck at the airport or in a snowstorm.

Get in the right frame of mind – the kind where you are the adult and your child is a child and you expect both of you to behave accordingly. Kids don't have the ability to give a crap about where you need to be one bus ride, two plane trips, a layover, and six hours from now. Their minds and bodies function in the present moment (which is what we cherish about them… most of the time). Their little bladders do not have the ability to understand that the plane is boarding. Their little busy legs aren't capable of caring that family is waiting at the end of a seven hour car ride. Remember that.

Once you're on the plane

Don't sacrifice your schedule trying to find the cheapest flight possible. Back before we were a we, I would pick the cheapest flight regardless of the schedule. Now, I'll pay good money for a direct flight taking off during my kid's nap time (somewhat increasing my chances of having a napping toddler on our flight). It hurts to spend an extra $200 purely for convenience, but it hurts a lot more to waste half a vacation trying to catch up on sleep.You can bring liquids through security if you have kids. This includes ice packs, food packets, water, milk and juice. They get tested by a separate machine so keep them all together and easily accessible from your carry on.Carry important back-up pictures on your phone. Have a picture of your luggage, your under-two-year-old child's birth certificate, your itinerary, and your child in her travel clothes on your phone – in case the first or last go missing or the middle two are needed for reference.

Bring a lap pillow if you have a lap child. A crescent shaped pillow like a Boppy works great. To me the effort of schlepping it is worth the comfort of having it.Remember that every person on that plane was once a child. You may be able to keep your child from kicking the seat. You may not be able to keep your child from having an epic meltdown because you kept her from kicking the seat. You do the best you can with the child who belongs to you forever and ever and let go of responsibility for passengers that you'll never see again.(Fun tip: When your child recovers from the meltdown, teach her the phrase, "So long, Suckers!" and have her yell it as you run off the plane upon landing.)

Once you've arrived

Don't try to adjust your kids to a time change. Let them sleep when they normally sleep. So if your children usually go to bed at 7:30 Los Angeles time, they'll be going to bed at 9:30 Texas time and very hopefully sleeping until 9 the next morning.Accept that your kid won't be at his best. We all want to show the best side of our children, but that's not going to happen on a trip. It's just not. But that's okay.Expect to be on your toes at all times. No one's house is child-proofed like your house is child-proofed. It's tiring to be with your kids at someone else's house.

Gently remind family about Toddler Mode. Your instinct may be to yell at Aunt Alice, "Keep your @#^ing hot cup of coffee out of my kid's reach!" But remember that Aunt Alice hasn't been around a two year old since you were that two year old. Remind your family about toddler mode and blame your kid. "Benny is really fast and has a reach like Stretch Armstrong so please make sure you close the doors behind you and keep your @#^ing hot coffee out of his reach".(Fun tip: Place kind reminder notes like, "Anyone who doesn't close the toilet seat will be responsible for bathing the toddler in the toilet."Consider letting your child have his own relationship with your family. Sometimes we run interference for our kids, trying to protect them from all the quirks that drive us crazy about our families and in-laws. We don't want our father-in-law telling our kids ghost stories. We don't want our sister feeding our kids chocolate before lunch. But that's not just our father-in-law and sister, that's our child's grandfather and our child's aunt. Maybe it's okay for our kids to be exposed to different ways of doing things. The things that drive us crazy about our families don't have to be the things that drive our kids crazy about our families.If we're in the right headspace this holiday travel season, we'll be on a wild adventure with our kids. Ready for anything and accepting of everything that comes our way – especially each other.Photo credit: Sandor Weisz