Figuring out how to fly with a toddler full of energy is scary! I had been dreading flying across the United States with our three kids now ages 5, 3.5, and 1.5. After our two long, stressful flights last year doing the same trip, I learned a thing or two and am happy to report that this trip was completely different! We did so many things differently, in addition to having just a tiny bit older kids. If you are terrified of flying with littles like I am, then I can’t wait for you to see what secrets made this trip so much better.
How to fly with a toddler and two preschoolers
This post contains affiliate links to products I love.
Packing was really tricky because I was sure I had “gone light” and then couldn’t zip my bag and had to start over! One thing I did that worked so well was to use about 3-4 gallon ZipLock bags in my back pack to group things which helped me to find things one handed on the plane, without doing much digging (you know what I’m talking about)! Plus, they are easy to pull out. Here’s how I grouped my bags:
- Activities/stickers/coloring stuff
Overall, I’d say find activities to take that are usable and then disposable. Think of snacks more as an activity, use the bathroom before each flight and at every layover, bring an umbrella stroller (non negotiable to me as it’s the pack horse!), and roll with your kids excitement about flying because it’s magical to them.
Break your day into chunks to make it easier
To me, the day goes faster when I mentally plan out what needs to happen first, second, etc at the aiport like this:
- Leave the house at a set time.
- Physically get everything from the car to check in. Ditch the bags and car seats there.
- Go through security. Pre-plan what you need in your hand before you get there (grab out your ID’s & tickets). Also, pack for what will need to go in bins so it’s easy to take out and repack quickly.
- Everyone pees. Water bottles get filled. McDonalds if there’s time.
- Find your gate and get a tag for the stroller.
- Pre-board 30 minutes early with kids. Break down the stroller. Who will sit where? We chat about this, ha!
- Plane ride till juice & snack comes (mega highlight to kids!)
- Layover (maybe your lucky enough not to have one?). Pee. Get food. Let kids walk around as much as possible.
- Plane ride till juice & snacks come, LOL.
- You made it!! Time to fall over exhausted except for now you have to visit people, haha.
I get really nervous about my kid’s behavior on flying days and to be honest, no matter how well I prepare at some point my toddler will cry and my 3 year old will start kicking the lady’s seat in front of her (which she did, grrr). Moments like these it really helps to divide and conquer if you have help, and someone can really focus on whoever is being the hardest to handle.
Ignore all the looks. Do what you gotta do.
Airplane activities for toddlers on the plane
- An empty cup and straw. Save the cup that comes with your drink mid flight and don’t be afraid to ask for 2. This kept my 1.5 year old happy for a solid 10 minutes before he started throwing it.
- Marker on paper pad. This may be too advanced, but it’s worth a try. Or get some color wonder markers and paper (I bought these exact ones to try) so the marker only works on the special paper…not on your toddlers skin or any walls.
- Snacks like pretzels and lollipops worked well for us.
- Peek-a-boo. If any nice strangers behind us acted interested, I let my baby have fun with it and so appreciate nice passengers!
- Change positions often. Not like you have an option, ha. Sitting on your lap, standing on your lap, stretching out sideways, leaning on mom, etc.
- Shows or short videos made for babies on your phone. We flew United so I had to download their app first to watch anything not already on my phone.
- Marker + Lid. My baby/toddler is at the stage he tries to see what fits into things, so giving him a lid and marker allows him to concentrate on getting it to fit on.
- I didn’t take books because my back pack was full of stuff for the other kids too. But you could if you made space. I personally think board books take up WAY too much valuable space but thin pages that could rip are more practical for travel.
- Nursing. Since I’m still nursing my 17 month old, I let him nurse all he wanted because nursing=silent and still. If you are not, maybe pack milk or buy a cup at Starbucks for the same price you usually get a gallon at the store ;-). Traveling is expensive!
- Hand them the airline magazine and safety insert (lasts a solid few mintutes).
- Find garbage or tear pieces of paper for your toddler to stuff into the puke bags behind every seat! My guy loves to put things into other things so this works well and you don’t have to bring extra for it.
- Pull out all your kid tricks: This little piggy went to market. Sing to them quietly. Tickle them. Yes, it’s 100% exhausting I know.
Airplane activities for preschoolers
- Melissa and Doug Color Blastinvisible marker reveals the pic underneath.
- Gel stickers for windows. I’ve never used these but have heard great things! They are also at the dollar store.
- Melissa and Doug Water Wows. I like the letter pack as it lasts WAY longer than the larger size ones with only 4 pages. Just fill the water stick with your water bottle. Would work well for toddlers too!
- Ipad games. We have found these work better than shows for our 3 year old who doesn’t sit still long watching a show. Matching games and puzzles are right up her isle. Be sure to download them before you leave home!
- Snacks. This totally counts as an activity, right?!
- In flight movie, maybe. My 5 year old loves this (bring headphones), but my 3.5 year old gets too scared watching anything Disney or any of the airline movie choices, so we passed.
What kept our kids quiet for 3 hours on the plane
Ok, here is this year’s biggest secret to success ON the plane, to my complete surprise! I bought two of these Melissa and Doug Color Blast books for my kids on Amazon. And guess what happened? They colored all 24 pages of these little books for 3 hours solid. Each way. The Ipad was totally secondary which shocked me. It was like magical so how can I not share that with you?!
This was such a hit, that I actually stopped at 3 stores before flying home just to find more. I guess they are not really carrying them at Target or Walmart anymore so just get them on Amazon. I recommend two per kid so you have one for the way home too.
Dum Dums are perfect small treats, or Tootsie Pops which last a lot longer. You can even find sugar free ones! These are a staple for us.
This even saved my bacon a couple of times when my 1.5 year old was so bored and squirmy. A little tasty sucker was all he needed to stay quiet for a little longer. And same with my other two. It kept them quiet and entertained for about 20 minutes.
Tips for flying with kids:What to plan before the flight
Make any layovers longer than 1 hour
This is hard when booking tickets, but it decreases my stress SO much over things you I have zero control over. Like if our crew is late. Or if the wind slows down the plane. Or if we are in the back and have to wait 20 minutes to get off the plane. And now with older kids, bathroom breaks are a must during each layover which is an added 10 minutes.
Trust me. Once I almost missed my connection (flying solo with a 1 year old) because my layover was only 45 minutes and our plane was late, and I was stuck on the back of the plane. They reopened the doors for me on my connection after I ran from plane to plane like a mad woman!
What a huge difference this made with two long flights (we had a layover each way). Peter and I took the isle seats, to keep the little ones safer from the drink cart and just more contained in general. This required us to buy tickets that allowed us to choose our seats which were a bit more expensive.
Last year we opted for the crappiest cheapest seats in the world through United, and what a mistake! They separated us 3 of the 4 legs so we were each stranded with a kid or two for hours with no ability to help each other. I even had to tell them that, “No they could not assign my 4 year old to sit alone in the back and hope a stranger would trade him to sit near us”. Gosh talk about stress.
Lesson: Sit together.
Try to have car seats waiting for you on the other end
My saintly mother in law rounded up three car seats for us from 3 different people. If I can just say what a HUGE difference this made…it cut our load in half. And to be real, I don’t know how we would have carried them plus our baggage, stroller, and kids from the parking garage to the baggage check in. Like there were no bag carts in the parking garage this time like we had seen last year.
I guess if we arrived early enough and had to bring car seats, my hubby could have dropped me and the kids off with car seats at the front and I could have found a cart to pay for there.
Also, if you didn’t know, car seats and strollers are free to check under the plane for most airlines!
Get TSA Pre for all adults
I was dreading dragging my kids to get this done, but besides finding parking downtown, it was easy and quick. Like 15 minutes once we got to the office. Just do it!
As a side note, last year my husband only had TSA Pre and the kids and I randomly got it with him somehow on 1 of the 2 flights we had. I don’t know why we did or didn’t get it, but the lesson here is that if both parents don’t have it, then you may not be able to use it.
After you check in, it will say on your boarding passes if you have it or not.This year, both my husband and I were approved (separately) for TSA Pre. It costs $85 and you have to make an appointment online and show up to the designated office in your city to get fingerprinted. Worth. Every. Penny. Here’s why:
- No lines at the airport both times, so we could plan to show up a little later than normal.
- We were all allowed to keep our shoes on. Ok guys, with three kids last year, taking off and putting on shoes again was such an added stress while being pushed through the security line and trying to disassemble/reassemble a stroller and keep an eye on kids.
- Electronics could stay in your bag. (Unless you are carrying two computers then they said it would be good to take them out) Normally, you have to put Ipads, keys, cell phones, and computers in a bin. This was one less thing we had to do. Amen!
- They treat you better. They just do. It’s like first class to me (or how I imagine it since I’ve never actually flown 1st class!)
Check your bag(s), even if it costs extra
I know it’s tempting to save the $25 and carry your suitcase on the plane. It’s worth every penny to me to drop that th-ang off first thing and instantly feel free. All you have to carry then is backpacks and the stroller.
I usually take out a few things I couldn’t live without if they lost my bag, like my exact makeup colors I couldn’t just buy again at Target. If they do lose your bag (which happened to me on Alaska Airlines when flying solo with a 1 year old to my brother’s wedding), then call the airline ASAP. They should be paying for any expenses you need while they try to get your bag back. (Like diapers, make up, clothes, baby pajamas, whatever). I had to put it on a credit card but did get reimbursed about two months later. Not fun!
Fly at normal times if possible
This year we flew out at 7 am one way, and 1 pm the other way. Both were ok, and so much better than our flight times last year. And no, our kids did not nap. Last year we departed at 7 pm and landed at 3 am our time (we had changed a couple time zones). NEVER AGAIN. Our kids were going bananas and didn’t sleep well on the plane.
This also really helps them swallow more and pop their ears when you are going up or the last half hour when coming down.
Get a stroller tag at the gate
When we get to our gate, the first thing we do is go to the desk and ask for a tag for our stroller. That way, your stroller has your name, flight destination, and contact info on it. You can take this all the way to the plane doors, break it down, and it will be waiting for you at your layover as well as final destination just outside the plane.
Dress the kids in comfortable clothes
I let our kids wear the softest most comfortable clothes. Jammies are fine to me, or soft anything. I veer away from jeans because they are so hard to bend in, and can dig into their tummies after a while when sitting.
Also, if TSA Pre is not an option, then make sure they wear slip ons to make security easier.
Pack snacks, and buy food
Snacks are more or less something kids like “to do” on planes, haha. Plus, a hungry kid gets louder and whiney, am I right? I hate being without food and hungry and with kids snacks are also a way of keeping them busy when bored on a plane. The top snacks that were a hit this time:
- pretzel sticks
- dried mango
- Fig bars from Costco
I did go overboard, though, because we also stopped at McDonalds before each flight. I brought a gallon bag full of these snacks (& others) and we barely touched it because they ate the one designated snack that comes when they bring juice, plus we got McDonalds before taking off and also during the layover. Their kid’s meals are huge, perfect, and worth the $5 to me for nuggets, fries, milk, yogurt/or apples and a toy!
Next time I’ll pack less snacks to save space in my back pack. And I’ll just plan on spending about $20 each time we stop at McDonalds for us and the kids.
Fill up your water bottle and sippy cups after you go through security
A Rookie mistake is to forget to pour out your liquids before security, and to forget to fill them before getting on the plane right when your toddler says “I’m thirsty”. I packed my empty Contigo water bottle with straw because our whole family can drink out of it without unscrewing a lid, even my 1 year old.
If that happens, politely ask the flight attendant to fill up a sippy cup with water, but she’ll be busy getting people seated so that may be tricky!
Also, remember that if you want to bring milk or breastmilk for your baby, you are allowed and there is no set limit. You simply need to announce it to TSA before security and put it in a separate bin. (I’d also do that for applesauce pouches which may be deemed liquid?)
Stuffed Animal or Small Blanket
Each kid got to pack their own backpack with a few snacks and a stuffed animal. I also brought a couple of small soft blankets, which didn’t get used as much as last year since our kids didn’t sleep on the plane at all.
Bring sippy cups & a small garbage bag
I actually didn’t bring sippy cups, but wish I had. Thankfully our kids didn’t spill their juices but it was always on my mind and I was trying to keep the baby on my lap from kicking my sons little table thing. Last year we did bring bottles and sippy cups and the airline steward just filled them up for us.
The garbage bags (old grocery bags, maybe 2) are for the tons of random things that you need to toss and don’t want to hold like wrappers, sucker sticks, used tissues, etc. It also doubles as my poop bag should I ever need to change a poopy diaper.
So far, somehow, I’ve lucked out and never had this happen ON the plane after a total of 7 long flights with a baby. I’d love to know what parents do when this happens?!? Those bathrooms are tiny.
What I plan to do differently on our next flight
I actually want to buy name tag sticker labels for our kids. Sure, we haven’t lost one yet, but it could happen. They are so dang fast, and airports are busy and you are SO distracted as a parent. If my kid got separated from me somehow it would make me feel better to know they had a label with our name and phone number on it. I’ve also heard of temporary tattoos you can order that have your name and number on it!
Read about last year’s long flight with three kids
If you want a good laugh or complete “what not to do when flying with 3 kids under 3”, then head over to my blog post “How we survivied flying across the country with 3 kids under 4” That’s mostly it for now!
What are your biggest fears flying with kids? Do you have any tips for moms you could share? Leave a comment! I can’t wait to hear!