Flying with a toddler ─ top tips for travelling with a toddler on a plane

Flying with a toddler

We’ve all been there… that joyful holiday break that turned into a nightmare even before your destination was in sight. All you can remember is that projectile vomit that your toddler gushed forth in glorious motion as soon as the plane started to descend. Or the hours of non-stop crying preceding that because your little person just did not want to wear the airplane safety belt. Or that s/he insisted on sitting by the plane window but wanted to clamber over all three adjoining passengers to walk up and down the aisle over and over and over again. And nothing would distract her… not even the red lipped stewardess or the livid gentleman next to you who got kicked in the shin again as your toddler made her way back across to you for the seventh time.

You wonder when and where life took this most cruel of turns when a supposedly simple flight turned into A Nightmare on Elm Street within exactly three minutes of boarding the plane. You wish it would end. And suddenly all eight days of your blissful holiday are overshadowed by the dread of the impending return journey home.

Well fear not. As a survivor of two toddlers and frequent international traveller, I have put together my best and most practical tips for making smarter choices before your long flight with toddler. And these come directly from a mum, so sit up and take heed y’all… we’re talking serious toddler business here.

Preparing for your journey ─ thinking about travel activities for toddlers

By now you’ve all probably read about thirteen different articles about the top 10 things to pack for your flight with your toddler. So I’m not going to delve into the same stuff. All this comes straight from the heart … stuff I’ve learnt through sheer survival instincts and hands-on mothering. I’m saying ‘mothering’ people … the real deal. We’re talking about catching-projectile-vomit-with-your-bare-hands mothering… not that I expect you to do that on your journey … but it’s better to be prepared.

When preparing for your journey, try thinking about flying with a toddler as a series of different stages. It’s not just a flight … it’s a group of mini journeys leading up to the flight with toddler. If you want to prepare like a pro, you’ve got to think about every single mini journey within that group of mini journeys.

Prepare for your journey beforehand

Let’s start with the car ride and let’s assume you don’t live in a three-bed-semi that shares a wall with the airport. So you’ll be taking a car or a taxi out to the airport. That’s your mini journey 1. Think about how long your car journey is, how many breaks (if any) you might need during that car ride. Does your toddler get travel sick? Think about what preparations you need to make for that. My younger one gets terribly travel sick on long journeys so we always have a plan of action there: we make her sit on the front passenger seat, we always take her shoes and socks off as soon as she’s in her car seat (did you know cool feel reduce travel sickness?) and we make sure that she’s not wearing any thick layers inside the car. Does your toddler have a favourite comfort toy (who doesn’t?). Think about keeping that within easy access inside the car … don’t pack it away in your hand luggage inside the car trunk for the airplane. Your toddler needs her essentials in every mini journey leading up to the flight.

If it’s a long car ride, you will need activities to keep your toddler distracted. The best car activities for toddlers are small, not-very-messy and quickly packable. Don’t restrict yourself to digital devices, although a smart phone or a tablet always helps. For example my younger one loves playing with her quiet book on her mini journey … and to date, the quiet book remains one of my favourite essentials for keeping toddlers busy in the car. Simple colouring things might sound like a nice idea but are mostly impractical as car activities for toddlers … too many crayons flying around, too many papers getting crumpled in a tiny lap. Just keep it simple. Interactive games like ‘I spy’ or ‘Guess what I’m thinking of’ are highly successful activities to keep kids busy while travelling and don’t need you to pack a single thing.

So sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil and make two columns. In the left column, list all the mini journeys that you will go through during your commute between destination A and destination B. You might have three mini journeys or eleven … it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you are starting to think about it through the eyes of your toddler. In the right column, make quick notes for all the toddler entertainment you need for each mini journey.

Driving to the airport ─ seven essentials of your travel packing list

Like I said, this post is not about regurgitating all that you’ve already read in the travel articles floating around Google. Here you will find the essentials of a practical travel packing list that have worked very successfully for us as a family including two toddlers.

A small backpack or toddler backpack, packed by the toddler

A simple small backpack that your toddler can call his own and fill with his favourite few things works wonders at reducing car journey blues. It gives toddlers a sense of independence and control over how they want their journey to go. This is very reassuring for both the kids and parents and 9 out of 10 times, your child will surprise you with some things that you never thought might be essential for your car journey. So talk to your child ahead of time and have him pack his own toddler backpack with his favourite things. (Make sure there are no liquids or sharps in there though!)

A small change of (not so) trendy toddler clothes

A change of (not so) trendy toddler clothes is essential for your journey

Let’s all face it: accidents happen. Usually at times when you least want or expect them to. As flight travellers, you might have packed most or all of your child’s change of clothes within the check-in luggage or the cabin bag. But it is always a good idea to have a small change of clothes for your car journey. You never know when there might be a leaked nappy or an attack of travel sickness round the bend and it is always a good idea to have fresh clothes at hand to make your little person’s journey as pleasant as possible. These clothes need not be the most expensive or trendy toddler clothes in your child’s wardrobe. Anything that is soft, clean and comfortable and which is easy to pack away is best for such situations.

A digital kids tablet or smart phone

A kids tablet could save you in tricky situations …

Okay shoot me for saying this … but soon enough you’ll admit this too: when the going gets tough, the tough take out a digital kids tablet for their screaming toddler. It doesn’t have to be for hours on end … but an episode of Paw Patrol will certainly keep the blues away on your car journey with your toddler.

Some non-sugary healthy snacks for kids

Breadsticks make for the perfect healthy snacks for kids

I’m talking about mini breadsticks and the occasional granola bar. Empty tummies make for grumpy toddlers and miserable parents. Make sure that you have mini easy snacks in every bag you intend to carry including your handbag, your toddler’s backpack, your partner’s jacket pocket and even your older child’s bag so that wherever and with whoever the toddler might be, you can quickly act to save her from turning into a Gremlin.

A collection of colourful stories for kids

A bunch of thin, lightweight paperback stories for kids are essential for happy travels

It is always a good idea to have a set of toddler stories at hand every time you travel. Don’t keep any heavy, bulky or hardback books though. Go for thin paperback storybooks, or a single book with a collection of stories for kids that you can read from.

Fever and cold medicine

Don’t leave home without your child’s fever and cold medicine

As your child moves beyond toddlerhood, I can guarantee you that you will look back and recall at least one instance where you were travelling with child and your toddler developed a fever and you desperately needed medicine but did not have it at hand. I guarantee you this. So now that you’ve read this post, don’t let your next journey be one of those instances.  Do pack a bottle of fever medicine along with whatever it is that you use to administer it to your toddler. You will thank me later.

An independent or motor skills toy for your toddler

There will be plenty of times while travelling when your toddler will want to be left alone with his/her own thoughts and busy fingers. You must prepare for such instances by packing one or two independent or motor skills toys. This could be anything from a kaleidoscope to a pop-up storybook or a bunch of picture cards. The important thing to remember is that this toy needs to be lightweight, sturdy and interactive.

A quiet book is the perfect motor skills toy for travelling toddlers

For these three qualities, my favourite motor skills toy of choice has always been the humble homemade quiet book. A children’s quiet book is made out of fabric and felt, and so is extremely lightweight and indestructable. This makes it an ideal travel motor skills toy. Besides, you can include any number and variety of activities when making a quiet book so that it is highly interactive and engaging.

At the airport ─ how to keep toddlers busy under all circumstances

You survived the car journey. Hurray! Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. But now you are facing your next set of mini journeys that will take you through the airport. Read on for my top tips for travelling with a toddler at the airport.

At the check in — healthy snacks and stickers for kids

If you were prudent enough to set out from home early enough, check in should be a breeze. Mostly. Remember that during this mini journey, the key is to keep your toddler busy while you deal with lugging your suitcases to the check in counter, getting them weighed, tagged and dropped off. You also need to keep your bearings in check while the lady at the counter goes over your documents and hands things back to you. This entire process can take anywhere between 20 minutes if you’re lucky to over an hour. As adults, this time might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things; but for little people, it can be an excruciatingly long and slow wait until you get moving again.

To make check-in easier, carry a sheet of stickers for kids

I find that two little things work very well for this situation: finger foods and stickers for kids. To begin, grab a pack of mini breadsticks and hand them over to your toddler. Ask toddler to open the pack herself while you deal with the luggage. Already a few good moments will be spent trying to wrestle open the packet. As your little person starts to eat her snack, you will steadily be shuffling forward in the line. Keep the stickers hidden away for now. By the time the snack is finished, chances are that you have reached near the front of the line.

As you approach the check in counter, bend down and whisper secretively to your toddler that you are about to send your suitcase off to the airplane soon. But you need to make sure that no one else takes it away. And this is why we need to stick special stickers on it. Now hand the little sheet of stickers to your toddler and ask her to decorate the suitcase with them. As you deal with the check in process, your toddler can happily stick away until it is time to hand over the luggage to the carousel. Keep her busy still: ask her to decorate any pushchairs or hand luggage too while you’re busy at the counter. Bonus: you will be able to spot your suitcase from a mile away once you reach your destination.

You can do the same thing on your journey back. To keep it interesting, get a small pack of fun stickers for your toddler from your holiday destination so that there is something new and exciting to keep her busy on the return journey. This is an incredibly cheap and fun way to keep your toddler happy during a seemingly stressful and boring part of your journey.

Going through airport security with your toddler

Going through airport security can be a nuisance. With a little person in tow, it can quickly become a very stressful experience. If you are a seasoned traveller, you will have gauged how to go through this process quickly and efficiently. But if your last travel experience was a nightmare, here’s what you need to do.

Soon after check in, find a quiet spot and take off your toddler’s jacket/coat and stash it away in one of your carry-on bags. If you are carrying any liquids that need to be placed in a clear plastic bag, put them in now. Place any smart tablets and DVD players at the top of one bag so they are easy to remove at security. If you have a toddler in a pram, as you approach the security queue, remove your toddler from the pram and fold it up (the pram, not the toddler). Just before entering the security queue, remove any scarves/belts and stow them inside a bag.

Take off your toddler’s boots before entering the airport security queue

If you or your children are wearing boots, take them off before entering the queue. Toddlers love taking their shoes off and walking around in only their socks so this shouldn’t be a problem. Better still, carry a simple spare fabric bag with you and shove all these bits in there. Now you should be able to join and move through the security queue a lot more efficiently and you can keep any eye on your toddler without having to worry about handling all your hand luggage.

At the airport gates with your toddler

Once you have reached your relevant gate at the airport, you should be able to relax a bit. If there is still time before boarding begins, you will do well to unwind a bit. You can opt for a range of different activities to keep your toddler engaged here. You could sit down and read a storybook with your toddler. You could also play visual games for example count how many red suitcases can you see or how many children are travelling on the same flight. A small pair of toy binoculars are a firm favourite with little people to look at all the airplanes stationed outside. You could also pull out a quiet activity like colouring or drawing. Once again in situations like these, a homemade quiet book has always served us well with two toddlers. The colours, textures and different quiet activities help to engaged and calm down little people’s senses, reducing travel anxiety and improving your peace of mind.

Boarding the plane without causing anxiety in toddlers

Once boarding begins, if you are travelling in a large plane, chances are that you will be led on-board through one of those flexi tunnels where you are completely enclosed and safe from the elements.

However if you are travelling in a smaller airline, there is every likelihood that you will be boarding the plane by climbing a set of open-air stairs. This might sound like a trivial thing but when it comes to travelling with a toddler in a plane, things can quickly get complicated. Little people often need to be carried on board in your arms or on your hip. That can use up all of your available arms, leaving you with just your back for carrying any luggage. Besides if it is a particularly wet, cold or windy day, your toddler can very quickly get anxious about climbing the stairs up to the airplane. If you are not prepared, you can hold up the queue and that can lead to further complications.

The wise traveller will always be prepared. Firstly if you are boarding a plane under the open sky, always make sure your toddler is properly wrapped up. You might need to put on a hat, jacket, gloves and even a scarf if it is really cold. It will make for an easier climb up to the plane if your child isn’t shivering and crying with the wind and the cold.

If you have toddlers that need to be carried, you would be wise to either use a carry-on flight backpack. Or you can consider this second option which I much preferred with my toddlers: invest in a toddler back carrier. My favourite one is a simple cloth carrier called a Mei Tai and I sewed it at home myself. It was an ambitious project though and unless you are very determined, I would not recommend doing that. It is a wise investment to have a Mei Tai cloth carrier for travelling as it can be bundled up into a small cloth roll that can be stowed away inside your carry-on luggage. A toddler back carrier will leave both your arms free for taking a small suitcase or even two bags on board without having to worry about your toddler.

On board ─ easy travelling with a toddler on a plane

Once you have boarded and settled into your seats, you must think about how you will structure your toddler entertainment for your flight. For example when taking off, you are supposed to keep all digital devices switched off. At times like these, you must keep your toddler from getting bored and antsy. It helps to keep a few small activities hidden from your toddler until this very moment. My favourite ones are pound store’s craft kits for example the ‘decorate your own unicorn’ kit. I usually nip into the pound store a week before flying to check out such DIY craft kits and buy a couple for our flight to and back from our holiday destination.

It also helps to pull out your secret stash of felt tip pens and paper that your toddler has never seen or used before. Again, think pound shop stuff. I also consider a favourite cuddly and a small blanket as essentials of a flight with toddler.

In flight ─ toddler entertainment while keeping your sanity intact

If you are on a long-haul flight aboard a large airlines jet (for example Emirates), you will most certainly have your own in-flight digital entertainment unit in front of you. The range of travel activities for toddlers on these devices is enough to keep your toddler hooked for a significant length of time. However you must not rely solely on these entertainment units and be prepared to pull out some of your own stuff when the going literally gets tough.

Remember: the goal is to keep your toddler occupied. Drawing and colouring kits will do wonderfully, as will story books, play-dough and little board-games. As long as it fits within your space and weight allowance, keep it at hand.

One of the best in-flight entertainment items that you can take along with you is a quiet book. These are perfect to play with on top of the folding lunch trays on airplanes. It helps to have at least one quiet book page in there where two people can play a game. Think ‘tic-tac-toe’ or ‘tell me the time’ or ‘memory match’. All these games can be played with two people ─ hopefully toddler and mum/dad ─ and are great for keeping toddlers busy for a healthy stretch of time.

Tic-tac-toe is a good game to have in a quiet book for travelling toddlers

If you are thinking about making a travel specific quiet book for your child, think several months in advance about your next long-haul flight that you will be taking together as a family. Then start gathering ideas and create a quiet book based upon your child’s age and interests.

In conclusion …

Hopefully this has given you some new ideas about toddler entertainment when flying with a toddler on your next trip. Preparation, both physical and mental, is key to having a successful trip. Once you have a plan in mind, everything will get easier. Happy flying!

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