…where we’ve gone wrong flying with our toddlers (and I bet you have too!)
When I jotted up a rough calculation of our air miles the other day, I was astounded to see that between the five of us we have nearly a million air miles under our belt. Strewth! Really?!
You’d think by that calculation we would seriously have our shit sorted by now and be manoeuvring around the world with kids like flying ninjas.
The reality we are STILL learning. Each age group comes with its own dynamic and new set of challenges. But if we’re completely honest toddlers are by far the most difficult age group to travel with and where most of our travelling woes have stemmed from – not saying babies or preschoolers don’t have their challenges too, but toddlers are like a unique species, so let’s focus on them today.
It’s confession time here, we are airing some dirty laundry and sharing all those mistakes that got us to where we are today – to help you become better travels and gain confidence to go travelling with your kids!
We are approaching this ball game for long-haul flying, but most of these tips apply equally to domestic and short flights too!
1. Packing too much crap
The absolute number one mistake. I bet by now you have read plenty of advice telling you to pack extra clothing, bring things to entertain the kids, pack extra snacks. Yes, but do not go overboard. As soon as you’re laden with bags your flexibility along with your resolve weakens. I’ve been astounded at some of the paraphernalia parents pull out on flights, do they have a small army of servants behind them to lift this bag into the completely overstuffed overhead lockers?
Do a reality check of how many hours you expect (wish, hope?) they will be awake for. Toys are necessary, but pack light and slim items. Never noisy toys! Do not give them their own bag until they can sufficiently carry it on their own (ie preschooler age!). We talk more about this in 5 things that will NOT be in my toddlers plane bag – and the moment it dawned on me – about hour 8 of our 16 hour ultra-long haul to Miami that I had packed far, far too many busy bag items for the kids.
A couple of things never to leave out of your carry-on bags though is spare undies or nappies and wet wipes. Never ever scrimp on the wet wipes.
2. Not booking the right seats
Not sitting together, being jammed next to the toilet, being stuck in the centre of a row. The ever most important age to get seating selection right is the toddler age group. They are on the cusp of being a lap baby to a big kid but do not fall into either. They are certainly past the stage where they will fit or stay still in a bassinet. (NB as far as I’m aware all international airlines consider children to be “infants” until exactly the age 2 – regardless of their size or any other factors).
We talk a lot about seating strategy here, and also in our Ultimate Guide to Baby Bassinets. Just remember toddlers are a tricky bunch – especially from around 15 months or so plus when they have NO interest in staying still, what do you do? Yes, you can bring a busy bag, attempt an iPad, the in-flight entertainment system, anything really in a desperate bid to keep them entertained but there is ZERO guarantee this will work.
Now you can, of course, buy a toddler their own seat, in which case you need to bring your own, airline approved infant safety device – most car seats will do the job. But then you are paying for an extra ticket. Perhaps money well spent? Or will your irate toddler just scream blue murder to get out of this restraining device, flop themselves in a hopeless mess of tears on your lap anyway and you wonder why you bothered paying for the extra seat. Just sayin’.
Maximising the amount of space your toddler has to move to stop them wriggling and disturbing other passengers, sleeping babies, you!
3. Thinking you’ll get kids meals
On long-haul flights kids can be served up with a specially prepare kids meal, normally served in some sort of colourful box, made for a simpler fussy palate and some sort of fruit juice and a sweet treat. Nice right? If you have your heart set on this method to get your kid to eat something, don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you will just be handed one of these. They MUST be booked. They are only available if you book a child’s seat – so even though your infant under 2 might be on solids and fully capable of eating this meal, it can’t be pre-booked; squishy baby food only provided by the airline for the under 2’s I’m afraid.
They are only available if you book a child’s seat – so even though your infant under 2 might be on solids and fully capable of eating this meal, it can’t be pre-booked; squishy baby food only provided by the airline for the under 2’s I’m afraid.
And your over 2’s must be booked with the airline at least 24-48 hours in advance, sometimes more – double, triple check this if you know they won’t eat an adult meal or will get upset on a long flight. The other bonus of doing this is they always bring the children’s’ meals out first, all going to plan you can get the kids largely fed before the adult meals come out – the con to this is most airline won’t then clear the trays away for an hour so you can (will) end up trapped in your own filth with a tot desperate to use the loo.
You CAN bring your own toddler meal on board and MOST airline staff will be happy to either help placing this in warm water or placing it in the on board microwave. Don’t make the mistake of asking for this when they are smack in the middle of meal service for the other 200 odd people on board. Or quit being fussy with your darling and insist they eat something cold is the easiest solution.
Accept no matter what feeding method you choose it won’t be what your toddler wanted anyway and you and the plane will end up wearing it
4. Scheduling a layover
“Oh let’s stop over for a few hours and tire them out”. “It would be fun they said”. “I mean Keri talks about city stops all the time, it must be easy right”. NOT BETWEEN FLIGHTS WITH A TODDLER. There I’ve told you.
Granted if it’s only one small child who is capable of sleeping through a tornado, then getting out of the airport for a few hours MIGHT elicit some joy. We tried this once Abu Dhabi to Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur. We had 8 hours between arriving from our overnight flight and flying out that evening. Let’s head into town we said. The grown-ups did not get one wink of sleep on that flight, the kids maybe a couple of hours each. We abandoned plans and hired an airport hotel room. I think I got one complete uninterrupted hours sleep before hubby returned with a snack and our little terrors proceeded to destroy the room before we had to start the process of clearing customs to fetch our bags that we didn’t collect on arrival just to line up and check in for the next flight. Never again.
Always book direct flights if there is an option – and don’t play Russian Roulette with a short layover
5. The missing stroller
We had a 20-hour layover last year between Doha and Miami. We deliberately booked this way as we didn’t want the middle of the night connecting flight to catch a 6.30am flight in Doha. So we came a day early to explore and stay at a hotel – thinking brilliant, our suitcases can be checked through we just need a small overnight bag – but when you check your bags EVERYTHING needs to be checked through, you cannot take off one item during the layover. Yep, that meant the stroller.
For some this is fine, a sling will suffice during any layover (NB Not when you have three under 5 exploring a city). If you’re lucky at least there may be free strollers on hand at the arrival airport. But let me be clear on this point, just because an airport advertises that they have free strollers don’t assume you will get one.
This is a great sell point the “big 3” Middle East airports use (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha) but I can count on one hand the number of times we have scored this coveted prize coming off a flight – including a few times I have been with the kids solo. Hell hath no fury other parents won’t even give you a sideways glance if there’s only one left in the rack and you’re all eyeing it up (yet another benefit of being up the pointy end or as close as you can to the front of the aircraft).
If this topic means so much to you, look into the easy collapse strollers that are overhead locker compatible, such as the Nano, Yoyo or Zuzu (cool names, huh?) – a little more on what these compacts are all about in our stroller post
Even if you walk your stroller to the plane door not ‘checking it in’ you still won’t be able to collect until your final ticketed destination
6. Cut your toddler’s nails
Ok, this one is no joke. And something I have forgotten to do sooo many time. I don’t care if you only just did them last week. You don’t want to see a millimetre of white on those bad boys before boarding an aircraft. Seriously. I know I’m making a bit of a joke of things today but trust me on this one – fingers and toes.
CUT. THEIR. NAILS.
7. Potty training
Never, ever assume a fully potty trained child will be ok in their underpants on a plane. You’ll be travelling with spare undies for years. My very well toilet trained Miss 3 developed a sudden phobia of the airline toilets back in 2013 that still exists today at 7. Invariably on this first flight where it happened she preferred to sit and pee her pants right there in her seat then give in and go to the loo (we are just fortunate she was a petite little thing and still fit baby brothers nappies and shorts). She still has this phobia to this day, but at least I’ve convinced her to use the loo, as long as she’s half way done the aisle before I press the button. The fear is real folks!
And if you’re in that first 6 months or so post-training, it’s wise to still put a night nappy on during the flight as the change in time and jet lag can affect their poor little body clocks. And the smell of urine over extended periods in pretty hard to ignore! – More here on potty training while you’re on the go.
Moral of the story; always pack spare clothing. For everyone
8. The mystery of cabin pressure
Ok, I might be preaching to the converted a little bit here, but do hear me out. You’ve probably heard that sucking helps relieve cabin pressure during takeoff and descent so you’ve been diligently giving your baby a feed at these times or a pacifier. As they get older though they may not be so co-operative to this idea. Probably still too young for a hard sweet that needs sucking and they could choke on what next? Those of you who haven’t been able to remove the pacifier from their iron wrench are probably feeling quite smug now! Otherwise, look to things like baby food packets in squeeze pouches, or a drink they can use a straw with (pick these up after going through security at the airport).
Don’t get too smug yet if you think you have ears sorted – what else is there to consider? Have you ever brought a child’s drink bottle on board like a Camelbak? These, and many other brands are massively affected by cabin pressure and if you open them on board will squirt water (or worse juice) everywhere when you open them. As much as it might save you to bring your own water bottles on board with you, use at your peril.
And a final word on cabin pressure – don’t forget about items underneath. I’m thinking particularly strollers with pneumatic wheels. If you ever get asked when checking a stroller whether you have taken the wheels down this is because they can burst mid-air! Not always, but letting the air out is a sensible precaution to take – just remember to take a hand pump with you if you let them down.
I don’t think I need to tell you to get up and move during a flight too – I’m guessing you’ll be doing enough of that for everyone on board
9. Understand thy electronics
So you hear all your friends swear by the iPad right? You’ve carefully researched best apps for kids, you downloaded a heap of new stuff and then… if your toddler actually has the attention span longer than a goldfish (did you know that’s 9 seconds? Apparently humans have dropped to 8.25 seconds…) then that’s brilliant, you might just be able to justify carrying a separate device for a toddler. Note pre-schoolers and above, completely different story. There’s hope yet.
Once that iPad is on though you must keep the sound off or have your child wear headphones. NOBODY wants to hear Peppa Pig snorting her way through a jigsaw puzzle (That would be breaking one of our 10 commandments of family air travel) And yes I see someone break this rule EVERY. BLOODY.TIME. (Note Dora and Mickey have equally annoying voices at 30,000 feet, I’m not just picking on Peppa here). And did I mention toddlers HATE wearing headphones? Almost as mush as sunglasses and hats at the beach. They hate you wearing them too actually, don’t actually think about sitting back to watch an in-flight movie, what do you think this, a vacation?
But Lord help you if you forget to charge the iPad before a flight. Or worse, the charger cord. Over the last couple of years, we’ve noticed nearly all our international flights have come with charging points in our seats but don’t take this risk. I suggest triple checking devices are charged before you fly, if it’s an ultra long-haul setting time limits on how long they can be used (better safe than sorry) and packing something like a spare pocket charger.
(As a footnote to this original post note that many flights from the Middle East to the US & UK now have an electronics ban, so iPads are a complete no-go; here’s our up to date guide on which airports and airlines are affected).
Don’t expect the iPad to work toddler miracles
10. Lost items
Always, always double-check triple check and look again. Taking a child’s lovely on a flight is a great way to help them settle but obviously taking any child object from the house you run the inevitable gauntlet of trying to keep track of this beloved item. We have lost two lovies on the last two long-hauls. Master L has stopped asking for blue teddy on a daily basis now, six months later. But every night when I tuck him in still scramble to snuggle another teddy up to his face before the question arises, a little bit of my heart breaks….
Don’t ever leave any of your survival arsenal behind
Want more advice flying on flying with kids? Whether it’s your first flight with a baby or curious if it’s possible to fly with kids on your own – we have your family flying questions answered!
© Our Globetrotters