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15 Helpful Tips for Airplane Travel with Children

Little girl in hot pink dress on airport tarmac : family travel and vacation.

We travel a whole lot as a family. I love offering my kids the opportunity to see new places and enjoy fresh experiences. They happen to have a mom who can’t sit still for too long so we take to flight as often as possible. Through the years of travel I have learned ways to make long hours on the airplane and layover stops do-able and often enjoyable. With spring break and summer travels on the horizon I figured it was time to offer up some helpful travel tips to keep in your back pocket.

I  roam a whole lot on my own and I use these tips for myself as well. So no matter what your age you should find these tips helpful. When by myself I can wing it a bit more and keep things lighter. I can be more whimsical and self sufficient. By the way, did I mention I will be venturing to Switzerland in June? Yes indeed! Ridiculously excited about that journey to the Alps…

United airplane on Colorado tarmac : Montrose airport.

When it comes to family travel, things need to be properly managed and thought out ahead of time. Checked bags need to be well planned out, but what you carry on the plane is to me the most important. Missed items can generally be purchased no matter where you are. We need to have essentials on the airplane. Always predict the unpredictable.

Also don’t forget to sing on the tarmac

Little girl in pink dress singing on airport tarmac in Colorado.

As our kids get a bit older air travel is getting so much easier. The trickiest years so far for our family was the 1 1/2-4 year old window.

We brought my daughter on her first international trip to the Cayman Islands when she was just 8 weeks old. I had to learn quickly how to be efficient with packing and planning. I feel peppered and well seasoned now that my kids are 5 and 8 years old and they travel all the time…

Little girl in hot pink dress on airport tarmac : family travel and vacation.

Can I you tell how much fun I had taking photos of my kids on the tarmac? Yup I did. The airport security was somewhat intrigued with my enthusiasm. The light was perfect!

Before you go…

Think and Plan Ahead: Checklists 

My dad’s favorite tip: Way before you travel set aside a box or small suitcase where you can toss things as you think of them. You can also keep a checklist handy. There is nothing worse then obsessing about something and then forgetting it. It is easy to lose precious hours of sleep when you have too much on your mind. Let’s face it, family travel can be stressful. There are lots of nuts and bolts attached. The more you plan ahead the easier things will be on travel day. Set important documents and items aside, that way you know you won’t forget passports, prescriptions, etc.

Make a Calendar to Mark Off the Days

About one one month prior to your travel date let your kids check off boxes on a calendar. My 5 year old reminds me the first thing each morning that we are one day closer to travel day. Counting the days leading up to the trip is also great to help them learn counting skills. You can mark off the days with little stickers and colorful markers.

Make it fun, festive and happy. After all, travel is fun!

Magic markers in a bright yellow milk pitcher.

Give Kids Some Responsibility  

My kids start packing for our trips about a month before we travel! They take out their own suitcases and start throwing things in. I of course make edits along the way, but I let them indulge in fantasy packing. As they get a bit bigger their choices are quite appropriate for the actual trip we have planned. They feel such a sense of independence and part of the whole experience when they help pack their own bags. Besides it gives them something to do when they are bored.

Check Passports and Important Documents Immediately

If you are traveling international check your passport before you even purchase your tickets. Be sure nothing has expired or is about to. Certain countries require a passport that has at least 6 months on it before the expiration date. The US Passport Office recommends that you renew 9 months before the expiration date. You can also put a rush on things for a higher fee if you are in a pinch. For all you need to know about applying for, renewing and passport FAQ’s visit the website Travel.State.Gov.

Plan Ahead for Security Lines

Make sure all of your toiletries are of the right size, water bottles are empty and electronic equipment is easy to get to. The most life changing travel investment I ever made was this laptop & camera bag I learned about from KevinandAmanda.com. As soon as I watched Amanda’s tutorial on how to pack it I was sold. This perfect pack is by Case Logic and you can find it on my Amazon.com store. Just so you know ~ the photos of the bag are from Amazon.com. All of the other photos are mine. But you probably all ready knew that…

Amanda also recommends this awesome iGo Green phone charger. A great little investment with a whole lot of juice for when you cell phone needs a quick charge.

Black Case Logic Backpack for easy travel

Wear Slip on Shoes or Boots

This tip might sound silly but it can save you tons of time and aggravation and will make everyone’s life a whole lot easier.

There were a few instances when my kids had lace ups and this cost us way too much time and frustration when going through the airport security lines. Have you ever noticed how little kids like to remove their shoes all the time except when they need to in long security lines? Velcro tabs or slip on boots will make you a way happier parent. Less tying saves more time for everything else you need to manage.

I am not sure if there has been a universal change, but lately my kids can pass through some TSA lines without having to remove their shoes. Thank goodness for change.

Little boy with carry on suitcase walking.

Carry On Bags are the Most Important

Pack essentials in your carry on bags. We always have a change of clothes and sweaters for the chills. You never know when someone will spill a drink, drop messy food or *gasp* get sick. Having extra clothes in your carry on bag packed in zip top plastic bags will keep your mind at peace. Nothing is worse than having a screaming child because they dumped their orange juice on themselves on the airplane. Pack a whole outfit per kid including underware and socks. Trust me on this. Having sealed plastic bags will keep clean clothes fresh and the soiled ones far from anything else in your bag.

In your carry on is where all those healthy snacks and nibbles should go too. Pack some toothbrushes and toothpaste too while your at it. Wipes and hand sanitizer too.

Each Year Gets Easier

In my experience from 0-1 was not too tricky. You hold your baby on your lap and nurse them or give them a bottle when they get hungry or cranky. You also don’t need to purchase a seat on most airplanes until your child is 2 years old.

When you have a toddler and small kids a bit more planning is needed. They wiggle and tantrum more as they get bigger. Then by 4-5 things settle down again a bit.

Easy LunchBoxes containers with snacks and healthy lunches

Snacks and Nibbles

Let’s face it, being on a long airplane ride can be awfully boring. Especially for a small child. If you are anything like me and my family you think about food a lot when you are trapped on an airplane.

I always pack lots of nutritious snacks and special treats. It is amazing the mileage and bribe power a few little goodies can have with little ones. Don’t forget about long layovers, flight cancellations and jet lag. Bring more food then you think you will need. Sometimes I pack a full lunch box meal. My Gluten Free Chicken Skewers travel great. If traveling international have a clear understanding of what foods you can & cannot travel with.

Not only will you feel better if you pack your own healthy food, but you will also save lots of money along the way. I can purchase a one pound bag of high quality nuts at Trader Joe’s for a few bucks whereas just a few ounces of over salted junky nuts at the airport will cost more. Probably more like triple.

Pack some empty snack sized bags so you can divide up portions throughout the day. This will not only prevent fights over a big bag of that Pirates Booty but it will also encourage mindful portion control.

Here are a few recipes you can make ahead of time that are simple to prepare and travel nice and easy:

I also always bring our Essential Travel Oatmeal and lots of it. You never know when you will hit snags or delays. It is also great for early, budget friendly breakfasts.

Be sure everyone drinks a lot of water throughout the day too. Airplanes dehydrate like crazy.

Homemade tropical granola recipe in little Le Creuset silicone bowls

While on the airplane…

Magazines, Picture Books, Coloring Books & Toys

Since I love to look at glossy magazines filled with photos of food, fashion and travel there is always something pretty to hand my kids. We talk about the pictures and make up our own stories about those pictures. Children’s magazines are great too, ones with little games inside can be time busters.

Bring easy to clean colored pencils and washable markers for all kinds of colorful fun. We have coloring books, game books and plain paper for sketches.

United airplane on Colorado tarmac : Montrose airport.

Make a Diary of your Trip

Have little ones make a diary of the whole trip starting with the adventures at the airport. Bring a separate little notebook just for this purpose.

When kids are old enough to write this is a great creative writing exercise. If they are younger, you can write a few words and they can illustrate. Have them draw lots of pictures. These are fun to look back on. Leave some room for photos if you want to add those later. Make a scrapbook of those special memories.

DVD Players, iPhones and Handheld Games

In a pinch it is awesome to turn on a DVD player. For us they have diverted many horrible tantrums. Bring a little DVD player with some favorite kid movies. My kids also play with our iPhones set to airplane mode that are filled with kid friendly games, movies and shows.

Little girl in pink striped dress coloring a picture

 

Make Use of Down Time: Do Homework

Do you ever have to travel with homework and extra class projects? I sometimes pull my kids out of school for travel and this means we need to stay on track with school assignments. Get a head start with doing some of that work while waiting in the airport lounge or on that long flight.

Exercise When You Can

One thing I really like about layovers is the ability to get out of the airplane to stretch and walk around. While on the airplane I get up to stretch when I can and I encourage my kids to stretch in their seats too. Here are a few links to show you some great airplane exercises.

Don’t Forget to have Lots of Fun!

Every step of the way you have a unique chance to make memories. Try to smile even when the goings get tough. These kids sure do grow up quickly and we need to make the most of each and every teeny tiny moment.

Little girl in hot pink dress on airport tarmac : family travel and vacation.

Do you have any family travel experiences you would like to share? How about any tips for us? Leave them in the comments section below.

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~ Marla Meridith

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46 thoughts on “15 Helpful Tips for Airplane Travel with Children

  1. These are really helpful and wonderful travelling tips! I took my kids for their very first international flight last year when they were 1 1/2 and 3 1/2. Not easy, but we managed to have some fun. We went to Australia, Hong Kong and Macau all in one trip! Crazy, huh? 🙂 I definitely will follow all your tips on this post the next time I travel with them again. That would certainly make my life much easier. On one hand, I can’t wait until they get a bit older so travelling will be easier. But on the other hand, as you said, they grow up too quickly and I want them to stay little a bit longer. Gotta cherish every moment with them. Thank you for sharing the tips. Now, I’m off to the kitchen to make some of your Roasted Chickpeas! They look awesome.

    1. Amy, you guys are quite the world travelers!! Love that. Awesome that your kids get to travel like that with you guys. Please pack me in your suitcase next time 🙂

  2. Love it! We also travel kit and kaboodle a lot! The kids have great experiences and now seem to know the planes better than some of the airline stewards. I truly appreciated the need to double up on clothes for the plane, orange juice spilled on a 10 hour flight isn’t fun. When the kids were still babies I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. It is amazing how a clean sink can be diverting water play for at least the five minutes of their attention span. It also gets you up and a change of scenery.

    Thanks for all of the “snack” suggestions. Definately a lot of great ideas. I’m fortunate, our kids are old enough to pack their “carry ons” now. I just check them and ask leading questions like “do you really need 3 dollies” etc…

    Thanks for a very useful post. I look forward to trying some of the snacks on our next trip.

    Lael

    1. Lael, thanks for your comment. It is cool how well kids take to flight once you get them in the habit of doing it a lot. I am forever grateful that I have the opportunity to give my kids these unique + fun opportunities. The “clean sink” nice tip! Anything to kill 5 tedious minutes ~ besides the kids end up with clean hands!

  3. Love that you shared all this info Marla! We took Baby Dear on his first flight – 14 hrs to India when he was 1. That was a breeze! He loved sitting in his bassinet and enternaining the front rows. Next month we’re going to Disney World!!! I’m so excited, and yet a ‘lil scared about the flight. He’s more head-strong now and knows what he wants. Packing snacks and his favourite dvds are definitely high on my list. Fingers crossed!! 🙂

    1. Congrats on such a great travel experience with your little guy! 14 hours is looooong ~ but sounds like it was actually fun 🙂 India is on my bucket list of places I must go someday. Were you there for a while? Did you visit a lot of places? Have a blast in Disney World and best of luck with keeping everyone busy.

  4. Great tips! I’ve traveled a few times with my oldest but not since. The younger ages are definitely challenging. I found jet blue to be fantastic to travel with since they offer more space and tv’s… a nice distraction if even on the plane. I’m dying to see pics of your trip in June. Can’t wait for that. 🙂

  5. You are really brave to open paint on a plane. As a traveler with five kids 2-8 years old, I would/will NEVER do that.

    One other little tip I always offer when asked for traveling advice is to purchase a brand new DVD they’ve never seen, and a pen that clicks to different colors — the kind we had when we were kids — and comes on a string to wear around the neck so it won’t roll off or get knocked off the little, uneven trays.
    My other big tip is to ALWAYS board the plane with water. I don’t care if it costs $7 on the other side of security. It would be dreadful to be stuck on the tarmac for an extended length of time with no water. Like you said, planes dehydrate a body quickly. If you have little kids, most security sites will allow you to bring through water (for formula mixing, even though I breastfed) and even juice boxes.
    Thanks for the great ideas. Have fun in Switzerland! Someday maybe …

    1. Carrie, thanks for such a thoughtful comment. The paints are risky ~ more for the lounge or if totally on top of the little painter 😉 With 5 kids not so doable. With 2 somewhat acceptable. LOVE the idea of the multicolored pen on the necklace. That way no one loses any thing and they can change colors in a snap.
      Bringing water on board no matter what the cost is important too ~ though I would certainly hope that the flight attendants could supply that in a pinch. Unless the airplane is fully engaged for take-off. Yup. Bring the water.

  6. I’ve traveled with my kids one-on-one at all ages, but I dream of being able to take them on a real family vacation someday. Have fun in Switzerland!

    1. Shaina, hopefully in the near future some family travel for you guys. I think you guys do mostly road trips these days? Those sound great too! Anything to get them out to see new things. The airplane is not so bad with two ~ with 4 just the cost of the airfare alone is a deterrent.

  7. I think it’s the most important to have realistic expectations – know that it’s a big, exciting and somewhat stressful thing for children to travel and be prepared for things to not go smoothly!

    I also have a little stack a note cards left over from my Girl Scout days with short games and activities that can be played with no additional materials. That way if you’re stuck waiting in line with little ones you can turn it onto a game and make the time go by faster.

    1. Georgia by the time your littles come around you will be good and ready to handle the challenge! You are a super duper inspirational travel pro.

  8. I just found your blog through your guest post at Rosa’s site, and fell in love with it – I started blogging exactly the same month and year you did, but not in my wildest dreams would be able to take the beautiful photos you do! (sigh, sigh, sigh)

    Still, I keep going at it.. 😉

    I am sending this post to my niece who will soon be traveling all the way from Brazil here to the US with her very young kids… awesome advice!

    again, nice to “meet” you!

    1. Hi Sally, that is so cool that we have been blogging for the same amount of time! I love Rosa’s blog, she is awesome. So grateful to be visiting you all at her place! The photography takes lots of practice as you know ~ keep at it 🙂 I hope your niece from Brazil enjoys this post. I had a great time putting it together and will be adding did bits here and there. You guys have some awesome tips to share!

  9. What great tips! We went to New Zealand last March with our then 5 year old. It was over 24 hours of travel to get there, but he did awesome!! Snack, and activities are key!! Stuffed animal, headphones, and eye mask (so he could sleep when it was light out) were very helpful for us!

    1. Erin, New Zealand??!! Sounds like an awesome family trip. I have never been but would love to some day. Bravo to your 5 year and that hugely long flight! Love your idea of the stuffed animal, headphones, and eye mask 🙂

  10. Very good tips and pictures, Marla. Each time we travel we learn something new & add to our list of to-do’s and to-not-do’s, isn’t it 🙂
    I came across one idea the day before, I think on Martha Stewart’s site, where a list of things/accessories to be packed were printed on a card with checkboxes on the side, so each time you travel you don’t have to recall each item – instead, just check with a pencil, and then erase the pencil marks for the next trip.
    I also carry some extra plastic bags (recycling the ones from Walmart or grocery stores) to throw trash in or to keep old/wet clothes, and sometimes a section of old newspaper, to use as table napkin when I eat so I don’t ruin my clothes, and many other uses. They hardly take space or weigh.
    As for food, yes I agree, more because it’s too expensive in flight. Anyway I always take some even when I go shopping, hehe.
    I don’t have kids, but I felt no less cranky, annoyed and trapped in my longest ever journey on an airplane – 28 hours (21 flying + 7 layover) from India to USA. Alone 🙁

    1. Nisha, the section of old newspaper is a great idea! Will need to do that here as well. I agree ~ long travel days are exhausting and uncomfortable no matter what. The main thing is to minimize that discomfort. My trip to Switzerland will be my longest yet. *sigh* The price we pay for great times!

  11. Thank you!!! Traveling with little ones can be exhausting! Organization is key!
    I am going to check out the CNN yoga for flying! May I add 1 more helpful hint? You may think I’m neurotic but besides purell I pack a small zIp lock of Lysol wipes for the table and arm rests. I also have tons of hand cream and moisturizer. Long trips I invest in rhino gel which protects from dryness and bloody noses! Ps no alcohol only water! Found that out the hard way!

    1. Angie with your past career as a flight attendant I bet you could offer up lots of amazing air travel tips. Thanks for the ones you mention here. Sanitizers and hand wipes are essentials. Will add that in this post now 🙂 The Rhino Gel is smart. I use something like that in Telluride ’cause of the dryness from the altitude. Had not thought to use it on the plane. Will put that in my carry on too!

    1. Kelly, I was wondering who was gonna comment on my “singing on the tarmac!” Of course you ~ bet you gals could have belted out a FAB thing or two together out there. Oh happy days!

  12. These are all fantastic tips, Marla! We always take a trip to the library so that my kids can pick out some “new” books for the journey. I also try to buy a couple of new travel games that I bring out right when things are starting to slide downhill. Love the photo of your daughter singing.

    1. Dara, great tips! I am sure you guys are well seasoned travelers. The library books are smart ~ my only concern is losing those beauties!

  13. Great tips, Marla. It is hard enough packing for ourselves let alone our whole family. Taking your own food is also a must. I have not eaten airplane food in over 20 years and I couldn’t imagine my kids eating it either!

  14. Great tips – I like to pack about a week ahead – lay everything that you think you need out on the bed and then halve it – you really won’t wear it and it just weighs you down.
    Also bring something for them to suck as plane descends to help with popping ears.
    Now that my two have iPads travel is SO SO much easier.
    Now if I can just persuade hubby to get us a private jet all would be perfect!
    xxx

    1. Lucy, yes on the private jet! Have been on them many times and they are a bit fabulous! Love the idea of halving the clothes. Practical & very truthful.

  15. Great post Marla! We are rarely in town for more than a couple weeks at a time these days and we almost always bring the kids with us. Our 4 year old has been on almost 80 flights in her little life! 18 months is by far the worst in my experience, and it all gets better after that! Now that they are 2.5 and 4.5 and there are I-pads, travel almost seems easy 🙂

    One more good thing! As of a few weeks ago they changed the laws about children removing their shoes for security- so it is one less thing to worry about!

    1. Heather, I am so happy that they changed that law about the kids + their shoes. So I take it that’s all airports?
      Can’t believe how much you guys travel! Love it. Is it for work??

  16. You posted this while we were on our trip to Mexico! I did pretty much everything you mentioned – gathered ideas from around the web. We went last year for the first time with a 13 month-old and a 2.5 year old and it was surprisingly better than we expected. This year’s trip was more difficult – the boys are older, more verbal, and *much* more active, so a bumpy plane flight was pretty torturous. On the way there, they ate and ate and ate and wanted nothing to do with all the iPads, iPhones, etc that we brought; the return flight they were more interested in activities (by which I mean that they did each thing for exactly 2.4 minutes) and they eventually fell asleep!

    I’m guessing we might just take road trips for the next couple of years – that way we can get out and stretch as often as needed!

  17. I will be passing these great tips on to my daughter who will be traveling with her four kids (8,6,5(a very active boy!) and 2) and without her husband to visit us in CA this summer. Though she will just be flying from West TX, I still think maybe I should help by flying one way or the other with her:)

  18. Thanks for the share! These are some great tips! The kids and I are flying out to the Great Wolf Lodge in Ohio next week and this will be their first time on a plane. Any tips for a parent with some first time flyers? Thanks!

    1. The best toy on a plane for toddlers/preschoolers is Play-Doh, the one in many small containers, all of different colors. It doesn’t make any noise, it keeps them busy for a long time and it’s really easy to get off the tray. Your fellow travelers will love you.