Photo: Tomisickova Tatyana/Shutterstock

First Time Traveling With a Toddler? Here’s What You Need to Know

by Claire Litton Cohn Oct 26, 2017

Maybe you used to travel all the time but haven’t set out farther than the grocery store since your kid was born, and it’s time to get back on the horse. Or maybe you’re a homebody but the new grandparents live halfway across the country. Whatever your reason, here’s your guide to bringing your new baby or freshly minted toddler on a trip for the first time.

Age matters, but not as much as you think.

Until our daughter was 12 months, she was content to fly strapped to my chest, or maybe in our arms nursing, snacking, or fiddling with whatever small toys or books we could fit in the side pocket of my purse. Then she hit 12-24 months, when she was too fidgety to sit still, too old to sleep or cuddle, and too young to watch movies or figure out the iPad. We spent a lot of time ripping the inflight magazine to shreds, walking up and down the aisles, and waving new and exciting toys under her nose in the hopes that she would find them distracting for five minutes and stop standing on my thighs. When they are tiny, they don’t need more than you, some snacks, and sleep. After age 2, they can be distracted with blessed, blessed television.

Screen time, not scream time.

If your toddler likes movies, TV shows, or games, airplanes are a time to relax any guidelines you might have. We preload an iPad with as many videos as it will hold (whatever will work offline). We also have a few games that she likes: favorites are Sago Mini anything, Bugs and Buttons series, and a lot of drawing apps. She also likes to use Notes app to make emojis, take videos, and look at old pictures of herself while declaring “look, it me as a baby!” If you don’t have an iPad and want to risk it, you could also do all this on your phone, set to airplane mode. Be aware that keeping the screen lit and apps running could burn through battery life — most long-distance flights have seatback entertainment systems that include both plug and USB charging ports, so you are likely to be able to charge while you fly.

Shorter domestic flights depend largely on the airplane, which you might not know until you get to the airport; bring charging cables and hope for the best. If you don’t see a charging port on your seatback or armrest, check below the seat. Keep volume low-ish if you’re not using headphones — be aware that child headphones limit decibels, and the ambient noise of the airplane may make it difficult for them to hear videos. Consider getting adult headphones and limiting the volume on the device accordingly.

Buy a seat if you can.

If your child is on the larger end of the toddler scale, particularly wiggly, or money is no object, even if they are not yet two, BUY THEM THEIR OWN SEAT. Frequently, if the flight is not full, you can be shifted around so that you get an extra empty seat with your kid, since most business travelers don’t want stray goldfish mashed into their blazers. But there is no guarantee of this, and it was only recently that airlines were required to seat a child and accompanying adult in seats next to each other — up until this year, there was nothing to prevent you from being seated halfway across the plane from your kid, with no options but begging someone to switch. If you’re worried this might happen, you can pay an extra fee to pick your seats beforehand, thereby forking over more money to airlines for services that used to be free.

Bring six times what you think you’ll need.

I used to be really proud of being able to travel for weeks at a time with a carry-on and small purse. My clothes were small and the open skies were my dominion. Then I had a kid, and now her stuff alone fills an entire carry-on, and Ryanair gets all my money in checked bag fees. Bring ALL the snacks. Snacks are entertaining, and a hangry kid is a kid that is generally a pain to be around. Bring everything they like, and some different flavors of it. Bring snacks for you too, because you might forget to eat otherwise. If your kid is in diapers, bring one diaper per hour of flying time, and round upwards. Better to have more diapers than less. Bring a change of clothes for your kid in case of blowouts or pee accidents.

Possibly consider bringing a change of shirt for yourself in case of really gross accidents. If you keep said changes of clothes in a ziploc bag, they will stay clean and dry, and then you can put dirty clothes in the bag when you swap out. Bring lots of wipes. If your baby is drinking formula, pumped breastmilk, or juice, you may carry a “reasonable” amount through TSA security without problems. They will likely still swab it for drugs or explosives. Freedom!

What if I don’t have an iPad or don’t like screens?

You can get a bunch of small new toys and wrap them up in paper. Unwrapping them burns time, and then when they’re done, they have something new to play with. I really like the water painting books, where you have a little brush that is filled with water and you paint it on a page to make pictures appear. Stickers are always a big hit, and you can get several rolls of them.

Depending on the age, you could put small household objects like buttons or clothespins into jars or plastic containers, and let your child shake them or sort them. Playdoh and a few toys for it are distracting and calming, thereby reducing meltdown risk. You can also make airplane activity boxes, which are small suitcases or boxes with toys they don’t usually get to play with, scissors or craft supplies, or even objects you can use to make dioramas — these are good for older kids.

Bringing the important stuff on board is a good idea.

Most airlines allow you to check a carseat and a stroller per child, for free, on top of your usual baggage allowance. You can often gate-check both, which puts them on top of the bags and therefore less likely to get mangled or lost. I usually check the carseat (wrapped in a protective bag, which is sometimes provided by the airline), and gate-check the stroller, so I can use it in the airport. If your kid, unlike ours, will sleep anywhere but a bed, this can also be useful for long or late layovers, because your stroller or carseat can become ground zero for naps or bedtime.

If you want to actually bring a carseat on board and strap your kid in while you fly, you need to buy a ticket for your child; this is safer but obviously more expensive. The carseat also needs to be FAA regulated as one that is designed for airplane use. I was most comfortable in the airport just wearing my kid in a carrier, either on my chest when she was small, or my back when she was larger. Then you have both hands free to fill your water bottles, find your tickets, or strangle yourself at the stress of traveling with a toddler. If you’re wearing your child, you will go through the metal detector (rather than the millitron wave scanner) and they will likely swipe your hands or do a patdown. Most TSA agents do not make you take your child out of the carrier, although flight attendants frequently insist they are unbuckled for takeoff and landing.

Don’t forget that after the journey, comes the destination.

Remember that you’re not just surviving a plane trip…you’re navigating a new space on the other end. If your child is at the age for it, bring handfuls of outlet covers with you (comes in handy on the plane too, since our kid was determined to electrocute herself on the charging ports) and zipties for getting tangles of cords out of the way. Take note of any large items of furniture that could be climbed or pulled down. Most car rental agencies offer car seats for a daily fee — be aware that they may not actually have a car seat available when you arrive. It’s sort of like cars; if they don’t have the exact car you want when you get there, they just offer you another one. If all their car seats are rented, though, you don’t really have any options, so it is often better to either bring your own carseat or find a way to get a carseat delivered to you on the other end.

Taxis are considered public transit in most countries, and your child is not required to be in a carseat. Let’s consider that an emergency option, as it’s not particularly safe. If you’re going to a hotel, make sure you confirm that you get a crib, cot, or pack and play (if you need one) listed on the reservation — some places charge fees for these things, so make sure you’re clear on that before you book. If it isn’t in your room when you get there, you can ask when you’re checking in, and they’ll often bring it up right away. If you’re staying at a friend’s house, rely on your local network to try and borrow baby or toddler items for the length of your trip, rather than having to haul everything with you; most people save their stuff for longer than we have to, and I would be happy to let someone use our folding crib, high chair, or carseat for a week.

You have as much right to be in public as anyone else.

I’m sure you’ve heard of parents handing out apology goody bags to passengers on the plane. You shouldn’t have to feel bad about bringing your child, who is a person with their own particular needs, onto public transit. Airplanes are for everybody. I have yet to meet parents who let their kids just run wild through airplanes or airports, or who just don’t care if their kid is riverdancing on the back of the seat in front of them.

This is not to say that negligent parents do not exist; I’m positive they do. But most of the time, every parent in public with their child is trying hard to reduce crankiness and ensure that everyone has a good time. Anyone who gives you crap for your child making a peep (or a scream) in public should just buy themselves some nice noise-canceling headphones and call it a day. Life is loud and you are not doing anything wrong. Trust me, I want my kid to be having a screaming fit even less than you do, perfume-wearing stranger glaring at me from three rows away.

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