What are some tips for flying with an infant or toddler?
If you fly, even on occasion, you’ve probably been seated within earshot of a screaming infant. Whether you dealt with the unwelcome aural intrusion by donning noise-canceling headphones or simply pretending it wasn’t happening, you took solace in the fact that it wasn’t your kid melting down at the worst possible time.
It was someone’s kid, though. And if you’re a new parent planning your family’s first flying vacation, it could be your kid soon enough.
The mortifying prospect of subjecting your fellow travelers to hours of uncontrolled screaming is just the start. Flying with an infant or toddler is a fundamentally different exercise than flying with an adult partner — one that promises a raft of new, exciting, and potentially terrifying experiences.
Without succumbing to paralyzing worry about all the things that could go wrong on Baby’s first flight, you need to game out the journey more carefully than any adults-only vacation you’ve taken before. Take it from me, a dad who’s done an unreasonable amount of flying with a small baby and finally feels ready to share what he and his better half — and their child — have learned along the way.
Top Tips for Traveling With Babies & Kids
Not all family travel tips reduce your travel bill. Some are virtually guaranteed to raise it, in fact. But while you’re probably familiar with at least some common strategies to save money on vacation, you also know it sometimes makes sense to pay more for quality goods and services. Or in this case, to preserve your sanity.
You’re already spending a lot of money to get away with your family, after all. Why not ensure it’s money well spent?
1. Pick Fellow Parents’ Brains Before You Book
Before you book, speak with as many travel-veteran parents as possible. Ask them what worked, what didn’t, what they wished they’d done differently on their first or subsequent airplane journeys with small children.
Our new baby’s first flight was the result of a last-minute obligation, so we didn’t have time to canvass many new parents in our social circle. One piece of valuable advice we did receive was to babywear the 4-month-old nugget on the plane, a calming tactic we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves.
Later, my wife joined a closed Facebook group for traveling moms in her profession. Numbering well into the tens of thousands, the group’s active membership is a font of highly specific, extremely useful advice for globetrotting parents. Though we’ve independently verified all the tips on this list, many first came to us through the group. Our European vacation would have been far more challenging — and far less fun — without the traveling moms’ input.
Online groups can be especially helpful to parents who have special circumstances — traveling with children with special needs or babies with chronic illnesses, for instance. You can find reassurance and additional actionable advice in Facebook groups or real-world support networks for families in similar circumstances.
Pro tip: When traveling with small children, expediting airport security is a huge stress-reliever. One option is CLEAR, which scans your fingerprints and eyes. You can sign up for a free two-month trial of CLEAR, and kids under 18 are free with their parents.
2. Get a Passport for Your Infant or Bring Their Birth Certificate
We’ve never had to show ID for our infant son before a domestic flight. But parents traveling with infants for the first time should expect scrutiny nonetheless. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents are well within their rights to ask parents to produce birth certificates or adoption paperwork for infants and very small children without ID of their own.
We did bring our son’s birth certificate on his first flight. After that, it wasn’t necessary. Upon our return from that trip, we applied for a passport for the little guy knowing we’d need it for an international vacation set for later that year. On international flights, you must present your child’s passport, so make sure you get one as soon as you set your travel dates.
Our kid’s passport came within six weeks, but the State Department recommends allowing at least eight weeks, though you can expedite delivery for an additional fee. Expect to pay a little under $100 for a nonexpedited passport, including photography.
3. Choose a Family-Friendly Airline
Every airline accommodates paying customers, but some are known to be more family-friendly than others. Of the three airlines we’ve flown since welcoming our son — Delta, American Airlines, and Aer Lingus — we think American is the best for families with small kids. However, the differences were subtle, and our experiences may not be typical. We’ve heard Southwest is particularly family-friendly but haven’t flown with them yet.
Before you book, talk to fellow parents and browse online travel forums to reach your own conclusions about the best airline for your family. Note that if your home airport is small or you’re flying to a destination served by only one airline, you may not have much choice.
4. If Practical & Economical, Time Flights to Baby’s Schedule
A flight’s timing doesn’t matter as much for newborns, who’ll probably conk out once the plane reaches cruising altitude and wake up only to feed.
For slightly older children on some semblance of a sleep schedule, flight timing is important, perhaps decisive. It can be advantageous to pay a premium for a flight scheduled close to your kid’s regular bedtime, especially if the route is long enough to allow for quality sleep. On shorter routes, takeoffs just before regular naptime work well — though, for us at least, predicting naptime is more art than science.
Following this advice isn’t always practical or affordable — and sometimes, it’s neither. A flight that arrives at your destination hours before check-in time creates new logistical issues — namely, how to kill time, possibly with baggage in tow, in an unfamiliar place. And ideally-timed flights are often more expensive because they’re more popular. If the cost is more than you can bear, you may have no choice but to sacrifice convenience and put up with an irritable baby.
5. Milk the Lap Infant (Lap Child) Allowance for All It’s Worth
As a general rule, kids under age 2 fly free within the continental U.S. (and sometimes farther afield) as “lap infants.” If you’re willing and able to control your kid for the duration of the flight, you don’t have to purchase a separate fare for them.
On most international flights, lap infants under age 2 aren’t entirely free. Most airlines charge 10% of the adult fare, but pricing can range up to 25%, depending on the airline and destination. Lap infants are often more expensive on trans-Pacific flights, for instance. Some discount airlines, such as Southwest and JetBlue, waive lap infant fares (though not taxes) on international flights within North America or the Caribbean.
For safety reasons, one adult can’t travel with more than one lap infant. If you’re flying solo with two under-2s, you need to purchase a seat for one. And if you book online, you may need to call the airline to add your lap infant after you confirm your booking. Don’t forget this step — it’s a major headache and a significant time suck at the airport if you do.
To be clear, holding your infant for the duration of the flight is not as safe as strapping them into an airline-approved car seat or restraint. If you’re concerned about what can happen in the event of severe turbulence or a rough landing, your best course of action is to pay for an extra seat.
But there’s a chance you won’t have to. When you arrive at the check-in counter, ask airline staff if the flight is fully booked. If it’s not, see if they can move other passengers around to free up a seat next to you. The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on safe flying tips for parents with very young children.
6. As Infants Age, Give Them Their Own Seat — if It’s Fiscally Feasible
Our son was a model lap infant through his 8-month birthday: quiet and cheerful when awake but often unconscious.
Then, something changed. Two three-hour flights taken just before our son’s first birthday were unmitigated disasters. There was near-constant screaming, violent thrashing — the whole nine yards. Weeks later, our outbound flight to Europe was even worse at the start, though he eventually tired himself out and slept fitfully for the second half. The return journey was only slightly better, in large part because the plane was half-empty.
After those back-to-back ordeals, we resolved with regret to prematurely bid the lap infant allowance adieu. It’s just too much with an increasingly world-aware little one who really hates to fly.
7. On Longer Journeys, Invite Grandparents, Willing Relatives, or Friends
Many hands make light work. All the more reason to take Grandma and Grandpa along for the adventure if they’re willing to pay their own way. If the grandparents are uninterested or unavailable, ask close friends or relatives. Just make sure they understand what they’re getting into: they’ll be in close quarters with a helpless baby for the duration of the vacation and pulling some shifts on child care duty.
While our son hasn’t yet traveled with our friends or other relatives, we have taken his grandmother on two family vacations since his birth: a five-day trip to Seattle and an eight-day journey to Europe. On both, her presence was welcome, not least because of her willingness to pull babysitting duties in the evenings. My wife and I didn’t escape our son’s clutches every night, but we wouldn’t have been able to sneak away for any unhurried dates without Grandma’s help.
Unless you’re paying their way with miles or credit card rewards, adults don’t fly free, which is why it’s essential to be clear if you need them to pay their own way. Adding an adult to your travel party can reduce your per-person lodging costs, however. When we travel as a multigenerational unit, we usually bypass hotels in favor of whole-apartment rentals. With three adults splitting the cost of a single flat rather than two hotel rooms, we invariably come out ahead.
8. Fly Direct Whenever Possible
Why visit a third airport when you can fly directly to your destination?
Easy: Because it’s often cheaper. Sans child, a layover is a small price to pay for the lowest possible fare — assuming you don’t need to be at your destination by any particular time.
Once you’ve welcomed a little one into the world, however, you may think differently. Shepherding an infant or toddler through a major airport is no easy feat, and many parents are happy to pay more to avoid doing it more than necessary. My wife and I certainly are.
Although we’re more likely to fly direct these days, we’ve managed to keep our airfare spending in check by flying at odd times — the traveler’s version of the early bird discount. On at least one occasion, flying direct and driving to our final destination was cheaper than flying all the way, which would have required a layover before a quick second flight.
9. When Both Parents Travel, Avoid Basic Economy
On two-parent journeys with airlines that distinguish between basic economy and “main cabin” economy, always pay for a main-cabin fare. On a typical route, the main cabin can cost 15% or 20% more than the basic economy, but it’s the only way to guarantee seats together.
Trust me: You’ll be glad you sat together. Getting up from your seat every time you need to hand off Baby — which, between feedings and bathroom breaks, can happen several times during a flight — is inconvenient and, during meal or beverage service, sometimes impossible.
9. Play the Pity Card — Request a Free Upgrade & a Bassinet Attachment on Long Flights
The worst that can happen is that they say no — which is precisely what they’ll say on domestic routes 9 times out of 10. Frequent flyer status holders are more likely to succeed since they can pull rank, but there’s only so much the airline can do on a fully booked flight.
Your best chance of success is likelier to come at the last minute. Depending on the airline and route, some gate agents have the discretion to move passengers around before all the seats are assigned.
Your dream scenario here is an upgrade to a bulkhead seat with enough legroom to accommodate a bassinet attachment. A comfortable horizontal sleeping space would have made our lives a lot easier on the long, screamy flight to Europe.
Bulkhead seats are rare, and not all planes have them at all (our European flights’ narrow-body 757s didn’t). If you don’t score one, all is not lost. There’s always economy plus with its precious extra legroom.
That’s exactly what we got on our outbound flight to Europe — $500 or more in added seat value at no additional charge. We were incredibly lucky to receive such a valuable upgrade. But our experience lays bare the reality that families with small children are more likely than unencumbered adults to score when upgrades are available.
10. Respect Baggage Weight Limits & Be Prepared for Last-Minute Repacking
Most domestic airlines charge extra for checked bags heavier than 50 pounds. Exact pricing varies by airline, but you can generally expect to pay $25 to $35 for each of the first two checked bags under 50 pounds. Pricing rises steeply over 50 pounds — up to and over $100 per bag, depending on its weight.
International weight limits vary. In Europe, 20 kilograms (about 45 pounds) is a typical “overweight” cutoff. On longer vacations involving multiple flight segments, always check baggage weight limits for each airline.
The good news: In our experience, airlines treat overweight thresholds as guidelines rather than gospel. I’ve twice exceeded the limit by only 3 or 4 pounds or kilograms and didn’t pay an overweight baggage fee.
Nevertheless, when you’re lugging heavy items like formula, toys, and a portable baby chair, confining your entire family’s possessions to a single checked bag isn’t always possible without running seriously afoul of weight restrictions. To reduce checked bag weight, stuff as much heavy stuff — solid food, formula, wipes — as you can into your carry-ons.
And because a second checked bag is cheaper than a single overweight bag on most airlines, it’s generally best to bring it, even if you expect it to remain half-empty throughout your trip. It’s more room for souvenirs if nothing else.
11. Don’t Pack More Baby Stuff Than You Can Carry Through the Airport
No matter how lightly you pack, you only have so many hands. If you’re flying solo, you can’t manage your checked bag, carry-on bags, stroller, and car seat alone. Lugging a car seat is tough even when two adults are in the picture.
If your kid is big enough not to require a stroller car seat attachment, think seriously about leaving your car seat at home or in your car on the airport lot and renting one at your destination. Hertz offers infant, child, and booster car seat rentals, usually for less than the daily rate for the car itself.
12. Consider Driving to the Airport
Our son is a pro on public transit, not least because he loves attention. But that doesn’t mean his parents love riding buses and trains with heavy bags and strollers and car seats. Since his birth, we’ve driven to the airport every time, despite living a short bus ride from the airport train.
With regard to ridesharing services, for trips shorter than five days, it’s cheaper for us to drive and park in the discount lot than take a Lyft both ways. Your break-even could be longer or shorter — it depends on how far you live from the nearest airport and how much that airport’s parking authority charges for long-term parking.
Plus, when you drive your own car, you can leave the car seat in your vehicle to be replaced by a rental at your destination if needed.
Be sure to price out airport parking ahead of time. Our home airport charges about 50% more for terminal parking than on-site discount parking, and off-site discount parking is cheaper still. The 10- to 15-minute free shuttle ride is well worth the savings.
13. Pack More Than 1 Baby Outfit per Day
Baby clothing is compact and lightweight enough to overpack without drastically increasing your total baggage weight. Take advantage of this.
Even after starting our son on solid foods, we found that blowouts were more common away from home — probably due to a combination of factors, like unfamiliar foods, irregular sleep, and a higher share of dietary liquids on travel days.
14. Don’t Be a Cloth Diaper Hero
Cloth diapers are better for the environment than disposables, but they’re a nightmare on travel days. After flirting with continuing our son’s cloth diaper regimen on his first flying vacation, we scrapped the idea as unworkable — too many extra bags with too high a risk of leakage.
If you’re more creative and committed than we were, more power to you. Otherwise, use disposables on vacation and switch back to cloth upon your return.
15. Leave the Jogging Stroller at Home
I love our jogging stroller. It’s capable of navigating everything from ankle-deep snow to clay mud to leaf-strewn trails.
Sadly, since our son was old enough to sit up on his own, our jogging stroller hasn’t joined us on vacation. Its replacement is a perfectly capable umbrella stroller that’s several inches narrower, about half the weight, and far more maneuverable. It also folds into a 4-inch-diameter cylinder. It shined on the hilly, narrow sidewalks of Seattle and Paris.
Of course, if your baby needs a car seat attachment, an umbrella stroller isn’t in the cards. Instead, you can:
- Bring your heavier-duty stroller
- Commit to wearing your baby whenever they’re not in the car seat
- Use a special travel stroller system, like the Britax B-Lively and B-Safe Gen2
Whatever stroller you bring, your best bet is to take it through the entire airport and gate-check it as soon as you arrive in the boarding area. Don’t check your stroller at the ticket counter unless you’re hankering for an arm workout. While you can wear your baby most of the way through the airport, you have to take them out and hold them through security.
16. Pack Extra Bottles & Snacks for the Airport & Flight — but Make Bottles After Security
Our rule of thumb: Baby drinks and eats twice as much during air travel as at home.
What can we say? Travel makes everyone hungry.
But before your kid is on solids, don’t make bottles until after security unless you’re comfortable risking already-made bottles. TSA agents don’t automatically throw out breast milk or liquid formula over the 3-ounce liquids limit. But they will subject bottles to closer scrutiny and certainly don’t guarantee they won’t dispose of baby food. If you’re exclusively breastfeeding, pack a few pouches of liquid or frozen pumped milk to supplement your supply on the flight.
If your baby is eating solids, bring a combination of healthy snacks and liquid food pouches. Sequester all baby sustenance in a separate resealable bag for ease of screening.
Plan to feed your kid during takeoff and landing to mitigate painful air pressure changes. Otherwise, feed as needed — or whenever Baby threatens to melt down.
17. Plan to Arrive Early
These days, we find we need about 15 extra minutes at the airport — not much in the scheme of things.
Our first two flying vacations were much more taxing. We gave ourselves an extra hour on either side of both journeys and wound up needing most of the additional time. Expect your airport transit to include extra steps like:
- Checking or gate-checking special items, such as strollers and car seats
- Waiting for special screening at security — you have to go through the metal detector with your baby and may require a pat-down
- At least one diaper change before boarding, which may involve waiting for a family restroom
- At least one feed before boarding, though this may coincide with adult eating time
18. Tag-Team Airport Security
Getting through security is a lot easier when two adults are along for the ride. Our family has the routine down pat. I go first, binning up my electronics and liquids and pockets and shoes, then free our son from his stroller and wait to carry him through the metal detector.
Behind me, my wife bins up her stuff, separates the resealable bag of baby food — which always draws additional scrutiny — and then folds up the stroller and places it on the belt. She often has to go through the metal detector with me, but if not, she generally makes it through the magnetic scanner before I clear.
When you’re traveling solo, you don’t have the luxury of tag-teaming security. You’ll have an easier time if you’ve presorted everything TSA requires you to remove from your luggage — baby food, liquids, large electronics — and placed it in separate bags or bins and kept your pockets empty.
If your kid is still in a car seat attachment, keep them there until the last minute after you’ve folded up any stroller you have. The process is easier once your kid can stand or sit and it’s no big deal to deposit them on the ground for a minute.
19. Locate & Use Family Restrooms at the Airport
Before your trip, study a map of every airport you’ll visit. Locate the family restrooms nearest security (at origin airports) and your departure gates (at origin and layover airports). Blowout emergencies and ridiculously long lines notwithstanding, it definitely pays to wait for family restrooms to free up.
Unlike chaotic public airport restrooms, they’re quiet, private, and equipped with excellent changing facilities, the importance of which any parent familiar with the ordeal of a bathroom floor change is well aware.
20. Utilize Airport Lounges Wherever Possible
Airport lounges are godsends for families fed up with cacophonous terminals, packed restaurants, and standing-room-only gate areas. They’re great for quiet feeds for Baby, quality meals for parents, and unhurried diaper changes.
Though most lounges charge hefty admission fees ($30 to $60 or more per traveler), many travel rewards credit cards offer free or discounted lounge access as a value-added perk.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card (see our Chase Sapphire Reserve card review) offers complimentary access to more than 1,000 lounges in the Priority Pass Select network. The Platinum Card® from American Express (see our Platinum Card from American Express review) does the same for the Global Lounge Collection, an even more extensive network.
The savings add up quickly. On three separate European lounge visits, our Sapphire Reserve card saved our party (Mom, Dad, and Grandma) some 270 euros in entry fees — about $300, double the card’s net annual fee after subtracting its $300 annual travel credit. The lounges’ generous buffets kept us away from overpriced airport restaurants too. Conservatively, we avoided $150 in out-of-pocket food and beverage purchases on those three visits, pushing the total savings to $450.
21. Change Diapers Before Boarding — & Strap on an Overnight Diaper
Yes, even if your only option is the discolored changing table in the crowded public restroom right off the airport’s busiest security checkpoint, it’s better than triaging a poop emergency in a shuddering toilet closet at 35,000 feet.
Ahead of coast-to-coast or transcontinental flights, strap your slightly older baby into an overnight diaper — a heavy-duty nappie designed to absorb ungodly amounts of urine. That should be enough to get them through 10 to 12 hours of routine liquid elimination.
Unfortunately, overnight diapers don’t vaporize solid waste, so hope your baby holds it together until you’re on the ground. Newborns and babies still on all-liquid diets aren’t likely to make it across an ocean without going No. 2, of course.
22. Babywear Newborns & Smaller Infants on the Plane
Comfort-craving newborns and smaller infants do well facing inward in body carriers. We had success with the Moby Wrap when our son was really young and the Beco Gemini baby carrier as he got older. The Moby Wrap is confusing at first, but you get the hang of it after a YouTube video or two. And it works.
For most of his first flight, our son slept soundly on my chest save for brief feeds at takeoff and landing. And it’s easy enough to read over a small baby’s head and shoulders.
23. Have a Plan to Keep Slightly Older Kids Occupied
Eventually, baby-wearing returns diminish. By our son’s first birthday, he wouldn’t tolerate being worn by a seated person at all. He was too interested in everything going on around him. However, he continued to enjoy the body carrier on walks, which came as a relief on the ground in Europe.
But you need a sound plan to keep wiggly older ones occupied. Snacks and bottles help, as do toys. We’ve found that the “twice what they’d normally need” rule works for toys too, so half the main compartment of our diaper bag is reserved for things like dolls, stuffed animals, links, and rattles.
24. Ask Your Baby’s Doctor About Sleep Aids
I don’t think my wife and I are terrible parents, so I’ll just come out and say it: On the outbound flight to Europe, we gave our son a safe dose of liquid Benadryl in a futile attempt to get him to sleep soundly for eight hours.
He did not sleep for the first half of the flight. Reflecting on his sustained mania during those terrible hours, we’re fairly sure he had a paradoxical response to the Benadryl — the mirror image of what one would expect from a baby dosed with a mild sedative.
That was the first and last time we gave our son Benadryl on a flight. Your kid may fare better than ours, but always ask your family doctor or pediatrician before you dose and understand the risks. According to Healthgrades, parents should never give infants antihistamines like Benadryl except on the advice of a doctor.
And don’t bother on flights shorter than four hours unless you feel like dealing with a sluggish baby after landing.
25. Study Your Ground Transportation Options Before You Arrive
Pre-kids, my wife and I rarely bothered to rent cars on vacation. No longer. Now, we find ourselves behind the wheel much more often. With a vehicle (temporarily) all our own, it’s easier to keep to our son’s schedule, flee social situations ahead of foreseeable meltdowns, and store low-value toys and supplies in the car’s trunk or back seat.
On the other hand, renting a car is often expensive, and one with a car seat even more so. If it’s practical to get around your destination on public transit and you’re willing to do so with a small child and their accouterments, your final transportation bill will be much lower.
In North America, my wife and I have settled on a hybrid approach: using public transit and ridesharing in urban areas and rental cars on forays into the countryside. In Europe, we avoid car travel altogether, taking the bus or train into town from the airport and walking or riding public transit once there.
Avoiding airport taxis has saved us at least 50 euros, according to our calculations, and sticking to buses and trains in town even more. Wearing is the way to go on crowded public transit vehicles, so get your baby (and yourself) comfortable with the carrier before you arrive.
Our son traveled better than most babies during his first year. As he grows up, we hope he comes to terms with the privilege that made possible the adventures he’ll remember only in pictures. In the meantime, we owe him a debt of gratitude for pushing his parents outside their collective comfort zone, for helping them become better travelers, and for making it possible for his dad to do his small part to make life on the road easier for his fellow new parents.
That’s not to say our travels as new parents have been entirely smooth. Each trip is a new adventure, and you shouldn’t bank on your travels being any different.
Perhaps the best advice for parents new to traveling with small children is to accept that not everything will go according to plan — and that it’s often better to pay a bit more to preserve your sanity (and your small child’s) when you’re away from home.