As I write this, my husband and I think we’ve been on over 20 planes as a family of six—and we’ve only been a family of six for 20 months! When our twins were born, we also had a two-year-old and four-year old. We’ve been flying with all of them since the twins were newborns, and before that we traveled plenty with our older two. Before that, we traveled extensively internationally with just our oldest. We think he has about a dozen different passport stamps! Travel is embedded in our family and we have found it to be a great blessing to our kids as we adults persevere through the perceived difficulty of flying with young kids.
Here are some basics to get you started:
- Children under 2 years old can ride on an adult’s lap for free, or you have the option to buy them a ticket for them to have their own seat on the plane (they have to ride in a car seat for this option). Bring their health insurance cards or a copy of their birth certificate in case the check-in counter demands proof of age.
- Children over 2 years old have to have their own seat that you pay for, but they do not need a car seat unless you’d like them to have one.
- In any case, it’s absolutely possible to get used to flying with kids. It’s work, but it’s doable and ultimately a blessing for you and them.
Preparing for Flying on a Plane with Kids
If there’s one tip you take from this entire article it should be to pack light. Early in our travel life, we learned from others gone before us how to pack carry-on only, even for 3 months overseas. Packing carry-on only means each person gets one suitcase (at maximum) and one personal item (I’d recommend a backpack). In our family, packing carry-on only means all six of us share two carry-on sized suitcases and everyone old enough gets a backpack. The two principles of this are that you must:
- find a way to do laundry at your destination. (Even Asia has places where you can inexpensively pay for others to do it all for you.) To accomplish this, I usually pack four outfits for each person and do laundry every 2-3 days on our trip.
- pack enough diapers, snacks, and basic daily supplies to get you through the travel + your first day on the ground. After that, plan to go to a store and live off the land!
- Someone may get sick on your journey. You want one adult to be able to transport everything you have (all the children and all the luggage) by themselves in case the other adult is unable.
- Checked luggage easily gets lost. Packing carry-on only ensures you don’t go through that headache when you have kids to care for.
- Traveling with car seats is a bear! More on that later, but with car seats + kids + backpacks + suitcases, you want as little luggage as possible.
Here Are Some Caveats:
There are times my husband and I have disobeyed our own carry-on only rule. When traveling on budget airlines that make you pay for every suitcase, we have found it often less expensive to pay for one checked bag and pack our whole family of six in that one bag. Again, each person gets four packed outfits and we do laundry every 2-3 days. We’ve found that domestic airplane itineraries with only one airport connection or none at all, our checked luggage usually makes it through. We still usually pack extra clothes or at least an extra shirt in our carry-on so if luggage gets lost we aren’t completely lost for the whole following day while we buy new supplies. When our kids were really little, it also helped to check the suitcase before security so that was one less thing to carry.
A Packing List for Flying with Young Kids
- Never pack your child’s comfort items (pacifiers, stuffed animals, bottle) in the checked bags.
- Pack baby sleeping tents because many hotels or AirBnBs do NOT have pack n plays or cribs anymore. The name brand of this item is called Peapod.
- If you’re nursing, you might be able to get by with a haakaa manual breast pump instead of an electric one to save space. But pack that electric one if there’s a chance you’ll need it!
- Pack melatonin for the kids to help them sleep in a strange space, possibly in a new time zone. While I’m not going to give anyone else medical advice, I have used 1mg doses of gummy or liquid melatonin for my kids.
- Create a travel medicine bag with some over-the-counter medications for the adults and kids in case diarrhea, a cold, or teething pain strikes while you’re gone. We keep it packed and stocked and bring it on every trip.
- If you travel frequently, create travel toiletry bags that always stay packed and ready to go. Refill shampoo, soap, toothpaste, etc right after you get home from your last trip so you remember what you need more of and you are ready to pack it with no effort for the next trip.
- Bring a night light.
- Bring a sound machine.
- We have loved this wake-up clock for our kids (in normal life and travel life!)
- Pack only ONE sippy cup or bottle per kid, and wash it.
- Use pacifier/pump wipes to clean the bottle while you’re on the plane and in the airport until you can wash it at your destination.
- Pack a bottle brush for washing bottles and sippy cups.
- Pack a small thing of dish soap with your toiletries.
- Pack enough snacks for your kids that they get perceived unlimited snacks while on the plane. They can’t fuss if they have food in their mouth!
Prepare the Kids and Practice
I have found that our kids fly well because they’ve done it before. They sleep well in other places because we’ve taught them to do so from the time they were infants. I would highly recommend getting your kids used to varied schedules, varied sleeping arrangements, and varied routines before you travel with them so that they are more flexible while you’re on your trip.
For example, I trained our babies to sleep in the sleep tents I recommended above before we ever used them on a trip. I first put the tent in their crib and they slept in it there. Then I put it on the floor in their room, then I put it on the floor in a different room. When I put them in it when we were on our trip, they were able to sleep well rather than being afraid! (I’ll be honest, my twins don’t love the tent. But it’s a better night’s sleep for all of us than if we had no pack n play, no crib, no tent, and their only choice was to be in bed with my husband and me.)
How to Survive the Airport and Plane Ride
Car Seats and Strollers
Parents flying with young kids have the option to bring and/or check car seats and strollers for free. My husband and I normally check our car seats at the check-in counter (since we have four of them!) but we usually bring our double/quadruple stroller through the concourse and gate check it. That means, we use the stroller up until the point when we actually enter the plane, and we leave the stoller (with a gate-check tag on it) in the jet bridge for the agents to move under the plane at that point. We then pick it up in the jet bridge at our arrival gate before we walk onto the concourse as a family.
I would also recommend:
- Get car seat bags for your car seats.
- Even if you have a stroller, bring your favorite baby carrier along as well to use on the plane itself or for another option as you go through the airport.
- Pick a smart stroller. We have a double stroller that our olders have figured out how to ride on the side of! It has made walking much easier when our kids are tired after a long plane ride and botched naps.
Baby Formula and Milk
You probably already know that since the early 2000s, TSA limited travelers to liquids in quantities of 3 oz or less in carry-ons. But it’s so important for parents to know that official TSA guidelines allow parents to travel past the security checkpoint with liquids that are greater than 3 oz if they are for your infant (child under 2 years old). This means, you can bring prepared baby formula, a full water bottle to mix with powdered formula, baby food pouches, juice, milk, and whatever other liquids you need as long as they’re for your baby (or child under 2 years old). I will say, every airport is a different experience and at some check points we have waltzed on through with no comment, and at others my husband and I have endured the full body pat down in order to be able to pass with our necessary liquids. Be prepared for that experience, but stand your ground on what is allowed.
How to Survive the Trip with Kids
- When you book your tickets, even if you don’t select your seats, airlines do group families with kids together.
- We learned when we had our twins, that there is only one extra oxygen mask per row, which means there’s only one infant-in-arms allowed per row as well. This means my husband and I always sit one in front of the other. Each of us gets a twin and each of us gets an older kid.
- Take advantage of family boarding. At some point, most airlines announce that families traveling with young kids get to board ahead of most of the others.
- Offer unlimited snacks to your kids on the plane. Hunger is the cause of most fussing, so it’s good to keep that at bay.
- You can bring a few toys, but don’t go crazy here. The kids get bored of them all in five minutes anyway. Definitely never bring toys you would be sad to lose.
- The best thing to do is have your kids practice sitting still for long periods of time before you travel.
- If your kids get pain from popping ears, teach them the Valsalva maneuver, or have them drink something, chew gum, or yawn during take off and landing. It’s always a good idea to nurse or give a bottle to a baby during take off and landing.
- There are changing tables on every plane in at least one of the bathrooms.
- Overseas flights offer kids meals as a special dietary option if you select it, and some will offer baby food for your infant in arms.
- You can totally nurse on the plane! Most airports have nursing lounges or portable nursing pods you can use also.
- On overseas planes, request the infant bassinet. Even if your baby doesn’t sleep in it, you can put your stuff in it!
- Use screen time if you must (it’s not necessary but it’s a good option), and don’t feel guilty about it. In this case, you’ll want to download to your device whatever it is you want your child to watch because wifi will not often be available for free on a plane.
And finally, my best advice is to the parents. Stay calm! Kids read the room. If you’re stressed out, they will be too. If you’re calm and joyful, they often will be too. Let’s be honest, that’s good advice for your general parenting life as well!
Do you Want to Do What We Do?
You may be wondering why my family travels so much! It’s because we are full-time Christian ministry workers with Live Global. We travel internationally to interact with national believers who are leading their own ministries. We travel domestically to interact with North American churches who want to connect to one of our national friends in another country for the purpose of serving them as they do ministry.
Do you want to do what we do? I’d love to personally connect with you. Send me a message!