Edited by: Jessica Merritt
& Keri Stooksbury
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My kids have been on countless planes, trains, and automobiles and have stayed in hotels, Airbnbs, and even an RV. They’re now 3 and 5 years old, carrying their own backpacks and attempting to pull their own carry-ons, but this wasn’t always the case.
If you’re new to traveling with small children, it might seem overwhelming or outright impossible. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff to pack and juggling to do while taking care of a tiny human, yourself, and all of your things. But it’s probably simpler than you think, especially if you follow some of the tips outlined below.
When kids are especially small — think a few months old to about a year old — it’s downright easy to travel with them. The plane provides white noise and lulls them almost straight to sleep as soon as you’re in the air, barring any pressure change discomfort, of course. They aren’t moving too much, nor are they requesting (demanding) to get out of your arms or the seat and walk the plane.
You can wear your tiny human on your chest or back and they pretty much go wherever you take them without protest. Their schedule and eating habits are predictable and they’ve yet to have their first meltdown.
The early days are almost blissful.
And then they turn 1.
The older your child gets, the more curious they become. The 1-year-old stage is a fun time because they’re walking, or just on the cusp of it, suggesting that they’re ready for more independence, have a sense of humor, and are generally well-tempered. This is a sweet spot right before their inability to communicate leads to temper tantrums and frustration.
Hot Tip: The biggest difference between flying with a 1-year-old and a younger child is how alert they will be.
Your 1-year-old might want to stand in your lap, or in the seat, and wave at, smile at, and talk to other passengers. For more active toddlers, you may have to walk around the cabin with them. And if they’re walking, they’ll likely want to walk on the ground themselves.
They’re hopefully eating solid foods so you’ll have to remember to pack food that you know they’ll like. Don’t rely on getting something at the airport or even the food provided on the plane. They’re also larger, so that tiny, inaccessible plane bathroom won’t be fun for either of you when it comes time to change a diaper at 30,000 feet.
But the biggest difference of all might be whether or not you buy your ever-growing infant their own seat.
When my kids were young enough for it, I was of the mind that as long as my kids could fly for free, we wouldn’t buy them a seat. Plus, they’re only small for so long and I always loved holding onto them when they slept. Add to that the increasing costs of airline tickets, both in cash and miles, and I’m glad that we were able to save the money with a lap infant when we could.
To make having a lap infant easier, either my husband or I would wear the baby in an Ergobaby carrier when they slept so that we had full use of our arms. We could even sleep ourselves without fearing that the baby would fall out of our arms.
I know a lot of parents who prefer for each member of their family to have their own seat, mostly for the sake of space. But in addition to that, some children just don’t sleep well being held — not to mention the adult holding them might be pretty uncomfortable, too.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends that children fly in a child restraint system (CRS), which is essentially a car seat. There are specific requirements for CRS devices, so be sure and check out the website before you fly to make sure you’ve got the right type.
You’ll get a baggage allowance for your 1-year-old when you purchase a seat no matter how old they are. This would allow you to pack more freely instead of packing your child’s items together with the items in your carry-on … something I’ve done many times.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be seated in a row that has an empty seat next to you and your child can sit there free of charge when the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign is off.
Baby bassinets are detachable bassinets available on some planes in the bulkhead seat. These bassinets generally have age, weight, and/or height restrictions for use, and with a 1-year-old, your options to use a bassinet may be getting limited.
If you’re inclined to use a bassinet for your baby — particularly on a long-haul flight where you want to ensure the best rest possible — you’ll need to call the airline right after making your reservation to reserve your seat and bassinet.
Hot Tip: Not all airlines offer bassinets. Before you book, check out our ultimate guide to baby bassinet seats on over 50 airlines to find out if your preferred airline offers a bassinet or not.
The debate about whether or not kids and babies should be in premium cabins is one we won’t settle here. Still, parents traveling with young children may want to know some of the pros and cons of flying business class with a baby.
In business class, you’re guaranteed to get more legroom and larger seats. When traveling with a lap infant especially, it never hurts to have as much room as possible. In economy, you cannot sit in the exit row where you’d normally expect to have the most room in the back of the plane. That means that you’ll be jammed in a row, potentially with strangers.
With fewer passengers to take care of in business class, the flight attendants should have more time to help you when you need assistance. For example, you may need water to make a bottle or you forgot your child’s juice. In business class, you can expect to be taken care of a little more often.
Unfortunately, just by the sheer volume of folks in the economy compared to the number of attendants, you won’t receive the same service.
In premium cabins, depending on the airline, you may be able to reserve an infant or child meal in advance to be served during your flight. If flying domestic economy, you won’t have this option.
And lastly, flying in business could be cost-prohibitive to many. Even with points, business class seats often cost a significant amount more than economy class tickets. It’s easy to feel that the pros listed above don’t outweigh the dollar amount you’ll have to pay for those conveniences.
International airlines shine when it comes to their meal services (even in economy). As such, you can expect to be able to order a kids’ meal in advance of your flight or when you get on board.
The makeup of the meals and offerings varies depending on the airline, of course. Some airlines, usually depending on the length of the flight, will offer hot meals like pasta and even hamburgers. Others might only offer a kids’ snack box.
Whether or not these amenities are included in the price of your ticket depends on the airline as well. For example, United brought back kids’ meals that can be ordered at least 24 hours before your flight for flights over 2,000 miles and where a complimentary meal will be served.
According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), breast milk, formula, and toddler drinks are considered medically necessary. Breast milk, formula, toddler drinks, and baby/toddler food (including puree pouches) can exceed 3.4 ounces and do not need to fit in quart-size bags.
You are recommended to let the TSA agent know that you’re traveling with these items at the beginning of the screening and to take it out of your carry-on. It is also recommended that these items travel in clear containers for the sake of expediting the screening process.
Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) categorizes breast pumps as a medical device and as such should be allowed in addition to your carry-on and personal item, this depends on the airline. It’s a good idea to call the airline you’ll be flying with before you check in for your flight to ensure that you can bring your breast pump onboard.
As your children get older, they’ll likely want to help carry their backpacks or pull their own luggage. Eventually, you won’t need to carry or push them in a stroller everywhere because they’ll want to walk on their own, too. In the meantime, however, when traveling with a 1-year-old, all of that still falls on you. Luckily, there are plenty of travel gadgets and accessories to help make it easier.
Umbrella strollers are lightweight, foldable strollers for babies old enough to hold their heads up. An infant stroller most likely works together with your car seat, which can be bulky and hard to maneuver through the airport. If your child is big enough, an umbrella stroller is the way to go.
Whether or not you go with the convenience of an umbrella stroller or elect for your larger stroller, you can gate-check your stroller and keep it with you right up until you board the plane. Your stroller will either be waiting for you at the gate when you land or will have made its way to the baggage carousel.
Car seat requirements are not the same for cars and airplanes, and to use your car seat on the plane the car seat must be FAA-approved.
It’s important to note that the EU has different requirements for car seats than the U.S., so you’ll want to be aware of this if that’s where you’re traveling. One major difference between EU and U.S. car seats is that EU-approved car seats do not have chest clips. EU regulation states that a child must be able to be removed from the seat in a single motion.
I think that baby backpacks are better for travel than baby purses (one-shoulder baby bags) for a few reasons.
First, you have a full range of motion when wearing a backpack with weight evenly distributed through your back instead of on one shoulder.
Second, a backpack tends to have more pockets for all the things you’ll be carrying for your baby. It doesn’t hurt that it’s probably easier to convince your partner to share the responsibility of carrying a backpack vs. a purse.
Speaking of all the things you’ll be carrying, here are a few items that should make traveling with a 1-year-old a little easier:
Hot Tip: Check out our in-depth buyer’s guide to the best travel diaper bags, featuring both backpack-style and purse-style options.
There seems to be an ongoing debate on social media about babies in premium cabins (more on that a little later) and whether or not they should be allowed in lounges.
Lounges don’t typically have age restrictions (kids under 2 are even generally free!), though most don’t have amenities geared toward children. But what you get at a lounge is more space to spread out, with time away from the gate to relax and gather yourself before you fly.
Centurion Lounges, however, do a great job of welcoming and catering to young travelers with family rooms decked out with toys, games, TVs, and kid-size furniture. But even without that family-specific amenities, lounges are a great place to chill out before or after a flight with your baby.
At the lounge, you can also get warm water for formula, warm-up milk and kids’ food, and grab some fruit or other snacks for later.
Whether or not you choose to purchase a seat for your 1-year-old, we have some tips for making flying easier.
I used to think people were exaggerating when they said to bring more snacks than you think you need. But I underestimated just how important a well-timed handful of Cheerios would be.
It’s not so much that your child will be hungry, but that snacking tends to quell a fussy toddler. I cannot explain it any further than that.
Pack the snacks you know they love and maybe even a few surprises. There’s an endless list of snacks you could bring. Fruit, Cheerios, Goldfish, pureed food packs … anything that your child can safely consume will work.
Don’t forget that TSA allows water and food for toddlers in reasonable quantities above the standard 3.4 ounces allowed for all passengers. A standard sippy cup is probably enough to get you through your whole travel day.
This is one of my favorite tips, but I think whether or not a flight is timed well will depend on your child.
For some toddlers, the sound of the airplane in flight works like white noise and helps them sleep. But as they get older and are more alert for longer periods of time, the excitement of a new adventure might energize them enough to try and stay awake for longer than you expect.
In this case, scheduling a flight around nap time won’t matter. But for a first flight with a 1-year-old, it’s worth a try. If you find that your child didn’t stick to the schedule, you won’t have to worry about it next time. We live and we learn.
For long-haul flights, I recommend scheduling a red-eye flight to your destination and skipping the last nap before the flight. The reason for this is that the cabin is dimmed along with the white noise of the plane. I’ve never met a traveling child that could resist the urge to fall asleep under those conditions. Hopefully, they’ll be tired enough to sleep through the entire flight.
At 1 year old, your toddler will likely be awake for at least part of your flight, so you’ll want to have something to occupy them. Tablets are an easy go-to, but understandably, some parents won’t want to introduce screen time at this age, or at all. But if you do decide to go with a tablet loaded with movies, TV shows, or games, be sure and bring along child-safe and cordless Bluetooth headphones. Child-safe headphones should remain at lower decibels to preserve their tiny eardrums.
Avoid toys that make any type of noise so as not to disturb other passengers on your flight.
Hot Tip: Keep in mind that at a year old, your child may not be able to stay engaged by 1 toy or activity for very long, so it’s a good idea to have several options.
Luckily, there are a lot of other activities that are appropriate for this age. Here are a few of my favorite ways to entertain a 1-year-old on a flight:
In addition to the activities above, be sure to include items that are brand new to your child. In fact, all of the items listed could be brand new and you could gift wrap them. It’s the novelty of the surprise that gets them excited and wanting to play with whatever the new toy is. Who doesn’t love unwrapping a gift?
I wish that I could tell you that packing gets easier as your kids get older, but I can’t say that.
Yes, you can probably leave their 10 favorite blankets, nappies, and toys at home, but you’ll still need to pack a considerable number of items when you’re away from home. For example, I always packed 2 outfits per day that we would be away, plus a couple of extra. I didn’t plan to change my child’s clothes more than once per day, but we all know that stuff happens.
I would also bring an extra top for myself on travel days in case that stuff happened on me.
Your 1-year-old likely has at least 1 pair of shoes and might need a coat (and sweaters depending on the weather at your destination), gloves, and beanies. Clothes only get bigger along with your child and consequently take up more room in your luggage.
Packing cubes have been a dream for both packing compactly as well as organizing my family’s bags. We each have our own set of cubes in different colors and I roll whole outfits together to save time when we’re getting dressed in the morning.
Rolling outfits works best for the kids’ clothes since my and my husband’s clothes are too big to roll together like this. This trick also helps me avoid over- or underpacking because I always know what’s meant to go with what.
Once we arrive at our accommodations, I leave the clothes in the packing cubes and just put them into the dresser drawers. Packing cubes have immensely simplified the way I organize and pack for my family.
I wish I had a dollar for everything that didn’t go according to plan since I started to travel with my family.
Flight delays and cancellations, lost items, cranky kids, and more, will inevitably happen to you. One of my children almost always catches a cold 2 weeks before a long-haul flight. We even ended up in a clinic in Amsterdam on our first family trip to Europe and returned home with ear infections (yes, the whole family).
When you go with the flow of each day, it allows you to take each inconvenience in stride instead of letting it ruin or make you regret your whole trip. Traveling with children requires patience and grace with them as well as yourself, especially when it comes to how you plan your days.
You can’t pack each day with museum visits, tours, and other activities when traveling with small children. They simply don’t have the stamina to keep up and will let you know when they’ve had enough.
Schedule your activities around their nap times to maximize your experience together and to better ensure a good mood from your little one.
We can only plan so much and the rest is out of our control. Temper your expectations and you’ll be able to enjoy your vacation with your 1-year-old.
Traveling with a 1-year-old is different than traveling with a younger baby, but not always in a bad way. It’s true that traveling with babies younger than a year old is easier because they sleep more often, are easier to transport, and are overall more amenable to most situations. But traveling with an older toddler can also be more fun for you.
If you plan accordingly — while saving room for things you can’t control — and follow at least some of the tips outlined above, I trust that you’ll have a great travel experience when flying with a 1-year-old.
If your child is particularly anxious or energetic at any point during the flight, give them their favorite toy that usually calms them down. A pacifier or a bottle is great during takeoff and landing, especially for helping with inner ear pressure. Their favorite stuffed animals, blanket, or book are additional comfort items you could try.
You know your child best and what usually calms them down, so start with what you know.
Some other tips to try: shushing while rocking, walking the aisle when the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign is off, and good old-fashioned distractions usually help. Alternatively, ask yourself the classic question: is my baby tired, hungry, or wet?
During takeoff and landing, you want to make sure that your child is swallowing to avoid or alleviate ear pressure. The best way to do this is to give them a pacifier or bottle. Snacking may also work.
There are changing tables in the lavatory located on airplanes. Unfortunately, not every plane has changing tables in the lavatories.
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