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Flying With Children: The Ultimate Guide to Less Stressful Flights With Kids

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Ashley Onadele
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Ashley Onadele

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Ashley discovered a love for travel in college that’s continued as her family has grown. She loves showing parents how they can take their families on trips using points and has contributed to numerou...
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If you were a frequent flyer before having children and want to continue doing so after starting a family, flying with your kid is probably in your future.

You’ve probably heard horror stories about flying with children from friends and family. Yet, just as any activity changes when children are included, so too can the stress level be reduced with enough planning (and snacks) when traveling with your children.

The truth is that flying can be hard with or without kids. There are a lot of things that can go wrong while traveling, from airline meltdowns around the holidays to rising ticket prices to lost baggage during a stopover.

You don’t need to add the stress of flying with a youngster to that list. Here’s our advice to a stress-free flight with kids.

Planning, Preparing, and Packing

Making a list is the simplest way to ensure you have everything you need while traveling with a child. You can create a list using pen and paper, your phone’s Notes app, a Google Doc, or any number of other methods.

By making a list of things to do before, during, and after your trip, you can keep track of what must be accomplished before you leave for the airport.

The list can be extensive but here’s what you should think about.

1. Choosing the Best Flight

Good preparation starts before you even book the flight.

Most parents will tell you to try to book a flight during your child’s nap time if you can. Keep in mind that flight delays could completely throw this plan out of whack.

But rest assured that even an over-tired child is likely to fall asleep on an airplane thanks to the white noise made by the plane’s engines. Red-eye flights are the exception.

Hot Tip: Red-eye flights depart late at night and arrive at their destination early in the morning. The departure time will likely be well after your child’s bedtime and it can be very uncomfortable to get a good night’s rest unless you have lie-flat seats in a premium cabin.

If you can’t choose a flight that works best with nap times and you want to avoid a red-eye, your best bet will be the first flight out in the morning.

The first flight on the schedule is the least likely to be canceled or delayed due to weather or equipment issues. If you have a layover, it’s especially important that you don’t miss connecting flights as that will only prolong the travel day and domino into other plans like the car rental pick-up time.

The last thing to mention about the time you fly is what you may want to do just before your flight: tire out your child.

Kids have a lot of energy — that’s what makes them so fun! — but that energy has nowhere to go at 35,000 feet and for several hours at a time. So, if you can, find an airport playground or other area where your little one can play and get some of that excitement out.

That way, they’ll be ready to relax or sleep when it’s time to board the flight.

2. Choosing Your Seats on the Plane

Unless you’re in business class or first class, where you sit on a plane with kids can really help or hurt your peace of mind.

Passengers under the age of 15 are not permitted to sit on the exit row, which normally has the most legroom. The bulkhead is an alternative place to sit in economy that will give you plenty of legroom and no one will be seated in front of you.

Consider where the restrooms are on the plane as well. If you’re traveling with a potty-training or newly potty-trained toddler, being close to the restroom will prove invaluable.

Choose a window seat if possible so your children can view what’s happening outside. They may also open and shut the shade whenever they want without disturbing your row or seatmate.

Baby Emily American Airlines 767 Business Class
This is definitely more comfortable than sharing a seat in economy! Image Credit: Chris Hassan

Hot Tip: Before buying your tickets, check the SeatGuru seat map for your planned flight to make sure there are enough seats available so that you and your family can sit together. Read our SeatGuru guide to learn how to understand flight configurations, read seat maps, and be a craftier traveler.

Airlines such as United Airlines are getting better at seating families together without any extra fees. However, you should always choose your seats in advance so that you can avoid being separated from your young child.

For families with more than 1 lap child, be aware that an airplane row only has 1 extra oxygen mask. This means that if you have 2 adults (required if you’re traveling with more than 1 lap child) and 2 lap children traveling a 3-3 configuration in economy, there will likely be another person in the third seat. Airlines will separate the family so that everyone has an oxygen mask should they need one.

If you need a bassinet for your baby, check out our airline-by-airline guide to your options.

3. Packing Beyond Your Checked Luggage

Oftentimes, we wrack our brains trying to make sure that we remembered all of the things we’re going to pack. But we forget about what we should have with us in our carry-on bags, backpacks, or personal items.

In your carry-on or personal item, you’ll want to keep anything that you can’t go without or want to have within reach. If your checked luggage gets lost or delayed, you’ll still have those crucial items like medication, medical devices, or chargers for your electronics.

Passports and other forms of identification, credit cards, cash, and travel plans such as hotel and car rental confirmations (in case your phone doesn’t have Wi-Fi) should all be in your carry-on or backpack.

When traveling with kids, however, you have to think about even more items. Here are a few things to pack in your carry-on when traveling with kids of any age:

  • For Infants, Babies, and Toddlers: Diapers, wipes, formula or breast milk, breast pump, changing pad, sippy cup, some form of identification for lap child (birth certificate, passport), and a change of clothes for you and baby are essential.
  • Snacks: Snacks, snacks, and more snacks. Bring items that you know your kids enjoy and maybe a few treats. Pre-portioned plastic baggies or reusable containers are easy for little hands to manipulate and you don’t have to give them everything at once.
  • Extra Clothes for the Whole Family: This is a tip that expert travelers would probably recommend for anyone, even those not traveling with children. But kids are more likely to spill something on their clothes and need a change, so it’s a good idea to have a backup in your backpack or carry-on.
  • Hand Sanitizer or Wipes: Pandemic or not, it never hurts to be prepared in the event you cannot fully wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Device Chargers: Delays and long travel days happen. You’ll want to have your computer, cell phone, and tablet chargers within reach to charge at the airport or even on the plane.
  • Toys or Tablets for Entertainment: To keep your kids entertained while flying, you should have a few options. A tablet with pre-loaded shows, movies, games, and educational apps is always a good idea. But you can also bring small puzzles, books, and other items that keep your kids entertained while you watch a show or read a book yourself.

How you pack is as important as what you pack.

Use tools to help you pack and organize, like packing cubes to make your clothes smaller, a travel cord organizer, backpack pockets, etc.

Lay out your and your family’s clothing in sets of outfits if you have the time and patience, so you know precisely what you have and what matches with what. This will reduce overpacking and ensure that you only bring what you absolutely need.

Getting Through TSA

A mother and daughter going through airport security.
Breeze through security with our helpful tips. Image Credit: TSA

Going through the security screening can be a headache whether you’re traveling with kids or not. The security portion of the airport experience can sometimes add hours onto your travel day depending on what airport you’re at. In addition to the programs listed below, check out our guide to getting families through TSA quickly.

If you don’t already have TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, or CLEAR, it’s highly recommended that you get it before your next domestic or international flight. Travelers under 18 years old can be added to an adults’ CLEAR membership for free.

TSA PreCheck expedites the airport screening process because you would have already undergone this screening through the pre-check. You won’t be required to take off your shoes or belt, and your laptop and tablet can stay in your carry-on. Your children ages 17 and under are eligible to use the TSA PreCheck security lanes with you (children 13 to 17 must be on the same reservation as you and have the TSA PreCheck designation on their ticket).

Global Entry is used for international travel and requires an in-person interview to complete the process. Once you’ve been granted Global Entry, you can use a kiosk at customs and enter a much shorter line to get through and out of the airport. TSA PreCheck comes with Global Entry. Children require their own Global Entry membership.

Unlike the 2 aforementioned programs, CLEAR is not a government or TSA-run program. It uses biometrics from your eyes and fingerprints to prove your identity and get you to the front of the TSA screening line, even past those with TSA PreCheck.

Hot Tip: Waiting in long security lines is never fun, but especially not for families with young children. At the very least, get Global Entry (which comes with TSA PreCheck) if you plan to travel internationally as well as domestically with your family. Numerous credit cards provide a statement credit for the Global Entry application fee.

Unless traveling with a baby or lap child, liquids traveling in your carry-on should be kept to 3.4 ounces. If traveling with a baby or lap infant, the rule of thumb is that you can carry more than this at a reasonable amount for your baby’s needs.

Relax at an Airport Lounge Before Departure

Capital One Lounge kid friendly
Let your kids enjoy their time in the lounge before departure. Image Credit: Capital One

At the gate, there are often people who are eager to board their flight. Most of the time, there aren’t enough seats for everyone, and the electrical outlets are all occupied by other passengers charging their devices.

There are restaurants throughout most airport terminals for you to grab either a quick bite or a more formal meal service. But if you took longer than expected through security, you may not have time to stop.

Because of this, airport lounges are a great place for traveling families to relax before boarding the plane.

Snacks or a full menu, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, Wi-Fi, showers, massages, and family rooms are just some of the perks you can take advantage of if you have lounge access. You’ll automatically have lounge access if you’re flying in a premium cabin, but you can also get lounge access with the right credit card.

Priority Pass is a network of airport lounges and restaurants whose Priority Pass Select membership comes as a standard perk on many travel rewards credit cards.

Outside of Priority Pass, eligible passengers can also experience lounges by credit issuers, such as the American Express Centurion Lounges, Chase Sapphire Lounge by The Club, and Capital One Lounges.

The Best Airlines for Families

Your experience on the flight shouldn’t be determined by whether or not you paid more for seats in the premium class. Yet due to the overwhelming volume of people that flight attendants in the economy cabin must tend to, this is often what occurs.

In that case, it’s a good idea to know which airlines, on average, tend to be the most family-friendly when deciding who to fly with. Really, this is good information to know whether you’re flying with kids or not.

Some perks that you can expect with most airlines are advanced seating and generous baggage allowances when traveling with children of a certain age. The best airlines will allow families to board early, usually after active military.

If you’re flying in first or business class, you can expect even more perks, starting with greater legroom and wider seats. Your kids may not mind this so much, but you’ll certainly be grateful for the extra room to stretch out.

First and business class passengers are also served a meal, depending on the length of the flight, and that includes your child. If it’s a meal that you know they’ll like, or better yet, if you’ve pre-chosen your meal in advance, then you might be able to get away with packing fewer snacks in your carry-on.

And lastly, first-class passengers generally get first-class treatment in the form of a dedicated, attentive flight attendant who can help warm milk and offer water and other drinks free of charge.

Without further adieu, here are the best airlines for families.

1. JetBlue Airways

Child touching in-flight entertainment screen on a JetBlue flight copy
Young passengers can enjoy a variety of kid-friendly inflight entertainment. Image Credit: JetBlue

JetBlue knows how to pamper its youngest passengers.

Not only do families (with children under 2) get pre-boarding privileges, but the airline also treats little ones to a nice lineup of inflight entertainment. Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and Animal Planet are all included in its roster of 3 dozen channels. It also makes a point to have at least 1 family-friendly movie on flights longer than 2 hours.

And to keep those little tummies full and nourished, JetBlue also offers unlimited juice and free snacks for children. If that’s not enough, you can purchase EatUp snack boxes to enjoy.

For breastfeeding and lactating people, there are Mamava Lactation Pods in several JetBlue terminals. At the airline’s Terminal 5 at JFK, there’s also an outdoor rooftop and 2 play areas — perfect for before or after a long flight.

2. Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is another family favorite — and for good reason.

Southwest knows how packing light can prove difficult when flying with children, that’s why it is one of the few airlines that offers free checked bags (2 bags up to 50 pounds) to each passenger. Free checked bags can significantly reduce the overall cost of airline travel when traveling with several people who all need to check a bag.

Families traveling with children 6 years old or younger can board during family boarding between Group A and Group B. This isn’t as early as some airlines, however, but it should help your family to get seats together or at the very least in the same vicinity on the airplane.

Lastly, Southwest has a very generous change policy. You only have to pay the fare difference when changing your flight. And if you’ve booked your flight with Southwest Rapid Rewards points and need to change or cancel, you can get your miles redeposited into your account.

Hot Tip: One caveat of flying with Southwest is that not only is there no premium cabin option — its planes are all economy-seating only — but there also aren’t assigned seats. It can prove difficult to get several seats together in this case. Improve your chances at great seats by reading our guide on the best seats when flying on Southwest

3. Delta Air Lines

When flying Delta Air Lines, families with car seats to install or strollers to gate check can board early after Delta One and first class passengers and before most boarding groups.

Delta offers 3 classes of service in economy: Basic Economy, Main Cabin, and Delta Comfort+. Each class has varying levels of perks, such as being able to choose your seat or extra legroom. Delta One is Delta’s first class product offered on select routes.

The onboard experience includes free inflight entertainment (plus headphones).

Thanks to strong customer service, a solid hard product, and reliability, Delta ranks high on many travelers’ lists of favorite airlines.

4. Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines is a popular airline for West Coast travelers to a growing number of destinations and was ranked second in satisfaction by JD Power in 2022 only after JetBlue.

Where Alaska shines is in its snack policy, in addition to its customer satisfaction rating, of course. This might seem like a small thing to be excited about but kids love snacks and unexpected treats.

Flight attendants bring a snack basket around about an hour before landing. Families can also elect to purchase a Kid’s Choice Picnic Pack. This includes cheddar puffs, strawberry applesauce, KIND bars, gummy bears, and more.

All of the dining options for purchase offer a variety of food items and cater to vegan, kosher, and gluten-free dietary needs. Some airlines don’t offer any food items for purchase.

The Worst Airlines for Families

Father comforts son at airport
Saving a little extra money on your flight might not be worth the headache. Image Credit: Yakobchuk Olena via Adobe Stock

There are fantastic airlines that cater to families, as well as some that are not so great. The latter group often lures passengers with low ticket prices, only to bombard them with fees and subpar customer service. This won’t work for families looking to stay within a budget or that need a little more assistance navigating the flight process.

Here are the worst airlines for families that you may want to avoid if you can.

1. Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines has always had a poor reputation amongst travelers, but J.D. Power ranked it higher than American Airlines for customer satisfaction for economy class.¹

When it comes to the list of complaints for Spirit, most passengers (and non-passengers) cite excessive fees and unrealistic baggage policies.

Passengers can expect a low cost initially but can expect additional fees for seat selection, checked luggage, and even printing your boarding pass at the airport.

It’s safe to assume that a company that nickel and dimes its customers doesn’t make much effort to deliver a comfortable flying experience.

2. Frontier Airlines

Frontier Airlines was once the model low-cost carrier. It was known to be friendly, comfortable, efficient, and affordable. However, that has all changed.

Frontier tends to have low base fares with shocking fees for everything else from online check-in to airport assistance. That’s right — Frontier charges $25 per passenger each way for airport agent assistance for things like checking in, printing boarding passes, and tagging luggage.

At a certain point, it can begin to feel like some airlines don’t even want anything to do with you.

3. Allegiant Air

Allegiant Air, another affordable airline, takes the third spot on our list.

The low-cost airline has a pretty extensive route map which can make it an attractive option for air travel.

However, it’s the same story with Allegiant as it is with Spirit and Frontier. The additional fees tacked on to the ultra-low ticket price are followed by more of the same.

The airline even charges $22 per person, per segment when booking tickets through its website or call center. You can avoid this fee by paying at the ticket counter at the airport.

Stress-relief Tips

A family of four laughs together while playing cards at the kitchen table.
Laughing is a great way to relieve the stress of travel days. Image Credit: Odua Images via Adobe Stock

No matter how much we plan, things will inevitably go awry at times. Such is life. But being confined on an aircraft can make everything seem amplified and much worse. Here are some tips to relieve stress when flying with your family.

1. Make Your Kids Laugh

Almost nobody likes a crying baby. But who doesn’t love a laughing baby?

Turns out, there’s science to back that up. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can help lower stress, depression, and anxiety. So take a few deep breaths, make a funny face, and make your kid giggle until it hurts.

2. Distract Yourself

Distracting oneself, within reason, likely won’t be possible unless your child is distracted or being taken care of by another caregiver.

However, taking your mind off of the things that are out of your control is another great way to relieve the stress you might feel when traveling with your family. Grab your favorite magazine, listen to your favorite music, or watch a movie on the inflight entertainment screen to take your mind off of what’s bothering you.

Hot Tip: Distraction is a tried and true tip for parents trying to avoid or calm down a temper tantrum. Distract your child with toys, snacks, laughs, or whatever it takes.

3. Change Your Perspective

The time spent at your destination will surely be longer than the time you’ll spend in the air or at the airport. Try redirecting your thoughts of what’s going wrong and look ahead to what will go right.

Are you staying at a family-friendly all-inclusive with lots of stuff for the kids and yourself to enjoy? Are you on your way to see visit family (who might be able to give you a break from your kids)? Or maybe you’re returning from an incredible and relaxing vacation and you’re choosing to remember the good times.

It feels like an impossible task in the moment, but if you can muster the strength to let go of what you can’t control, you’re sure to see the beauty in traveling with your kids.

Final Thoughts

Like any adventure, flying with kids takes a little prep work to make it as smooth as possible. Setbacks like lost or delayed luggage, delayed or canceled flights, and surly airline staff are all things that are out of our control. There are, however, things that we can control.

Do your best to book a flight at the most ideal time for your child’s schedule. Pack snacks, games, books, extra clothes, and everything else listed earlier in this guide. And try to avoid the airlines listed here under worst airlines for families.

Even before you fly, you can set your family up for success by getting TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, or CLEAR.

And if all else fails, try the stress-relieving tips listed in the final section above.


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Ultimate Guide to Flying with Kids

Frequently Asked Questions

I paid for my child's ticket. Can I claim the miles?

No. Only passengers who have either paid cash or redeemed miles will earn miles for the flight. You can, however, open an account in your child’s name and book a flight from the miles he/she has earned. You can also investigate whether or not your loyalty program allows you to pool miles.

What are the biggest advantages of flying first class with a baby?

First class seats give you enough room for privacy and breastfeeding.

What's the single most important thing to remember in long-haul flights with kids?

Always try to book direct flights! There are too many variables that could go wrong, including a delayed first flight that causes you to miss your connection.

How do I stop my child's ears from popping?

Just like adults, swallowing helps with ear pressure felt during take-off, landing, and turbulence. For babies, try giving them a pacifier or a bottle. For older kids and adults, a popular trick is chewing gum.

How do I prepare my child for flying?

You could try to tell your child through books, shoes, and movies about their upcoming plane ride. Let them know what they can expect during take-off and landing, and when they’re at the airport.

Ashley Onadele's image

About Ashley Onadele

Ashley discovered a love for travel in college that’s continued as her family has grown. She loves showing parents how they can take their families on trips using points and has contributed to numerous publications and podcasts.

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