Flying with a toddler can be a challenging experience.
To put it mildly… 🤯
Flying anywhere, long haul or short haul, can be tricky for some people. Throw a rowdy 3-year old into the mix and things can really start cooking.
You’ve probably imagined what it would be like flying with a toddler if you haven’t made the trip by air yet. You board the plane, casting an apologetic smile to your fellow passengers. Some are sympathetic, others are terrified — and they’re all trying to find out where you’ll be sitting. Please not behind me!
But it doesn’t have to be a bad experience for anyone — not for you, your toddler, or the people sitting around you.
Much like with any experience with a 3-year old, it all comes down to proper preparation, the right attitude, and the ability to laugh things off and move on if it all goes t**s up.
Whether you’re hopping aboard a short or long flight, with these tips for flying with a 3-year-old you’ll be primed and ready for hassle-free air travel with your little one.
- Flying With a Toddler: Booking and Other Preparations
- 1. Plan the flight around their nap schedule
- 2. Consider packing a travel buggy
- 3. If it’s a long-haul flight, overnight is best
- 4. Bring enough meals and snacks for the entire flight
- 5. Make sure you have the required ID
- 6. Take a potty seat if they are potty training
- 7. Consider taking a toddler car seat
- 8. Pack spare clothes for you and your toddler
- Navigating the Airport and Flying With Your Toddler
- Toddler Flying FAQs
- Final Thoughts on Flying With A 3-Year-Old
Flying With a Toddler: Booking and Other Preparations
1. Plan the flight around their nap schedule
Good preparation starts before you even book the flight.
When you’re flying with a toddler, there are two things you should pay attention to — the time of your flight and the seats you pick. Depending on the length of your flight, you’ll want to schedule your flight time(s) around your little one’s nap or bedtime routine.
When booking your seats, consider booking an extra seat if your budget allows it so you can have the whole row if it’s just you and your 3-year old travelling. You may strike gold and end up with a spare seat if you don’t, but we wouldn’t bank on this. If you want extra space on your flight, consider booking the bulkhead seats — they free up space for you and your toddler.
We’d definitely recommend booking an aisle seat if you have a particularly active toddler. This will make it easier for you to get up should the time call for it without disturbing other passengers.
Remember that any child over two must have their own seat.
2. Consider packing a travel buggy
Getting through an airport without a travel buggy is unthinkable for some parents, so consider bringing one with you. An airport can be an overwhelming experience for toddlers, and before the real journey has even begun, your little one is already having a tantrum.
A travel buggy eases the hassle of checking in and getting all your luggage sorted while managing your little one.
The best travel buggies fold up compactly and can be put into the overhead lockers so you can actually wheel your toddler right up to the seat in them (and straight off the plane at the end!).
3. If it’s a long-haul flight, overnight is best
If you’re taking a long-haul flight, make sure you choose the red-eye option. Trying to hold a squirming toddler for a 12-hour day flight is challenging, so an overnight flight will be your best friend.
An overnight flight helps get your little one to fall asleep during the bulk of your long-haul flight, meaning you’ll be able to relax, watch a movie in peace, and catch a few hours of sleep yourself.
In theory, at least!
4. Bring enough meals and snacks for the entire flight
The first rule of flying with a toddler: always pack enough meals and snacks. The second rule of flying with a toddler: never forget to pack enough meals and snacks.
Food is a great way to keep your little one occupied and help ease the popping in their ears with the air pressure change during take-off and landing.
Pack snacks that aren’t too messy or could melt. No mess means less stress! For drinks, pack your little one’s beaker. If they still take a bottle, bring it on board with a few ready-made formula bottles for easy convenience.
5. Make sure you have the required ID
Before setting off on your adventure, ensure you have all the documents needed to travel.
For international flights, your little one must have their own passport. If you’re flying solely within the UK, including Northern Ireland, you do not need a passport. Still, you may need photographic identification or your toddler’s birth certificate — so always pack it in case!
6. Take a potty seat if they are potty training
If your little one is new to potty training and this is their first time using a public toilet, consider bringing along a potty seat that will fit on top of the plane toilet.
The small size of most toilets on board means that using a travel potty is out of the question. A folding travel potty seat is a good compromise or you might consider potty training pants or pull-ups if you think your toddler is likely to have lots of accidents.
7. Consider taking a toddler car seat
As a parent of a 3-year old, you’re probably well aware that toddlers rarely cooperate when it comes to sitting still. Toddler car seats work wonders for keeping them still and providing them with a comforting space to sleep.
Having your toddler sit in your lap can be draining, especially for long-haul flights. And because children aged two and above are required to have their own aeroplane seat, bringing a car seat to buckle them up in with a seat belt is safe and makes your journey much easier. Plus it means that there’s no danger of the car seat getting damaged in the hold.
Make sure you check with your airline beforehand if you can bring a car seat on board with your little one.
8. Pack spare clothes for you and your toddler
One of the most unpleasant experiences you and your toddler could face on a flight is an unexpected accident and no spare clothes. So always pack an extra set of clothing in your carry-on bag for those unexpected mishaps.
Also, go with layers instead of bulky jumpers and jackets. An uncomfortable toddler that is too cold or too hot is a recipe for a tantrum. It will be easier to cool down and warm up with layers.
Navigating the Airport and Flying With Your Toddler
9. Prepare your toddler for the journey
If this is your little one’s first flight, they may be nervous and more prone to a meltdown. Prepare them for the journey by speaking to them about where you are going and what it will be like on the plane.
Explain to them that they’ll be sharing the flight with other passengers, and that they should use their ‘inside voice’ and try not to bother the other passengers.
Most importantly, let them know what the safety belt sign means and that no bathroom breaks can be taken during take-off and landing.
We’d recommend getting them a book specifically about airplanes, airports and flying both to prime them and get them excited for your trip.
10. Tips for getting through airport security and boarding
When travelling with a 3-year old, long queues are an easy way to make them crabby. A young child simply does not have the patience for airport security. Play a game with them or give them a snack while waiting in line.
If you’re flying with your partner, you may be able to divide and conquer. While one of you boards to find your seats and store the carry-on luggage on the plane, the other keeps the toddler busy and moving for a little longer at the gate.
A little bit of exercise and moving around while your partner gets your seats sorted works wonders for lowering your little one’s activity level during the flight.
Also, remember to visit the bathroom before boarding!
11. Plan some fun travel games
A great way to keep your toddler distracted and entertained is to throw in a few fun travel games during the flight. There are tons of stimuli around on a plane to create games and keep your little one occupied.
A couple of fun games you can play are I-Spy, the alphabet game, and Simon Says — this one’s great for getting your little one to listen to you when you want them to sit still!
A few other fun games are “What are we flying over?”. This works well if one of you has a window seat so you can tell everyone else what you’re flying over, and they need to guess what it is. For example, “We are flying over a place to catch fish”, and someone must guess what that is (it’s a lake, of course).
12. Bring headphones for the in-flight movie
Screen time can be your best friend when flying with a 3-year old. Your little one will eventually tire from playing I-Spy or colouring in, so a movie or tablet with a few games is a blessing for keeping your toddler entertained and occupied.
Some airlines will offer in-flight movies, especially for long-haul flights. Or you can bring a tablet and pre-load it with all their favourite TV shows, e-books, and games. They can also entertain themselves with games or educational apps, which makes the flight pass quicker for little ones.
Other passengers will probably not want to listen to the show your little one is watching or the game they’re playing, so be sure to pack a set of toddler-friendly headphones to ensure a peaceful flight!
13. Don’t forget toys
Last but certainly not least on your preparation and packing list is toys. As a parent, your main concern when flying with a toddler is how best to entertain them. While games and screen time are great, a few fun toys and activity packs are also great for entertaining your little one.
Be sure to pick which toys you bring on board wisely. Your toddler will quickly discard small toys that don’t offer much stimuli. Aim for toys that will keep your little one busy for longer than a few minutes and ones that are lightweight, compact, and quiet.
The most effective travel toys for toddlers are things like activity books, magnetic puzzles, LEGO, colouring or sticker books, and toys with buttons to push.
14. Remember you’re doing your best!
While air travel with a toddler may not go as smoothly as you’d like, try to remember that this time will pass and will soon be a memory you can look back on and chuckle about.
Most passengers will be very understanding on flights if your toddler is playing up, especially if they can see that you’re trying your best. Always ask for help if you need, especially if you’re not travelling with another adult.
We like to think of flights with a toddler as Type 2 fun — while it may not be particularly enjoyable in the moment, it will be something you’ll look back on and remember fondly. Hopefully…
Toddler Flying FAQs
If you are flying with slightly younger kids, be sure to check out our companion guides:
Does a 3-year-old need their own seat on a plane?
Unfortunately, the days of your little one flying free are over. All children over two years old are required to have their own seat on a flight, and you’ll need to book them as a ‘Child’ and pay the child fare.
What is the hardest age to travel with a child?
In our experience, the most difficult ages to travel with a child are typically 12 months to 3 years. The early months of a toddler’s life are when they’re more mobile, more demanding, and need less sleep, which can make flying with them more difficult.
So if your little one has had their 3rd birthday, you’re in luck! While travel doesn’t necessarily get “easier” as your child grows, there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel when your little one turns three and can understand more.
What is the best time of day to fly with a toddler?
Early morning can be a great time to fly, as long as your little ones have had a good night’s sleep because they’ll be less tired and in a better mood. Morning flights are great for short domestic flights.
There may be some instances where you’ll need to book a later flight — especially when travelling long haul. In this instance, evening flights are great for getting a toddler asleep on a plane.
Final Thoughts on Flying With A 3-Year-Old
While flying with a toddler can be tricky and by no means a breeze, it’s not impossible! All it takes is good preparation and forethought.
From take-off to landing, focus on your little one and make them as comfortable as possible. Many family-friendly airlines are primed and ready to help you out and make the experience enjoyable for you and your little one!
Plus, you’re probably not the only parent of a 3-year old on board. Flying with a toddler is a universal struggle, so just take a deep breath, stuff your carry-on with snacks and toys, and you can easily fly with your toddler and (maybe) even enjoy it!