5 Travel Tips For Flying With A Toddler

How to pack a toddler carry-on that will keep them in the fun zone and avoid meltdowns as you fly those friendly skies

It’s been a while since I’ve written a Five Travel Tips post, which is funny because I’ve been in a constant state of travel since we left New York and Jersey City in July. However, life on the road in an RV trailer was completely and totally new to me, and therefore I didn’t have much advice to give since I was in a state of learning myself. 

But this month, after six weeks with my parents in New Hampshire, my daughter and I took two significant flights. First, a six hour flight out to Los Angeles, where we spent four days catching up with her Papa. Then, a seventeen+ hour-total trip from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia (12 hours from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, a quick layover, then another three hours from Auckland to Sydney), to visit my sister, her husband and their 36-weeks-and-growing baby belly.

Despite having been on a plane with my daughter fairly constantly since she was five weeks old, I was mega nervous about such long flights for this big adventure. First of all, I was traveling with her solo. So there could be no moments of, “Okay, I’ve had it. Mama needs a time out, you take her!” Second of all, that's a long damn flight for a gal who can't really sit still for seventeen hours under any situation. Third of all, she is almost a "three-nager" and her mood swings and attention span can be a force to be reckoned with.

Plus, it's not only the plane ride during which tiny people need to be distracted and amused. We can't forget the car rides to and from the airports, the check-in and security lines, and the "gate wait" before boarding, where the real fun begins.

Extreme preparation seemed to me the only way I would get through. It calmed me down in the days prior to know that I had carefully thought about what would best entertain and distract her, and that I was as ready as I was going to be. The rest was up to the flight Gods.

Here's what I packed:

Coloring Book(s), Paper and a Pencil Bag

First into the bag was a fresh pad of blank paper and a new character coloring book (we went with Sesame Street on this trip because she is so into letters and numbers, and all of the characters are so familiar). Why "fresh" and "new?" So you don’t risk running out of space during your trip. Speaking of space, don’t pack a new crayon box, a colored pencil box and a marker box. Save space and get one soft pencil bag (like this) that can squish into their backpack, hold all drawing utensils together and fit beside them in their (very own and high-priced) seat. 

Stickers

The blank pad of paper comes in handy not only for the crayons, markers and colored pencils, but also for sticker fun. Hit the dollar store nearest you and stock up on a variety of stickers that will appeal to your little one (though they usually aren’t picky. If they can stick it, they want it). Hide the stickers away until travel time and pull them out in the airplane. Set up the paper on their tray table, give them the stickers and let them go to town. Just not on the back of the seat in front of you.

Puzzles

Find age-appropriate puzzles that your child loves (test them before the trip to make sure your kid understands how they work and gets excited about playing with them). For younger toddlers, peg puzzles with pictures behind the pieces help their minds grasp the concept. As we crossed over the two-and-a-half-year-old mark, puzzles of all kinds rock and rolled into our world in a big way. Rediscovered at the library, we soon brought a few into our home sphere. We are pretty partial to the “Melissa & Doug” brand. Mini-mama loves the Melissa & Doug magnetic “fishing” puzzles (like this one) and cube puzzles (where there is an image on all six sides of a block). Melissa & Doug also makes a mini-puzzle pack that is perfect for travel (see here) and playing on airplane tray tables. It’s four puzzles that sit in pull-out trays in a compact travel box.

Books

I always say this, but pick efficient books for travel. What that means shifts throughout toddler-dom, so customize to your kid. The 1000-word books (or smaller versions) are great, because kids can flip through and look at, or identify, pictures for quite a while. But efficiency also refers to weight. Load down a backpack with five heavy books and your shoulders will hate you half-way through your travel day because you will be the one carrying it. My gal is getting into storylines a bit more, so I chose three books that take us a few minutes to read but aren’t too heavy.

Organizing Fun

I don’t know if all children love organizing as much as mine, but she will get lost for an hour at a time in her organizing games. If I give her a purse (or any kind of bag), a small box, a few rocks, a bunch of coins, some beads or costume jewelry and a few other odds and ends (it can be nearly anything, as long your toddler has passed the put-it-all-in-my-mouth-or-nose stage), she will move things from one container or one compartment of her purse to another, organizing and re-organizing again and again. You can use craft boxes for the same purpose, with any fillings. This is another area that I would experiment with at home to see what tickles their fancy, and then create a mobile version to take on the road. 

But What About... ?

The big obvious guy missing from the list? The one I purposely avoided: the iPad. It was definitely in the bag, and it definitely came out, but having a variety of "other" games and fun times in the bag will delay the inevitable screen time (or avoid it all together, if that's your bag). I keep it because if all else fails, the iPad never does. We've loaded mine up (she and I "share" mine) with a bunch of Rosetta Stone, art and learning apps and she actually loves them. Her favorite movies are also in the mix. And when she passes out, I get to pry it out of her sleepy little hands, and finally read my Kindle.

... Lastly, a few other don’t (ever!) forgets in toddler travel-land:

  1. A full sippy cup with water or a favorite beverage (aside from general hydration, I find that encouraging little ones to take sips as the plane takes off and lands helps them to equalize their ears), or if you do candy, a lollipop or bubblegum
  2. Two Changes of Clothes and an Extra Pair of Shoes
  3. The Favorite Guy or Gal (Stuffed Animal, Toy Figure, Doll, etc.)
  4. Pull-up’s (or the toughest nighttime-level diaper you use to prevent on-board leakage)
  5. A snuggly but small (i.e. it will fold up compactly inside their backpack or yours) blanket
  6. A small (again, that you can shove inside their backpack or yours) pillow to protect their heads and bodies against armrests or cushion a nap on your lap

As always, if you need a bigger, more general packing guide, I've created one for your reference HERE.

TELL ME, fellow traveling-with-a-toddler mamas, what have I forgotten? What gets your little one through a travel day with minimal meltdowns? Please share your advice and tips in the comments below. And best of luck in the air!