One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is how we fly with Emma. First, I should say that we have zero super powers. ;) Emma’s an awesome kid but she’s also a toddler, and she too has her fair share of unavoidable meltdowns—no matter how much we prepare! I do think, however, that the Larkin Family finally has it down (as best we ever could), and today, I’m excited to share what works for us.
Before I start, though, I’d love to invite you to share any tips that you might have as well. Mitch and I are always looking for new strategies that’ll make flying easier… and I know that many of you guys are, too. Flying with kids is TOUGH, so let’s help each other out here! Simply leave your suggestions in the comment section below.
Onward! Here are our:
Tips for Flying with a Toddler
Talk up the trip, and get your toddler excited
When we do this, the trip tends to go a lot better. I liken this to getting on a plane in a good or bad mood. If I’m in a bad mood, I tend to hate every second of flying. If I’m in a good mood, though, I don’t mind it too much; I’m excited. The same goes for toddlers.
Before our most recent trip to Sea Island, Georgia, for example, we really talked it up. For a solid week, we talked about Georgia constantly, showing Emma photos of the pools we’d swim in, the playground we’d play on, the horses we’d meet, and the palm trees we’d see. (Girlfriend LOVES palm trees.) And she became so, so pumped about it. She told everyone she was going to Georgia, and she even “planned out” the bathing suits she was going to wear. (Meaning she took them out of her dresser and threw them in a pile on the floor. 😂) Let’s just say that the kid could barely contain her excitement! The morning of our trip, she literally screamed, “MOMMY, DADDY, COME GET ME! WE’RE GOING TO GEORGIA!” Mission accomplished.
Set expectations and discuss rewards
We also talk ad nauseam about how we’ll need to behave while flying–and what’ll happen if we follow the rules and are “good.” Mostly, this pertains to the new arts and crafts we tell her that we’ll do together on the plane. (Arts and crafts is probably her favorite activity.)
I didn’t show them to her before the Georgia flight, as that would have been cruel, haha. But I told her that we’d be making animals, glittery butterflies and beautiful princesses–and that we’d be playing with “Frozen” Colorforms, reading a new book about planes, and perhaps even using our iPad… IF we used our manners and didn’t cry. (Meaning whine or have temper tantrums/meltdowns.) And it worked. Any time she started getting a little whiny, I reminded her about all the arts and crafts we’d do if she could pull it together 😉, and she always did!
If possible, utilize curbside check-in and check whatever bags possible
As much as possible, we try hard to fly airlines that offer curbside check-in at Chicago O’Hare and Midway International Airports. Of course, there’s kind of no way to foresee when these services will be available, but we’ve found that Southwest, for example, almost always has it.
It’s such a game-changer. When we pull up, we simply hand over our three suitcases and car seat (and sometimes the pack ‘n play if we’re going someplace that doesn’t have one)… and after that, all we have to worry about is Emma, the stroller, Mitch’s backpack, and my baby bag.
Gate-check the stroller
It’s our preference to keep the stroller up until the very last possible second; we tend to actually stroll it right onto the jet bridge and hand it over to the baggage handlers in this bag. Why? At the risk of sounding like a controlling parent, the stroller immobilizes the child 😂, allows us to carry the backpack and huge baby bag, and gives us an “out” in case she has a meltdown due to exhaustion or whatever else. Without the stroller, everything is just SO much more difficult and takes 10x longer.
I frankly cannot imagine how stressful getting through security with a free-roaming toddler would be… or how painful and difficult it would be to carry all our crap AND a heavy two-year-old to the gate. (I’m actually not sure I’d physically be able to do it, haha!) Also, never under estimate the importance of the stroller’s storage basket. At the moment, I’m pregnant, so I love throwing the giant baby bag under there to give my back a break.
Change your toddler right before boarding
I’ll talk more in depth about this in another tip below, but changing a baby or toddler on a plane is hard. Often, it’s unavoidable, but to reduce our chances of having to do it, we change Emma literally five minutes before boarding, and sometimes we luck out and she makes it through the entire flight without needing a new diaper. (We’re working on it, but we’re not fully potty-trained yet.) Those flights are the best.
Introduce yourself to flight attendants and surrounding passengers
It doesn’t need to be a lengthy introduction; you can effectively get the job done with a simple “Hi, I’m Kelly, this is Mitch, and this is Emma… and we’re going to try so hard to be good!” I mean, very few people hope to sit next to a family with young kids, right? ;) It’s best to show some gratitude to neighboring passengers and, of course, to flight attendants, as you might need their understanding and/or assistance. Normally, when we introduce ourselves, we’re met with encouraging words and smiles, and everyone is far more patient and compassionate if something goes awry mid-flight. (I will always remember the kindness of the woman sitting next to us when Emma threw up last year!)
Find a big bag that’ll fit under a plane seat
My two favorites are the budget-friendly L.L.Bean Boat and Tote (size large, long handles, zip top) and the size large MZ Wallace Metro Tote–both of which fit under a plane seat. (A bag that must be placed in an overhead won’t help you at all. You need quick access to essentials!) Neither totes are true baby bags, but I’ve never been a big fan of true baby bags to begin with, as I feel like they have a whole lot of unnecessary compartments and therefore end up holding less and being bulkier. Right now, I reach for the MZ Wallace tote the most because it’s squishy and fits anywhere. It also comes with three large pouches that are attached to its interior, which makes finding small things a cinch. Most importantly, though, it holds everything I could possibly need for Emma–and myself!–for a day of travel.
Take great care in packing the carry-on, and bring:
We learned quickly that upset tummies and blowout diapers result from switching up our toddler’s diet, so we try to bring easy-to-consume healthy snacks that she normally eats at home. Also, we don’t pack anything that could go bad, though. We rely most on granola, trail mix, apples, carrots, celery, popcorn, and cheese & crackers.
Emma is a cookie-lover, so we usually pack a couple of cookies to use as a reward for good behavior.
Two empty sippy cups or water bottles:
Empty because full cups mean an added wait at security; two because our likelihood of losing one is high. ;)
A change of clothing:
Both for the toddler and for you. All it takes is one barf to turn a pleasant trip into a disastrous one. I usually pack extra leggings and t-shirts for Emma and me, since they don’t take up too much space. (Mitch fends for himself and says he’d rather take the risk than carry a change of clothing. 😜)
Gallon-sized plastic bags:
I go through these things like water. What for? I don’t even know. Leftover food… leaky sippy cups… sticky stuff… everything, really. If you don’t want the inside of your tote becoming a war zone, bring along some plastic bags!
Double the diapers/wipes you’ll expect to need:
Remember the time we got stuck in Regan National Airport for three days? That was fun…
This $15 changing pad isn’t anything fancy, but it’s BIG and folds up into a teensy little travel pouch, making it super portable. I love that if I can’t find a changing station anywhere and I’m forced to change Emma on, say, the bathroom floor (ugh), I can lay this pad down and she won’t have to touch anything gross. Highly recommended!
GUYS. I can’t recommend this thing more! Before we found it, flying with Emma was really frustrating, as nearly everything we handed her ended up on the floor. Now, though, 95 percent of it stays put due to the sides and pockets of this tray. She loves the thing, too, since it’s hot pink.
Flat, packable and mess-free activities:
For us, this makes the biggest difference out of anything. A bored toddler = a potentially cranky toddler, and that can easily be avoided by simply taking some time and planning activities. You don’t have to buy the activities, but I tend to Amazon a few age-appropriate, physically small, and “no-mess” crafts that’ll keep Emma busy during the flight. For our past trip, I went with these princess and butterfly glitter sets, these “felt friends” animals, these “Frozen” Colorforms, this new plane book, and this set of triangular crayons that DON’T ROLL. (So important!) All of this might sound like overkill, but we literally did every single activity!
Pacifier and pacifier clip:
I know. At this point in the game, most people are trying to wean their toddlers off pacifiers… and we are, too. But for the sake of other passengers, we bring one for take-off and landing because it helps with ear popping… and we totally break it out in “emergency” situations, too. Just make sure to bring along a pacifier clip! Otherwise, the thing will disappear within the first two minutes of use and you’ll want to cry.
A tablet loaded up with new books, videos and educational games:
We’re really good about not using our tablet at home, but we have zero problems with taking it out on travel days when we need it. When I run out of activities, Emma’s starting to lose it, or I’m utterly exhausted, out comes the iPad and Mommy’s sanity is saved. We just load a few new books, videos and educational games ahead of time. We’ve definitely made it through some flights without even needing to take it out at all, but in many situations, it’s been a lifesaver for both us and other passengers.
Have a plan for meltdowns
Building off the last tip, we tend to save the most “special” stuff–like the cookies, the iPad or a new Peppa Pig figurine–for moments of crisis. Like I said earlier, sometimes meltdowns are just unavoidable, and they can catch even the most prepared parent off-guard. Having a few special treats up your sleeve can fix everything, though. Yes, I do understand how this might be seen as rewarding bad behavior. But I’m not one to embrace a teachable moment at the expense of other passengers–or our own sanity!–on a travel day. Also, our kid is two, and she can’t be expected to be perfect. She’s a toddler!
Have a plan for tough in-air diaper changes
Sometimes, a plane will have a large-enough changing table, and it’s all good. Other times, though, there won’t be one at all. Changing a diaper at your seat–even if you have a full row–is NOT acceptable; it must be done in the bathroom. So it’s important to know how you’re going to handle things if faced with this situation.
I know that this is going to sound insane, but I’ve found most success in changing Toddler Emma in table-less plane bathrooms while she’s standing up… even if I’m dealing with poop. Of course, practice ahead of time, as it’s a skill that needs honing, haha. But it IS possible, and in my experience, far easier than laying her down on the toilet seat or on my lap. Reminder: I recommend this budget-friendly travel changing pad.
If you’re flying with your spouse or partner, switch “on and off”
We typically put Emma next to the window because looking out is an activity in and of itself, and one of us takes the first half of the flight and the other takes the second half. Almost everyone can make it through half of a flight with even the fussiest of toddlers!
Thank flight attendants and surrounding passengers
When the plane lands and everyone stands up, take a moment to thank those people surrounding you, even if your kiddo was an angel. It’s a nice thing to do, and hopefully those passengers remember your gratitude the next time they’re seated next to a family with young kids. :)
De-plane last and clean up your seating area
While deplaning is in process, we hang back and take time to clean up our seating area. It’s usually not too bad, but we like to make sure there isn’t anything on the floor, in the seat back pockets, or in between the seats. I also wipe down the trays and the seats just in case. If Emma isn’t doing well, one parent will take her off the plane and the other will handle cleanup.
Give yourself some credit
If all goes terribly, don’t beat yourself up over it. Again, flying with a toddler is hard. We’ve all been there! Heck, one time when I was flying alone with Emma, the pilot came back to my seat to ask if I was okay and tell me I was doing a great job. (Emma had been screaming the whole time, haha.) Learn from tough experiences; don’t become traumatized… and remember that you’re doing the best that you can. Next time will be better!