Flying with toddlers – top tips from a realist parent

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My perfect flight is peaceful: a nice, relaxing flight.  No deployment of crowd control and/or anger management techniques by anyone, least of all me.

Here’s a list of a few suggestions you may or may not find helpful, from someone who just wants to keep her duty-free toblerone to herself and enjoy a quiet g&t or two.

Nab the empty seats

Space is the biggest single determiner of comfort on planes, and especially so with kids – it makes a BIG difference.   

There are various strategies you can employ to nab an extra seat, ranging from expert (requiring considerable research before booking) to a bit devious to just plain sensible.  I am going to stick to the latter, with a dabble in the devious (and why not).

When booking a seat, bear in mind that:

  1. the front of the plane fills quicker than the back
  2. nobody likes the middle seat of a row
  3. nobody likes having to shimmy across the person sat in the middle seat to get to the window seat
  4. most (normal, child-free) people want to sit together as a group
  5. window seats are easiest to sleep on (pack a pillow).

The obvious trick, therefore, is to split the family at the back of the airplane – one parent takes one or more child, the other parent takes the others – on separate rows, leaving spare seats in between.

If your airline offers Economy and Economy Plus, you could risk spending a bit more on Economy Plus – the perks aren’t that great for the additional cost, so it is less likely to fill up as Economy.  

Failing that, ask at check in to see if there is enough room on the flight for you to change your seats.  If you are travelling with a young family, the likelihood is the airline will try to be accommodating (it’s in their best interest after all).  

If your airline doesn’t offer pre-allocated seating and your dignity is sufficiently low, you could

    1. Put your carry on on the spare seat, AND start getting stuff out of it to put on the empty seat, your lap, to hand to your kid, maybe get some food out. You could get your kid to sing ‘five little monkeys on the bed’ ad nauseum.  Utilize all weapons at your disposal, in other words.
    2. Perhaps a tad more controversially, do not try to immediately stop your child having a tantrum when the plane starts to fill up.  Nobody in their right mind wants to sit next to an angry toddler (I certainly don’t). Hey, i did warn you that it was controversial, i’m not condoning it, just suggesting it as an option!

Obviously nothing guarantees an empty seat, unless you’re stinking rich and own the plane (and in which case, might I suggest that this isn’t the blog for you – perhaps get your maid to read it instead?)

Think sleep maximisation

If your flight is over, say, 4 hours then you might want to disrupt your children’s natural sleep patterns so they kip on board. You could book…

  1. an early morning flight where everyone has to be up before sunup (a certain die hard mentality is required if it’s a long day ahead)
  2. an evening flight, preferably just after bedtime
  3. a flight that coincides with naptime
  4. withhold naptime altogether until you’re on board
  5. For long haul, get a night flight.  You’re worth it.


A lot of people seem to automatically assume layovers are bad.  I disagree. Yes they extend the journey time, but they also break it up.  It does depend on the time of the layover. Night time layovers bad, daytime layovers good.

Be mentally prepared

Airplanes are exciting to kids, at first.  If you expect to spend six hours straight grappling with a lap baby version of the kraken and a toddler who is going batshit crazy because you’ve lost the only blue crayola, you will feel deep, deep joy if it turns out otherwise.  Go into it expecting to take a licking, and you’ll sail through and keep on ticking.

Snacks and entertainment

I know these are covered elsewhere on the net, but I just can’t leave them out entirely.

The five rules of snacks/entertainment on a plane.

  1. Plenty of variety and quantity
  2. don’t let them see what you’ve got
  3. hand them out gradually
  4. leave the good stuff until last
  5. normal restrictions on consumption do not apply.

Word up. If you give your kids haribo on a plane then you have only yourself to blame.  Include sugar-free lollipops to protect their precious little ears during take-off and landing (and because gobstoppers on a stick).  Bear in mind you’ll probably end up sitting on some of the snacks. Lucky ol’ you.  Anything red that stains, not ideal. Or brown.

For toddlers/young children, include wipe clean books and magnetic games. For everything else, there’s our friend Poundland (or Dollar Tree if you’re batting on the other side of the pond). It is the truth of God that new tat is more enthralling than old tat (this is true of everyone regardless of age though, right?).  If your children are older, then why not teach them to play poker? It’s a life skill and an investment in their future.  

Electronics are really where it’s at though. NB you WILL need to pack specialised headphones for very young children and this WILL make you question in an existential sense what your life has come to.   Remember: BATTERY LIFE.

Luggage pick up

I feel duty bound to warn you that getting your luggage at the other end, if it isn’t straightforward pick up, can be one of the most painful parts of flying with young children, especially if your stroller has gone in the hold. Depending on the time and length of the flight, chances are your kids will either be tired and irritable or hyperactive. Delays can be veeeery painful.  I can’t really help you other to flag it as an area of potential total ball ache. Sorry!

So that’s my little list, I hope it’s useful.  Would be interested to hear if anybody else has any tips to add!


PS – a random addendum

Reward points

Choose your credit card wisely and check out what rewards your airline/hotel chain of choice offers.  You have circa 18 years of paying for family holidays, you might as well start building up those points now.

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