Ahhh, Summer. Family vacations, beach adventures, BBQ’s with friends. Lazy days spent by the pool, starry bonfire nights.  And long plane rides, fucked-up nap and bedtime routines, and macaroni and cheese for dinner every night because that’s the only thing your toddler will eat when you’re away from home. Sunscreen in the eyes, forgotten swim diapers, and screaming/wiggling/pissed off kids who won’t sit still in their airplane seat.

So in honor of the upcoming upheaval adventures that so many of us are looking forward to this summer, I thought I’d compile a list of things you’ll need when flying the friendly skies with a toddler.  No offense, it’s not that I don’t trust you to figure it out on your own.  It’s just that we’ve done more than our share of air travel by this point, and I need to hear myself say that it’s really not so bad….so that I’m brave enough to do it again.

In other words, here’s my “What I’ve learned the really hard way NOT to do” list.   For wild, active, curious, won’t sit still with just a damn puzzle kids like Max.

Arriving at the Airport:

Do not, and I repeat DO NOT pre-board.  I know that you have been waiting your whole life to have an adorable toddler holding your hand while you cut in front of all of the slow-pokes in line.  Hooray, a window seat!  Hooray, access to extra overhead space!  Yippee…I can organize my ten tons of child-related crap before anyone else gets on the plane!  Don’t do it!!  Your toddler needs to run up and down and around the terminal to get his wiggles out!  He needs to spill his drink before you board.  He needs the extra five minutes to pee through his diaper before you sit down.  He needs to explore the newspaper stands and the vending machines and the filth on the back of the chairs, because if you bust out his “airplane toys” before you even take off, you are SCREWED my friend, screwed.  You need to be the last to get on that plane.

Please Fasten Your Seatbelts and Prepare For Take-Off:  Parenting magazines will tell you to bring the following: snacks, movies, and toys.  Sorry folks, that’s not good enough. Goldfish crackers are over-rated when you’re at 30,000 feet and there are tray tables that come down from the seat in front of you. Over and over and over those damn things come down, because toddlers are fascinated by the cheap latch that holds them up. You can only say so many times “Honey, the nice man in front of you will get very angry if you keep shaking his seat.” while the nice man in front of you sighs deeply and orders another cocktail.

Bring new and exciting toys.  Small ones.  Cheap ones.  The dollar section at Target is your friend.  Think about the endless crap you can find at craft stores, party supply stores, and drugstores. Do you have any idea how many minutes you can waste bending pipe cleaners into animals and trains while the flight attendants point out the exit rows?  I’ve also been known to mine the bottoms of the toy bins in our playroom to find odds and ends that Max has forgotten about. Voila! New toys! Some moms swear by wrapping each new toy with wrapping paper so that your child has something to unwrap (wastes a whole 3 minutes, very important when you are counting every second to landing).  I prefer seperating each thing out into sets that can then be put in a plastic ziploc.  Easy to organize, easy for a child to choose something to play with, easy to keep pieces together.  We made a backpack for Max that had small books, travel magnets, and tons of Ziploc bags filled with projects and toys. Oh, and snacks. More on that in a minute…

Project Bags: Think stamp sets, an ink pad and some paper. Sticker books. Little plastic animals. A small tape measure. A squishy ball.  A new coloring book and three crayons (really, do you need 10 shades of blue that will roll alllll the way down the aisle?  3 crayons are just fine.) And play-dough. Yes, play-dough. If you are a flight attendant, I’m really sorry. But there are soooo many things a toddler can do with play-dough….and it wastes at least 13 minutes. Again, the neon pink that is now stuck on the life vest under seat 17C…my bad. I had no idea he could reach that far.   The travel magnets that we bought were actually Max’s favorite thing, and next time I’ll bring more.   He loved creating shapes/trains/robots with them, and they required just the right amount of imagination and interaction to keep him occupied.

Smaller children are easily entertained by a stack of post-it notes or a roll of scotch tape.  Random office supplies saved us on many a flight when Max was small.  Go beyond shaky rattles and teddy bears.  It’s amazing how long a toddler can entertain themselves with things that are usually contraband (a blank calendar and some pens, a snack container filled with colorful cotton balls).

Peanuts?:  Bring a mix of healthy/familiar and “wow, the food police will kill me for these rainbow cookies and m&m’s” snacks!  Ziploc bags of pretzels, goldfish, graham crackers are great, or buy the single serving packs.  We added in a few bags of mini cookies for a fun surprise.  Bring a lunch box with an ice pack if you can.  Protein and healthy food will put your toddler in a better mood, I promise.  We like to do peanut butter and jelly triangles, string cheese, tubes of yogurt, strawberries/bananas/blueberries, hard-boiled eggs, hummus and crackers and small cartons of milk.  Don’t forget your child’s sippy cup to pour extra water in if you need to.  Small meals spread out over the course of the trip will not only keep your little traveler’s blood sugar up, but they help to waste precious minutes.  I mean c’mon, do you know how many shapes you can make out of ripped up string cheese?

In Case Of Emergency:  Think, RESERVES.  I know that I am the world’s most anxious mother, but it has served me well to always have a Plan C.  I keep a Ziploc of toys that Max doesn’t know about in my purse.  That way, if the Major Epic Meltdown does happen, I have something new and fun up my sleeve.   “Oh look Max!  A slinky!  Can you pleaaase peel yourself up from the small space underneath my seat?!”  I also travel with an extra set of clothes for Max, and when he was smaller and more prone to barfing random liquid, an extra shirt for me.  That way, if the Major Epic Baby Vomit or the Major Epic Diaper Explosion happen on the plane, we’re both uh…covered.  Bring enough diapers and wipes, and then bring some more.  If your child drinks formula, bring extra.  Thank you.  I don’t want to have to worry about you being stuck on the tarmac like we see on the news, with a hungry, wet baby.  Oh, and diaper changes?  Fuck everyone else.  If you have your own row, change your baby right there on the seat.  Bring those little sweet-smelling baggies and chuck the diaper in the bathroom.  The changing table in the bathroom is way too small and way too bouncy to safely change your kid there.  And I swear to god, I really think there’s a possibility that they could fall into the toilet and get zooped up into the atmosphere.  For reals.

And the be-all and end-all of airplane travel?  The f-ing iPad.  I don’t care what your philosopy is on screen time.  I don’t care how opposed you are to toddlers cozying up to technology.  Make an exception.  Do it for the guy in front of you.  Do it for your 3 year old who doesn’t understand why the hell you are still sitting in this metal cylinder and his ears are popping from the altitude and Mommy is getting really angry that Daddy is watching the airplane movie while she furiously makes another “doggie in a sleeping bag” out of hot pink playdough.  Download a few kid’s movies, and a handful of educational apps.  Do 15 minutes of screentime and then 15 minutes of playtime.  Then have 5 minutes of walk up and down the aisle and open and close the bathroom door time.  See?  It’s fun!  The light turns on when you lock the door!  Let’s do it again!

Most importantly?  TALK to your kid.   Max is at the age where he is paying attention to every.thing.  Take-off and landing feel like free-falling, when you’re three and you have no idea why the fuck you are buckled in to a vehicle that goes a couple hundred miles an hour through the SKY.  (I mean really.  If you stop to think about it objectively, you’d never fly again.)  I’ve taken to telling him that turbulence bumps are when our plane “kisses the clouds to say hi”.  We talk about how the pilot will always keep us safe, and focus on how fun! and exciting! and normal! flying is (even though I am terrified of flying.  terrified.).  And expect that it’s going to be a long trip.   I tried so hard not to judge the lady in 14C who brought NOTHING for her 2 year old to play with.  But holy hell lady!  Your kid is going to throw her drink at you and fall apart on the floor if she is forced to stare at the emergency card in the seat pocket in front of you for one more second!  Yes, you will be forced to read “Dazzling Diggers” and “Totally Trains” over and over and over again.  You will never get to your InStyle magazine because you are making a tower of plastic cups and letting your child knock them over.  Your days of napping on a plane, knocking back a mini bottle of whiskey with your Diet Coke, and paying close attention to the shitty in-flight movie are OVER.  Oh wait….unless you’re my husband.

When all else fails?  Pray for naps.  Long ones.


The fantabulous CARES travel harness from Kids Fly Safe.

So there’s our contribution to your summer vacation.  I would’ve given you a cute beach bag and a bottle of self-tanner, but I decided I’d rather keep them for myself.  Perhaps you’re not as greedy (and not as pasty-white), and you’ll share a few of YOUR family’s travel tips here?

Have a nice flight!


6 Replies to “Airplane Travel With Toddlers: How to Survive Without Alcohol”

  1. Ahh, smiling after the first sentence and laughing my ass off after the second paragraph. Couldn’t even wait to finish before starting this congratulatory message. So true, so true! How come you are the only person I know who accurately writes about parenting? I guess I’m reading the wrong stuff. Parenting Magazine, Family Circle, Redbook….the only tips you’re going to get there are the “Bring more puzzles” ones… OK, still reading….LOL, the MAIN thing Milo remembers from his single airplane ride was the “angry man” in front of us (so I told him) getting bothered by his kicking. I don’t even think he was aware of the scenery outside the window. Counting every SECOND to landing, yes. And the difference between an activity taking 12 minutes vs. 13 minutes, yes! I have a friend who travels to ASIA and back several times a year with his baby & toddler and it’s never even an issue for him. He says, “Yeah, the kids were good. They napped. They ate. They looked out the window.” (His wife is in the Navy.) I perpetually press him to tell me the REAL story, but he sticks to the “no problem” version. I think I believe him. I think his kids are space aliens. He doesn’t even appreciate it. So now I’m done reading and exhausted just thinking about my next flight. Everything you described had one consistent element: YOU. YOU pay attention to when he needs a new activity. You clean up the mess. You pull out the snacks. You do the talking. I think momma needs a $4 drink to help with then tension headache that will be building up during the course of the 6/7 hour flight. Also to ease the muscle strain caused by letting your kid nap on you instead of in his seat. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who becomes a “bad citizen” (breaking rules, making messes) now that toddler is in my life. I say “Sorry people, sorry planet, sorry drivers” in my head over and over as we high tail it away from displaced items in stores, cause near-accidents in parking lots because I’m letting Milo explore the planters, let the bath water run at full blast for over an hour because it’s the one activity Milo will do at home that lets me kind of sit still. OK, this became my own blog. Wow, that one really resonated with me!!!!

    1. Alex, you crack me up! I love the “bad citizen” stuff….I can’t believe it’s not just me?!!! I dump Max’s half-eaten bagels in the parking lot, ditch smelly diapers in restaurant bathrooms, and today Max dumped an entire sandbox out of his shoes and onto the floor in the Japanese restaurant where we were having lunch…before I could stop him!! I hate being “that mom”, but the alternative is worse! I can also totally picture you frozen in place on the plane while holding Milo so he can sleep….I did the same thing with Max (propping his head up with my arm…so relaxing for me!). I think we share the same brain sometimes. Can you PLEASE start writing a blog???? 😉 You can be anonymous at first…yeah! That’s a great idea! Anonymous to everyone but me!!

  2. Oh my god, you are HILARIOUS! I have, thankfully, never had to brave a flight with my 3-year-old. Doggies in sleeping bags…the plane kissing the clouds…cotton balls…I’m dying over here.

    We will be attempting a long road trip this summer with my 3-year-old and 4-month-old, and I’m terrified. I’m thinking tooooooons of snacks (too bad wine isn’t allowed while driving, huh?), some special toys, favorite and new books alike, a magnadoodle, an etch-a-sketch…and thanks to you, Scotch tape. Oh yes. Why do toddlers love that stuff so much? I don’t get it.

    1. Cate, thank you! And magna-doodles and etch a sketches….yes!!!! Forgot about those!! It’s hysterical how entertaining scotch tape can be when you let them just get all stuck in it and then make them try to unstick themselves. Good times 😉 At least in the car you can play music….loud enough to drown them out (I mean, to entertain them!). But alas, no booze 🙁

  3. I love reading your blog, Kim! 🙂 Where did you find the travel magnets, do you have some you recommend? My daughter used to have a magnet book, but it was kind of a pain, didn’t stick very well, etc. I’d love your feedback since we’re going to be in SD next month already!!!

  4. Thanks Rachel! I’m wracking my brain trying to remember where I bought those darn magnets! The bookstore maybe?? They’re in a little travel case. Maybe Target even?? I’m so bummed that we’re missing you in San Diego by only two weeks 🙁

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