The tantrum started out of nowhere. She was so settled, then I tried to put her seatbelt on. She started to fuss and cry.
“SHHHHHHH” I was desperately trying to quieten her, “The airplane police will come!!” I don’t even know why I said that? It didn’t work anyway, the crying got louder.
I could feel the people around me tensing up, wishing they had chosen another seat. Or maybe that was just in my head? My body temperature rising under stress. “Please stop!” I thought as I carried on trying to do her belt as she thrashed around in the seat.
A quote from the Dalai Llama I’d read recently was repeating in my head and annoying me;
“Thank you for this opportunity for me to learn patience and compassion”
“But had the Dalai Llama ever flown with a 3 year old in full meltdown on a packed flight before?” Where would his inner peace be then?
Flying with a 2 / 3 year old toddler is stressful. Period. But the good news is that I’ve learned some great tips that you can use to your advantage so that your toddler’s flight will be survivable or maybe if you’re lucky, even pleasant.
I have broken the journey down into 3 parts (planning, the flight, your destination). This means I can personally walk you through every stage in detail. I promise, that if you read this article, you will feel confident in taking that flight with your toddler. You’ve got this. Now let’s get going.
PLANNING / BEFORE THE FLIGHT
THE TANTRUM DIAGRAM
It might be a bit of fun, but I swear it’s absolutely true. Make hunger, tiredness, and boredom the three most important things to avoid on every trip. The question mark in the middle stands for a nuclear meltdown. When hunger, tiredness, and boredom meet.
1. PLAN, PLAN, PLAN
Leaving everything to the last minute like you did when you were young and carefree are gone. When you have a 3 year old along for the journey you need to plan, plan, plan. Little setbacks and problems can turn into major tantrums.
Battling against tiredness, boredom, and hunger is going to difficult but not impossible. They are the biggest obstacles between you and a stress-free and smooth flight. It just takes a little preparation.
Make sure you pack early. Make a list so you don’t forget anything. You might think you know what you’ll need but it is almost guaranteed you will have forgotten something important. Try and pack a week in advance, I do. It gives me time to realize if I need anything extra, then you can buy it or even order it online because you have the time.
2. WRITE OFF TRAVEL DAYS
Make a mental note to exclude travel days from your holiday. Don’t try and rush anything. It’s stressful enough taking a 3 year old on a flight. Arrive at the airport early. You don’t need an added mad dash to the airport to add to your worries.
Plan your route/transport to the airport and leave plenty of time to get there. Then you can check your luggage early and avoid the queues.
Check in early. It is less stressful for your 3 year old and for you. No big queues and no rushing through security. It may also mean you have more choice in where you sit on the flight.
3. SPLIT YOUR LUGGAGE
This is a tip that has personally saved me from a disaster at least once.
Don’t pack everyone’s luggage in their own bag. Pack parts of everyone’s luggage in each person’s bag.
For example, in your bag, pack a few outfits for you, your 3 year old and any other traveling partner. Then they do the same for you. If somebody’s luggage does go missing everyone will always have a change of clothes.
This tip can be a lifesaver. If your luggage does go missing, don’t count on it returning soon. I once waited three days for a missing bag. That’s a long time in one set of clothes, it became expensive when I had to buy new clothes. Finding children’s clothes on short notice is stressful, so split your luggage.
4. WHEN TO FLY?
There are lots of different opinions on this question. I personally say take advantage of your child’s natural sleeping routine. I like to fly as early as possible. This means they are more likely to nap on the plane in my experience. Just make sure everyone has gone to bed early the night before and had a good rest. An overtired 3 year old on a flight would not be good for anyone.
I have heard people suggest that flying in the day is better for them. I would disagree. I feel like flying is a cramped experience and can quickly get boring for a 3 year old. If they fly in the day when their energy is at its peak. You’ll find yourself constantly trying to keep them entertained in a tight space. Without much opportunity for them to run around and burn off some energy.
5. EXPLAIN THE FLIGHT TO YOUR TODDLER
Before you fly, make sure to explain what is going to happen to your 3 year old. Show them videos on YouTube, pictures of planes. Explain how airports work, dropping luggage off, waiting at the gate and security.
If you make sure your toddler has some understanding of what will happen, they will find the experience less stressful.
Sometimes I forget that experiences that seem common to me can be extremely unusual to my little ones. Involve them in the process of getting the flight. Show them the tickets, let them put some items in the security trays, show them the departures board. It will keep them occupied and more settled as they will know what is happening.
6. PUT AN ID CARD IN THEIR POCKET
Write their name, address and your cellphone number on a piece of card and put it in their pocket. Airports are busy places. I know I am so careful about keeping them close to me but it only takes a split second of concentration lapse. Especially if your tired and stressed.
Just pop a little ID card into their pocket and a major incident could be solved within a few minutes. It might never happen, but it’s best to plan for emergencies.
7. TAKE A STROLLER
I always take a stroller when we fly and so should you. It is great for the long walks between gates. It is also a great place for them to take a nap. When you arrive at your destination and they are tired, your toddler might nap in the stroller when you get your luggage. Ours do.
I could not imagine taking a flight with our 3 year olds and not having a stroller with us. I take the type that folds up and you can take on as hand luggage. They are amazing, take a look at the one we have here at Amazon. It has been a lifesaver. They pack up into carry on size. I also think they are great for car journeys when we take a lot of luggage, like camping or staying with family.
You can also take a full-size stroller on as checked luggage and have it waiting for you on the other side but doing this I think you miss out on the times when I use it most, in the airport.
8. A CHANGE OF CLOTHES AND PAJAMAS
I always take a change of clothes and a pair of pajamas in my hand luggage for them.
Accidents happen, but they seem to happen more frequently if you don’t have a change of clothes.
More than one accident? Then pajamas are the backup. That’s not all that the pajamas are for though. You should dress your 3 year old in them when they want to nap on the plane. Sleeping in clothes is just uncomfortable. Pajamas could put them in the mood for a sleep too, maybe, or is that just wishful thinking? It works for us.
Always ask for a blanket to keep them warm too, planes are cold with that airconditioning.
9. PACKING LIST
The list of things to remember when your flying with a 3 year old is long. That’s why I thought I would do you a favor and give you a copy of the checklist that I use as a FREE download. I want you to have a stress free and smooth flight and enjoy getting to your destination happy. Not telling yourself “I’m never doing THIS again!”
I hope you find it useful. I’m pretty sure you will.
FREE PRINTABLE TIMESAVING TODDLER PACKING LIST
DURING THE FLIGHT
10. BOARD FIRST / EXIT LAST
Most airlines now allow families to board first before the other passengers. Take advantage of this.Boarding first will allow you to get onto the plane without the usual crush. Waiting in the aisle while somebody searches their bag to find their book can be frustrating.
When you take your 3 year old on first, it’s much less stressful. You can get settled in and make sure you have all your hand luggage stored conveniently close to you.
When the plane has landed, make sure you exit last. I know I feel the temptation after a long flight to want to just get up and leave immediately. So does everyone else. Just sit back and relax for another 20 minutes. Organize your bags and put everything away. Tidy up and pack away rubbish. There is no point in waiting in the aisles, with all your bags, slowly shuffling towards the exit. All while your 3 year old is crying because they have just woken up. I know from previous experience.
11. PRESSURE CHANGES AT TAKEOFF
Pressure changes can hurt your toddler’s ears so make sure you have some water handy for takeoff. Just after takeoff and when the plane has started flying in a smoother and more level way. Get your 3 year old drink some water. The act of swallowing the water helps them naturally relieve the pressure build-up in their ears and stops it from becoming painful.
If your 3 year old has had a cold or they are stuffy then be extra careful and make sure you do this. They will find it difficult to release the pressure in their ears. This will make them uncomfortable and may be painful.
Assume that they won’t eat any of the food given to you on the plane. If there is any. Bring food with you. My 3 year old can be fussy and plane food isn’t known for being the tastiest or child-friendly. As we talked about earlier, we really want to watch out for them being hungry, tired and bored.
Bringing snacks they enjoy plus a few treats will keep them from feeling hungry if they don’t like the airline food. It will also keep them occupied for a while. It is important to have a range of things to do to keep their attention.
Think about what kinds of snacks you bring. Try not to bring messy snacks or you will be cleaning from the seats and their clothes for most of the flight. I wouldn’t recommend things like chocolate for example. It will melt on their hands and be smeared over their clothes and yours. You don’t want to have to carry excessive amounts of baby wipes to clean up a mess like that.
Make sure you bring some of their favorite toys to keep them occupied. Try not to overload on toys. A couple of the ones they love will be enough. You don’t want most of your hand luggage filled with toys that they don’t end up playing with.
I also always try and bring one or two new toys to surprise them. They don’t have to be expensive. The novelty of a new toy can keep them busy on a flight for a good while.
I try not to bring toys that make too much noise as this could get annoying for other passengers. I know as a parent we are so used to hearing nursery rhymes and other children’s toy sounds that we blank them out. Other passengers around you may find it more difficult to ignore when your toddler has played the nursery rhyme for the 20th time.
14. BRING A SMALL PILLOW AND BLANKET
Together with the pajamas that I normally bring, I also try to fit in a small blanket and pillow. If I am trying to get them to nap on a flight then I need them to be comfortable enough to sleep. Everyone knows how uncomfortable a plane seat is. I want to give them the best chance of getting to sleep.
I also think the pajamas, blanket, and pillow put your toddler in the mood to sleep. I also turn the reading lights off and cold air. So no cold air is blowing on them or light shining in their eyes.
15. BRING YOUR OWN ENTERTAINMENT
Not all planes have inflight entertainment. So be careful about counting on it to occupy them for a few hours. I always try and research if the airline does have entertainment, but even then planes can be changed at the last minute. I sometimes bring a portable DVD player like this (Amazon) or a tablet if you have one. Just make sure you bring headphones for them. People around you won’t appreciate having to listen to children’s songs or frozen reruns.
I remember seeing that on one flight a parent had used a clear ziplock bag and string to hang a tablet on the back of a seat in a plane that had no inflight entertainment. I think that was a pretty clever idea and the kid looked like he was enjoying it. I still need to try that!
16. WALK AROUND
Whenever possible, get up and take your 3 year old for a little walk up and down the aisle. It will help to stop them from getting bored, restless and help stretch their legs. My 3 year old’s have a lot of extra energy, so you need to try and burn off a little. It is also healthy to keep their blood flowing. Sitting down in the same position for hours on end isn’t good for you or your toddler.
When we do this the kids generally end up chatting to other passengers as they pass. This can go a long way to making up for any tantrums later on. It’s also nice to see them interacting with people they would normally just pass by.
17. WIPE DOWN THE SEATS AND ARMRESTS
Planes are filthy. When a plane lands and everyone gets off, crew only have minutes to “clean” the whole plane. Obviously, the plane doesn’t get cleaned very well. Then you arrive and within seconds your toddler is licking the armrest (Or something else strange like that).
You can only wonder how much dirt and germs are on the seats. I always grab the wipes out of the bag and give the seats and armrests a quick wipe as soon as I can. There is no telling when your toddler’s little mouth will find their way onto some part of the seat.
18. ORGANIZE YOUR BAG AT THE START OF THE FLIGHT
When you first get seated onto the plane. Take this time to start organizing your bag. Put everything you might need in easy reach.
I used to make the mistake of thinking that if I had an item that I needed somewhere in my bag then that would be enough. But after an incident of trying to find a beloved stuffed toy with my 3 year old crying while I emptied the bag out all over the seat. I now put everything I need close to hand.
19. EXPECT THE WORST
Expect the worst and let yourself be pleasantly surprised. I find it’s the best way to think about the journey. If I expect the worst then I mentally prepare myself for it. Then when they have little tantrums I don’t get stressed because I planned for these.
Children are very aware of your mood and if you start to get stressed and upset it will make them feel the same. Give yourself every chance to feel calm and relaxed by preparing well.
Most of the time your 3 year old will be well behaved and possibly have a few quick tantrums which you can cut short if you are prepared. Adults find traveling by plane stressful, it is no different for a 3 year old.
20. TOILETS FOR TIMEOUTS
When stuck in a confined airline seat with a 3 year old on the verge of a tantrum. It can be hard to know what to do. Planes are loud and busy. They are also a very new environment for a 3 year old. If it’s all getting a bit much for them, a quick trip to the toilet for a time out is a good idea.
You can talk to them, give them a little time to calm down with you in there to keep them safe. It is a change of environment, away from the hundreds of other people on the plane. It allows my 3 year old to focus on what I am telling them and usually allows me to get through to them much easier.
21. SEAT THEM IN THE MIDDLE OR WINDOW
I never sit my toddler in the aisle seat. Planes are cramped spaces and I always worry that their little arms will poke out at just the wrong moment into the aisle as the food trolley comes past. We always try and sit them between both of us. That way they are safe. They also have two people to give them attention. It also shares the amount of work that each of us has to do during the flight.
If we have to sit with a child alone. I make sure that the child gets the window seat. That means they are still safe and they aren’t sat next to a stranger on one side. Nobody likes to be sat right next to someone’s toddler who has too much energy.
22. BRING A CUDDLY TOY
Bring a favorite cuddly toy from home. It adds a bit of a familiar smell and feel for my 3 year olds. They help to relax them and keep them comfortable. It works especially well when you are trying to get them to sleep. Blanket, pillow, cuddly toy and pajamas work wonders all at once!
AT YOUR DESTINATION
23. PLAN YOUR NEXT DESTINATION
I always like to have a definite plan for when we arrive at the airport with plenty of backup options. There is nothing worse than arriving only to find the bus or train you were planning to get doesn’t run as late as you thought or is fully booked. With a tired and cranky 3 year old, it is not a good situation to be in.
Look up transport timetables, book it if you can. Book private transfers if they are available. Book your hotel room for the first night if you haven’t. Have a backup plan, work out how much a taxi will be to your final destination so it’s not a shock if you have to take one.
24. HAVE A PRAM
This is the perfect time to get them in the pram. They will likely be tired and a little cranky by now. The excitement has worn off. I normally find that they start to drift off to sleep in the pram so we can collect our luggage with ease and get on with our journey.
25. GET FOREIGN CURRENCY BEFORE YOU GO
If you are traveling to another country. I always make sure that I have some local currency with me as we land. Enough for two days. That means when we land at the airport and we are all stressed and tired, we don’t have to walk around the airport trying to find a cash machine. Every time I see a big queue at the airport cash machine I seem to recognize people from our flight.
26. HAVE FUN!
Remember to have fun. I know it can be hard if you’ve had a bad flight not to dread the flight home even before your holiday has even started. Just try and tell yourself that no two flights are the same. Learn from your mistakes and try not to worry and stress as your 3 year old will pick up on this.
Enjoy your time away and remember why you took the trip in the first place.
Flying with a 3 year old is stressful. Don’t think that stories people tell you of their children being “frequent flying pros” are normal. Toddlers are going to be excited, scared, bored, tired and hungry. I find that the difference between a good or bad flight is how well I prepare for all these events. I know it is hard but, forget everyone else around you on the plane and concentrate on your 3 year old.
Yes, there are going to be people who complain and moan if your child is noisy. Just ignore them. Try your best to keep them entertained and from upsetting anyone else but I think people who are whining about babies and children crying on a plane are big babies themselves and have obviously never had kids. Just use some headphones if you are bothered by a noisy toddler!
If you are stuck for ideas on how to keep them entertained on a long flight then just buy them something like a busy bag from Amazon.