9 Low-Stress and Low-Cost Ways to Fly With Your Toddler

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As the holidays approach, families begin to fret about taking their toddler on their next flight. Parents are in for a new set of challenges and experiences when they bring their little one(s) along for the ride. For the last two years, my wife and I have had the pleasure of taking our daughter, now 4 years old, with us on flights across the country and around the world. Here is some of what we have learned…

Pre-flight preparation

  1. Buy a seat restraint. Since children older than 2 years old must have their own seat, parents are left to provide a safe and comfortable arrangement. While you could bring an approved car seat, I have had great success with the Cares product, which is simple, compact, and FAA-certified. In addition to safety, the idea is that in a harness, children feel like they are in a familiar place (like their car seat), and they’ll more easily adapt to the airplane environment.
  2. Order the child’s meal. If you’re lucky enough to be on a flight with meal service, be sure to contact the airline well in advance to order a children’s meal.
  3. Try for an empty seat. When traveling with just my daughter, I’ll always reserve the window and aisle seats, leaving a middle seat open. At best, we have an empty seat between us, and at worst, we make someone’s day by offering them the window or aisle. This makes our seatmate happy and takes away a little of the apprehension other travelers might have about being seated next to a toddler.

Packing tips

  1. Get a duffel bag. Unless you’re assured of a safe car seat being provided at your destination, yours will have to go with you. Many parents just dump theirs off at the curb or carry it through the airport and check it at the gate. Either way, you’re at risk of it being soiled or damaged unless you pack it in a duffel bag and check it in the terminal. Fortunately, airlines don’t charge for a checked bag containing child safety equipment like a car seat.
  2. Check other stuff. Business travelers live by the mantra of carrying everything on, and so do most parents. But those with infants have to carry on quite a load of diapers, bottles, and other gear. Once your child reaches the toddler phase, it’s time to give it up, check a bag and let the airline’s baggage handlers do their job. To save money, we prefer to fly airlines like Southwest and JetBlue that don’t charge for checked bags.
  3. Use that stroller. We probably traveled with a stroller for some time after it was truly necessary. This allowed our daughter a place to take naps while enabling us to use it as a luggage cart. Strollers can be checked at the gate for no charge.

Onboard tips

  1. Make the effort. Every parent’s worst nightmare is the embarrassment they feel when their child acts up and disturbs passengers – at least, it should be. Before I became a dad, I was a frequent business traveler. I accepted that kids travel and act like kids. When a child is misbehaving, it’s the actions of the parents make the difference between understanding and annoyance. When parents ignore their unruly children – or worse, yell at them – they’re sure to raise the ire of those around them. The best move may be to take the child out of his or her seat, go to the back of the plane, and have that discussion there. This gives your seatmates a break and interrupts your child’s behavior.
  2. Bring distractions. Caring for a toddler is all about occupying them. You can do so with activities such as drawing a picture, reading a book, or watching a movie on your laptop (with headphones).
  3. Use the crew. Be polite and friendly, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. Flight attendants can offer you snacks, bring napkins, and help retrieve items from overhead bins. Don’t forget to use the call button if you can’t grab their attention. Although they are there for your safety, a good crew will recognize a parent in need.

The best advice is simply to arrive at the airport early and be sure to have fun. By taking the time to properly prepare for and manage your trip, you and your child can have a pleasant adventure.

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