In it for the long haul: travel tips for flying with a toddler

eatmywords travel with toddlers

At 18 months of age, Frankie has amassed more stamps in her passport than I had by the time I was 25. Some of those flights have been an absolute breeze, and others have pushed us to the limits. So, although there’s no magic formula for a stress-free long-haul flight with children, we have found a few ways to minimise the pain. Read on to discover 10 tips for flying with a toddler.

1. Brave the red-eye flight

Even if you don’t have a great sleeper (Francesca Gamboni, I’m looking at you), chances are your little one spends more time asleep overnight than they do during the day. So, take advantage of their circadian rhythm and book an overnight flight departing in the late afternoon or evening. That way – if all goes to plan – you should get some solid hours of sleep out of your toddler during the first half of the flight. Where possible, we now avoid flights that leave in the early hours of the morning. We recently had a 3am departure from Dubai to Melbourne, which made for the most hellish flight imaginable, with just a handful of short naps from Frankie, and about 10 hours pacing the aisles with our supercharged toddler.

2. Book the bassinet, or extra legroom, where possible

On our first 14-hour flight to Dubai, Frankie was just seven months old, so in hindsight an ideal age for long-haul travel. We scored a bassinet seat and a 4pm departure, and she slept for at least half the flight. Now that she’s too big for the bassinet, we’ll still often book that seat as it offers extra legroom and you’re generally surrounded by other families, so you’re in good company when the meltdowns do, inevitably, arrive.

eat my words flying with toddlers

The holy grail of economy: a full row to ourselves.

3. Ask for an extra seat at check in

Following that disastrous flight to Melbourne, the seating gods smiled on us for our return flight to Dubai. Frankie still fits into the ‘lap infant’ category, so we had booked only two seats for the three of us. The cabin manager must have taken pity on us, because she shuffled passengers around to give us a full row of four seats. Sure, the in-flight entertainment in that particular row was busted, but if it meant Frankie could lie down and sleep for a solid eight hours, the lack of movies was a small price to pay. When she was shifting us, the manager said she ‘only’ had 10 free seats on that flight, so it’s well worth seeing if they can rustle up a spare spot for your smalls.

eat my words travel with toddlers

Be hands-free and easy with a baby carrier. Our Ergobaby has been an absolute godsend.

4. Take a baby carrier and/or foldable pram

Navigating the airport is oh so much easier if you can wear your little one in a carrier. It is a bit of a hassle at security, but for the rest of the time you’ve got your hands free to wrangle passports and baggage. We’ve also started travelling with a foldable pram, which is a tad cumbersome at the airport, but essential once we’re on the ground.

eat my words travelling with a toddler long haul

Judge all you want: these sugary treats helped alleviate the pain of ear pressure on take-off.

5. Bring all of the snacks

Oh, how I wish I could just whip out my nip for take-off and landing, but now that Frankie’s no longer breastfeeding, we have to come with an arsenal of snacks. I’d place money on the fact that the foods she loves in real life will be rejected in mid-air, so pack a mix of dependable favourites and new finds – frozen yoghurt pouches, cheese and crackers, plain pasta and pikelets have been recent hits, along with fresh raspberries, grapes and little boxes of sultanas. And allow for a few treats – one helpful mamma we met at Newcastle Airport suggested Chuppa Chups to help with the pressure in their ears for take-off and landing, and they were a hit!

6. Pack a few toys, both old and new

We have a little cloth bag filled with finger puppets, small toys and tiny board books that we use to distract Frankie on take-off, and generally try to bring one new toy along too. Don’t go too crazy, though. Regardless of what we bring, Frankie would prefer to play with the tray table or the security cards in the seat pocket – basically whatever causes maximum disruption to the poor soul in front of us.

7. Embrace screen time

For our most recent flight home, we finally whipped out the big guns: an iPad. We don’t do a lot of screentime in our house, so we thought Frankie would be over the moon at watching The Wiggles for 14 hours straight, but on the flight there she really wasn’t interested. Two weeks later, and it was an entirely different story – and because she wanted nothing to do with the headphones we’d bought her, we had The Wiggles playing at a low volume for most of her awake time. Perfect parenting? Perhaps not… but it got us through.

8. Order a special meal

Meal time is, hands down, the most taxing period of the flight. When we were flying to Madrid in August, I had mine and Simon’s meals and drinks balanced on my table while Simon juggled Frankie. With one almighty kick, she sent the two glasses of chardonnay flying over me and the woman behind me. Definitely a low point in our family forays. Now, one of us always orders a special meal, some substandard gluten-free or vego option that arrives before the regular meals, so one can scoff while the other juggles.

9. Take multiple clothing changes for everyone

Following on from that wine incident, I now pack at least two changes of clothing for Frankie, and one each for Simon and myself. And bring more nappies and wipes than you’d normally need – all bets are off once you’re up in the air.

10. Go with the flow

Another wise mamma once told me that, so long as her children aren’t causing harm or discomfort to themselves or others, she lets anything go while flying. So, if that means hours of Wiggles, clocking up some serious kilometres walking the aisles, or sitting on the ground to eat their snacks, so be it. No judgement of yourself or others. Just do what it takes to get you through.

Disclaimer: as with all parenting advice, what works for us may not fly with you and your crew, but hopefully you’ll find one or two handy tips to make travelling with toddlers just a tad easier. And if all else fails, order a gin and tonic. Those 50ml spirit bottles really hit the spot at altitude. 

Sarah Gamboni is an Australian food, drinks and travel writer. Sarah writes for leading lifestyle magazines and websites, and produces content for a range of clients spanning tourism bodies, beauty products, food and fashion. She is currently based in Dubai with her husband, Simon, and daughter, Francesca.