Are you going to be flying with your child for the first time? Then you definitely don’t want to miss the Wandering Moms Ultimate Guide to Your Child’s First Flight! Whether you’re flying with an infant, a toddler, an older child, or a child with special needs- we’ll help you plan and prepare for a successful first flight!
The Ultimate Guide to Your Child’s First Flight
What’s the best age to fly for the first time?
A lot of parents ask us this question in our Wandering Moms group but the truth is there is no best age. Many of our moms start flying with their infants as young as three and four months old. Many start right smack in the middle of the “terrible twos” and do just fine. And there are lots of mamas in our group who don’t get their kids on their first flight until they’re older. The best time to take your child’s first flight is when you and your child are ready!!
There are a few things you’ll want to consider depending on the age of your child to help ensure that your first flight is a successful one:
- The biggest concern in flying with very young infants is exposure to germs. Many pediatricians would recommend holding off on flying for the first few months of life until your baby has had some of their vaccinations and has had a chance to build up a bit of an immune system. That said, people absolutely do fly with very young infants- it’s just something to keep in mind, especially these days.
- While many people are afraid of flying with infants because no one wants to be the passenger with the crying baby on a plane, many of our moms find infancy the very BEST time to fly. It’s easiest to help an infant’s ears adjust to the pressure changes (see below) with breast feeding or bottles, and infants are far more likely to nap throughout a flight than a toddler or preschooler who may have more trouble sitting still.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
- Everything is new and exciting to toddlers and preschoolers, so while it may be daunting to think of keeping your child in their seat for the duration of a flight- chances are they’ll do better than you think if you can help them look for all the new things they’ll see and do on their adventure!
- Toddlers and preschoolers are especially busy- so it will be critical to over pack in the snack and toy department with this age group. If they have their own seat, little ones are allowed their own carry-on bag, so find a tiny little backpack they can carry themselves and help them pack it with lots of activities. Not only will it help keep them busy for the flight, but it will foster a sense of pride and independence!
- Some airports offer programs where children with special needs can come in and practice what it will be like to board and fly on an airplane. If your local airport doesn’t have anything scheduled, call and ask if you can arrange a private visit ahead of your flight so you and your child can do a practice walk through before the big day.
- An ever increasing number of airports in the US and around the world now have sensory rooms for families who may benefit from such a space while waiting for their flight. Call and ask your local airport, plus any airport you may have a connection through to see if they have a sensory room or other location for families with children who may need a safe space to rest and wait.
- When booking your tickets, many airlines offer the option of selecting “special assistance” for a passenger. There is even a special code in the airline industry for passengers with cognitive and developmental disabilities. Making this selection lets your flight crew know you may need things like early boarding or other accommodations that can help make your flight easier. Despite making this known on your ticket when booking, always call your airline to discuss any accommodations ahead of time.
- You can also call TSA Cares up to 72 hours in advance of your flight. They will arrange for a Passenger Support Specialist to meet you and help you through the security process. Whether you need an extra set of hands or a person who understands your child’s specific needs- this is a great option for helping make one of the most stressful parts about flying a bit easier for children with special needs.
Should I book a non-stop flight or a connecting flight?
If at all possible book a non-stop flight. A non-stop flight just simplifies the process. You only need to navigate one airport and board one plane, then you can sit back and relax until you land at your destination. You’ll also only have to deal with one take off and one landing- so it will be easier to keep your child’s ears comfortable.
Non-stop flights can be more expensive than connecting flights, so price vs. convenience is something you’ll have to consider. Also, there may not be a non-stop flight from your local airport to your desired destination. If there isn’t an airline that flies non-stop from your local airport, check surrounding airports. Sometimes it can be worth it- either for cost or for the convenience of a non-stop flight, to drive to a nearby airport instead of departing from the airport closest to you. So whether you’re looking to find a non-stop flight or you are looking to save some money on a non-stop flight, be sure to check other nearby airports when booking your tickets!
If you have to take a connecting flight, don’t worry- it’s not so bad! You will not have to go through security again at the connecting airport, so all you have to do is get from one plane to the next and start the boarding process for your second flight. Try to book a ticket that leaves at least 1.5 hours between flights so you don’t have to rush too much. If you’re connecting in a large airport or have multiple young kids in tow, it’s a good idea to aim for at least 2 hours between flights just to be safe. Cutting it close and having to rush adds extra stress- and that’s exactly what we’re trying to help you avoid!
When is the best time of day to fly?
If you are flying with a baby or toddler, this can be an important question. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer!
If you can time out your flight to coincide with you child’s nap time, you can *hope* your child will sleep for at least part of your flight. This is ideal for younger children who still rely on naps. However, be aware that with so much going on around them- even tired babies and toddlers may not nap on the plane! So even the best time flight may not work in your favor, but it’s at least worth a shot to try to schedule a flight that works with your child’s nap time if at all possible.
Many people like flying early in the morning because the security lines can be shorter and flight prices can be cheaper. However, you’ll want to consider whether it’s worth waking your child up extra early to get to the airport for an early morning flight. Some kids can handle it while others may be super cranky if you wake them up at 4am! This will depend entirely on your child.
Red-eye flights or overnight flights are another option. If you can get your child to sleep on a late flight, it can make things easier- but again, some kids will be overstimulated by their new surroundings and may not fall asleep easily. Once again, you know your child best. Only you will know if you’ve got a decent shot at getting them to sleep on a red-eye flight!
Does my child need a ticket?
If you are flying with an infant or toddler who is UNDER the age of two years old, you do not have to purchase a separate ticket for your child. Children under the age of two may fly as a “lap baby” which means they will sit on your lap. While this may seem like a great way to save money, there are some serious safety concerns to consider when flying with a lap baby.
If your infant or toddler sits on your lap, there is no safety restraint holding them in place. In the event of severe turbulence, you may not be able to hold your child steady. No one thinks they’d let go of their child, especially in an emergency situation, but sudden and severe turbulence in a plane can turn anything that is not physically restrained into a projectile- including your child. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly advises that all children- including those under the age of two fly in an FAA approved child safety restraint seat.
If you do decide to fly with a lap child, be aware that airlines are very strict on the age. On the day your child turns two years old, it is no longer legal for them to fly as a lap child. Airlines can and will ask for a birth certificate to determine age and refuse boarding or require parents to purchase the additional seat if one is available if the child is age two or older. The bottom line here- don’t try to skirt the rules. If your child is two, purchase a ticket for their own seat. It’s both a safety issue and a legal issue- and trying to bend the rules could add a significant amount of unnecessary stress to your child’s first flight!
Should I bring my baby or toddler’s car seat?
Yes. The FAA strongly recommends that all children be secured in an FAA approved car seat. This is hands-down, without a doubt the safest way for your infant or toddler to fly. That’s not to say you can’t take your baby or toddler out of their seat to hold them at times during the flight, but if the pilot turns on the seat belt sign, it’s best to have your child in their car seat.
Keep in mind that not all car seats are FAA approved- and the FAA approval is for American based airlines only. Check to see if your car seat has an FAA approval sticker on it, or you can search your specific brand online. Just because a seat is FAA approved does not mean all airlines will allow that specific seat- so always check with your airline as well to be sure. This fantastic post by Flying With a Baby reviews the most popular car seats with FAA approval and also offers great information on seat measurements and individual airline rules.
An alternative option is the FAA approved CARES harness system. It is designed for children one year and older who are between 22 and 44 pounds. Please note that this device is only approved as a safety restraint in airplanes and is not approved for use in a car.
When can your child sit safely on their own? SafeRide4Kids recommends at 4 years old and 40 pounds. Until then- it’s best to bring your baby or toddler’s FAA approved car seat!
What about a stroller?
If you’ve got little ones, chances are you’ll be bringing their stroller for your trip. There are two ways you can fly with your stroller:
The first is to check your stroller in as a piece of luggage. This means you’ll leave your stroller at the curbside check-in or at the luggage check-in just inside the airport but before you go through security. You will not have it with you to navigate the airport and it will fly through to your final destination so if you have a a connecting flight it will not be brought to you in your connecting airport. If you can wear your baby in the airport,checking your stroller means you have one less thing to carry through the airport.
Your second option, and the most popular, is to gate check your stroller. This means that you’ll take your stroller through security with you and use it right up until you board the plane. When you board, you’ll fold it up and they’ll store it for you under the plane. When you land- whether it’s for a connecting flight or at your final destination, the airline will bring your stroller up for you and you can grab it right as you exit the plane. The tough thing with gate checking a stroller is that it may take a few minutes (sometimes longer) for it to be brought up to you and you may end up waiting awhile for it to be delivered. If you’ve got a connecting flight that leaves you pinched for time, this can be a bit stressful!
Whichever way you decide to fly with your stroller, it’s important to know that the airline WILL NOT treat it with care!!! It doesn’t matter what airline you fly or how you check it- your stroller will get tossed around with all the other luggage. Unfortunately, there’s a decent chance it will get scratched or even broken. If at all possible, travel with a cheap stroller! A super cheap umbrella stroller is ideal because if it gets damaged it is cheap and easy to replace at your destination. You definitely don’t want to risk damaging your top of the line UPPA Baby stroller- that’s a bad way to start a vacation!
What do I pack in my carry-on bag?
Your carry-on bag is your key to a successful flight with kids! There are a few key items you’ll want to make sure you have packed- and easily accessible- in your bag. You can also check out our complete post on What to Pack in a Carry-On Bag!
- Snacks: Pack ALL the snacks. Seriously. All of them. Not only will snacks keep you from flying with a hangry child, all the chewing and swallowing will help keep their ears comfortable too!
- Milk/Formula/Breast Milk: If you’re flying with an infant- be sure to pack plenty of their formula or milk in your carry-on. Milk, formula and breast milk for children are exempt from the 3.4oz limit. You can bring as much as you need to get through your flight!
- Empty Water Bottles: You won’t be able to take full water bottles through airport security, but you’ll want to make sure everyone stays hydrated in your travel day. Bottled water in airports is ridiculously expensive, so be sure to pack a few empty water bottles that you can fill once you get through security.
- Activities: These will be age dependent, but pack lots of stuff to keep your child busy. Make a run to the dollar store and grab a few new toys, games, puzzles, coloring books, etc. that you can surprise your kids with on the flight. Whenever get they antsy, you can introduce something brand new that will help keep them occupied.
- Screen and Headphones: Let’s be honest- flying with kids is easier when they can enjoy a movie or play their favorite game for awhile. We’re all for going screen free as much as humanly possible, but a long flight is one of those times where a little bit of screen time can be a life saver!
- Change of Clothes: A change of clothes for everyone is super important if you are traveling with a baby or toddler who might spit up or have a diaper blow out. It’s also important with older kids because you just never know what will happen. Pack an extra change of clothes in a gallon Ziploc baggie for each person in your family- that way you also have a baggie to put dirty clothes in if you need to change. An added bonus- if your luggage gets lost, you’ll have a change of clothes with you once you get to your destination. Hopefully you won’t need these, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry!
How do we get through security?
Being prepared to go through the TSA security checkpoint can help make this somewhat stressful part of your first flight much easier. First, give yourself plenty of time to get through the TSA line. For domestic flights, you should arrive at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight- but give yourself a bit more time if you can so you don’t have to panic if the lines are long.
Next, dress appropriately. You will have to remove shoes, belts and anything containing metal when you walk through security. Wearing simple clothes and slip on shoes can help save time. It’s also a good idea to leave jewelry at home, or at least pack it in your suitcase as it will have to be removed for security as well. Younger children are generally allowed to keep shoes on, but it’s a good idea to have your kids wear slip on shoes too just in case.
Be aware of the 3-1-1 liquid rule when packing your carry-on. Any liquids or gels are limited to 3.4 ounces and must fit into one quart size Ziploc bag per person. Anything over 3.4 ounces will be thrown away on the spot. This rule applies to toiletries like toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash and lotion. It also applies to semi-solid foods such as applesauce and peanut butter. The only exceptions to the 3.4 ounce rule are milk, formula or breast milk for babies (you can bring enough for your entire travel day) and prescription medications in liquid form, so long as they are in their original prescription bottle.
You will place all of your bags into bins that will go through the x-ray machines. Certain items, like your bag of liquids and your laptop will have to be removed from your bag and placed in their own bin. Make sure those items are easily accessible, such as in a front pouch of a backpack or suitcase, so you can remove them easily and return them back to your bag quickly once you are through security.
Strollers will also have to go through the x-ray machine, so be ready to fold up your stroller and place it on the conveyor belt. You can carry your infant or toddler through the x-ray machine. Older children will walk through alone, but directly in front of or behind you by just a few steps. Explain to preschoolers and older children how this process will work so they aren’t caught off guard: You will stand with them and wait for the security guard to call you through. Your child will go through first- a few steps ahead of you- and stop just on the other side where they can still see you clearly. Once you are given the go ahead, you will follow directly behind them.
How do I keep my child busy while we wait?
Once you’ve made it through security, you’ll find your gate and then the waiting begins! If you can, go for a walk through the airport to get any extra energy out before boarding the plane. Use this time to fill your water bottles, get any extra snacks you may need, and take everyone to the bathroom. Then you can watch for planes coming on or play a game of I-Spy to help pass the time. But definitely give kids a chance to move around while you wait- they’re about to do a lot of sitting still!
When is the best time to board the plane?
Chances are- you’re not going to get much of a choice as to when you board the plane. Most airlines arrange boarding based on your seat. You’ll be put in a boarding group and called to board when that group is announced. Don’t bother lining up earlier than when they call your group- it just causes a bottleneck and slows things down. If you have an assigned seat- some parents actually prefer to wait and board the plane last, regardless of what boarding group you are in. It means less time waiting for the rest of the plane to board- and less time you have to entertain your kids and keep them still while you wait!
Some airlines, like Southwest have open seating. This means that you’ll be placed in a boarding group, but once you get on the plane you can choose your own seats. This is especially nice for families who want to sit together but may not want to pay the extra fees it costs to pick your seats on other airlines. Southwest has a family boarding group- usually right after the A group- where families with small children can board towards the front of the line to assure they can get seats together.
Are airplanes clean?
No- airplanes are definitely not clean! At best, someone walks through the plane between each flight to empty garbage from the seat backs- but that’s about it. Because kids are known for touching everything and many frequently touch their hands to their face or mouth, it’s a good idea to wipe down your seat and tray table with an antibacterial wipe before you sit down!
Will my child need to wear a mask?
As of right now (October 2021), all airline passengers age 2 and over must wear a mask for the duration of the flight. Exceptions are made for children under age 2 (many airlines are VERY strict about birth dates so don’t expect to skirt this rule) and for both children and adults with a disability that would prevent them from being able to safely remove their own mask in the event of choking or vomiting. Masks can be removed for very brief periods to take a bite to eat or take a drink- but airlines have also been very strict about this so don’t expect to get away with saying, “But my preschooler is still eating.” Masking on planes is for your safety and the safety of all other passengers and crew. If you’re not willing or able to comply, consider postponing your flight until the masking rules change. If you aren’t sure your little one can keep a mask on for the duration of your flight, it might be a good idea to wait on your flight as there have been reports of airlines removing families when young children cannot keep a mask on.
Here are a few tips for helping your child get used to wearing their mask for a flight:
- Let your child pick out a fun mask that they are excited about wearing, or let them decorate a mask or shield with stickers
- Practice through play- encourage kids to place masks on their toys and talk about how important it is to help keep everyone safe
- Build up tolerance at home- increase time in their mask by 10-15 minutes each session until they are able to wear their mask for the length of your flight
- Encourage compliance with a small reward like a lollipop or tiny toy, especially on the big day of your flight!
How do I keep my child comfortable during the flight?
First and foremost, you’ll want to focus on helping your child’s ears adjust to the pressure changes during take off and landing. Roots Wings and Travel Things shared a great interview with an audiologist who explains what happens to our ears when we fly. It’s important to help your child’s ears adjust so they’re not hurting during the flight. This is especially important for infants and toddlers who may not be able to tell you that their ears hurt, but will instead just scream and cry.
The best way to help little ears adjust is frequent swallowing. For infants who breast feed, consider feeding on demand for the duration of take off and landing. For babies on formula or milk, give a bottle or sippy cup as soon as you start speeding down the runway, and allow them to have a little extra once you’re settled up at cruising altitude to make sure they’re still swallowing frequently. Toddlers and preschoolers can have snacks or suckers to help their ears adjust and for older kids, gum will do the trick! Remember to repeat this process for landing. Planes make a gradual descent and the pressure will start changing about a half hour before you actually land, so start with snacks, drinks, suckers, or gum about a half hour before your scheduled landing.
Once you’ve got their ears taken care of, don’t be afraid to get up and walk the aisles every once in awhile to help keep kids comfortable. Fellow passengers would much rather see you walk up and down the aisle with a smiling baby or toddler than listen to them scream from your seat. If moving around a bit helps keep them happy, walk up and down the aisle a few times!
Preschoolers and older children may appreciate a small neck pillow for the flight, especially if you’re hoping to snag a nap on the plane!
Can I bring snacks?
Yes!!! Bring ALL of the snacks! Like we discussed above, chewing and swallowing help our ears adjust to the pressure changes in a plane- and helping little ears adjust to the pressure changes just might be the single most important thing we share in our ultimate guide to your child’s first flight! More reasons to pack all the snacks? Buying food in the airport is so expensive it will take your breath away- so packing your own could save you quite a bit of money. Plus, planes don’t offer great food. In fact, these days, most planes don’t offer any food at all- so boarding without your own snacks could mean you’ll end up with a hangry child (and possibly a hangry mom) and no one wants that!
Just remember that semi-solid foods like applesauce and peanut butter are limited to 3.4 ounce packages. Most squeeze packs fall within that size limit, as do the individual pouches of nut butters. Do be aware that some flights will announce they are nut-free due to a passenger with a life threatening allergy. If this is the case on your flight, please be respectful!
As for drinks- remember that all liquids that pass through the security checkpoint must be less than 3.4 ounces or less. This means you’ll want to pack empty water bottles to fill once you pass security. You will be allowed to bring reasonable amounts of milk or juice for younger children- but you must declare it when you arrive at the security check point.
It’s time to FLY!
And just like that you are ready to totally rock your child’s first flight!!! While it may still feel a bit stressful, remember that kids feed off our energy. Try to stay as calm and as positive as possible. If you frame this experience as a grand adventure- your child will pick up on your adventurous spirit. But remember, this is a new and possibly overwhelming experience for you child. Children who feel overwhelmed or frightened may not have words to properly communicate their feelings, so check in with your child frequently to see how they are doing and offer support and words of encouragement!
If you start to get overwhelmed too, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Airport staff, TSA officers, and flight attendants are all there to help if you need it. You can even ask another passenger or family for help in an emergency. We’ve all been on flights where a flight attendant or seat mate is willing to hold a baby while mom runs to the bathroom! By the next time you fly, you might be the mama who has an extra hand to help out a first time flier!
You’ve got this mama!!!!