How To Travel Alone With a Toddler on a Plane

Traveling with a toddler


d3sign / Getty Images

The thought of traveling alone with my 26-month-old toddler for her first flight this summer was overwhelming, to say the least. But, I was determined to be prepared. After reading what seemed like hundreds of articles to ready myself, I started to feel a little more at ease There were all types of suggestions like "book the flight during nap time," "pack snacks," "bring these exact coloring books."

I also spoke to other moms, crowdsourced on Instagram, and spent hours meticulously and methodically packing. Honestly, I was probably over-prepared but I didn't want to risk a meltdown—from me or from my toddler. I was ready...or at least physically. All those preparations still didn't negate the fact that I was still a little terrified to travel with my "terrible 2s toddler" for the first time.

If you're a parent of a toddler, then you know that you can't really plan for everything. Toddlers are wonderfully unpredictable. Naturally, I came up with all sorts of "what-ifs" like what if she had a tantrum or a blowout as we boarded? Would there be a fussy refusal to wear a mask on the plane? We had a long journey ahead of us—6 hours total—and I feared the worst but hoped for the best.

All in all, my daughter did great on her first long trip. But after taking two planes, two trains, and countless car rides, I learned a thing or two about what to bring, and what I definitely should have left at home.

If you have a trip coming up with your toddler, I may not be able to completely erase your fears or those nagging "what-ifs," but I certainly can let you in on how to prepare, what to pack, how to deal with fussiness, and more.

How To Pack and Prepare

Depending on your destination (a hotel, an Airbnb, staying with family), it's incredibly helpful to send as many necessities as possible ahead of time. After all, packing these things or loading them onto a plane with you, is just not feasible.

However, if shipping things is just not economical or feasible for you, you can also rent gear if you're traveling to a larger town.

I was staying with family, so I shipped a car seat to my mom before I arrived. This way, I knew exactly what would be waiting for me once I got there. If you choose to ship instead of rent, just be sure to send it with enough time for your family or friends to properly install the seat before you get there.

My choice was the new-to-market Evenflo Gold Revolve360 Rotational All-in-One Car Seat, but it was a little confusing for them to install. So, my step-dad went to a certified car seat installation location for help.

If you have family that will be installing the car seat for you as I did, you may want to contact the local police stations and fire departments to see if they offer this service. You also can search for a location or a specialist near your destination. After all, you don't want to try to install a car seat after you just spent hours flying.

Think Through Sleeping Arrangements

When it comes to toddlers, you probably already know how active—and curious—they are. That's why it's so important to think through the sleeping arrangements and try to determine what will work best for your family.

Even though my daughter probably could have slept in a twin bed or on a cot, I still sent a pack and play to my parents' home—especially because she is still in a crib at home. For me, I just felt more comfortable having her "contained," especially in an unfamiliar room. Plus, because she still sleeps in a crib at home, I didn't want her first taste of freedom to be while we were on the road in someone else's home.

My daughter is used to a pack and play, so it made sense to use one on the road. My pick was the BABYBJÖRN Travel Crib Light. It's super easy to set up, was larger than some other models, and is recommended for children up to 3 years old.

Of course, if you're not staying with family or friends, you may not have the option to ship a pack and play. But, you can call your hotel to reserve a crib or a pack and play for your stay if you want.

Overall, my suggestion is to try to replicate your toddler's sleeping environment at home as much as you can. After all, your toddler will be adjusting to so many new things, that having some familiarity—especially at bedtime—will help things go more smoothly for both of you.

Be Strategic About Packing

Rather than try to pack all the extras that go with having a toddler—like diapers, wipes, and bubble bath—I placed an order for curbside pickup at the local Target. There, I was able to find all of my daughter’s favorite snacks and drinks, diapers, wipes, and even a fun bathtub mat. My family picked it up the day before I arrived, leaving enough time for them to shop for anything that was unavailable or missing.

Then, when it came time to pack for our trip, I packed one large suitcase that I checked and didn't have to include all those bulky items. If you're using one suitcase, like me, be sure to save room for those all-important gadgets that are a necessity when you have a toddler.

In my suitcase, I included important things like her white noise sound machine and my video monitor, the Nanit monitor—things that are absolutely necessary but could ultimately be replaced if my luggage was lost.

Meanwhile, in my carry-on, I made sure to pack things that could not be easily or immediately replaced like her sleep sack, her lovey, and her blanket. Plus, I knew I would need these items soon after arriving at my destination since my arrival coincided with her nap time.

Take time to think through what things you can buy once you get there, what can be replaced if it is lost, and what you need to keep on your person at all times.

For me, life without my daughter's lovey and blanket would have been a real challenge, so I made sure to keep those things with us in our carry-on. Plus, if I needed to whip them out on the plane, they were always within reach.

There is nothing worse than for a 2-year-old to ask for their blankie only to be told that it is in the underbelly of the plane. That was not something I wanted to try to explain to my toddler at 30,000 feet surrounded by complete strangers!

Necessities for the Airport and on the Plane

When you are traveling through the airport and flying on a plane with a toddler, there are a few items that are an absolute must. Aside from the things you traditionally have handy in your purse or diaper bag—snacks, diapers, wipes, and toys—you'll also want to think about how your child will be sitting on the plane. Here's my list of must-haves for the plane.

Snacks

Snacks were the number one item that moms told me to pack, and that advice really paid off. I carefully packed all different types of shelf-stable snacks in her bento box lunchbox, and that kept her occupied before boarding and while in the sky.

If you don’t have a large bento-box style lunchbox, using a crafting box—or even a large weekly pill container—with many small compartments is a great way to separate snacks. Not only are you separating the snacks in an interesting way, but the novelty of having so many things to explore can keep your child occupied for a good bit of time.

I included mostly familiar snacks, as well as some new, yummy foods to spark her interest. We flew during her normal morning snack time, so she was hungry. Plus, it was fun for her to try new things. Get creative when packing snacks for your flight. You will be glad you did.

Wipes and Diapers

When you have a toddler, you can never have too many wipes. After all, there are diapers to change as well as messy fingers and faces to deal with. In my bag, I included travel packs of both gentle wipes for diaper changes and wiping her face as well as anti-bacterial wipes for cleaning the tray table, seat, and armrests.

You also want to be sure you have plenty of diapers during your travel time. Count out how many diaper changes you would normally need during that timeframe and then add a few more. You never know when your toddler will have a diaper malfunction.

To make things easier on me, I changed her diaper in the airport bathroom before each flight. I wanted to avoid changing her on the plane if I could. There's nothing worse than trying to navigate a tiny airplane bathroom with a fidgety toddler.

Changing Pads and Extra Clothes

Instead of using the travel changing pads that come in most diaper bags, I opted for disposable dog training pads. As weird as that might sound at first, they are great for bathroom changing tables.

By using these large pads, I didn't have to worry about transferring germs back into my bag. I just tossed them when I was done. Plus, they are great for mopping up water in a pinch in case of a spill.

Another thing to pack in your carry-on just in case? A change of clothes for both you and your child. Accidents happen and there is nothing worse than traveling 6 hours with food or other stains on your clothing.

Coloring or Drawing Tablet

Many people suggest bringing a coloring book and crayons on your trip. While this is a great idea, in theory, I don't know many toddlers that can be trusted with regular markers or crayons, including my 2-year-old.

For instance, on the first leg, we used a Melissa & Doug on-the-go coloring book. It came with regular markers, and even sitting right next to her, my daughter managed to color the tray table. On the way home, I spotted crayon marks on the window shade from a previous passenger, so I know all parents of young ones deal with this.

Similarly, the popular “Water Wow” coloring books claim to be mess-free, but my daughter quickly figured out how to unscrew the cap and promptly dumped water over her entire outfit. The best option, I learned on the way home, is to stick with something electronic while on the plane. You won’t lose any marker caps or risk the ink drying up. I opted for an electronic LCD tablet and it worked out great.

A Safety Device

For children flying on an airplane, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends a Child Restraint System (CRS). If you chose to use a car seat, you’ll need to double-check the dimensions of the car seat and the airplane seat. I also strongly encourage you to you install the car seat in a window seat location.

If you choose to bring a car seat, you can have your child sit in the seat while traveling through the airport. Buy a travel cart specifically made to wheel a car seat or a special travel strap that attaches to your rolling luggage. Remember, children over 2 and children sitting in a car seat must have their own seat on the plane.

For me personally, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle my carry-on, our stroller, my toddler, and a car seat, so I opted for the CARES Child Safety Device. This is a seatbelt-like harness that is FAA-approved for children weighing between 22 and 44 pounds. It folds up and weighs less than 1 pound, so it’s not a burden to put in your carry-on. What's more, I was able to quickly install it on my own in under 2 minutes.

Stroller and Bag Cover

A travel stroller is a must in case your gate is the very last one in the terminal like mine was. Toddlers don’t tend to walk fast, so having a stroller is key to being on time. Before boarding, I folded the stroller and put it in a gate check bag. There was plenty of room left in the bag for coats or anything else I didn’t physically need with me in the cabin. I bought my gate check bag on Amazon for under $20.

I heard from other moms that gate check bags get quite dirty and sometimes rip due to rough handling, so I didn't want to spend too much. As you get to the jet bridge, fold your stroller and put it in the gate check bag (mine is bright red and says "gate check" in large letters). The attendant will tag the bag.

Then, you just leave it at the bottom of the bridge, just before entering the plane. Most of the time, you can retrieve it after the flight in the same spot you left it, just after exiting the plane on the jet bridge. In certain instances, it may be sent to baggage claim, so be sure to listen for announcements. Gate checking strollers or car seats is a free service, so make sure you take advantage of it.

Backpack for Your Child

Although there are super cute rolling luggage options for kids, I knew I would get stuck wheeling my daughter’s suitcase while also trying to push her stroller. Instead, I opted for a “busy backpack,” which doubled as a toy as well as a backpack to hold sticker books, snacks, and her iPad.

Her busy backpack has snaps, buttons, a zipper, a faux shoelace, buckles, and colorful numbers printed on the straps. She LOVED carrying the backpack around because it gave her a sense of independence, and also really helped me out to have some extra packing space.

Things I Bought But Didn’t Use

There are certain items I thought would be a must for traveling that I didn't end up needing. I definitely leaned on my daughter's iPad for a few moments of quiet time.

Meanwhile, some people swear by headphones, but I never used hers. In addition, placemats were something I thought would keep us safe from germs, but simply wiping her tray table down with a wipe was faster and easier. Here's what I could have left at home.

Placemats

I bought special placemats with sticky edges for the tray table. When it comes down to it, you have just a couple of minutes to get situated and get your child occupied when you first get on the plane.

So, I didn’t bother using these placements—it was much quicker for me to just wipe down the table with an anti-bacterial wipe. These placemats might be helpful if you’re eating a full meal on the plane, but on my short trip, we only had snacks, so I would advise leaving them off your shopping list.

Headphones

Though her iPad was a lifesaver, we did not use the headphones I brought along especially for this trip. First, she didn’t want to keep them on her head.

Second, the plane was so loud it provided built-in white noise and drowned out the sound of her iPad unless you were within a foot of the device. Furthermore, all the other passengers were wearing headphones, so I knew she wasn’t bothering anyone by having her iPad volume on low.

Other Helpful Tips

Preparing for a trip with your toddler can feel overwhelming. You never know if your child might get overwhelmed by a large population of people or feel claustrophobic on the small aircraft. Although you can't plan for everything, here are some additional tips that can help you survive traveling with your little one.

Have a Back-up Plan

I live in New York City, so I don’t own a car or a car seat. But, when we were leaving we were able to quickly and easily call an Uber with a car seat to go to the airport. However, when we landed at home, there were no cars with car seats available, and every car service was at least 2 hours away.

Eventually, I took the Air Train home (an option from both Newark and JFK in the New York area) but it was a long, unexpected, and difficult leg of my journey. Transferring to multiple trains with a 50-pound suitcase and a baby in a stroller was not easy.

That's why you need a backup plan in case things don’t go as scheduled. Rather than rely on Uber and public transportation, you may want to schedule a car service in advance for airport transfers or have someone meet you at the airport. Just make sure they have a car seat already installed if you're not traveling with yours.

Beware of Packaging

I bought some quiet, mess-free, sensory toys called Wikki Stix for the plane ride that were great. You can create an endless array of different shapes and the Stix have a textured feel that's not sticky.

However, I was surprised that the packaging was so loud and obnoxious. I would encourage you to open any new toys at home (away from your child) and repackage them in a less disruptive bag or box. There's nothing worse than crinkling plastic and packaging that disturbs those around you.

Wrap "Presents"

One thing that worked well for me was buying some small, new toys and trinkets and wrapping them in tissue paper. When my little one started getting fidgety, I would tell her I had a "present" for her. Not only was this a new and exciting toy, but the extra step of taking off the tissue paper added a few minutes to the experience.

I bought some small Blippi toy vehicles, Melissa & Doug's Lace and Trace pet set, and even wrapped a couple of sticker packs. Toys don't have to be expensive to be exciting. In fact, my mom famously tells me that I used to be most excited to individually unwrap an entire box of Band-Aids on long car rides.

Relax

It's normal to feel rushed when you have a little one. But, try not to stress over taking an extra minute to put your bag in the overhead or find your boarding pass in your giant purse. People are remarkably kind when they recognize that you are traveling alone with a little one.

Plus, take advantage of the early boarding with small children. This will give you extra time to get situated and you will feel less like you are holding people up. And, don't be afraid to ask for help—multiple people along my journey helped me with my luggage. Most likely, someone has been in your shoes before, and they will be eager to assist.

A Word From Verywell

Traveling alone is stressful to begin with, and can be especially worrisome if you have a tot in tow. We hope these tips help you plan for a less stressful trip so you can enjoy your vacation or trip with your little one.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Aviation Administration. Flying with children. Updated March 2021.

  2. The Car Seat Lady. Before you fly, know your rights!