Toddler Travel: 5 Lessons From Our First Family Flight

Some families travel frequently and their Instagram feeds are filled with beautiful photos from incredible destinations. This blog is not for them.

This blog is for the family that has to prepare, save up, and plan every detail of their vacation in order to make the most of their limited funds or time off from work. It’s for the families who only dream of maybe finally taking that family vacation next year. You know, the trip that didn’t work out this year.

Listen up, fam – you can make it happen! If you’re not sure where to start, I’m here to share some tips to help you see the world with your little one(s). Here are a few things I learned from our first cross-country family vacation:

1. Children under 2 fly free on a parent’s lap.

For many jet-setters, this is common knowledge. For families looking to afford their first trip together, this information might be a game-changer. For us, this information was used as motivation to finally book our trip from New York to California before our son’s 2nd birthday. For our family of three, purchasing one less plane ticket meant making a cross-country trip much more affordable.

There’s a lot to consider when flying with your baby or toddler, and flying with a lap child might not be the best solution for everyone. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly urges travelers to secure children in a child safety restraint system in flight, which does require the purchase of an additional ticket per child. More information about the FAA’s recommendations can be found by visiting their website.

2. Car seats and strollers can be checked for free.

Airlines allow travelers to check a car seat and stroller free of charge. We opted to gate check our stroller so that we had it available for navigating busy airports. We did check our car seat at the counter with our other baggage since we opted to fly with our son in our laps.

If you do plan to check a car seat, as we did, there are some things to be aware of. Car Seats for the Littles, Inc is a 501(c)(3) organization, staffed by Child Passenger Safety Technicians who advocate for car seat safety.

They recommend placing the car seat in a box (its original packaging is preferred) with padding, and gate checking if possible. The concern is that car seats may arrive at your destination with damage that cannot be seen. You can read more about their suggestions for air travel with children at

3. Flying at night worked better for us.

This one will obviously depend on your child’s temperament, schedule and sleep patterns. Our son hasn’t always been the most reliable napper, but sleeps deeply and consistently overnight. I’ve also found that overnight flights, for the most part, are darker and more quiet, creating a better environment for toddler sleep.

We had a more difficult time finding an overnight flight for our trip home, so we ended up flying during our son’s normal nap time. Predictably, our son did not nap during the flight and the result was a restless, over-tired toddler during our long journey home.

4. Expect some sleep schedule adjustment and plan accordingly.

We intentionally left our schedule open for our first full day in California. This was such a good idea, as we all were adjusting the time different and lack of sleep from our long trip. Toddlers, in particular, require some leeway and grace in this department. A regular sleep schedule is essential to most children at this age, so a major deviation can (and probably will) cause some crankiness. Be prepared for an adjustment period!

5. Accept that screen time can be a big help.

Our family is generally not in favor of excessive screen time. While we haven’t exactly followed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines to a T, we usually try to focus on daily activities that include outdoor time, physical activities, and imaginative play. A lot of online resources suggest bringing along your child’s favorite toys and books. However, we found in packing for our trip that the items we could carry only provided about 15 minutes of entertainment at a time.

I had a strong feeling that this would not suffice for a 5+ hour flight, so I purchased several episodes of our son’s favorite age-appropriate show (Mickey Mouse Clubhouse!) and some over-the-ear headphones for him to enjoy during the flight. I didn’t want to be that mom who lets her toddler run up and down the aisle of the cabin, so I opted for a bit of screen time to keep him quiet, happy and in his seat for much of the flight.


Are you ready to book a flight with your toddler? Where are you heading? I’d love to hear about your family adventures in the comments below!

Keep exploring,

Alli Signature

Published by Alli Mincher

Alli is a full-time product marketer and certified yoga teacher. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from The College at Brockport, State University of New York. She spends her free time practicing yoga, hiking, and adventuring with her family.

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