Flying by yourself with two young kids

by Wendy Copley on September 15, 2010

Flying solo with two kids

Earlier this summer I took my boys, aged 1.75 and 5, to visit my parents in Iowa. My husband had a work trip scheduled for the same week we were planning to be gone so I had to take the kids on two connecting flights each way — for a total of four flights — all by myself.

In general it would be fair to say that I’m a nervous flyer. I’m not the “big tin can oh my God how does it stay in the AIR!!” kind of nervous flyer, thank goodness. (My husband is one of those and I know it’s just awful for him.) Rather, I’m the “what if I get to the airport and discover my license is expired or they detain me at security because they think my lip balm is a bomb or the baby has a blow-out diaper as we’re waiting in line to board the plane” kind of nervous flyer. (All three of those things have actually happened to me, by the way.) I plan and strategize a lot before a trip to keep my worrying under control. When it’s just me flying that works pretty well, but when I’m traveling with my kids they are entirely unpredictable and that just shakes me to the core.

OK, so I’m a generally nervous flyer. Then add in that I had to wrangle my carry-on, the big kid’s carry-on, the diaper bag, the car seat, the stroller and both kids and I was a little scared of this whole process.


And guess what? It was awful! Both kids had more than one tantrum. Augie kicked my tray table with our lunches on it and all the food flew up in the air and landed on my lap. Wyatt ran away from me at O’Hare and I couldn’t find him for five minutes. The lady in front of us on one flight kept huffing and sighing and giving me dirty looks every time my toddler made any noise at all. They changed the location of our gate at O’Hare three times which involved going from one concourse to another and back again with all our crap. Awful!

But it also wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be. No one threw up. There were no diaper blow-outs. Neither kid went hungry. No one planted drugs in the diaper bag when my back was turned. And we all got to our destination safely. Yay! Success!

So what did I learn? Here are my top tips:

Take a million snacks

I packed what I thought was a lot of snacks — a packed to the gills lunchbox — for our flight to Iowa, but we ran out of food 2 hours into our first flight! On the way back I tripled the amount of food I had with me and that worked much better. Toddler starting to scream? Give him a box of raisins to dig into. Everyone’s happy!

Bring toys and activities for the plane

This is a pretty obvious one, but I could have done much better than I did. My big kid’s bag was packed with books, coloring books, a notepad, and markers but he was pretty happy just to play games and watch a rented movie on our iPod Touch.

My toddler was much more difficult. With a two minute attention span we ran through all the books and toys I packed for him very quickly. I discovered that novelty was the way to go. He enjoyed looking for pictures of dogs in the Skymall catalog way more than any of the familiar books I brought with us, and the flashlight the guy in the row behind us lent us killed a good half hour.

Lower your standards

I’m pretty stingy with screen time and junk food normally, but almost every at-home restriction was lifted for these flights. The five year old wants to watch movies and play video games for four hours straight? Sure, buddy — go ahead! Hungry? Hey kids, gorge yourselves on McDonald’s french fries and lemonade. One day of saying “yes” to things you normally say “no” to isn’t going to hurt anyone. In fact, it helps!

Enlist the big one as your “helper”

In the car on the way to the airport I laid the situation out as plainly as I could to my older child and then I asked him if he had any ideas for some things he could do to help make our day go more smoothly. Some ideas he volunteered included: pulling his own bag, being a good listener and singing silly songs to Augie if he got upset. All of which he did and all of which helped.

Accept all help offered (within reason)

I’m not someone who usually accepts help from strangers (“thanks for the offer, but I’ve got it”) but I learned very quickly that many people — especially other parents — want to help you when you’re flying by yourself with your kids and you are a foolish fool not to accept their help. I happily let people entertain my kids with post-it notes and peekaboo, carry the car seat off the plane and —  in the case of one angel from heaven named Stephanie — roll my carry-on with the bulky car seat hooked over the handle all the way from O’Hare’s C concourse to the B concourse. I did draw the line when someone (who was probably perfectly nice and not a kidnapper) offered to stand with my kids and luggage while I went to the bathroom at the airport. No matter how frazzled you are, you still need to follow basic safety rules.

Ask for help (or insist upon it)

I was a little surprised by how little help I got from airline and airport staff.  Did you know that United no longer pre-boards families with small children? Neither did I! It’s apparently also their policy to not carry items to a passenger’s seat for them once they’re on board. This was a problem for me because I couldn’t carry my toddler and the car seat down the narrow aisle by myself. Despite several polite requests for his help, one flight attendant actually told me to take Augie to his seat at the back of the plane, leave him there with my 5yo, then come back to the front of the plane to get the car seat. Obviously he doesn’t have children because if he did he wouldn’t be so clueless, but in the moment my response was a frustrated, “Are you NUTS??” At that point I just dug in my heels, fanned out the kids to block all the people behind me and told him that someone needed to help me if anyone else was going to get on the plane.

I also wised up by the last of our four flights and just got in line when they boarded first class. I’m not a rule-breaker by nature so this felt super rebellious to me, but I decided that if they wanted to stop me from getting on the plane early they would.  But no one did!

Of course it goes without saying that you should always be as polite as you can possibly be with airport and airline staff. No matter how frazzled you are, keep your tone level and drop “pleases” and “thank yous” every chance you get.

Wait as long as possible before agreeing to walk the plane aisle.

Being confined to a car seat for hours on end is often tough for a baby or toddler and walking the aisle of the plane with them can be a really effective distraction technique. That being said, wait as long as you possibly can to do this! In my experience, once you get that kid out of his seat he won’t ever want to get back in it.

Do you have any tips to share for plane trips with small kids (whether you’re making the journey alone or with help)? I’d love it if you shared them in the comments!

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  • Pappy

    Don’t give your 1.75 year old medicine to make the flight easier. We had the doctor prescribe something for Lance and it turned him into a zombie. The poor little guy’s eyes rolled back in his head. We felt like complete creeps.

  • You are so brave to travel solo with both kids! I’m a nutcase flying with our ONE son with my husband along. The 2 times we’ve flown back to IA with him we flew into Kansas City and drove the rest of the way so we’d only have to do one flight. But that too is kind of a pain.

    On this last trip, we got a CARES restraint for our son (18 mos) instead of bringing his carseat on board, and it was GREAT. The last flight we took where he was in his carseat, he kicked the reclined seat in front of him the whole flight (12 hrs!). I wasn’t going to do that again. The restraint held him in the seat really securely, but he was comfortable enough to fall asleep. We did mod the restraint a little, adding a velcro strap underneath to keep him from sliding down. It packs up really small, so you don’t have a lot to carry on board.

    We also got a car seat bag with straps so you can carry it on your back. It seemed kind of indulgent (why not just use a plastic bag?) but it ended up being really convenient, and protected the car seat when we checked it. We also used it to pack a few random items when our big bag ended up being 2 lbs over the weight limit.

  • Plume

    With my two year old (at the moment of both flights he was 15 months and then 20 months) we took early morning flights (5 AM) both coming and going. That meant he was up at 2 AM to be at the airport by 3AM, then I’d let him play around to get him tired and by take-off he was conked out, or in the midst of. He slept for 3.5 to four hours each way. Although I was not too comfortable (he was in my lap), it beat having to keep an eye out for him or stressing over when tantrums would ensue.

    Also, easy on and off clothing and shoes for the kids. I know that I have to take shoes and all that jazz off myself, but I’m not thinking that kids need to do it as well. Well, duh! There I was holding the line back up trying to take my son’s jacket off and untie his high-top Converse sneakers while he’s crying and flailing histerically because he wants to dart off. That’s when the helping hand of a stranger is a blessing (I second that idea, even though I’m a do it myself-er also for the most part). And letting them be entertained by willing seat neighbors? They’re more than welcome to.

    But kudos to you–I thought traveling by myself with a toddler was hard, can’t really imagine what it must be like with two kids.

  • Dad, I’ve heard so many stories about drugs backfiring. I’d be surprised if many docs would give you a prescription today, but lots of people recommend giving your kids Benedryl. I’ve heard many stories about that back-firing and getting kids wound up though.

  • I’ve heard about that CARES restraint before, but now I just might need to get one. It looks really cool!

    We bought a carseat backpack thingy when Wyatt was a baby — not a bag, but something you can strap the seat to and then put it on your back — and it BROKE while we were running through the airport. Super annoying. What brand is yours?

    We’ve also gone the route of flying to a hub and driving the rest of the way to Iowa several times in order to save money, but I’ve decided that it’s too hard on the kids. It makes for a really long day when you tack that 5 hour drive on.

  • Yes! I totally agree on the easy on and off shoes! Security can be a pretty tough obstacle course.

  • emily

    I can just feel your pain! I have been there and done that many times flying across the country to visit family. One of the BEST things I found is the GoGoKidz carseat adapter. It turns your carseat into a stroller! What a lifesaver that was. I checked the stroller at the ticket counter, put the baby/toddler in the carseat and rolled it to the gate. Another thing that really me was to buy several cheap toys at the dollar store and hand hand them out one at a time when you need a distraction.

    And I agree with Pappy! Our oldest would pass out with Benadryl but our second bounces off the walls (which we didn’t find out until the flight). Also never let said little one sneak the rest of the daddy’s caffeinated drink before a red eye flight! 🙂

  • You are so awesome. We traveled from New England to Cancun last February with our (then) 9 month old. We were with my parents and it was still hard. We are taking him again this year at 21 months. He will still be a lap baby because we can just barely afford the trip as it is. This year we are not taking (and gate checking) his car seat, but we will take our awesome MacLaren umbrella stroller.

    Thank you for all the hints. We aren’t going for another 5 months and 6 days (I <3 countdowns) but I am already getting anxious.

  • You are so awesome. We traveled from New England to Cancun last February with our (then) 9 month old. We were with my parents and it was still hard. We are taking him again this year at 21 months. He will still be a lap baby because we can just barely afford the trip as it is. This year we are not taking (and gate checking) his car seat, but we will take our awesome MacLaren umbrella stroller.

    Thank you for all the hints. We aren’t going for another 5 months and 6 days (I <3 countdowns) but I am already getting anxious.

  • I’m about to embark on my first flight with the baby in tow (my husband will be with me and luckily the other four will be with grandma). I’m hoping she’ll just sleep and nurse, but you never know when she’ll decide to cry inconsolably. I am a little anxious about the dirty looks from strangers–luckily none of our flights are very long!

  • I’m about to embark on my first flight with the baby in tow (my husband will be with me and luckily the other four will be with grandma). I’m hoping she’ll just sleep and nurse, but you never know when she’ll decide to cry inconsolably. I am a little anxious about the dirty looks from strangers–luckily none of our flights are very long!

  • i don’t even have kids, but i read this whole post + was saying, “yeah, you go girl!” for some reason. what wise words for those who will do the same. nice post!

  • I am big advocate of wearing your kid as much as you can. i have a sling and an ergo and i can wear my littler guy (18mos) in either and my bigger kid (3) in the ergo and wear him on my back. makes traveling alot easier when you’re not constantly chasing both of them (in opposite directions)!

  • Debralynnhorn

    I’ve never even tried to travel with my kids alone! You are braver than me. I pack a new, never before seen (small) toy, bubble wrap (they only get it on planes–but love it and other passengers can’t hear it and plus it’s better than a tantrum I figure). Also lots of snacks, books and a crayon roll with coloring book, and a mini magna doodle. I let them pack a small backpack and then add the other needed items. We’ve been lucky on the plane, but had one major tantrum in Miami coming back from Jamaica. I could hear him crying from way too far away and my sister-in-law made a comment, and I said, “oh, I think thats ours” she didn’t believe till we got closer. He tantrumed for about 35 minutes, at least he was tired out by the time we boarded for the next flight. We had about 10 members of our family with us, but it did no good!

  • Actually, once, our pediatrician suggested we give our boy Benadryl to knock him out on a flight, I still remember because I was kinda surprised.

  • Combatjulie

    I have frequently flown with my two young children (now 2 &4) by myself. My oldest even has earned a free flight! We take a direct short flight most of the time and that helps a lot. My biggest tips are dress easily for security. Prepare your kids for it-mine start taking off their shoes while waiting in line. CARES Harnesses are the way to go for sure! I have two and love them. I did the carseat on the back thing for awhile but that keeps me from using either my ergo carrier there or a back pack-both great options. Either put your kid or your stuff on your back. Then you have free hands. I give each of my kids small kid sized backpacks for their stuff and make them carry it. They are so proud of their own bags I rarely have problems ith them not carrying it. Much easier then me lugging everything, then snacks go into the diaper bag so I can control them better. extra snacks do come in handy though. Bring a stroller and gate check-put it through at security first and then you can open it up on the other side and pile all the stuff on it. It works like a charm. Most of the time I use my stroller in the airport for hauling gear not kids. Also if your kids are blanket/teddy kids don’t pack them in the bag-takes up too much room, put them in the stroller basket and then hand them to them right before you get on the plane. They can hold on to them that short distance and you can pack more toys, etc. in their backpacks that way. at security just put them in a bin with shoes, you aren’t going to forget your shoes so you won’t forget teddy! My kids are now so used to flying that I don’t stress anymore and almost prefer travelling without my husband because he is a nervous traveller and messes up my system! When he goes we drive instead.

  • Old

    Travelling with two little ones takes a LOT of planning on the part of the parents. Something I fear which does not occur to all parents. Remember, you are asking your precious bundle of energy to understand that they will be cooped up in an aluminum tube for hours on end and be expected to do something that is nigh on impossible – sit still and be quiet. You had the right idea with the toys and things, and I have a variation to that theme. Head for the “Dollar Store” before you depart on your trip but don’t let your little ones know you’ve done this. You now have a “Magic Bag” of brand new surprises! New means different and different is a distraction.

    Bring onto the aircraft only the things that you MUST have. Yes, you’re going to have to wait at the carousel to pick up your bags, but it makes your life a great deal easier for you to concentrate on your wee ones. The less you choose to drag along with you, the less complicated your life is!

    Strolling in the isles of the aircraft is a great distraction, but we need to consider others on the aircraft too. The flight attendants have a requirement to visit with the other passengers on the aircraft during the flight and your being in the isle or worse – getting in the way in the galley, will NOT make you a popular passenger.

    Ignore the woman huffing and puffing. True enough, she has a right not to have her seat kicked repeatedly for the duration of the flight, but if you’re trying to distract your child and apologetic about your child, she needs to “take a pill”.

    I’m sorry that you got some “dough-heads” for flight attendants. It’s in their best interest to help you get settled quickly and comfortably and perhaps they don’t realize how much easier their life would be if they just offered a helping hand. That having been said, it is your responsibility as a parent to look after your children and the pile of stuff you have chosen to lug along on your trip. It’s all part of your choice to become a parent and travel with your children. Your responsibility, not someone else’s. By all means, and within reason, take whatever help a generous soul offers you.

    Travel safely all.

  • EP

    Hi! I just found your blog through “another lunch” and saw this post, and just had to comment. I flew frequently, alone with my oldest son, who is 2.5, and now I have an 8 month old. I have to tell you, your comments are spot on! The “pack a million snacks,” “lower your standards,” and “walk as long as possible…” are my top 3. Fine, you want to eat 8 lbs of goldfish and watch Cars 14x. Be my guest 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this. Good to know I am not alone 🙂


  • Joie

    I really do love reading you blog, so I feel hesitant even posting this (because I know its very easy for things to come across as offensive on the internets, but please believe me when I say I’m not trying to be rude), but I think I would’ve been incredibly upset if I was ever on a flight and a mom/dad used her children to block passengers from boarding a plane.

    Your post had me thinking for a long time, because I know that the flight attendants put you in an awful position, and your actions were obviously a result of being frustrated. At the same time, its a new day and age when it comes to flights, and you get very little special treatment from flight attendants. Most aren’t even willing to get you a blanket, let alone carry your stuff for you. And this isn’t meant to be a slam on flight attendants, because I know they have it tough now with the staff cuts, hard working conditions, etc. But most people have adjusted their expectations of what flight conditions are like, and I wouldn’t dream of asking for a flight attendants help moving my carry on luggage, unless there was an extenuating circumstance such as there actually being no space in the overhead containers or something. And even though, I just try to find something on my own.

    I’m view myself as one of the lucky ones, who isn’t so bothered by kids on planes. My mom says I’d sleep through a bomb, so noisy kids are no problem. But I am very sensitive to being able to board on time, having missed my fair share of transfers because of people who block the aisles or are obnoxious about hogging carryons taking up space, and in all likelihood, the fact that you blocked other passengers from being able to board, probably made other people hate kids on planes that much more. You are very lucky your flight attendants didn’t try and kick you off the flight. In a post 9-11 era, they have a lot of leeway to get rid of passengers who they believe are causing a ruckus/impeding their ability to run a flight smoothly, and I’m sure that blocking other passengers from boarding falls under that category.

    I also don’t have kids, so I ask this in all honesty: Why is it not ok to leave a toddler with your older son temporarily? No snark, I being completely sincere when I ask that, if only because I remember my first flight to China, when I was four, and the plane was too full, so I wasn’t able to sit with my dad. Obviously not an ideal situation, but he patted me on the head, told me to behave, and I saw him 9 hours later when he came to check up on me. Are young children not capable of watching for a few minutes? Maybe my parents were a little too relaxed with me…

    Would it have been possible to leave your car seat at the front, wait for everyone else to board, and grab it at the end when everyone else boarded? Or given that there was no pre boarding, maybe wait until everyone else was settled before boarding yourself, when there were more flight attendants to help out? I’m babbling at this point, but I have to think there must have been a way to positively resolve your situation without resorting to blocking other people from boarding. I know in the heat of the moment, you probably didn’t view it was a “me first and screw the rest” action, but its what I would think if I witnessed that.

    I’m glad to have read this post. I’ve seen what I viewed as obnoxious behavior by parents and their kids on the plane, and knowing what you were going through, makes it at least a little easier to be understanding now, even though I probably would’ve thought it obnoxious at the time. And I know that I probably have slightly unrealistic expectations when it comes to children on planes (If I could be well behaved on a transpacific flight at 4 sitting with strangers, why can’t other kids behave as well?). If it is of any consolation, on the flight back from China, I wasn’t quite as well behaved. My dad made sure we could sit together. and I rewarded him by throwing up on his pants. I bet he was wishing he wasn’t sitting with me anymore!

    And what started as a comment has now turned into a treatise. This is what happens when you are procrastinating from studying by reading bentos blogs…

  • Hi Joie —

    You raised some good questions and I realize that I probably didn’t explain myself well enough in the original post. Honestly, I was being a bit facetious when I said I fanned out the kids. The fact is that the people on the gangway were already piling up behind us because my children and I weren’t able to move down the aisle and no one was able to get by us as it was. And when I said that no one was going to be able to get on the plane, it wasn’t a threat — it was just a statement of fact.

    I wasn’t asking the flight attendant to help me with my carry-on luggage — I was asking him to carry my son’s *car seat*. My understanding is that flight attendants are on planes primarily to ensure the safety of passengers and secondarily to assist them. A car seat is a piece of *safety equipment*. It keeps my son from getting injured when the plane encounters turbulence, just as the seatbelts keep you and I from getting injured in the same situation. If a car seat is needed to protect my kid in a car accident, it’s just as important that it’s used to protect him from similar dangers on a plane. I think it’s *completely* reasonable to expect a flight attendant to help me with safety equipment under any circumstances. I also think that no one would bat an eye about helping a passenger who used a wheel chair get safely settled into a plane. Why are my child and I less deserving of that sort of assistance if we need it?

    The reason that I couldn’t leave my 5yo with my toddler is also an issue of safety. The 5yo would happily have sat with the little one, but he would not have been able to keep him in his seat or keep him from chasing after me if I had left them alone — and there was probably about an 80% chance that the little one would have tried to go after me if I’d headed back up the aisle. No matter how much explaining a parent does, two-year-olds are developmentally *incapable* of controlling most of their impulses and a five-year-old doesn’t have the authority or the physical strength to keep those impulses in check like a parent does. In a strange and chaotic situation like an airplane boarding process, most toddlers are not going to willingly let their parents out of their sight.

    A toddler in the aisle of the plane while passengers are boarding is an injury waiting to happen. When people are loaded down with suitcases and other belongings they are distracted and are unlikely to notice a child who is only 34 inches tall standing in the aisle — nor should they expect one to be there. They are also swinging heavy suitcases around. If Augie had made it into the aisle, at best he would have backed up the boarding queue by blocking traffic. At worst, he would have been stepped on, knocked over, or hit with a heavy suitcase.

  • Trina

    As a passenger who never travels with a child, bless you for doing your darndest in keeping your kids happy (for their, your, and society’s sake)! On one flight I took, a new mom with a little baby offered Hershey’s Kisses to travelers nearby, and said she hoped her baby would be quiet during the flight, but that maybe some chocolate would “sweeten” the experience if not. I would have cut her some serious slack had the little one been fussy, but as it turns out, the baby slept the whole time. I thought the mom was awesome for being proactive with us, and hope her thoughtfulness is returned ten-fold! So that’s my suggestion … offer a teeny treat to your seat-mates in hopes of bribing them for their patience!

  • Betsy

    Here’s the car seat back pack we bought:

    The CARES restraint is a little pricey for what you get, but sooo much nicer than carrying a carseat on board. Here’s the mod for adding the velcro strap:

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