Military Life · Travel

Transatlantic Toddler Traveling Tips

(At least he slept in the car!)

By the time we made the family flight to England, I felt like a pro at flying with my baby.

The thing is, though, now my baby is a TODDLER. It’s totally different. Seriously. With a baby you have to make sure you have a ton of diapers and changes of clothes and pacis and wipes and, if you aren’t breastfeeding, formula and bottles. With a toddler, you have to make sure you have stretched, hydrated and put on your happy face.

Once upon a time I would have told you to fly during naps or bedtime. But that was before I (alone) embarked on an 8.5-hour flight from London to Chicago with a very mobile 15 month old. I kind of learned that it doesn’t matter.

I also learned some other things, which I will share with you now. Yes, this is intended to be a Really Useful Post on how to survive a transatlantic flight with a young toddler (did I mention my 16 month old is nearly running?) and no other supervising adult.

  1. Pack snacks. Finger foods. Little things that require time to distribute. And pack them in containers that are also fun to play with.
  2. Make sure you have fully loaded sippy cups for takeoff and landing. Milk for babies can go through security, and most places that sell beverages offer milk. The flight attendants are happy to provide water, juice and maybe even milk, if it means everyone else has a more comfortable flight.
  3. It’s OK to let him play on the floor/You don’t need as many toys as you think you do. My little guy read every safety card in our row front to back and upside down. He also took out the magazines and replaced them over and over and over and over. And… he threw every toy I gave him just to keep me engaged.
  4. But do pack some small toys and books. I introduced my guy to sticker books somewhere over the Atlantic. Now he tries to pick drawings out of all of his books, but it bought me some sanity in desperate times. Just having things to hand him clicked minutes off the clock.
  5. Don’t expect sleep! It will just make you angry when you don’t get it, from him or yourself. And if there is sleep, it will seem extra-special.
  6. You don’t like sweating, either. Those car seats get HOT. My poor guy was roasting in his footed PJs on our flight from London. No wonder he couldn’t fall asleep! Consider a wardrobe change on arrival if your destination is too cool for a pants-free kid.
  7. Remember, you’re the parent. Maybe it’s very nice of fellow passengers to engage with your child, but if he’s seeking attention to avoid dozing off… it’s OK to tell people to ignore him. He’ll get over it, because he’ll be happily asleep. And you’ll be very happy, because he’ll be asleep. And the other passengers will be happy, because your child isn’t screaming every 20 minutes when you try to put him back into his seat thinking that maybe this time he’ll finally go to sleep.
  8. When all else fails, whip out the iPod. Or iPhone. Or iPad. But have it preloaded! We enjoyed PeekaBoo Barn, AlphaBeast, Bubbles and Doodle Buddy. Sesame Street: The Best of Elmo 2 and Thomas & Friends Greatest Stories were on standby. I recommend that you resist handing it over as soon as the fasten seatbelt light goes off. Novelty goes a long way when everyone’s cranky!
  9. Making a transatlantic flight with a kid and no one else feels certifiably insane after the fact. But it’s doable. If you’re traveling with someone else who can help, you’ve got nothing to worry about, unless you’re all very terrible tired people.
  10. They adjust to the time zone change very well. Think of the hours they’re awake on the plane as sleep training.
And here’s the part where I answer some frequently asked (of me, in re: this adventure) questions.

How do you do it?

Don’t try to visualize the journey when you book your ticket. Wait until you receive your email confirmation, otherwise you won’t bother going. It won’t be so bad! Just try to schedule flights at times that are convenient for you and your kid (i.e. probably not 6am?).

Pack smart, with easy access to the items you need to take out of the bag for security and Very Important Things like diapers, wipes, drinks and snacks. Borrow or rent as much big stuff as you can when you get there.

Allow plenty of time for checking bags and wrangling everyone through security.

Ask for help or take it when it’s offered.

And do your best to relax! You’ll get there eventually.

Seat or lap?

The necessity of an individual seat is up to you. If you’re traveling alone, the space behind the car seat is nice for stashing supplies (especially if you’re at the bulkhead, where there’s no underseat storage). It’s a place to contain the kid while you eat.

The added bonus of purchasing a seat for your toddler is that you earn his baggage allowance. Not that they supply extra arms to manage it all.

For shorter flights or younger or fussier babies, I would consider a lap. The flight goes fairly quickly once you break out takeoff/landing, diaper changes, food management and general distracting. Big planes for long flights have trays that flip down at the bulkheads to which they can attach a bouncy-seat kind of apparatus for baby to sleep in. If your baby’s fussy, you’ll be up with her the whole time anyway.

That all said, there was a sleeping mom and 18-month-old together in the seat next to us the entire flight from London to Chicago.


Some sort of device for pushing your seated child might be ideal if he isn’t steady on his feet yet, if you intend to engage in some kind of convenience purchase at the airport, or if you have a long layover in which you think your child might nap or be tired.

If you have superhuman strength and endurance and patience, you may be able to do without.

Attaching the convertible car seat to a rolling suitcase worked, though I had to tilt the suitcase very low to keep the bottom of the seat from dragging. I was hunched over wheeling through the airport. I probably could have gotten by with a car seat cart and a more wisely packed backpack (had my checked bag not been overweight!). It was also difficult to drag down the aisle of the plane, so I was carrying my kid to avoid smashing one of his legs.

Airlines will check a stroller and even a car seat and Snap & Go frame at the end of the jet bridge for you. It seems you’re usually allowed to check a car seat or stroller with your baggage, too. (At least, they have when I’ve flown. Can’t hurt to double-check before you fly!)

Do you just hold it in the whole way?

Moms of young babies likely have mastered the art of going with a baby strapped into some kind of front carrier. (Well, if they’ve traveled before.) Toddlers aren’t so accommodating. If you must take them to the lavatory with you, you’ll discover there is just enough space for them to stand and pull tissues out of the holder while you do your business. Flight attendants can also stay with sleeping kids, if you like.

PS, if you haven’t discovered the (usually stinky) luxury of the family bathroom at the airports… that’s where you go to take care of everyone without backing into a handicap stall with a stroller and backpack and suitcase.

But I’m traveling with a baby!

Looking for baby traveling tips? Look here and here for some useful advice. And maybe don’t read my post about the awful experience I had the first time I flew with my baby. And maybe don’t read about this flight from San Francisco to Shanghai that was unexpectedly laid over in Alaska… for days.

And other miscellany

No one cares if you don’t look cute on the flight. Comfort goes a long way for attitude.

Don’t think you’ll actually get to sit down and enjoy a coffee. Unless it’s iced and you can chug it.

Don’t forget to complete a landing card for your kiddo before you arrive in your foreign destination! (Yes, even infants must have a passport.) Remember that you’ll have to clear immigration, claim your bag(s), then go through customs before it’s all over.

Seriously, though, you’ll be fine! And on the other side (after a few nights’ rest)… you’ll feel like you can do anything. Like go to Scotland.

Where are you heading with your tot? Feel free to ask specific questions in the comments below!

19 thoughts on “Transatlantic Toddler Traveling Tips

  1. I’ve recently crossed the Atlantic twice with kids, once with a 2 year old, once with a 3 year old. I could have used a blog like this; good info. I’m generally not one to entertain the kids with technology, but this last time I brought an iPod with movies and games pre-loaded…very helpful. A 9 hour flight with a three year old is all about survival…and reminding the little bugger to keep his feet off the seat in front of him. ;)

  2. Great tips! I flew a trans-pacific 35+ hour flight with a 34 week pregnant belly and a 20 month old little monster. We survived! I brought some toys, plenty of new shows and apps on the ipad and a lot of patience. I also bring good chocolate for the passengers sitting around us. I give it to them before we start the flight to soften their hearts in case the little monster acts up! hahaha

  3. YOU ARE MY HERO! I can’t even imagine. Way to go, lady! And good call on the chocolates. Next time…

  4. Whoo girl you’ve earned some gold stars!!! Way to go and great tips! We only took Sam on a 2 hour flight to Philly during Christmas, and it is NOT a situation I’d like to revisit in the near (or far, or anywhere in-between) future. You are my HERO.

  5. Thanks so much for commenting on my post and sending me over here. This is brilliant advice for my first flight with the boys. Really appreciate it.

  6. My oo my.. Feeling lucky though that I stumbled across this entry. I’m from Malaysia, will be travelling to London with my 21 month old twin daughters! Thank you so much for the tips. Definitely bookmarking this!

  7. Thanks for your post. I’m flying London to the Caribbean this summer. Followed by a brief hop to Florida and back with my little one who will be nearly 2. I am looking at flights with trepidation. We did the reverse journey alone at 10 months and it wasn’t really a bundle of laughs as I couldn’t secure an infant cot despite my best efforts. Now she is a toddling cheeky girl I’m even more tentative. I hope to hear how EJ faired on her journey from Malaysia. Any mums with tips on a toddler in your lap (might not be able to stretch to a seat for her this time).

  8. Big trips! It’s unlikely your toddler will be willing to sit on your lap the whole flight. Hopefully it will be a smooth flight and you’ll be able to wander the aisles. Crayons, stickers and activity/coloring books are good diversions. Snacks that take a long time to eat. Books with lots of pictures to look at and talk about. We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of our iPad in these kinds of situations, too; now we download a new movie before a long flight.

    The more flights I’ve taken, the more resigned I am to the fact that the flight is just going to be a lot of work. I also worry much less about the other passengers :) They really don’t seem to notice. Safe travels!

  9. I’m hoping to take a flight from Chicago to Tokyo with my 5yo and 15 mo old this summer, and I really loved reading your article! Thanks so much for sharing the wonderful tips.

  10. As a woman who has never had children but has travelled a lot on planes with other people’s kids, I really appreciate the efforts you made to make yours be as well-behaved as humanly possible!

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