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Air Travel with Toddlers: Car-Seats & Diapers & Lovies, Oh My!

Summer’s approaching and many of us are thinking about a trip. I have sweet nostalgic feelings towards those of my youth. Probably the sepia tinted memories are better than reality, but I don’t care… I wanna hit the road. But this summer that road must included the not-so-friendly skies as our destination. a family wedding on another coast, is too far to drive. This raises the question, if you have limited space to pack (versus a car trip) what do you bring? I’m really hoping those that have blazed this trail before us will leave some advice in the comments!

Packing Checklist:

Baby Center (babycenter.com) has a good checklist for travel with toddlers. Are you a list person? Some people are and some aren’t. I’d probably leave my head at home without one. Their list includes: Diapers, wipes, pad to put under your toddler during diaper changes, blanket (I’m pretty sure mine would not sleep without hers), plastic bags (even as a business traveler I carried several zip-locks for soiled/wet items… which are more abundant with kiddos), disinfectant hand gel, tissues, toys and books (some new ones as well as fav’s), your child’s lovey (can you imagine forgetting this?)…

Over-stuffed bag - Packing for a family summer trip by plane

But wait, there’s more:

…and the list continues: clothes, socks, and shoes, bathing suit, washable bibs (I know I’d have forgotten this), sun hat and sunscreen, sippy cups, lightweight plastic feeding set with utensils, portable highchair, snack food (no food on most flights now), nightlight or sound-soother (if you use at home), pain reliever and supplies for treating minor injuries, laundry soap for hand-washing, socket protectors, portable crib or play yard, car seat for travel by car or plane (more on this in a moment), collapsible stroller. Seems like a lot doesn’t it? But I’ll be you’ve thought of something they left off?

Car Seat Dilemma:

On the subject of car-seats, I’m strongly in favor of bringing your own with you to use in rental cars, etc… but it does raise the question about use on the plane. On our last air trip with our then 27 month old we had four flights total, and I used the car seat on all of them. Lugging that car-seat through airports, and worst still, installing and uninstalling that big thing on each plane was a huge pain. I’m wondering now if it’s worth it. That said, I want my little girl to be safe and I’m going to take the seat anyway whether I check it or not. What do you think?

They say that flying is much safer statistically than driving, but is the convenience of checking the seat worth the added risk (how ever tiny) of not using it on the plane? I put this question to my friends on Twitter and roughly 95% said they check their car seat. A few still have lap age children and take the money savings of not buying an added seat and run. And about 5% did what I did last time and used their regular car-seat on the plane. One made a suggestion I’d not heard of. It’s a special restraint system that she rented (and it can be purchased at many retailers).

CARES Child Aviation Restraint SystemI’m not promoting this system, as I’ve not used it (at least not yet, but I’m thinking about it). I does however seem like a good middle ground. And as one parent pointed out, the reason she used a car seat was less to do with safety and more to do with keeping her toddler put in his airplane seat. I’d love your input on both the car seat question and also on adding to my list of things one should consider packing when traveling with younger kids. I know I’ll forget something important and either have to buy it there… or deal with the melt-down for forgetting some favorite item.

What is Your Advice?

If you don’t already, I’d love to have you follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Leave me a comment and let me know and I’ll be sure to follow you back. Thank you for your help with any travel tips you have to offer me and my readers… and I wish you and your family a very safe and happy summer!

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  1. Bryna

    Lovey AND back-up lovey. There is nothing worse than dropping this beloved item somewhere on the trip. (And make sure to leave another back-up at home!) I’ll never forget watching my friend’s mom try to backtrack their trip down a busy city street to recover her grandson’s dropped lovey. Oof. That night, the grandma bought a dozen new ones!

    1. Michael Schmid

      Thank you so much, Bryna. You’ve made sure I pay extra attention to something I already suspected might be key. Don’t forget or lose the lovey… and if you do be sure to have a back up. When my girl was little we had two identical soft doll lovies, but she has something else now for which there is no twin. Not sure what to do about that?

  2. Daddysincharge

    I have travelled about 50 times on the plane with my kid and I tell you CHECK THE CAR SEAT! Really what will the car seat do? I doubt if you are falling from 35,000 feet the seat is going to do all that much. With that think of the amount if space the seat actually takes up. Your child would feel much better with the extra space in their seat. Since you are going to be flying cross country the extra space will be huge. What my wife and I also do is we reserve the window and the aisle seat on each side of the aisle so that we reserve 4 out of six seats leaving the middle seat empty in hopes that no one else sits there. I works sometimes. Bring an iPod an iPad loaded with games and movies. Skip the books on the plane.

    1. Michael Schmid

      Excellent tips… and much appreciated. I was hoping I wasn’t being a bad dad for considering not using the car seat on the plane this time. It was a HUGE hassle on our last four flights, and as you say… what real difference will it make? Great point about iPod games. It’s just the three of us, so my almost 3yo will be by the window and my wife and I will trade off the middle seat next to her.

      p.s. On the subject of the iPhone with games and movies loaded. Great idea. I’m pretty sure my wife’s iPhone would not have survived this long without it’s Otterbox case. Seriously, my little girl hurls that thing around and it’s still good as new. Almost unbelievable. I’m thinking a bight pink one (it’s my wife’s) might help keep it from getting lost in the shuffle?

  3. Anon

    Any advice for flying (12 hours) with a 23-month-old?
    Gramma is in her late 80’s, and not doing well and this may be the last chance, or we’d skip the trip this year.

    1. Michael Schmid

      I’ve submitted your question to my friends on Twitter in hopes someone has experience traveling with a toddler for that length of time. I do not, but must think that if it can be scheduled where the flight overlaps your child’s sleep schedule (often US to Europe flights for example leave in the evening and arrive the next morning) that might help? Let’s see what others advise. I’m sorry about ‘Gramma’, btw. Best wishes.

  4. W. Moy

    Bring “new” toys/books to help entertain and “special” snacks/treys to keep kiddo happy. Change on clothes for parent in carry on could be handy is kid has diaper leak or vomit episode. See my blog for a post on travel tips!

    1. Michael Schmid

      Makes sense. Probably want a mix of new toys (solid ones not likely to come apart and fall under seats) & books, as well as a few familiar for comfort? Great point about packing extra clothes (for all parties?) in carry-ons in case of accidents. What is the URL of your blog on this subject. Love to read it before our trip. Thanks so much!

    2. Bryna

      I second the “new” toys tip, which also applies to long car rides. Ah, if only you could play on the plane…

      1. Michael Schmid

        ✔ *NEW* toys. Got it. Thanks for dropping back by and adding more thoughts, Bryna!

  5. Ellen

    A notebook and stickers! Lots of snacks. I also got a leash backpack–one of the only times I used it but worth it as I was traveling alone. Gate check an umbrella stroller so you can use it at connecting airports (I ended up putting the carry on in the stroller and using the leash so my daughter could walk around without running crazy.)

    Above all ask for help. The flight attendants on our trip were all super and helped me a lot–including giving me a free glass of wine when my daughter fell asleep.

    1. Michael Schmid

      Hi, Ellen. We bought one of those leash things (it has a stuffed dog on the backpack part), but have never really used it. May want to consider trying to find it. Checking an umbrella stroller is a good tip. Notebook with lots of stickers as well as snacks ✔. And asking flight attendants for help. Sounds like they were great for you, including a free glass of wine. ☺

  6. Ryan Ash

    Michael,

    Something that we’ve found to be invaluable while flying is a halter/leash for our almost two-year-old. It’s hard enough trying to get through the airport/security with bags and everything, but with the halter/leash combo that we have it makes it SOOO much easier to keep him in check (and to keep Mommy’s sanity).

    Ryan

    1. Michael Schmid

      Ryan,

      You are the second person in a row recommending the halter/leash idea. Thank you. We have one we really haven’t used. Will def pull that out!

      ~Michael

  7. Act Fast Chef

    We haven’t traveled by plane with our Toddler since she was a Baby (5 mos old to be exact). We are terrified of flying with her since she is very curious, and well, a Toddler! I have no tips to share with you – but thanks for the post, because I’ve enjoyed seeing how others handle this situation :)

    1. Michael Schmid

      I remember the very first time (a couple mo’s old) when we thought about flying for a wedding. At the time swine flu as a concern, and we got so scared of all the germs on the plane and her unformed immune system and just didn’t go.

      We’ve been on six planes since (two trips), but once as a lap child, and once with a car seat, and I’m definitely looking for ideas on that, as it was quite difficult to maneuver, install and uninstall over and over.

      Thanks for coming by. The best info on my blogs comes from the comments for sure. I love my readers.

  8. Shell

    I second the new toys…. and, if they are old enough for happy meals, those happy meal toys make GREAT travel toys, and no one is overly upset if one gets dropped along the way….
    Or, if you plan enough ahead, you can stash a few favorite toys for a few weeks before the trip, so that they seem new all over again.

    Also, if you don’t have another adult on the trip with you, I suggest making everything as hands free as possible, such as using a backpack for your carry-on or diaper bag. The less stuff you have to manage with your hands, the better. The suggestion for a gate checked umbrella stroller and a toddler harness/leash backpack have been invaluable for me.

    1. Michael Schmid

      ✔ New toys (maybe those from Happy Meals)
      ✔ Backpack carry-on to keep hands free
      ✔ Gate checked umbrella stroller
      ✔ Harness/leash backpack for child

      Great suggestions. Everyone is being so helpful. Thank you. The way the Internet works these tips will be helping folks for years as this shows up in searches. :)

  9. Tom

    Okay, I know this isn’t “green”… but go to a pet store and get puppy training pads. Use those when changing diapers in public places. Easiest thing ever. Absorbent on the top in case of an accident, waterproof on the bottom so nothing soaks in, and disposable. So you’re not putting your diaper changing pad on a nasty changing table in a bathroom, then folding it back up and putting it in your diaper bag. That always skeezed me out.

    1. Michael Schmid

      The green issues you pointed out aside, Tom, that’s a super idea. I took a few extras from hospital when our little girl was born (same sort of thing) and they are VERY convenient. You’re right about me hating to wrap up the portable nylon one and put it back in the bag after goodness knows what got on it in a public restroom. Hadn’t thought of using inexpensive pet pads. Great idea!

  10. Diana

    I could never deal with the hassle of carrying or checking in a car seat. Just too much effort for too little gained. If your child fits on your lap, then it’s not useful. If your child doesn’t, then they are big enough for the airplane seat. Kudos for being willing to put up with it!

    1. Michael Schmid

      I wanted to be a good dad and maximize her safety, but oh my gosh it was a hassle lugging the car seat on to each flight and installing and uninstalling it (not the same as a car with snap clips). Our girls is 2 years old, almost three by then, so we must by her a seat anyway. Thanks for your thoughts, Diana!

  11. Chris Buckley

    Just a few bits of advice:

    1) The Sit’n’Stroll was the best $199 we have ever spent: car-seat becomes stroller, stroller wheels through airport, check it at gate, pick it up after flight, put baby in, wheel out to cabbie queue where it becomes a carseat again. (http://www.lillygold.com/)

    2) Avoid the Denver Airport at all costs. It is impossible to transfer through there without getting stuck for a while.

    3) Should you ignore #2 above, and end up getting stuck for 9 hours with an 18 month old (yes, this is still a fresh pain), you should know that the airport railcar through the international terminal is deeply entertaining (though you will be slowly driven mad by the Country-Western jangle they use to signal each stop)

    4) Avoid videos. The plane has movies. The hotel has movies. You don’t need to carry movies with you. Insteada survival kit full of stickers, toys, viewmasters, board games, all individually wrapped, that the child can pull in their own little roller bag. Gives em something responsible to do, and they just can’t wait to unwrap the treats along the way.

    1. Michael Schmid

      …a survival kit full of stickers, toys, viewmasters, board games, all individually wrapped, that the child can pull in their own little roller bag. Gives em something responsible to do, and they just can’t wait to unwrap the treats along the way.

      What great feedback; thank you so much, Chris! Fortunately we’re not passing through Denver, but I will file that info for the future. :) As for the Sit-n-stroller… I first saw those on my last trip carrying the car-seat. They were in the Sky Mall magazine and I lusted over, but didn’t buy one. LOL. Thanks again for the great tips!

  12. Tom

    Flying with kids is a stochastic exercise even at the best of times! Good luck.
    Here are my 2c worth!

    http://dad-u.blogspot.com/2010/04/babies-and-pressurized-aluminum.html

    http://dad-u.blogspot.com/2010/04/pack-horse.html

    1. Michael Schmid

      Yeah, I’m sure no matter how well you plan randomness will creep in. Folks should definitely check out your entertaining (assuming a slight sadistic streak on the readers part) posts on “Babies and pressurized aluminum cylinders” and dads as “Pack Horses”. 😉 Links are above.

  13. Brynna

    I wouldn’t dare rent a carseat with a rental car. I’ve heard horror stories about them being gross or expired or worn straps…you name it. And who knows what that seat has been through! So I’m with you on that one.

    We’ve only flown 3 times with little ones, but each time it was cross country. While we weren’t renting a car at our destination, I did still bring our carseat for the first trip (didn’t with the other two, since like I said, we weren’t renting a car there, just using buses which don’t allow carseats…plus with one and then two more children on those trips, it was too much to carry!). My thought was that my daughter (11 months at the time) was familiar with her seat, and if anything, it would provide a place for her to sit that she was comfortable with, despite being in a completely new place. So when I buckled her into her carseat, she knew the routine, just like in the car at home (as opposed to sitting on my lap or being in her own seat on the plane). So it worked well for us that time.

    I should mention though that our carseat on that trip was a Cosco Scenera. I’d highly recommend purchasing that seat for travel (they’re around $40-50, but I’ve seen them on sale for $20!)- it’s small (one of the smallest convertible seats) and VERY lightweight, so it’s not a huge hassle to tote it around. It is also a great seat as far as safety goes, often recommended as the “inexpensive” alternative to brands like Britax and Recaro. We did a lot or research before we bought it and I was really happy with the seat. Definitely no frills (not a ton of padding, no latch buttons (just hooks), no fancy clips, etc), but a good safe seat that works great for air travel!

    1. Brynna

      Oh and you can also usually find the Scenera for sale IN a plastic bag designed to use for travel.

      Personally, I’d prefer to gate check the seat rather than check it with my luggage (IF I wasn’t going to use it on the plane). I know it’s all held in the same place, but I figure the seat will take less of a “beating” with gate checking.

      1. Michael Schmid

        My wife said the same thing. Good tip, thank you!

    2. Michael Schmid

      I completely agree about not renting a seat from a car company. We did that once from Hertz (who you’d think would do a better job than most), but the seat did not have a functioning latch system and was soiled and loose. VERY unhappy with Hertz on that one. It was the only seat they had so had to live with it that trip. Never again. I’ll def consider buying an extra, small, more lightweight seat like the one you recommend. That might be a good alternative. Ours is HUGE and a massive hassle to install on multiple flights and carrying between them. Thanks again so much. Really helpful info!

  14. JDaniel4's Mom

    We will be traveling by plane in November. I will need to remember your list.

  15. Ivy

    We have yet to fly with our son (who is now four), but we have done a lot of time on the road (for business and pleasure) with him since pretty much day one. I started to keep a permanent list in my phone, so I could edit it as needed. Now he’s old enough to help with packing, which helps cut down on the chances of forgetting his favorite things. It also means an extra little bag for the extra things that he decides he wants last minute.

    The iPad has been an amazing addition to all of our travels. It’s a one-stop shop for movies, games and books.

    Can’t wait to hear how this all works out.

    1. Michael Schmid

      I accidentally killed my iPad (so sad) so we lost that entertainment vehicle, though the iPhone seems to work pretty well, too. I used to always travel with a list on non-standard travel (e.g. scuba diving on the other side of the world), but otherwise had literally two sets of everything (and sometimes even clothes left at cleaners in destination cities) so never really packed or unpacked. Yeah, used to travel internationally a lot. Now not so much.

  16. Sarah

    A portable DVD player and kid-sized headphones have save our sanity on many plane and car trips! We seem to fly the cheap-o airlines who don’t have movies on board.

    The CARES is a great option. A car seat may be more comfortable if you expect them to sleep for a long period of time, but if there’s too much excitement to sleep or they will lay their head on your lap, then I’d highly recommend it. A bonus is that they can’t kick the seat in front either. You can either check your car seat (make sure you at least cover it with a garbage bag) or rent one from a dedicated baby gear rental company on the other end. I’d avoid renting a car seat from the rental car places.

    If you do take your car seat on board, check out the Go Go Kidz Travelmate to get you to the gate. We did this with our 5 month old last time we flew and just gate checked the car seat if there wasn’t an open seat for her. We lucked out 1 time out of 6 flights.

    There are many baby equipment rental companies across the US and abroad that rent clean and safe baby gear, should you choose to go that route. You can pretty much just Google “baby gear rentals” and your destination city to find companies. You can also check babytravelpros.com to find one at your destination.

    1. Michael Schmid

      A portable DVD player like this would be a great idea.

      Plus I’m going to look into the Go Go Kidz. That’s brilliant!

      Thanks so much, Sarah!!!

  17. lily

    sawasdee ka!!
    I come to visit naka…

    1. Michael Schmid

      Sawasdee ka, to you too, Lili. Thank you for visiting us all the way from Thailand.

  18. Practical Parenting

    I always check the car seats. Mine actually sleep more if they’re just in the regular seat. Also, jelly beans and lollipops will get you everywhere!

    1. Michael Schmid

      Makes sense. Are the lollipops to help them with the air pressure adjustment?

  19. Gina

    Not to be a total downer, but if the plane crashes, ain’t no car seat gonna save your kid!

    Just saying.

    I always checked them. Diaper bags and blankies and all the necessary gear was more than enough to weigh me down and make me crazy during security check points, I didn’t need a car seat added to the mix.

    1. Michael Schmid

      You’re not the first to point that out, Gina. It’s just realistic. Of course I’ve hit some serious storms where my seatbelt (which will stay on her all the time) saved me from hitting the ceiling. I used to fly every week.

  20. Keia

    As much as I wanted to read all of the comments my lack of coffee today wouldn’t allow me. A lot of the tips provided were great.

    I’d say the changing pads (that someone mentioned in the pet store) are also available in Target, Walmart, and Toyrus/Babiesrus too.

    As for travel My son started traveling at 8 months. I have always taken his car seat. However I have checked it. I also have one of those attachment pieces that you attach to the car seat which turns it into a stroller (oh, it’s still in the box – 2yrs – but I’ve seen them work for others in the airport). If you don’t take a car seat take a light folding stroller and check it when actually boarding the plane. I have yet to purchase one of the those harness gadgets. As my son is already a terror without one, I think using one will make him worse. You will have to let me know how that works.

    Take lots of small snack (labeled of course, in a snack bag). An empty water bottle to fill once you get beyond the screening process.

    I also usually take my portable dvd, ipod, a coloring book & crayons, and small toys. Believe it or not I even have taken a small puzzle and bubbles. I usually pack a small bag with my sons things and hide a few small books or toys in my bag. It helps for when he’s worn out on his toys…It’s like hey toys out of Mommy’s bag!

    Safe travels and let us know how everything worked out.

    1. Michael Schmid

      Great advice, Keia! Some really good ideas here, and some I’d not have thought of. We did end up bringing, but checking the car seat. That was much easier than lugging it on and off multiple planes (and while it’s easy to install in cars, not so much on small planes). Thanks so much for the great suggestions!

  21. Crystal & Co.

    Brilliant! Excellent list.
    As always A Daddy Blog delivers with tips and solutions that are perfect for moms (and parents) everywhere!

    Thanks for linking up. I am sharing over on Facebook.

    1. Michael Schmid

      Thank you, Crystal. You are too kind. But don’t stop.

  22. Sam

    I’ve lugged our regular carseat on the plane. It was a bit of a pain, but I felt our son was more safe. Love you site, btw.

    1. Michael Schmid

      Thanks, Sam. We carried our car seat on and installed it when our daughter was a toddler, but now that she’s 4 we check it. So much easier moving through the airport and narrow airplane isle. She’s in a booster seat in the car now, so I’m not sure it would either fit or be approved for use on a plane anyway. We flew American Airlines last, and it was free to check the car seat.

  23. heather

    I know this is an older post, but I’m making my own list for a crazy 11-night, 12-day, 5-city trip across the northern states with a 4 yo and an 8 month old! I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve from prior trips I plan on utilizing:

    1. http://www.rideoncarryon.com/ BEST invention for traveling with a child who can sit up on their own. EVER.
    2. This car seat bag: http://www.amazon.com/Childress-Ultimate-Seat-Travel-Black/dp/B0009RNXNA/ref=pd_sxp_f_pt/192-3745242-9724436 You can pack stuff INSIDE the bag and check the carseat plus whatever fits in there besides… FOR FREE.
    3. kid-sized headphones (best $24 I spent on a travel-related entertainment item). http://vr-zone.com/articles/kidz-gear-launches-headphones-for-kids-made-for-apple-devices/14652.html?TB_iframe=true&height=650&width=850
    4. Any Color Wonder travel size pack by Crayola (no coloring on the seatbacks or on their clothes..mess free!) http://www.crayolastore.com/product/40043

    1. Michael Schmid

      Hi, Heather. GREAT information. We just got back from a road trip and cruise for Mother’s Day. Those headphones might have spared me listening to the second viewing of “Frozen” yesterday. I love it, but once a day is my limit. :)

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