We just flew across country with our son for the third time, and we are starting to get the hang of it. I think we will only be getting one more in before he turns 2! If you are planning to take a trip by plane soon, and will be traveling with your toddler, check out our tips and experiences below!
The setup. Since we were going to need our carseat at our destination, we purchased this simple carseat- suitcase strap to attach it to a carry-on suitcase (M's, in fact, so that we could get to extra clothes and diapers if needed, and to be sure that his stuff made it to our destination). Attaching the seat can be a little frustrating, but its nice to have the seat with you, especially if you get lucky and the flight isn't full, you can ask at the gate to be re-assigned next to the empty seat and use your carseat. If the flight is full you can always check the carseat at the gate.
a blurry look at our carseat-carryon setup
I also dusted off our old, full size diaper bag to be my 'personal item' and filled it with toys, snacks, diapers (cloth ones! traveling with cloth can be another post altogether! but also a couple disposables that we always keep on hand for backup), headphones, my phone and wallet, etc. One other thing that we bring when we have room in our carry-on allowance is a trunki (we bought ours through Amazon). It is mostly useful during layovers (to ride, or provide a fresh set of toys or refill essentials), since its pretty unwieldy to be opening in your seat, unless the little one has their own, and even still... but it could make a good suitcase for short car visits and be an extra toy at your destination if you don't expect there to be others.
Also in preparation for our plan trips, we've been reading this amazing airplanes book. I am not sure M totally gets it yet, but he loves the page where the cabin crew are passing out snacks, and a doggie passenger is drinking a beverage with a straw. And he is sure to point out every plane in the book.
Oh don't forget your water bottles!! They have to be empty through security, but finding a water fountain to fill them up is an entertaining activity! M likes to press the button and drink from it, too.
Infant in arms: if you aren't buying a ticket (only allowed for kids under 2), you should indicate with your carrier that you have an "infant in arms". And be prepared to show proof that your kid is, in fact under two. The first several times we flew (on Delta), no one asked, but this last time Southwest wanted to see some ID A birth certificate or shot record preferred, but we had a MetLife ID card that showed his birthday that they accepted.
Wardrobe, please! There were two legs of our trip out and two changes of pants (one was needed during the security check). We went through 4 diapers on the first 3.5 hr, leg, and he was totally dry on the second, 2 hr, one. My recommendation is to pack twice as many as you think you'll need and have more handy in stowed carryon that you can get to in an emergency, or to refill your stash during layovers. On the trip home, I double-stuffed our cloth diapers and they lasted a bit longer. Each way we put a fresh one on before boarding if it was the tiniest bit wet. Depending on how risk-averse you are, you might pack and extra shirt or outfit for yourself and other family members. One of the other toddlers on our flight got sick all over her parents. We definitely did this when M was still nursing, since the chances were much higher that some bodily fluids would be getting on us.
Food for flight. A friend recommended we pack 'double the snacks', which was good advice, since our flight was around lunchtime, and I was hungry too. It can be a while before they start cabin service and make those little peanuts available! And if its a short flight you might not even get that. So we packed some steamed carrots (from our farm visit), Colby-cheddar cheese sticks (one for each of us, and those went fast!), Cheerios in a self serve cup (which were consumed right after the cheese and right before a big nap), an apple-carrot baby food pouch (and packed two more in the suitcase - I am excited we are finally able to use these. I am glad we found organic ones and veggie combos, but I am bummed about the packaging waste... I will research some reusable options...), a whole apple, snack packs of cheddar bunnies, Lara bars, raisins and snagged a bag of Wheat Thins from the free Southwest snacks to keep with us over our visit. Be choosy about what you bring to avoid needing ice packs. We also bought some sandwiches to eat on the flight for ourselves, but I spied other families consuming homemade PBJ's. And, after M fell asleep on leg 2 we both ordered ourselves adult beverages! (one other note, our Delta flight did have whole milk available, but the Southwest one did not have any kind of milk. If you want to take milk try these milk boxes that don't need to be refrigerated - but be prepared for a pat-down in security if you carry them on.)
Ear popping. Our little guy sucks his thumb, which helped with ear clearing. But also we brought a sippy cup that requires some effort to extract its contents just in case. If your child still nurses then you have a built-in option, too. If its any consolation, I think the pressure change helps make them sleepy...
Time to play. For entertainment we played with a new peek-a-boo book about trucks, a mini can of Play-Doh, his Leap Frog Tag Jr. book reader and two books, iPad (with the newly loaded Pat the Bunny app, but also old favorites, Elmo ABCs app, Ink Kids flash cards app, and The Monster At The End Of This Book book). Other entertainment included sleeping, eating, looking out the window, and standing on our laps + playing peek a boo with the other passengers. Other toys on deck include coloring book + crayons, a few small trucks, and more apps. And more snacks.
Rockabye. M is too big for our fabulous sling that we used last time. I brought an adult sized neck pillow, even though I have never successfully slept on one. But this flight it proved to be a great elbow rest while I had a 30-lb toddler in my arms. We had packed one of our muslin swaddle blankets to keep him warm during the chilly flight. On the second leg, it was bedtime, and we found out that our guy is pretty wed to sleeping on his tummy. After about 15 super squirmy minutes, he finally ended up with his head in hubby's lap, body across mine and legs dangling. And snoozing solidly. After we landed around 9:30 home time, he was awake, but sleepily and somewhat grumpily greeting his grandparents. We took the opportunity to change into his nighttime diaper and pjs. On our 45-minute ride to the house, he fell back asleep and transferred beautifully to his already-set-up pack-n-play at Grandma's.
And by all means, allow your little one to stretch their legs during layovers! They will have to sit still a lot so if you can afford to go slower and let them walk between gates, do it. And don't forget to ride the people movers or escalators, too. The afore-mentioned Trunki helps here a lot, too.