Tips for long haul flights with a toddler

Community Member Alina Metjie of the 2’s class wrote this post for us earlier this year to share her experience:

I recently traveled alone with my 3-year-old son from Seattle to South Africa and Namibia via Europe, which included eight flights, four of which were long haul flights. I thought some parents might benefit from my experience, so here are a few tips to make the trip easier for your child and yourself.

Travel route

I had two long haul flights in each direction (9 and 11 hours) with a 6-hour layover in London. I booked a hotel room at the airport for the layover, which I found helpful as my son could run around, bath, and sleep and was in a much better mood afterwards. Some big airports (like Heathrow) have Jungle gyms, which can be very helpful during waiting times. Check out the airports online before you get there.

Car seat

Since my child needed his own plane ticket and seat (from 2 years onwards) and we needed a car seat at our destination, we had the option to bring our own car seat on the plane. Bringing your own, a seat you are familiar with and know how to use, is the safe option, and most children can sleep much better in their own car seat anyway. Here are some links about FAA recommendations:

Leaving on a Jet Plane – The CSFTL Guide to Safe Air Travel with Children

The issue is how to transport the car seat on the long ways at the airport, especially if you’re the only adult and have to carry all the hand luggage too. Note, you don’t pay for extra hand luggage when taking the car seat on the plane. There are lots of different options available e.g. using a car seat travel cart, connecting your toddler’s car seat to your rolling carry-on suitcase or using the stroller for the car seat. Below some links of the most popular options:

Packing hand luggage wisely

I had a small rolling suitcase and an extra backpack as hand luggage. I stored the suitcase in the locker above me and put the backpack underneath the seat in front of me. I made sure I had everything I needed for my son for the whole flight packed in the backpack and easily accessible at all times. Our backpack included snacks, spare clothes, a travel potty (see below), wet wipes, an iPad, a bottle and formula. My son still drinks warm milk out of a bottle when he wakes up and since there is usually no milk available on planes, besides the small tins you get for your coffee, I bought some formula just for the trip and checked at home if he would drink it.

Travel potty

My son doesn’t wear diapers anymore but sometimes he refuses to use public toilets, so I was worried if he would use the plane toilet and if we would both fit into the small bathroom. Further, waiting times at gates can become tricky since there are not always bathrooms nearby. A travel potty was the perfect solution. I purchased and was extremely happy with it.

My son could wee anywhere he needed to. I would either take him to the bathroom or look for quiet corners at the airport. On the plane I even used it in front of our seats without anyone noticing. You can just knot the plastic bag afterwards and throw it away. It saved me when he needed to wee urgently after the plane landed.

We even used the travel potty at our destination so we didn’t need to buy or carry an extra toilet seat ring (which we usually use at home). There is an extra inlay available, so you don’t have to use plastic bags at your destination. The potty looks quite small and I was at first concerned if my son would be able to ‘aim’ right and not make a mess, but I tried it at home first and it worked fine for him.

Entertainment on the plane

I found travelling with my 3 year old much easier than when he was 2 years old as he could keep himself busy for quite long stretches. I took an iPad with and, very important, a headset for his iPad. We bought, which has a volume limit cable to limit audio volume. For the first time my son was also interested in the on plane movies.

The headphones they have on the planes are usually poor quality and not suitable for children so I would strongly recommend bringing your own. The best ones are active noise cancelling headphones. There are many different types and price ranges available. I got one free, so have no idea how expensive it was. They are extremely comfortable (the cheap plane headphones really made my ears hurt after about an hour) and reduce environmental noise (especially the noise from the plane itself) a lot, so one can watch a movie properly. I even ended up sleeping with them as the plane noise bothered me.

And lastly

Always stay calm and don’t stress about a melt down. Every so often, you see a travel article about people who think babies and kids should be banned from air travel or moved to a separate section of a plane. These curmudgeonly business travelers assert their right to a library-silent, no-wails-allowed flight. But your child is just acting it’s age and you can expect adult fellow passengers to act theirs. I luckily never had really bad experiences, but I usually just ignore child unfriendly passengers.

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