Tips for flying with kids: Best seats, avoiding ear pain and activities

Somewhere over the Indian Ocean, I felt it: a warm, damp feeling on my lap, slowly making its way down my legs. It wasn’t the body heat radiating from my then 1½-year-old son curled up asleep on top of me, and it was definitely not a spilled cup of ginger ale. My son’s diaper had started leaking. And while I had packed a clean onesie for him in my carry-on, I had to sit out the remainder of the flight in pee-soaked trousers.

Air travel with young children is a minefield of potential trouble. There could be leaky diapers, upset tummies, ear pains or motion sickness. Depending on a child’s personality, airplane cabins can turn into pressure cookers for full-blown temper tantrums. The prospect of all that, in a confined space shared with some 300 strangers, is enough to send even the most levelheaded parents and caregivers into a spiral of stress.

6 tips for traveling internationally with children under 5

It doesn’t have to be. Even though every child is different, there are preparations and precautions that could make flights as smooth as possible. After having logged thousands of miles with my child, these are the tips I — and other flying parents — swear by.

Book the front or back of the cabin

During long flights, the right seat can make all the difference. Infants up to 2 years old can travel on a parent’s lap and don’t need to book a separate seat. If they fall under the weight limit, which varies per airline but hovers around 22 lbs., they’re eligible for a baby bassinet (a cot-like contraption attached to the wall opposite the bulkhead seats of some aircraft) that allows them to sleep comfortably and gives parents plenty of space to stretch their legs.

Airlines such as Delta and United allow bassinets to be pre-requested via their Help Center. Limited availability (sometimes no more than two per plane) or last-minute aircraft schedule changes make it impossible to guarantee one, though, so always have a backup plan ready. Some airlines don’t allow bassinet reservations altogether and assign them to travelers with infants on a first-come, first-serve basis at the boarding gate or check-in counter.

This airline is offering a kid-free zone — for a fee

Children older than 2 will need a seat booked for themselves. To avoid split-up families and musical chairs during boarding, paying a fee to pre-book seats before departure is a worthy investment.

“We try to get bulkhead seating for the extra room and to avoid those dreaded kicking-the-chairs-in-front situations,” says Cynthia Andrew, a Brooklyn-based travel blogger and attorney who crisscrosses the globe with her 3-year-old twins. “If we do get seated directly behind other passengers, I politely introduce myself at the start of the flight and let them know that we’ll be doing everything in our power to prevent any disruptions and that they should feel free to let us know if there are any issues. I find that leads to so much goodwill.”

Flight attendants want to ban lap-babies on planes

If the bulkhead seats are fully booked, consider the seats at the back of the plane. “By default, airlines usually put all the families in the rear of the aircraft,” Tony Dong, a Delta flight attendant, said in an email. “People often think this area isn’t great, but it’s the contrary. When I travel with my young daughter, it’s closer to the lavatories, and if I need anything from the flight attendants, they’re right there.”

Keep the aisle seat for yourself, though. Little hands and legs jutting out while food carts and passengers pass by is a recipe for disaster.

Airplane seat configurations vary per carrier and route, so it’s wise to check seat maps with a tool such as SeatGuru before you select your preferred seats.

Time your flights around sleep schedules

Young children have their own circadian rhythm, and if schedules allow, it’s worth trying to plan your flights around it. An eight-hour trip across the Atlantic is likely more comfortable at night, when kids can spend most of the journey sleeping. A shorter city-hop, however, is easier during a time of the day when your child is usually awake to avoid grouchiness when fatigue sets in.

7 rules for red-eye flights: No bare feet or lavatory hogging

Depending on the destination, breaking up an intercontinental flight could be another way to make long trips more manageable. “When we fly long-haul in economy, we often plan an extended stopover,” says tech start-up founder Chris Osborne, who works remotely around the globe with his wife and two young boys in tow. “Two or three nights in a city somewhere along the way is perfect.”

When your travel schedule is flexible, try to avoid booking trips on holidays and weekends. During these busy periods, flights are often packed and prone to delays.

Pack an accessible change of clothes for yourself

After having my pants soaked midflight by a leaky diaper, I learned this lesson the hard way: Always pack a spare change of clothes in your carry-on luggage. Not just for your child, but for yourself.

Even though slightly older children might be potty-trained at home, a strange environment like an airplane cabin might trigger old habits. To avoid potential accidents and unnecessary stress, a pull-up diaper will bring peace of mind. While you’re at it, be sure to stuff a pack of wet wipes and a spray bottle of hand sanitizer in your bag — they’re guaranteed to come in handy.

7 tips from parents on how to pack lighter with kids

Leave space for the other essentials, though, like toys and snacks. The best toys to pack depend on your child’s age and personality, but a rule of thumb is to keep them quiet (no bells, rattles or electronic sounds that could disturb passengers around you) and free of small elements that might get lost between the seats. A long flight is also an ideal time to introduce a new book or toy to your child’s collection. On the snacking front, choose options that are low in sugar (to avoid that dreaded sugar rush) and not crumbly or overly sticky.

Affordable ring binder pencil pouches, with their zipper closures and clear windows, fit everything from activity books to pencils and small toys and can be combined into a bone fide activity kit with a zippered binder or a few binder rings.

Manchester-based Reef Pearson, who often travels with her young nieces, suggests packing toys and treats inspired by the destination of a trip. “We treat their hand luggage like an ‘explorers kit,’” she says. “When we went to Paris, for example, we printed coloring pages with the Eiffel Tower and packed them with pencils, stickers and little croissants. And in the past, we’ve put in things like a compass and a pilot hat.”

And depending on which side of the screen time debate you stand, “Bluey” and “Peppa Pig” make for excellent babysitters while you take a breather. Even though many aircraft are fitted with an entertainment system and a solid selection of kid-friendly movies and TV programs, it’s smart to have an iPad or other digital tablet preloaded with your child’s favorite shows as a backup option.

Get to the airport early and burn off energy

Seats booked? Carry-ons packed? Now there’s only one last hurdle to overcome: the airport. Even if you’re usually on #TeamJustInTime, navigating an airport with a young child opens up a whole new league of potential curveballs. There could be sudden bathroom breaks, lost toys or full diapers you did not see coming. Save yourself the unnecessary stress and leave well ahead of the suggested two hours before departure.

Some airports will have a separate line for families at check-ins and customs to speed up waiting times. Even if there’s no sign, a staff member on surveillance duty will often be able to whisk you to a designated desk or station.

Is a big trip with your toddler worth it? What memory experts say.

According to Osborne, arriving early at the airport has another benefit: They are great places to explore. “Encouraging your child to do so is a great way to burn off excess energy before a flight.”

And while families with young children are often invited to board first, it depends on your child’s mood if it’s wise to do so. Being one of the first on the plane does allow you to get settled and store luggage without too much going on, but it also adds at least 30 minutes of your time on board. If you’re traveling with a partner, consider splitting up: While your partner gets settled, you can keep your child busy in the terminal until the final call for boarding.

Avoid painful ‘airplane ear’

During takeoff and landing, some children will experience pain in their ears as a result of changing air pressure. This “ear-popping” might be scary for a child who has never experienced it before, so be sure to explain ahead of time that it’s only temporary and a normal part of flying. To decrease the chance of painful ears, encourage your child to yawn or swallow during takeoff and landing, or offer them a glass of water to drink or a hard candy to suck on.

Why flying while sick can make you feel worse

Those might not be options for younger children, of course — and good luck getting them to yawn or swallow on command. In that case, time a bottle or breastfeed during takeoff and landing so that your child will naturally swallow.

Chris Schalkx is a Bangkok-based travel writer. You can follow him on Instagram: @chrsschlkx.