In my last post, I detailed my (mostly) successful experience flying alone with my two young children, which went much better than my first attempt. If you’re flying alone with preschoolers or toddlers, let me share a few ideas about how to best set your family up for success.
Like I said in the last post, meltdowns on a flight often have a lot to do with luck. Still, I feel it’s good to prepare and set yourself for the lowest probability of meltdown. Here are seven suggestions I’d make to help making flying alone with preschoolers more manageable. As always, would love to hear your thoughts in the comments! If you hear echoes of the experience I shared in my last post, it’s because I’m not only a spokesperson for these ideas, I’m also a customer.
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Seven ideas to make flying alone with preschoolers or toddlers more manageable
- Pick a time to fly that works for your child
- Pack light
- Make life easy on the ground
- Don’t stress out about the nap
- Make sure your kids are fed
- Break your flight down into twenty minute segments
- Practice, practice, practice at home
1. Pick a time to fly that works for your child
First and foremost, I’d say pick a flight time that best sets yourself up for success. Yes, you’ll save a ton of money flying at 6 AM or 9 PM, but is that worth potential disaster? This rings especially true if your travel puts you alone with multiple young children, like my latest trip.
Like I said above, I enjoy traveling mid-morning. I can wake the kids up normal time, and we can either have lunch on the plane or when we land. Others know their kids will nap fine on the plane (either through experience or because they get consistent naps in car seats). If that’s the case, you can travel after lunch and have your kids nap on the plane. This worked like gangbusters for my oldest daughter, but my son doesn’t nap well on planes so I’ve adjusted.
Know your child and know when they will be at their best. To me, it’s super worth the premium to pay extra to fly accordingly.
Corollary my family and I use: Avoid connections if you can. Every layover just presents another opportunity for things to go wrong.
2. Pack light
Like most parents, I tend to worry about everything. This leads to a tendency to overpack – extra jackets, twice the amount of clothes needed, sunscreen, medicine for every disease known to child, etc. I can be guilty of this, but I work very hard to pack light, it just makes the airplane part of travel so much easier.
That means I only brought the essentials to Florida plus:
- 1 extra set of clothes
- Ponchos (it’s Florida and they’re light)
- Diapers (I ended up having extra room)
- Entertainment for the kids (coloring books, tablet which I forgot, etc.)
So in the end, I ended up with one carry-on sized suitcase (which I checked, more on that later), one adult backpack, one kids backpack, one stroller, and one shoulder bag (like a tote) for food.
That meant except for the short distance from the car to the check in desk, I could always have one hand on the stroller and one hand on my older child. That not only provided convenience, but I also didn’t have to worry about losing anyone in the crowded airport.
3. Make life easy on the ground
So why did I check in my bag? Because of Disney’s Magical Express, which delivers your luggage straight to your room. In general, I’m a believer in making life easy for yourself on the ground at your destination at the least, at both departure and destination if possible. I didn’t have to worry about my suitcase and I just got my kids on the bus and was at Coronado Springs in an hour (though again, we definitely got very lucky this time around, it can take up to two hours).
Becky Pokora of sightDOING.net expressed a similar idea on Episode 75 of the Saverocity Observation Deck podcast. Towards the end of the podcast she mentioned she almost always hires a car at her destination just so she can mostly guarantee she’ll get to her lodging with as little stress as possible. When you save a lot of money on travel via hacking, you can afford to splurge a little to make life easier on the ground. In my mind, this goes double when you’re flying alone with preschoolers or toddlers.
4. Don’t stress out about the nap
Yes, most toddlers and preschoolers need a nap. They also need to assert themselves and their independence. In my opinion, fighting with your toddler about napping on a plane isn’t worth it and may even have the opposite effect. I’m sure you have fought with your child about napping at home, imagine doing it in a very public, very confined cylindrical tube 30,000 feet in the air.
Some kids will be self aware enough and decide they want to sleep themselves (my daughter). Others will just never sleep and end up overtired the next day (my son). Some kids will eventually get so overtired they flip out for a time until they eventually pass out in your arms inside the lavatory (both my kids).
I liken this to calling the bank when you get “pending” for your credit card, which I no longer do. If you start insisting your child take a nap on the plane, you’re inviting them to throw a tantrum early. Yes, they may eventually throw a tantrum if you don’t make them take a nap, but your insisting gives them two opportunities to do that instead of just one.
I’m sure many people disagree with me, and that’s fine. I’ve just found stressing about the nap not to be worth it. On both flights, I calmly asked my son if he wanted to take a nap, he said no. I replied by trying to reason with a two year old about the importance of rest, he said no again, and I just let it go. Luckily he didn’t tantrum and we survived.
Obviously, this strategy needs to be adjusted for longer flights, but we managed for five and a half hours including the delay, and you can too.
5. Make sure your kids are fed
Do I love bringing macaroni and cheese (with broccoli mixed in) onto a plane? I most decidedly do not. But I knew Jetblue wouldn’t even have “real” food for sale on my flight, so I needed some sort of substantial sustenance for the kids. If I hadn’t woken up so late I would have added ham.
The two most consistent reasons my kids, and I think most kids, get cranky are still lack of sleep and hunger. While I’ve established I try not to stress out too much about the former, I definitely prepare for the latter. I reserved an entire carry on bag for snacks, the macaroni and cheese, milk, etc. I even bought easy mac for the ride home. Spend that extra time and use up that extra space to make sure your kids won’t be hungry on the plane, and ideally, not just loading up on chips and pretzels. Trail mixes are great for protein if your kids will eat them.
I brought treats for my son (aforementioned Reese’s Pieces), and doled them out over time. Another very effective technique for toddlers is putting tiny snacks into a pill box (Amazon affiliate link) – it really drags out the whole process!
6. Break your flight down into twenty minute segments
I got this idea from a fellow writer at Traveling Dad, Jeff Bogle (from the fun parenting/travel blog Out with the Kids). I recommend checking out this post about breaking your flight into twenty minute segments (despite him disagreeing with me about the nap time thing!).
The basic premise: bring activities, food, entertainment, etc. that can be doled out to your toddler in 20 minute segments (minimum). Whether it be coloring books, a TV show, or a snack in a pillbox, prepare to have a variety of activities for your child.
The idea sounds simple and it is! I’m not a very organized person but I still managed to get on that plane (with very little luggage) with over ten twenty minute activities. My activities included the aforementioned pill box, a coloring book, a sticker book, the mac and cheese, multiple TV shows, and more.
Mixing things up will prevent the kids from getting bored, and planning in this fashion will prepare you to entertain them on the trip even if you’re a bad planner (me). Bring some candy for yourself, too.
7. Practice, practice, practice at home
If you can’t handle your young kids at home, you’re certainly going to struggle up in the air. So if you don’t get put in 1 v multiple situations at home, put yourself in them. This goes double for whichever parent spends less time taking care of the kids.
Taking care of the kids alone at home obviously gives you a practical advantage. You get used to being outnumbered and the tightwire act that ensues. You also get the experience of not having a safety net to back you up. I guess you have the kindness of strangers but you potentially have that on the plane too.
But probably the best reason to take care of the kids alone, aside from making your partner happy and more relaxed, is you get to know how you parent the kids. To state the obvious, this knowledge will be invaluable when you’re in a solo situation with the kids. Especially one that has the potential to be high stress.
Also, hanging out with the kids alone is fun. Practice!
There’s no surefire way to ensure flying alone with preschoolers or toddlers will be smooth, but there’s lots of ways to reduce stress. These are tips that have worked for me. But every family and every child is different, as you no doubt know if you are a parent.
So, I’d love to hear it: what works for you and your kids when you’re traveling alone with no backup? Or if you haven’t tried it yet, what scares you the most about traveling alone with your little kids? Let me know in the comments!
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