Tips for navigating busy airports and flying with kids

Busy airport with kids
Via Shutterstock

As a mom of four young kids who frequently flies out of ATL, the busiest airport in the world, I understand the challenges flying with kids brings, especially during the holiday season. 

From long security lines to cramped airplane seats, airport and plane travel can be overwhelming. 

I’m someone who deals with a certain level of anxiety in the best of times, and a busy airport with a whole passel of little ones can bring it to a whole new level. 

However, with a few tips I’ve learned over the past couple years, I’ve been able to decrease my stress level considerably (it’s not completely gone, but hey, a little caution is healthy!)  

And, you can too! With some careful planning and a few tried and true strategies, you can make your journey smoother and more enjoyable for the whole family. 

In this blog post, I’ll share my top tips for flying with kids and handling busy airports during the holidays with young kids.

Taking a road trip instead? Visit this post for our tips on road trips with kids.

kids at an airport waiting for flights
Pulling out all the stops to keep the toddler happy- a screen and watching the planes land and takeoff.

Get TSA Pre-Approval Beforehand

I can’t stress this enough- get TSA Pre-Approval! Even if you have no intention of making air travel a common occurrence with all of your family members- it’s worth it for even one trip.

In my experience, getting through that security checkpoint was always the most stressful experience at the airport.

The Atlanta airport actually has a dedicated family lane, which has cut down on some of the wait times, but when we flew last December it wasn’t any shorter than the regular lines. 

To get pre-approval, its a good idea to make an appointment as soon as possible; depending on your area, it may take a while to get an appointment scheduled where you’ll show your IDs, get finger-printed and  have your picture taken. 

However, I was pleasantly surprised to receive my “Known Traveler Number” less than a week after my appointment.  

This was something I slept on until my most recent trip when I flew solo with the kids, and I kicked myself for not doing it sooner!

This program allows you to go through a dedicated security line, avoiding the long queues. 

With young kids in tow, this can be a game-changer, making the security process much more manageable.

It also means not having to remove your shoes, and unpack all sorts of electronics and liquids- which is always a hassle when holding a baby or trying to wrangle a toddler! 

When flying with kids, I found this to be a game-changer. Just do it.

Travel During Nap Time or Early Morning

Obviously you’re at the mercy of the airlines, but if you can- schedule an early morning flight or a trip during your child’s nap time. This increases the chances of them sleeping during the flight, making it more peaceful for everyone.

If you’ve really tired your small children out beforehand, they’ll usually zonk out for at least part of the flight.

Plus, early morning flights tend to be less crowded, making the airport experience smoother. And, the probability for delays is lowest in the morning.

Allow Plenty of Time Before Your Flight

You’ve seen those memes about dads and how they arrive hours (maybe days, lol!) ahead of their scheduled flights, right? Well I don’t know why they are given such a hard time about their early airport arrivals, because being early is SO IMPORTANT when traveling with young kids. 

As someone with pretty serious travel anxiety, I absolutely have to give myself plenty of time so I’m not sweating through my t-shirt and whisper-yelling at my kids as we run (ok, I don’t really run, but I do clumsily jog) through the long hallways of airport doom.

Plan to arrive at the airport well in advance to allow for unexpected delays, long security lines (even if you can go though the TSA precheck lanes, holiday lines can get long!), and bathroom breaks. Multiple bathroom breaks!

Having extra time will help reduce stress and give you a buffer for any unforeseen circumstances.

For me, it keeps me from having to apologize to my kids later.

Let Your Toddler Safely Burn Off Energy Before the Flight

As soon as we get to our departure gate, we let the toddler out of the baby carrier or stroller, and let them go. Not on their own, mind you, we do follow closely.

If your toddler is full of energy, let them walk whenever possible. Some airports have designated play areas where kids can stretch their legs and burn off some energy before the flight. Or, we just simply let our toddler lead the way, and follow closely. 

flying with kids and letting toddler walk
Our youngest, happily strolling through ATL

If you have a really active little one, like we do, you might want to get a backpack harness or wrist leash, because that holiday travel crush is no joke!

I know these aren’t anything new, but I always imagined I’d get judgmental looks if I essentially “leashed” my kid. And, oh the horror of judgmental looks (I mean, why did I even care?)

But, it turns out these are way more common than I thought, I wish I’d bought one sooner! I like that this has the option for a leash or a wristband.

Harness or not, letting your little ones stretch those little legs is vital. 

Use AirTags for Added Security

Ok, your kids are going to stay close and everything is going to go great, BUT, for peace of mind, I highly recommend using something like an AirTag on each kid. We got these, because it came in a pack of four- exactly what we needed. 

When we flew to Idaho last year for Christmas, our oldest daughter nearly got left behind when the doors started closing on the shuttle between terminals. My husband, the hero, jammed the door open with his body and she made it on safely, thank goodness, but that moment still haunts me! 

I don’t say this to scare you, but just to say that things happen, and sometimes we just need to know that we have a back-up plan. If you’re like us and don’t plan to give your kids cell phones until they’re 32, a simple tracking device works as a good GPS.

Attach AirTags to your kids’ backpacks or use put them in watches to ensure their safety. 

We used a combination of these watches and attachments for our kids, and I liked knowing they were trackable. The airport is actually the best place for these devices, because they ping off of other iPhones, which are plentiful there.

If you’re wondering if you can get through security with these devices- yep! We’ve never had a problem.

Apple AirTag
Apple AirTag

Bring a Car Seat for Toddlers

If your child is still using a car seat, consider bringing it on the flight. This works only if your kid has their own seat of course, but I find the older kids are more likely to need it than the babies, anyway. 

A relative suggested this last time I was traveling because she knew I was doing it on my own. I knew I could bring a carseat on an airplane, but I imagined the hassle would be more work than it was worth.

For one thing, I didn’t know how I would handle going through the airport with a stroller, four kids, and multiple baggage. However, I decided to change my original plan of bringing my smaller stroller, and tried the carseat on the back of my double stroller- and it fit perfectly.  

Author at airport with four kids
The carseat fit perfect on the back of the stroller.

We’ve had this double stroller for over six years, and we love it. It works great with infant car seats, and collapses relatively flat. Older kids can sit or stand on the back. And, toddler car seats fit great on the back!

Also, (see the above comment about anxiety) I work best when I have a plan. My oldest daughter is the same. So, we set up our dining room chairs like an airplane and literally practiced carrying the carseat through the “aisle.”

It seemed a little silly at the time, but it helped us determine how to best carry the car seat (in front? Over the head?) ahead of time. The visualization was great.

Check your airline for carseat sizes, and make sure yours is FAA approved. Many sites will tell you the seat needs to be no more than 16-17 inches wide, but ours was 18.5 and fit great on our Delta flights.

This ended up being one of the best tips I’ve ever been given, because it saved us so much stress with our two-year old. He’s used to being in his carseat and happily spent a lot of time in it.

This not only provides a familiar and comfortable seat for your toddler but also allows them to sleep more easily during the journey.

Pack Empty Water Bottles and Snacks

We don’t like spending money at those ridiculously overpriced airport restaurants and kiosks. I always have our kids bring an empty water bottle each in their backpacks, and we fill them up after security.

We also keep everyone from getting hangry by packing plenty of snacks, baby food, and even meals, including homemade sandwiches for a long haul flight. 

Side note- you can totally bring filled bottles for your babies. Whether its breast milk or formula or, in our case, milk (because our whittle toddler can’t be without his almond milk for more than a few minutes), it’s no problem. 

However- you will most likely get pulled aside at security and they’ll check to make sure you aren’t trying to smuggle through….what? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but every single time, we’ve had our hands swabbed and the bottles checked over.

It doesn’t take long tho, and then you’re on your way. 

We have our older kids pack snacks in one of these zipper pouches (I’m obsessed with these and find they work for multiple uses!) They can pull them out whenever they want, and I don’t have to worry about keeping a bunch of stuff in my bag.

This will help keep your kids happy and minimize the need for expensive airport food and the hassle of long lines.

Bring Charged Tablets with Headphones

kid at airport on tablet
Via Shuttersock

Each of our kids wears a small backpack as their carry-on bag, and we pack a Kindle Fire for each of them. These are our favorite kid’s tablets for travel, because they come with a durable case, long battery life, and parental controls.

Its been worth it for us, given how much we fly and road trip.

And in the airplane, its a must have. We throw all screen time limits out the window! Many longer flights will have in-seat screens, but don’t expect that. Beforehand, we download their favorite games, movies, and shows. 

Don’t forget to bring headphones to keep the noise level down and ensure a peaceful journey for everyone.

Make a “Busy Bag” for Kids

Prepare a “busy bag” filled with small toys, coloring books, stickers, and other quiet activities to keep your kids engaged during the airport wait and the flight, when they aren’t on screens. 

We like to get each kid a new toy that they haven’t played with yet. Our toddler really enjoyed this busy board on our flight this last summer. 

This will help distract them and make the journey more enjoyable.

Bring Extra Clothing in the Diaper Bag

Accidents happen, especially with young kids. Pack a change of clothes in your diaper bag or your older kids’ backpacks, to handle any spills, diaper leaks, or unexpected messes.

Our youngest daughter likes to change 12 times a day regardless of spills or not, but on the latest trip she dumped her sprite all over her pants. I was so thankful she had more clothes. It saved us from a lot of drama!

And, the air conditioning in the airport and the airplane is something else- no matter how hot or cold it is outside, its always somewhere around 50 degrees inside. Pack a sweater and maybe a blanket because those kids (and you) will get cold. 

Lastly- Don’t Worry About the People Around You

As a recovering people-pleaser, this one used to be really hard for me. I would tie myself up in knots worrying about my kids bothering the passengers around us. 

If my baby cried even a little, I’d be an anxious wreck. 

But, the more I’ve traveled, the more I realize that:

A) I’m most likely never going to see these people again, so who cares what they think of me and my family.

B) Most passengers have headphones in and don’t hear anything going on around them anyway, and if they don’t – well, that’s their problem. Get with 2023 and buy yourself some noise-canceling headphones.

And lastly, C) Adult passengers are just as likely to be annoying on a flight as little children. 

We once had a guy hold up our entire flight, and then proceed to pass gas AND THEN THROW UP for the next few hours.

My kids would NEVER. 

I’m not saying be a jerk and let your kids run wild (flight attendants won’t allow that, anyway!) 

But, remember that you and your littles have every right to be there, it’s for a short time in the whole scheme of life, and anyone who gives you the stink eye can plan to take a greyhound next time. 

To Sum Up…

Traveling through airports during the holidays with flying with kids can be challenging, but with some careful planning and these helpful tips, you can make the experience more manageable and enjoyable for the whole family!

From getting TSA pre-approval to bringing entertainment and snacks, these tried and true trips will help you navigate the airport and flying with kids during busy holiday travel. 

So, pack your bags, take a deep breath, and embark on your holiday adventures with confidence!

happy girl in airplane with stuffed animal
Via Shutterstock

FAQs:

Can I bring formula, breastmilk or filled bottles through security?

Yes, you can! You may have to go through a little extra screening, but we have had no problems. We’ve found most people are very accomodating of younguns and their paraphernalia.

Where do I check my stroller?

At the gate, right before you board the plane. Talk to the gate agent and they’ll give you a tag to put on your stroller and/or carseat. You just close up the stroller right before you board, and set it off to the side.

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