Flying with Kids, The Good, Bad & Ugly!
Flying with kids from the US to Australia or return is no joke. You're typically looking at a total of 24 hours of flying time with a minimum of 1 layover, lining up for customs and immigration, various security checks, and every parent's favorite: crossing over multiple time zones and jet lag. Meltdowns are inevitable (and your kids will have tantrums too).
Who better to gather tips for flying with kids from, than the experts - Aussie parents who've been there, done that and lived to tell the tale. We bring you the ultimate guide to flying with kids with tips for surviving the mammoth ordeal that is 10,000 miles at 30,000 feet with the pitter patter of little feet.
The guide is organized into different parts of the flying process.
Passports & Travel Documents
Infant Feeding: Breastfeeding, Formula/Bottle Feeding, Pumping
Checking In & Layovers
Surviving the Flight
Disabilities, Medical Conditions & Additional Needs
Misc Tips & Resources
Passports & Travel Documents
All kids need a passport to fly internationally, regardless of their age. If you’re planning to fly with your child soon after they are born, you’ll need to obtain their birth certificate, which typically takes a few days to receive, in order to apply for their passport.
If your kids were born in the US they are automatically US citizens and will need their own US passport to fly. If you’re flying to Australia, they can enter as a visitor on their US passport and you’ll need to obtain an Electronic Travel Authority ETA for them.
If you’ve already obtained your child’s Australian citizenship by descent, they will not be permitted to enter Australia unless they also have an Australian passport. Therefore if you’re planning to obtain Aussie citizenship for your US-born child (which can take several months), don’t plan a trip to Australia until you’ve also obtained their Aussie passport. Although you may have heard examples about exceptions being made, the word we've received from official channels is that airport immigration staff are strictly adhering to these requirements.
If an emergency necessitates your travel, there are options for expedited passport issuance, but it’s obviously better and less stressful to plan ahead and obtain your child’s passport well ahead of your travel dates.
If you and/or your kid have dual passports, you must enter the country that you are travelling to using that country’s passport. If you're traveling to a country for which you do not have a passport, decide which will be the main passport.
Children are permitted to depart Australia with just their passport and appropriate visa, whether they are traveling alone, with a guardian or with one or both parents.
However many countries require ALL minors to carry additional documentation to be permitted to enter that country. Be aware of each country’s documentation requirements when traveling with kids. Do the research even if you have visited the country many times before as policies are frequently revised, by checking with the embassy of the countryyou are planning to visit.
The definition of what age constitutes a "child" can also vary between countries.
Additional documentation may include: a certified copy of the child's birth certificate, authority from the absent lawful parent/guardian for the child to travel, adoption papers if the child is adopted.
If your child is traveling without the other parent, without parents (eg with grandparents) or as an unaccompanied minor, they should carry a notarized written consent to travel from the parent(s) as some border officials may require them.
Infant Feeding: Breastfeeding, Formula/Bottle Feeding, Pumping
Airports & TSA
Some airports have dedicated pods and/or family rooms for breastfeeding, pumping and for general privacy to feed and change baby including USA, Australia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and many airports around the world.
Allow for extra time at security for them to take away any liquids (including formula and breast milk) and test them.
Pack all the formula, milk, food, water, wet wipes in one bag with nothing else in it. It makes it so much easier just to give the entire bag to TSA rather than have to open your carry on and multiple bags.
Many Mums found breast feeding the easiest during travelling, to help with stabilizing ear pressure, putting them to sleep and for take off and landings.
It’s important to ensure Mum stays hydrated, so be sure to drink lots of water.
Pre-prepare formula by measuring the scoops and adding to the number of bottles you'll need. Just add water when it's feeding time.
Also you can use a formula dispenser or formula divider to pre-measure powdered formula.
Bring pre-boiled water in separate bottles or you can buy a big bottle of water once you clear TSA to mix on the plane. Always have water handy as sometimes the flight attendants are busy and won't be able to get to you in time.
It’s easier if your child is willing to take room temp bottles so try and work on this in the lead up to your flight. It’s hard to get bottles heated sometimes and during take off and landing this could be a saviour.
Once you’ve booked your ticket, call the airline as soon as possible to request a bassinet. Being a frequent flyer member with a high status helps. Even if they don’t sleep in it, it’s handy to have the extra space to put baby down while rummaging for a toy or to eat.
Book a seat between you and partner (if together) then if no one claims that seat you have a free one. If another passenger is allocated to the seat, they may be willing to move. - Marion
Book seats in the middle section. If there are just three of you, you might get lucky and not have a passenger allocated to the fourth seat.
Generally airlines will allow kids aged under 2 years to fly on a parent's lap, with one lap infant per adult. However children not occupying a paid seat will generally not receive a checked baggage allowance. Some airlines will charge taxes and fees for the lap infant. Be aware that the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA identify risks associated with babies flying on laps, and recommend that infants are strapped into their own seat. This is covered in more detail under the "car seats" section below.
If you get the baby/toddler their own seat, know that many airlines offer kids' rates, so check with the airline what they offer for kids' airfares.
If you select a special meal (eg kids' meal, vegetarian etc) you will generally receive it ahead of the meal service, which can quell a hungry child (or parent). - Angela
Virgin Australia offers the Meet and Assist program for "parents traveling with many young children", eg for assistance with your cabin baggage from check in to the boarding gate. You need to pre-arrange the service through their call center and the availability of the service can depend on the airport and the staffing level on the day.
Etihad has a nanny service you can request while booking. When I traveled solo with the two kids from Australia, a flight attendant regularly came to check in on me, brought kids toys and coloring books, play with the kids and even kept an eye on them when I went to the bathroom! They also offer pouches and kid-friendly meals. Hands down top service! - Annie
Qatar has gifts for kids, kid friendly meals, friendly staff. They also allow the inflatable cushion that you place between seats, allowing kids to stretch out and sleep. - Annie
Etihad & Emirates have the largest bassinets plus helpful staff with an onboard nanny to help out. Great when you are travelling by yourself. Book flights directly with the airline & call to reserve the bassinet. I always got one this way. - Meike
Virgin Atlantic, ANA are very kid friendly. ANA have good toys and decent baby meals. Best way is to call up the bulk head seats and show up early to the airport. - Caroline
QANTAS staff have always been super nice about requests for water or milk. At the toddler age mine liked a visit to the galley (during less busy times/after meal service) and ask for some milk or a snack since it’s also “something to do” and get out of the seat for a bit. - Kylie
I only fly QANTAS because they are so accommodating and family friendly. - Amanda
Qantas has Tim Tams. If it keeps kids happy then it’s a bonus. - Kylie
Car Seats for the Littles (CSFTL) is a not-for-profit organisation staffed by Child Passenger Safety Technicians from the US and Canada.
CSFTL has created a guide to safe air travel with children, and in it they highlight that the FAA recommends that all children use a child restraint on board an aircraft from birth to 40 pounds. This guide contains more information about the safety regulations, the risks of flying with a “lap baby” and the logistics of flying with a car seat.
If flying with QANTAS, review their specific requirements about the use of child car seat and restraint systems. In particular, pre-approval is required for using a car seat or child restraint at least 24 hours in advance of your flight plus you'll need to show your device to airport staff on the day of travel.
If flying with Virgin Australia, review their specific requirements about the use of child car seat and restraint systems.
If any of your connecting flights are operated by a different airline, you must obtain additional approval from that airline and you should review that airline's rules for use of a car seat/child restraint.
An alternate to bringing a car seat is to use the FAA approved CARES harness.
If you can get the baby its own seat get one. Use your car seat as this is the safest way for them to travel and it gives you a break from holding them. My daughter always falls asleep as soon as the plane starts moving. Airlines outside the US don't have to allow car seats as they aren't under FAA regulations. This included Australian airlines. Virgin Australia wouldn't allow us to take our seat on coming back to LA from Sydney. Thank god she was only 5 months old and we were able to get a bassinet. - Shayne
If you plan to bring your car seat on the flight, check the airline’s policy ahead of time and bring along a printed copy with you. Some of the cabin crew were not familiar with their own policies and (incorrectly) tried to stop me from using it, until I showed them their airline’s policy. - Angela
The number one rule of flying with kids is to pack loads of snacks.
For toddlers and little kids, small snacks like Cheerios or raisins are time consuming to eat, which keeps them engaged for longer.
Dry snacks such as crackers, chips, dried fruit, granola bars are perfect for flying.
A few lollipops and small pieces of candy come in handy in a difficult moment or as bribery. You can sneak a few of them while waiting in the immigration line or when you need to calm a cranky kid. Although most parents don’t usually advocate filling kids with sugar, flying is one of those times when you need to do whatever works to get you through the moment.
Don’t forget healthy snacks for yourself, plus a chocolate bar as a special reward when you have a quiet moment.
Bring empty water bottles that you can fill after you pass TSA.
Bring loads of toys that don’t make a mess, that you don’t mind losing or being broken, that will keep your kids engaged for a long period.
Some good examples are sticker books, kinder surprises, magformers, Rubik’s cube, puzzle books for older kids, Lego.
Bring a teddy bear or plush toy for comfort.
Invest in some child-sized headphones that actually fit the child's head and stay on, with volume maximum.
Preload an iPad with shows for them to watch.
Give each kid their own carry on bag with their own kid-friendly earphones, inflatable cushion (if it's a long flight), snacks, a water bottle, a toy, coloring books and crayons, and a reading book for the older one. This makes it easy to find each kid's stuff to keep them happy. Check before you leave that they have not packed their bags too heavy. Otherwise you will find them complaining.
Unless it fits in their own backpack that they will carry themselves, or a single carry on bag, it is not coming. - Melissa
Another good idea is a roll of sticky tape. My kids spend hours creating stuff from the containers that the meals come in. - Melissa
Pack anti bacterial wipes and wipe down all the surfaces of the seat and tray table plus they are a good substitute for cleaning messy hands instead of hand sanitizer.
Pack pain relief for kids as well as for yourself. There’s nothing worse than having a headache and needing to find a shop in the airport.
Bring diapers/nappies for the flight, and pack more than you expect. Many a parent has discovered the phenomenon of infants having a high altitude blowout. Buy diapers for the remainder of your trip at your destination or order online ahead of time so they will be waiting for you at your destination.
Pack a spare set of clothes for your kids and for yourself. Kids are prone to having all sorts of accidents (we will spare you the details) and being in close proximity means your own clothing will also be a casualty.
Use packing cubes and separate the kids clothes into different cubes, which makes it easy when you're moving between hotels to just pick up a cube and place it in the room where that child will be sleeping. - Rachel
Don't forget your battery pack as not all airlines have USB ports. Make sure everything is charged including your battery pack, headphones, tablets. - Marion
Pack things which have double use, for instance a swaddle can also be used as a spitty rag and a cover for the bassinet. - Sarah
Butterfly clips or pegs are super helpful either to clip a blanket over the bassinet or to clip items to the bassinet. I used it as a clothesline. It was an easy way to access my daughters bib or change of clothes when needed. - Sarah
If you have an infant or small toddler, 'baby-wearing' is a handy way to get through airports eg with an Ergo, Baby Bjorn, Beco etc.
If you’re bringing a stroller, you can gate check it for free. Depending on the airline it may be waiting outside the plane door when you land. However with some airlines, you may have to collect it from the special luggage counter when you pick up your checked luggage. So this means you may have to make your way through customs and immigration lines with an infant/small child sans stroller.
Some airlines provide a courtesy stroller to use inside the airport, that you can leave at the gate when you board, eg QANTAS.
The following strollers fold up small enough to fit in the overhead compartment so you don’t have to check them: Mountain Buggy Nano, Yoyo Babyzen, other models.
The Mountain Buggy Bagrideris a ride on suitcase that an older toddler could hitch a lift on.
The Brica Smart Move Car Seat Transporter is a cart designed to transport a car seat but you can also use it to carry checked in luggage and it doubles as a ride on suitcase. It folds flat and can be stored in the overhead compartment
Checking In & Layovers
Have all documents ready and arrive early, you don’t want to be stressed if running late. Sometimes if TSA see a baby they will help you skip the queue but not every time.
Place all the liquids and foods that they will want to test in one bag so you know where to find it all in one place.
If you are eligible for Global Entry, get it! It also includes TSA pre-check. You must be a Green Card holder or citizen to get it. TSA pre-check is much faster and smoother.
Picking out a sticker book or activity or similar at the airport is often fun for the kids. It’s new and feels like a gift.
Bring a few lollipops for those times when you get stuck in the queue with cranky and restless kids.
Play the ‘eye spy’ game, while waiting in the queue, kids love it.
While waiting for the flight to board, let your child be wild. Get as much energy out of them as you can. Walk around the airport and keep them awake so hopefully they are worn out when you get on the plane.
Some airports have a better reputation for being child-friendly with play areas, including airports in the USA and Australia.
Mandate that all adults and kids wear slip on/velcro shoes. You do not want to be messing around with shoe laces, especially if your child is going through the "I do it myself" phase. - Angela
Check beforehand if & where the airport playground is. Print/download a map so you have an idea of what shops and services are available. Find a quiet part of the terminal and set up (even if it’s on the floor) for any long layovers. - Melissa
If you're traveling with another adult, at boarding time, have 1 adult board first to stow overhead bags, set up things you'll need in the seat backs etc. Then the other adult stays with the kids in the boarding lounge until the very last call. This gives kids a last change to shake their sillies out before being confined to the aircraft. - Angela
Surviving the Flight
Packing and checking in are half the challenge. Now that hard part begins in earnest: surviving a long flight with kids and passengers all in close proximity. Japan Airlines has even introduced a seating map for passengers to choose seats away from flying kids. For parents who don't have this luxury, the rule of thumb is, do whatever it takes to keep the kids (and parents) happy and sane.
Bottle or breast feed for take-off and landing to get the jaw moving and help alleviate ear pain. Or use a pacifier. Older kids can chew a gummy or suck on a lollipop.
Try to keep as 'regular' a schedule as possible, so when it's play time, find a space up the back of the plane and actively play.
Anything can be used as a toy. An empty coffee cup, for instance. Baby will also love exploring the plane. It's a new environment to get excited about.
If your child gets upset or restless, walk the length of the plane as they like seeing other people. Go to the back of the plane and pat your infant. It’s so noisy here that people won’t hear any crying. If desperate, go to the bathroom to play when everyone else is asleep.
There are various devices that are designed to help kids sleep on planes, such as the Plane Pal, Fly Tot, and Jet Kids Bed Box. Check the airline's specific rules about the use of these sleeping aids, as some allow them and some do not, eg Virgin Australia allows the use of sleeping devices subject to their rules of use, whilst QANTAS prohibits the use of such devices.
There is a current trend where some parents give goody bags to fellow passengers, including George and Amal Clooney. The overwhelming response of the AWNY community is a more practical one: don't do it. The majority of passengers are sympathetic if your child cries and it does not last for too long.
When you’ve reached your destination, the only thing worse than jet lag, is a child with jet lag who wants to party all night when you’re ready to crash. Basically, this totally sucks and nothing will make it go away for the first few days, but a few things might help.
Put the baby/kids to sleep at their normal time once at your destination. Even if you have multiple wake ups overnight, set an alarm and get up at your usual time. Get outside as soon as possible so baby understands it is day time and continue your regular routine. It may take a few days but it will fall into place.
Try and avoid flights at awkward times (early AM).
If it’s afternoon, head out for a walk early dinner to a kid friendly restaurant. But if you arrive in the morning (most flights into Australia arrive 6/7am) try to stay awake all day and go to bed early. This will hopefully get you into routine in the destination country.
Some people might suggest using melatonin or other drugs to manage jet lag. However, you should speak with your doctor before using these drugs.
Disabilities, Medical Conditions & Additional Needs
TSA has procedures in place to accommodate travelers with disabilities or medical conditions through the screening process.
If your child has a disability, medical condition or additional needs that make the screening process challenging, eg autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder, the TSA offers a TSA Notification Card, that you can fill out ahead of time in order to notify the TSA Officer. You can then consult with the TSA Officer about the best way to relieve concerns during the screening process.
TSA Cares provides a helpline, 1-855-787-2227, available 7 days a week for information and assistance requests relating to security screening for passengers with disabilities, medical conditions and additional needs.
The Points Guys has taken over 30 family flights and offers first hand experience and tips gained from traveling with a child with mobility and feeding needs.
The Autism Awareness Centre offers these tips for making travel easier for passengers with autism.
Amy Smith, an Occupational Therapist, offers strategies and exercises to help a child with sensory needs feel more relaxed and prepared for the airport environment and flight.
In Australia, the Hidden Disabilities program has been launched in Brisbane airport and being rolled out in other airports, to support passengers experiencing stress in airports due to autism spectrum disorder, hearing loss, anxiety disorders etc.
We had to whip our (TSA Notification Card) out at the beginning of a meltdown in San Francisco and they were really helpful about letting us go into the fast lane.-Kate, reader comment
Misc Tips & Resources
Check the airlines for specific info and guidelines about traveling with kids, including QANTAS and Virgin Australia.
Pre-crawling trips are a dream! Travel as often as you can.
Beware of young kids locking themselves in bathroom.
Check snazzy new child inventions are FAA Approved/Airline Approved before buying. - Marion
Listen to this podcast "Tips for Taking Your Newborn Overseas", hosted by Aussies, Leigh Campbell and Tegan Natoli, for This Glorious Mess by Mamamia, including the lowdown on how Tegan took her twins on a trip involving 24 hours of flying time.
Bamba Airport is an app that lets your kids take charge of an airport and airplane by conducting security, seating passengers, serving drinks and meals, and more. Kids can learn about the ins and outs of air travel while they call the shots.
My First Trip on an Airplane by Vic Parker
Go! (Blue): A Kids' Interactive Travel Diary and Journal
The Lonely Planet Kids Travel Book
The Lonely Planet Kids My Travel Journal
National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of the World
Everything & Everywhereby Marc Martin
Journeyby Aaron Becker
Knuffle Bunny Freeby Mo Willems
Peppa Pig: Family Trip
Many, Many thanks to Angela Tohl who was instrumental in putting this guide together, it was a long process but we did it. Also to the many amazing Aussie Mums in NYC that added tips and advice.