Expert Tips: Safe Plane Travel With Kids

Jodi Gerstenhaber

The prospect of taking two small children on an airplane can be scary and intimidating. Several hours enclosed in a capsule, thousands of feet above the ground? Sounds like a nightmare to most families. I have now flown twice with my girls, and I promise you, it is not as bad as it sounds!

Let’s start with the important stuff.  You NEED to get organized! I packed a small backpack for each child with:

  • Tablet – preloaded with movies and kids games.
  • Toddler-friendly headphones.
  • Sticker book – this kept them occupied for the majority of the trip!
  • Several new small toys.
  • Binky on a strap.
  • Empty water bottle on a strap – to fill after going through security.
  • Small blanket – the plane is often cold.
  • Long sleeve full-length waterproof bib from IKEA – to minimize mess and keep the seat clean.

For myself, I had a convertible backpack/shoulder bag diaper bag that with:

  • A complete change of clothing for each child.
  • A change of clothing for myself.
  • An empty gallon zip lock bags for garbage/wet clothes/puke/etc.
  • Small first aid kit and medications.
  • Extra binkies.
  • A bag with snacks (fruit snacks, pretzels, yogurt-covered raisins, cereal bars, applesauce pouches plus some special treats like M&Ms for distraction/incentive).
  • Spare battery charger (to keep the tablets and my phone charged).
  • LOTS of wet wipes.

At the time of the first trip, the girls were not potty trained, so I also brought diapers. I had four diapers per child for a 3-hour flight. The second trip they were newly potty trained, so I only had a spare pair of undies and a pullup for each child.

I am a CPST (aka car seat tech), so it was important to me that my children travel in their car seats on the plane. I did all the research and found that the FAA and NTSB both recommend that ALL children travel in a child restraint even though they do not require it by law.  Why is it so important?

    • The airline takes no responsibility for your car seat (or stroller for that matter) which means that you may arrive at your destination with a lost/damaged car seat and no recourse. You are now stranded, with no safe way to transport your child.
    • The FAA and NTSB both recommend that ALL children should use child restraints, including babies under 2, even though they don’t require it by law. They are however required by law to secure loose objects in the cabin, even the coffee pot! So why not our children?

  • The FAA only allows one lap infant per row, so you (and whomever you are traveling with) will not be able to sit in the same row together with two infants since there is only one extra air mask in each row.
  • Strapping your children into a child restraint allows you to be hands-free to attend to them.  This is particularly important when you have twins.  It is terribly hard to hold one child and attend to the second child; all while being strapped into the plane seat yourself.
  • Children are used to traveling in their car seat, which means they are usually better behaved and will likely even sleep.

You’ll most likely need a car seat at your destination, and I do not recommend renting a car seat. You do not know the history of the rental seat, how it was cleaned or whether it was in a crash, recalled or even expired. Also, the car rental agencies do not allow their employees to install the seat for you, and it can be difficult to install an unfamiliar seat.  You are much better off with your seat that you know how to use and install properly, and that you know your child fits in and is comfortable in.

So, with all that I knew, I wanted to take our car seats with us on the plane, which seems even more daunting than just the idea of taking two kids on the plane! We chose to purchase and use travel seats rather than our everyday car seats because they are lightweight, compact, and easy to install on the plane. There are several good options for travel seats under $100, and they are worth it, plus, it never hurts to have a spare set of seats at home as well.
So how did I get two kids, three backpacks, a double stroller PLUS two car seats on the plane?  This was my set up:

Expert travel tips

I stacked my car seats on top of each other in one seat of our double stroller, secured with a bungee cord. One of my children rode in the second seat of the stroller, and the other child rode on my back in a baby carrier. At security, I had to disassemble my entire setup, but the TSA agents were extremely helpful both with keeping my family together and helping me pack back up.

Once we arrived at the gate, I notified the gate agent that I was traveling with two children in car seats and confirmed that we had a window seat for each car seat (or window/middle if you are traveling with two children alone) since the car seat is not allowed to block the egress of an adult passenger. I had my FAA circular printed and ready to show in case the gate agent had any questions or concerns about car seat usage on the plane. I also asked about early boarding since it would take a few minutes to get the seats installed.

When it was our turn to board, I pushed my entire setup down the jet way and disassembled. I folded my stroller and set it aside to be gate checked. Still with a child on my back, I had one child walk in front of my while I carried both car seats, still stacked, on top of my head. Once at our seats, I sat the girls across the aisle while I installed their car seats and then strapped them into the seats.

Once on the plane, the girls seemed content to be in their seats and were happy to check out their new surroundings. This is not to say there were no tears, but having a fully stocked bag and their little backpack of goodies kept everyone content. The water bottle strap was nice because I was able to put it around the raised arm rests so they could not drop the bottles on the floor out of my reach, and the binkie strap kept them right where they could reach them. I may be lucky, but I had no complaints from surrounding passengers even when my girls were fussing, although it may have helped that we were on a plane full of people headed to Disney World!

Remember that baby carrier? I stowed that in the overhead bin. Aside from the fact that my girls were going to be safely secured in their car seats, the FAA forbids the use of baby wearing devices during taxi, takeoff and landing. There’s a good reason for this, too. Consider this, if you were wearing your baby on your chest and there was a crash landing, your body would be flung into the seat in front of you. What would happen to the baby strapped to your chest? The baby, in essence, becomes your airbag. I am a huge advocate of babywearing, but this is one time that you want to put the baby carrier away.

There are a ton of great resources out there to help you safely prepare for air travel with children. You need to make sure that your car seat is FAA approved. Look on the car seat for the statement THIS CHILD RESTRAINT IS CERTIFIED FOR USE IN MOTOR VEHICLES AND AIRCRAFT. Nearly all car seats that have harnesses are approved. For children that are old enough, there is the CARES harness as well. Not all flight attendants are properly educated on the safety of child restraints or on the rights of parents to utilize them on the plane, so you need to make sure you know your rights before your flight. The Car Seat Lady, Dr. Alisa Baer wrote a great article that details parents’ rights and the documentation you should bring with you.

Air travel does not need to be scary. You can keep your kids safe, maintain your sanity, and get to your destination all in one piece with a bit of organization and a few extra pieces of gear.



Expert Tips: Safe Plane Travel With Kids

This post was written by Jodi Gerstenhaber, a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) exclusively for BonBon Break Media LLC.

Jodi is the purple hair car seat geek. When she is not playing with car seats she is busy playing with her 3 year old twin girls, Emerson and Ellis. She lives in CT with her husband and kids where in addition to Safe in the Car LLC, her car seat company, she also works as a pediatric ophthalmic tech, runs a large playgroup for crunchy families and is on the board of her local mothers of twins group. If she ever were to get free time (what's that?) her dream is to find the perfect bathtub so she can soak away with a good book while enjoying her weakness, Ben & Jerry's Peanut Butter World ice cream.