Flying with Baby and Toddler: Everything You Need to Know

The most important thing first: Flying with a baby or toddler (or two, or three) is not nearly as bad as you think. Usually. Unless you forget to take diapers on an 11-hour flight (true story!).

However, it does help to board the plane with bit of prior information. I learned the hard way – so I will answer for you what I think are the 10 most important and most common questions, from booking to departure (including links) here:

#1 When can my baby start flying?
#2 Does my child need her own seat on the plane?
#3 Economy or business class with the baby?
#4 Sit next to each other or behind each other?
#5 Is it worth it to check in the night before the trip?
#6 Can I take the stroller to the gate?
#7 Can I take baby food through security?
#8 Board first or last?
#9  Should I take a car seat on the plane?
#10 Will my child sleep on the plane?


#1 When can my baby start flying?

A healthy baby can already start flying shortly after it’s born, in theory – however, this is probably something you would do only if you really had to. The easiest age for flying – in my opinion – is between 3 and 9 months, when babies still sleep a lot and are technically allowed to use the bassinette on most airlines (there is a good overview of the size and weight limits of the various airlines here – however, I am a strong advocate of bringing your own infant carrier or car seat, more of that later).

From 12 months on, it gets stressful – I speak from experience: The long-distance flight felt like a marathon in the aisle amid the exasperated glances of our DINK co-passengers– kids wants to climb, kick, touch everything, and they find people and lights interesting, but don’t know what to make of them.

It definitely gets more relaxed when the little ones are old enough to get excited about the Onboard Entertainment System or iPad. In other words– flying with a 3.5-year-old? A walk in the park.

#2 Does my child need her own seat on the plane?

As a matter of principle, I think kids should have their own seats, preferably combined with a car seat (see #9). For one, the child will be more relaxed in an environment she knows, and more importantly, it’s a question of safety: The commonly used seat belt extension is very unsafe and would be unbelievably dangerous in case the plane would need to perform an emergency braking (watch the video).

Starting at age 2, it is required to purchase a seat – before that, it is at the parents’ discretion. Seats for little ones cost somewhat less (about 10% less than the normal airfare). Note: Lap babies don’t fly for free – the ticket costs about 10% of the normal fare.

Important: Seats for children under 2 years must be booked by telephone because the online systems don’t allow the entry of birthdates before two years of age.

#3 Economy or business class with the baby?

It’s not just a question of money. While you might have to book three seats in economy class, you might only have to book two in business. The plan to have kids sleep on the reclined seat can work… but for us, it most definitely did not.

There were too many lights, too many disturbances. Yet our 13-month-old son slept blissfully in his car seat, which we tucked in front of the seat (where the footrest of the seat would be stored). Pass the prosecco!

Yes, there is gourmet food and bubbly. But on the other hand, there is also the fact that economy class, while less comfortable, can be more relaxed – there are substantially fewer nasty looks from one’s fellow passengers than in business. With two kids, it has definitely been the better solution for us.

flugi_fluegel (1 von 1)

#4 Sit next to each other or behind each other?

The advantage of sitting next to each other is that you can make a huge mess in “your” row and no one cares. You can hand each other wipes, change diapers on the seat (the changing tables in airplane bathrooms are approximately the size of a baking tray), pelt each other with nuts – it’s all good.

The downside: the poor, poor passenger, who has already drawn the short straw because he has to sit within hitting distance of your toddler, is now the involuntary recipient of a 10-hour Thai massage by little toddler feet.

Sitting in two rows, one behind the other (with two children), can have the advantage that the kicking child can sit behind the older child. Ideally, the bigger sibling, in turn, will find that incredibly funny. Or try this trick: Paste a photo of family members in the “kicking zone” of the seat in front– the kid will no longer kick at the photo (a tip from an American travel blogger –though one I have not yet tested personally, unfortunately).

As for our experience, we definitely prefer the 2 x 2 option. If you can, reserve the window and the aisle seat and leave the middle one free – you might get lucky and it stays empty. And if it doesn’t, you can still switch seats with the passenger.

#5 Is it worth it to check in and drop the baggage the night before the trip?

Yes! It’s easier on your nerves and you don’t have to carry the kids AND the luggage on the day of the flight. Here is a list of airlines for check-in at Zurich Airport. If you are flying from another airport, check with your airline to see if this is an option.

For some Swiss and Edelweiss flights, you can even check in early at your local train station via the SBB flight luggage service. A list here.

#6 Can I take the stroller to the gate?

Yes. As long as it meets the airline’s requirements.  A travel stroller (usually meaning it consists of one-piece, without any parts to be taken off) can be folded up in the jetway and deposited right before the entrance to the plane. Usually, it is collected in the same place right after the flight. At some airports, for example Dubai, the stroller won’t be available until bagagge claim. They do provide free rental strollers. If you want to make sure, check with your airport.

Note: The stroller needs a baggage tag, too, i.e. it must be presented at check-in or baggage drop. That’s important in case you drop your luggage the night before your flight. Meaning: Bring your stroller along, even if you’re not checking it in !

#7 Can I take baby food through security?

Liquids (milk, water) and baby food can be brought on board – but every single liquid will be tested, and that takes a while. If at all possible, try to empty bottles before security and refill them afterwards. It will go faster.

If you need full milk on the plane, remember that you can just ask for it and they will also heat it up for you. However, try to get the flight attendant’s attention right at the beginning, otherwise they will be busy until they’re done with food service. Other moms have recommended bringing powdered milk.

Tip (from experience accompanied by cursing like a sailor): Never, ever put a tired baby to bed in the stroller before the security check. Because it has to be folded and put on the belt (the stroller, not the baby). Better to hook up the Ergobaby or sling.

Also don’t forget: A week before check in, make sure that child meals are really reserved for your toddlers. Otherwise it won’t go over so well if chicken nuggets and fries are served in the next row….

Tipps zum Fliegen mit Babies und Kindern von
It WILL land at some point. Promise.

#8 Board first or last?

Most airlines allow pre-boarding with families. Nice, but not always necessary: Every additional minute that a child has to sit still is one too many. It would be better to play tag in the gate area one more time. That way your family is ready straight away to make their best impression on fellow passengers…

Seriously: Get on the plane as late as you possibly can. (Exception: If you are bringing a car seat, consider having one parent board earlier to install it. Depending on a parent’s skill level, it can take a while.)

#9 Should I take the car seat on the plane?

Yes, yes and yes again. If you are renting a car at your destination, it’s really a no-brainer (At some destinations, your car seat will not be allowed because of different regulations. So in case of an accident, your insurance might not cover everything. However, we’ve brought our own car seats many times and never had an issue – nor an accident).

Babies and small children can’t sit comfortably on airplane seats, and they are not safe. For babies under one, it’s easy to bring an infant car seat on the plane (but note that you do need to purchase a seat for her).

Children between 13 months and around 2.5 are too big for the infant seat, but aren’t comfortable on the airplane seat either (and don’t even think about them or you sleeping). For long flights, it’s best to take a car seat (Category 1) on the plane.

Zertifiziert für Flugreisen: der Römer Eclipse Kat. 1
Römer Eclipse Kat.1 is permitted on board and has the required “for use in aircraft” sticker

Note: Some seats are certified for use in airplanes, and only these are permitted (here is a list from TÜV that applies for Swiss and Lufthansa as well). Local flight attendants might give you funny looks since it’s still the exception here in Europe. Just act cool, smile knowingly and don’t let them intimidate you.

Staff usually verifies the certification at check-in (you must show them the sticker), but sometimes not until you’re on the plane. I would not recommend to get on a plane without a certified car seat – they will most probably not allow it. Also, if you are unsure, check back with your airline. We have the model Eclipse from Römer.

The CARES airline safety harness is also a safe and easy option for around 2.5 years and up – depending on the size of your child. I was very impressed with how easy installation was and no bulk to carry around. The CARES harness is officially approved on all SWISS flights. So is the LUFTIKID, which unfortunately is not being produced anymore but can be found on ebay.

Der Cares-Gurt.

Other options, although more for comfort than safety, are bedding systems such as the JET KID Bed Box (recommended by a fellow traveling mom for kids up to 2, 2.5) or the Fly Legs Up Hammock. I really liked the Fly Legs Up – be aware that some airlines might restrict their use.

The CARES-harness and the Fly Legs Up Hammock is available here in our Whatever Works Shop.

#10 Will my child sleep on the plane?

Of course. Sometime, for sure. But the question is: when? And how long? We have experienced everything on our flights – from nonstop screaming in business class to 8-hour naps on an overnight flight from L.A. to Zurich. You have to take it as it comes–but you certainly can optimize a few things:

  • Plan naps so that your child is awake for the first few hours of the flight. The first 2-3 hours are busy and loud, there are meals and no one wants to sleep. No one really cares if a kid is yelling or monkeying around, except maybe the twentysomething rolling her eyes in the fourth row – but we’ll just ignore her, right?
  • Bring a muslin (or the airline blanket) and some clothes pins in order to dim the light over your child’s seat (the flight attendants don’t always think this is such a hot idea – but then again, they are happy when there is peace and quiet). That way, baby stays asleep even when the light suddenly goes on again after a short night.
  • As a preventive measure, you can give allergy drops such as Feniallerg because they make kids sleeeeeeepy (That is advice from a pediatrician and not mine. Do this at your own risk, and you absolutely must follow the patient information leaflet in the package).
  • Of course you will have to entertain your kids for the time they don’t sleep – but that makes another post, coming soon.

Have a great flight! I look forward to questions or more tips in the comments!

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