12 smart airplane travel tips from a mother of three kids 4 and under

Imagine this: You’re going on a trip and your family miraculously gets to the airport early. You pack a carry-on with snacks and activities for your kids and bring the stroller through security because you know you can check it at the gate. Things are going well! Then, all of a sudden, the baby starts crying. You have to carry them (while still pushing the stroller), and you realize you don’t have enough hands to carry the rest of the luggage. After hobbling to your gate, you board early because you have small children, but they get restless before the plane even takes off. By the time you’re actually in the air, you’ve exhausted all snacks and most of the activities. And then they start screaming because their ears pop, which makes you want to scream.

It sounds like a nightmare, but chances are you’ve been there (or in a similar situation). As parents traveling with kids, we’ll take all the tips and tricks we can get, and thankfully Instagrammer Rachel Mansfield (@rachlmansfield) has 12!

The mom of three boys 4 years old and younger shared a reel showing off the ideas that help her family travel smoothly.

First off, she recommends parents “check as many bags as you can so you don’t have to board early to use overhead space and it frees up hands,” and notes that United Airlines lets families check car seats for free. (If your child is under 2, they can fly free on your lap on most US flights, or at a lower rate for international flights.) And speaking of packing, Mansfield advises you “rent as much baby gear as possible to make packing easier” and “buy diapers at the destination.”

Related: Your next hack for traveling with kids: Rent your baby gear when you get there

As for carry-on luggage, Mansfield suggests using backpacks because they fit under the seat and allow easy access to toys, snacks, tablets, etc. You can also let your older kids wear their own backpacks (or push their own suitcase if you’re carrying that on the plane).

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If you’re traveling with a baby, she recommends wearing them in a baby carrier (we love this one from Colugo) so your hands are free. If your kids don’t fit in a carrier, bring a stroller and gate-check it.

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Now, this next one is crucial, and goes against the airlines’ offer of letting families with young children board early. “Don’t board until [the] last minute to avoid sitting on [the] plane,” Mansfield wrote in the caption. “Our flight was at 12:49pm and we boarded at 12:40pm. just hang near gate and let the kids ‘run around.’”

If it fits in your budget, spring for a row with extra leg room. That extra space may not seem like much, but it is! And then there’s the snacks. Always travel with snacks. Mansfield packs bento boxes with all her kids’ favorite dry foods (because “wet” foods are too messy), and here’s another potential lifesaver: pack dried fruit for your kids to chew during takeoff and landing to help with their ears popping. Genius! And bring a large bag to use for trash, because kids are mess-machines.

Related: Flying with baby? 11 tips to make air travel with kids a breeze

The last two are good reminders for the parents: “ditch the schedule,” Mansfield advises. “We traveled during our 2 year olds [sic] nap time and he didn’t nap at all but he was at least somewhat chill. i don’t worry about any type of schedule. I just avoid night flights.” And lastly, “make it fun not stressful, kids feed off our energy,” she notes. “We had our 2 year old wiping the seats and he loved it.” These might be the most important tips of all. We can prepare all we want and things still may not go as planned. What’s most important to our children is how we act—and react.

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