Flying with a Toddler Alone and Staying Sane

Call me crazy, but I chose to travel with a toddler by myself. It seemed like a really good idea when Josh suggested I take advantage of a long weekend to fly out to California to see my mom with Ella before she hit two and I was too pregnant to fly. I found a cheap ticket and I was sold. As the date got closer, I started to panic a little bit. Not so much about the flight itself but the logistics of getting us to the airport by 6:30am while managing Ella, a stroller, a car seat, a suitcase and my sanity. For a tiny little person, it’s amazing how much stuff you need.

As I spoke with my mom and my stepdad Mike the night before our big adventure, they decided they were going to go buy a car seat for Ella. Though I protested because those babies are not cheap, I’m so thankful they ignored me. Now whenever we fly to California, we can leave Ella’s car seat at home. Score! They already had a porta-crib from our first visit a year ago.

Anyway in preparation for the flight, I tried to think of every scenario. We could have a huge delay, be stuck on the tarmac, be diverted, have a poopsplosion, have vomit, be hungry, be thirsty, be bored. I ran the gamut of possibilities trying to think about what I would need to prepare.

Ella at airport

Here are my top tips for successfully keeping your sanity while flying solo with a toddler.

  1. Pack Lightly. It’s kind of an oxymoron when it comes to traveling with a child. Especially one who is prone to spill on herself or generally just get dirty. But, if you can get it all into one suitcase that you can check, do it! I packed myself and Ella into one reasonably sized suitcase that I was able to check (for free – thank you Southwest). Extra diapers and wipes can be purchased at your destination. The biggest struggle was getting our bag, stroller, diaper bag and her backpack to the curb for check-in. See below on why I brought our big stroller.
  2. A leash…I kid I kid. Though I’m pretty sure my grandma had a leash for my brother and me at Disneyland 20+ years ago, I forgo the leash in favor of a stroller. Ella thinks strollers are chariots that are exciting to ride in. Fingers crossed this will last a little bit longer because it’s contains them safely. No touching nasty bathroom floors, etc. Normally I’d take our simple umbrella stroller but the Mountain Buggy is so much easier to maneuver with one hand. Plus it’s more comfortable for longer walks.
  3. A surprise book, toy, snack, etc. Ella knows and loves her toys, but the problem is, she knows them. So I picked up special little backpack for her to discover when we arrived at the airport.

    Ell abackpack

    This sweet little thing had a brand new Elmo (Lord help us, she loves that little red puppet) coloring book, new crayons, some flashcards, a few books, and a plethora of snacks. She literally jumped up and down and squealed with excitement.

  4. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. My kid doesn’t eat, except for when we have no access to a store or restaurant apparently. Before we boarded I got her a bagel with cream cheese which she downed. On our plane ride out she ate one breakfast bar, a squeeze pouch of spinach, broccoli and pears, half a travel box of Goldfish, a small box of raisins and a string cheese.  After a little snafu in communication about when our flight landed, we had some time to kill at the airport. She polished off a bag of strawberries and another squeeze pouch plus some graham bunnies while we enjoyed the California sunshine.
  5. Treat. I’m so not above bribery when the situation arises. Ella was not so into sitting on my lap during take-off and landing. The rest of the flight, all about it. Funny how that works. In order to get her to do what I needed her to without a tantrum, I totally bribed her with Gummy Bears. Mother of the year, that’s me. I told her that if she sat on my lap until I told her it was ok to sit on the seat next to me, she could have five gummy bears. Golden! Did this again at landing. She even willingly only took five bears and then put the bag back into her backpack.
  6. Kindle or iPad. There is only so much coloring and book reading that can be done during a flight. Those took up a good hour, but we still had an hour to go. Kindle to the rescue. I downloaded Finding Nemo onto my Kindle Fire before we left. It didn’t even matter that she couldn’t hear it because she just loved the colors and all the different fish.  I swore I wouldn’t be that parent that is like, here watch a movie, but again, you gotta do what you gotta do.
  7. Change of clothes. We learned this real quick when we took Ella to New Orleans when Ella was five months old. The need has not changed. It was not until we were landing in Denver that I felt something wet on my arm. Sure enough, poop. Awesome. Luckily I had spare clothes for Ella. For myself, not so much, but it wasn’t so awful that I couldn’t make it home before changing.
  8. Accept help. Aside from someone offering to hold Ella for me (thanks but no thanks, I will not be handing my child to a stranger), there are few offers of help I will not accept. You want to assist me in pulling my luggage off of the carousel? Thank you! You will let me go in front of you to try to do a circus act to change a diaper in the plane bathroom? Thank you again. You will grab that crayon that I just cannot reach? You rock. Seriously, I don’t ask for help when traveling but if it is offered, it’s hard to resist.
  9. Have a cocktail. Ok so I cannot do this one. But instead of a cocktail, think of something you can bring for yourself to help you relax and enjoy your flight. While Ella was coloring away and didn’t want mommy’s help, I happily played Scrabble on the Kindle and enjoyed my water. Bring a book, a nice neck pillow or have that cocktail if it will help you relax.

Ella is an amazing little traveler. She was great on both of our flights. She loved looking out the windows and talking about how we were on an airplane in the clouds. We scored and had an open seat to us both ways which really helped because we were able to spread out without disturbing anyone. Our weekend was great, a total whirlwind. When we made it home we promptly passed out on the couch together.

Photo: I'd say my travel partner is a little tired. Still out cold after sleeping on my belly for an hour.

Tips to add?

3 thoughts on “Flying with a Toddler Alone and Staying Sane

  1. You deserve a medal. I’m serious. I barely take Miles to Cincinnati by myself, and that’s a 3-hour trip. By the end, I’m pelting him with animal crackers from the driver’s seat and blaring Elmo’s Silly Songs. But I do agree about the diapers, wipes, etc. that you can get where you go. I also limit clothes if I’m staying with family who have laundry available.

  2. I’m flying across the country with our 17 month old in a week, WITH my husband and I am still terrified. She’s just entered a really, let’s call it “independent” phase where she protests violently if you don’t let her do whatever she wants within .02222 seconds of her wanting it. I love the idea of surprises, ipad and snacks. May even need to slip her a little chardonnay in a soda can. (OMG KIDDING.)
    Glad it went well for you!

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