air travel with toddler: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Well, we did it! We survived 18 hours of continuous travel, including four airports, three flights, one shuttle, and one two hour car ride… oh, did I mention that was all one way? Many people told me I was crazy, brave, and amazing… and looking back I have to say they were right, and also that it was very worth it! This post is about what went well, what didn’t, and what I learned.

Oh the places you'll go...
Oh the places you’ll go…

For a two-year-old, M did really well at times. She poo’d and peed in the potty throughout the airport/airplane experience, keeping her diapers dry! She did well on our short flights, four out of six total flights for the trip were less than one hour. She didn’t dump her cups of “pop” (I let her have sprite a few times), she put her tray table down and drank it like a big girl, and she enjoyed looking out the window the one time we had a window seat, flying her little toy airplane around and remarking on how high in the sky we were. She loved it when we were late to our connections, because I ran through the airport and she thought going “fast” like that was great fun. During the two hours she slept on our long flight, I had a glass of wine and got to watch a whole grown-up movie! I found that I had packed adequate changes of clothes, diapers, bottles, and snacks. She did not get sick or have earaches. The friendlier people on flights let her sit in their laps, play with their jewelry, and gave her snacks. People don’t realize how much that helps, especially because my daughter is so friendly and enjoys that a lot.

The play areas in Frankfurt and Stuttgart were great! We missed our final flight to Stuttgart and got put on the next plane. It gave us time to relax at a play area for a full hour, and really helped her mood! Stuttgart’s play area had a ball pit… she convinced me to get in it with her. As we were leaving, I couldn’t find our boarding passes. I finally found them after I dug through the ball pit! This goes under “good” because I thought it was really funny, and we had a great time at that play area.

We got to the airport way, way too early. We sailed through security and waited 3.5 hours to board. I seriously overestimated how long it would take to get through customs at the Canadian border and security at the first airport. She slept a total of 1.5 hours the whole travel day headed there. She slept a total of 2 hours going back. I slept a total of 0 hours both ways. She did require all her changes of clothes for small spills or pull-up overflows (when I couldn’t let her use the bathroom because we were running to her next flight). She refused to eat anything of substance, despite me trying to give it to her. She only ate veggie straws, fruit snacks, handisnacks, juice, and milk the entire travel day. On our last long flight, she called the young man to my right “daddy” the whole way, even screaming “help me daddy!!!” when I was forcing her to sit in the seat and she didn’t want to. She would try to crawl into my seat and then into his lap… and he was so not into it! The people around us must’ve thought her dad was a real dud, not helping me with her at all!

I cried when we missed our flight (the only one we didn’t make), because I ran so hard to get there and they were closing the door. They wouldn’t let me on even though I was only seconds late.

Activities with multiple pieces, like puzzles? She just threw them. When she got mad? She threw her bottles into the aisle. Grabbed my glasses off my face and threw those, too. She did NOT like being restrained… she wanted to jump on the seats, even tried to climb over them, and run full out up and down the aisles (which I let her do periodically). When I laid her down she would kick her feet at me, or try to hit me when I made her stay in her seat. In her car seat, she kicked the back of the seat in front of her NON-STOP, like 7 hours straight. I turned it rear facing, but it was too upright for her to sleep. On the way back, we didn’t use the car seat (long story below). I had to fashion a restraint from the airplane blanket and the lap belt so she couldn’t release it constantly. She would buck her hips all the time trying to slide out, so I had to boost her up ever few minutes. She was getting exhausted and sick of being restrained constantly. Her “listening ears” ran out of juice and no longer functioned. She would NOT keep her shoes on no matter what, and ended up needing to go through security barefoot because I couldn’t fight anymore about it. When I tried to put them back on she screamed and kicked. At border patrol she wouldn’t let go of the railing when our turn was done… the officer wasn’t the least bit amused. I gave her a cup of ice, she dumped it in the seat.

Mostly, it was a constant battle to keep her in her seat, even with my lap belt/blanket restraint (that worked pretty well). She hated it. She hated the car seat even more. She could not enjoy the activities I brought because of the pieces and her throwing problem. The only things that helped for short times were her favorite snacks, her kindle, and cartoons or movies. I made a big mistake scheduling short layovers. We had to rush to our next flight with no time for her to visit a play area, use the bathroom, or get out of her stroller at all. She went from flight to stroller to flight, restrained the whole time, and this made her about as ornery as I’ve ever seen her! The few times we had time in between flights for a play area, she was in a much better mood.

Canada was totally great about the car seat. They checked it on the short flights at the gate and returned it to me with the stroller so I could bring it on the plane for the long flight. Coming from Germany, they were totally not getting it. The Lufthansa crew appeared confused and befuddled when I checked in but wanted my car seat, when I brought it through security, and at the gate. I explained many, many times that I needed it on the plane for the long flight. I explained it to them very thoroughly when they took it with the stroller NOT to put it with the checked baggage. But, they did it anyway. They told me I could get it in baggage claim, so I went there and it didn’t show up. This meant I had to go back through security, but only after a 30 minute debate with baggage services. They told me it would be sent to my next gate, and it was not. I was forced to get on the plane without it and devise my own restraint using the blanket and lap belt (only around her waist, only to block the buckle so she couldn’t keep undoing it). I went through security a total of three times on the way home, plus customs and border control and weird passport check lines between gates in Frankfurt. It was maddening. No such thing as an easy connection!

My baggage did not arrive at all at my final destination, including the car seat. The only upside to this was that I received a free brand new car seat, an Evenflo Titan, and it’s mine to keep. It goes up to 65 lbs forward facing, whereas my old one only went up to 40 lbs. They are delivering my luggage to my house today.

The toy airplane ended up being a hit


1. Longer layovers, especially at points of entry! The running at top speed and not being able to make a bathroom, food, or play stop before the next flight really killed us. Missing a flight is disheartening, too.
2. Err on the side of more snacks, not less! Going I took what I thought was too much, but on the way back I only brought a few things and ran out. Not good since we had no time at our layovers to buy more, and she got hungry and I had nothing to give her (#momfail).
3. No small pieces. Nothing that comes apart or has pieces, no matter how big they are, or if they’re foam. The magna-doodle was good, as it was large enough and the pen piece is attached with a string. Books are also good, as they don’t come apart. But puzzles? No. Crayons? No. I won’t be bringing things like that until she’s like… 5.
4. Don’t get there too early. Three and a half hours before boarding??? That was nuts. We should’ve at least gone to a playground in Windsor or something once we realized how early it would be.


Because of the car seat debacle coming home, I ended up going both ways on our long flights. I used the car seat for our 7 hour flight going to Europe, and didn’t have it for the 8 hour flight coming back.

Car seat
Pros: She was strapped in and could not get out, or buck her hips and slide out, like with the lap belt. The car seat I used (the Evenflo Tribute) was light and easy to install forward facing.
Cons: Rear-facing, it was quite difficult and also did not have enough of a recline. She was basically sitting at a 90 degree angle so she couldn’t sleep like that. Foreign airlines may have no idea why you aren’t checking your car seat, and you may spend minutes to hours explaining why you need it to them.

Author: Mother of All Things

Mother by fostering, adoption, and marriage... wife to my best friend... Bay area critical care nurse... travel in my blood, reading in my bones, clean food on my mind!

5 thoughts on “air travel with toddler: the good, the bad, and the ugly”

  1. Oh I’m so sorry to giggle but I laughed full out when you said that the other passengers must have thought her dad was a dud for not helping with her at all! lol…I can just imagine it. Having a child who couldn’t care less about his surroundings or those around him at that age I never thought about how difficult it must be when they’re smart enough to start playing other people against you. “Help me Daddy!” Goodness she’s a smart girl. 🙂

    Sounds like you guys did very well overall. At the end of all this, you will have a young daughter who travels like a dream. It only gets easier from here on out, I hear. Good on you for not avoiding the thing you love most. She’ll be better for it in the end and you will have many exhausting but fun stories to tell!

  2. Wow, what a trip!

    To get a bigger recline, you can put towels, blankets, etc, under the base of the seat for rear facing. I don’t blame her for not being able to sleep sitting up.

    Those play places look great! It makes sense that you scheduled short layovers but what reality was makes even more sense. I look froward to the full trip post.

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