Preparing your Kids for the Trip

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If you're getting ready to go on a trip with kids, you're probably more worried about preparing yourself than them. Afterall, you've got a mountain of gear to pack, hotel reservations to reconfirm, and details to check and recheck. Put that all on hold for a minute -- if you forget something, you can always buy it at your destination. It’s important to recognize that you’ll be expecting your child to follow you through one unfamiliar situation after another. Not knowing what to expect, especially if mom and dad seem stressed can be scary for a young child. It's worthwhile to set your child's expectations about what's going to happen (and your expectations for their behavior). With any luck, your travel days will feel more like a grand adventure and less like an upheaval.

E at the airport
E at the airport

As with most new experiences, the overall theme is to a) act out and talk about what will happen, especially any parts that might be scary or disorienting b) read stories or show videos the demonstrate what will happen and c) clearly describe what behavior you expect.

Preparing Babies and Toddlers to Fly

  • There's no need to start talking about the trip more than a day ahead.
  • Tell your child exactly what will happen For example: "We'll drive to the airport, go through security, and then get on a plane. You'll get to sit next to me, and we'll play together. When we land, we'll drive to grandma's house"
  • On the day of travel, remember to keep narrating what is happening and what will happen next.
  • Picture books are a great help for this age. If you are flying with a toddler, I particularly like the Planes Board Book by Byron Barton
  • Manipulatives, especially ones you can bring with you, are fun and helpful too. This Playmobil 1.2.3 Propeller Plane is safe for kids under 3, and you can act out the process of getting on the plane, sitting down, and taking off with the included character.

Preparing Preschoolers to Travel

  • Preschoolers love to act things out. In addition to talking about what will happen, and reading to your child, you can line up chairs and pretend to get onboard an airplane, train, or into the car. A kitchen table might serve as a security conveyor belt, with an empty box as the x-ray machine. Don't forget to act out having your child put his or her lovey through the x-ray!
  • For this age, I particularly like the book Airport by Byron Barton.
  • Two great sticker books that you can work on with your child are Little Airport Sticker Activity Book and the Train Station Sticker Activity Book (at $1.50 each, they're also a great value)
  • Beginning at about age two (and younger for kids with rich imaginations), you can give your child a small bag and ask them to pack a few important items. (We use Eagle Creek Packing Cubes because they're small, lightweight, and have a handle). Perhaps they will choose some toys, a treasured lovey, or a few books. Let your child carry the bag or hold it on their lap (but make sure you have space to stow it when they're tired). At this age, you'll still need to pack a separate busy bag, but as they get older they'll learn to provide their own entertainment. You may be surprised how comforting a self-packed suitcase can be, even for a very young child. My son used to carry his around with him all day whenever we were out of town.

Preparing School Age Kids for a Trip
With older kids, start earlier, telling them about the destination, what you’ll do there, and perhaps teaching them some of the local language (or learning it together). You can find books about the destination or look at pictures online. Be careful that in your excitement to teach your kids about where they're going you don't remove the joy of discovery and exploration from the trip itself. Let their interest level guide you.

Involve your school age child in the packing and preparation. Give them a packing list, and let them select their own clothing (you might want to review their choices before you go)

For this age, a travel journal and an inexpensive digital camera may greatly add to the whole family's enjoyment of the trip and your memories.

In addition to telling your kids about your destination and what they should expect to do once there, make sure you share all the details about how you'll get there. Things that seem little (or obvious) to you, like riding to the airport in a taxi or shuttle, might be stressful for young children. On the day of travel keep reiterating what's going to happen next and, when appropriate, what expectations you have of your children (e.g. I expect you to wear your seatbelt on the plane just like you do in the car.

Related Links:
Learning The Language
Breeze through Airport Security With Kids
Preparing Toddlers and Young Children to Fly


  1. Scotty Kober, on June 19, 2008 at 10:43 a.m.

    I am so glad for this article, because it's a subject not often touched on by the experts with regard to prepping parents to fly.

    In situations with traveling infants, parents really only have themselves to prepare. But with toddlers, preschoolers, kindergartners - this is not the case. Small children are very capable of grasping new concepts and understanding boundaries. It is of paramount importance that in planning for the trip, the kiddos are included in the process, and I recommend:

    1. If possible, go to the airport before your trip with your 3-year-old son who has never been on a plane. Watch the planes take off, notice people queuing up for security - tell him why these things are happening and how soon it will be his turn to stand in the line and board the plane, and take off into the sky. Let him get excited! and then ...

    2. Let your child help pack: if you're headed to the beach, ask your 2-year-old what she might want to wear at the ocean. She will answer bathing suit, and she can help you put it in the suitcase.

    3. Let children pull their own carry-on bag. It gives you a separate space to pack your child's extra pull-ups, change of clothes, etc. (that doesn't constitute an extra bag since your youngster has his or her own seat) and gives your kiddo a responsibility during the pre-flight process. For most children, having a "job" is a treat and a privilege (just ask a preschool or kindergarten teacher). A toddler who knows he has to get his bag to the airplane will be a little more focused than one whose only responsibility is to follow meekly along behind his parents (boring!).

    4. Buy the Shae by Air DVD Toolkit™ or one of the few books/media available that SHOW children what goes on at the airport. Give kids something to relate to. The security checkpoint alone was a source of major fear for my daughter when she was almost two years old. The loud metal doorway with beeping lights and the expectation by serious people in uniforms that she walk through said doorway alone was enough on one trip to reduce her to tears. Couple that with wanding or the air puff room ... if a child doesn't know this is coming, and hasn't been prepared for it such that she isn't scared, parents are setting themselves up for trouble.

    Also, it is worth noting that my little one had been flying since infancy, but as children grow and change, things that were once unnoticed can suddenly become very important. So even if your child is flying for the 30th time, it is always worth a mention before and at the airport and on the plane what he or she can expect. That goes for the literal (long lines) and the behavioral: ie, those seatback tray tables (only a parent should open and close them), and the feet (not on the seat in front) as well.

    (Disclaimer: All of these are reasons why the I'm A Good Little Traveler! Series was created, in particular the Shae by Air DVD Toolkit.)

  2. Jill on February 11, 2009 at 3:15 a.m.

    Hi my daughter is getting married in cancun and wants all of us there and 3 yrs old grandson to go. Do you really think this is something we should try if he has never been on a plane before and really likes to be a 3 yr old with fits already and being scared of alot of stuff. I just don't know what to do. I am so scared they are going to kick us off the plane if you gets upset. thanks hope to hear from you soon.Jill-grandma

  3. Debbie on February 15, 2009 at 6:39 p.m.


    I do think that most 3 year olds are able to fly without serious incident. It does help considerably to help them prepare for the flight by following the tips in this article, and the tips that Scotty outlined in her comments.

    Good luck!

  4. Melanie on June 3, 2010 at 6:47 p.m.

    DS (17months) has his own backpack of small toys. He feels like a big boy carrying his own things and loves discovering all the new party store junk inside. He also spends a lot of time emptying it and refilling it. He also really enjoys pushing his sit-n-stroll through the airport when he gets tired of sitting in it.

  5. Christine on June 29, 2010 at 7:59 a.m.

    My 11 year old son will be traveling to Europe with his grandparents in August. What do I need to pack for him in his toiletries bag aside from toothpaste, toothbrush and underarm deodorant?

  6. Debbie on June 29, 2010 at 8:12 a.m.

    @Christine please check out our packing lists

    in addition, you should send along any medications he might need (including non prescription items he would use if he got sick) along with correct dosing information for his age.

  7. Pressto on August 15, 2011 at 9:15 p.m.

    I will be travelling from LA to London in a few weeks with my 4 year old and 18 month old daughters. I am having anxiety over it since our last flight last month resulted in my husband having to hold the baby at the back of the plane for 6 hours. She will not sleep with all of the lights and announcements, Will take any suggestions to make this an easier experience.
    I did not purchase the 18 month old a seat in order to save money. :(

  8. Debbie on August 15, 2011 at 10:14 p.m.


    That sounds like a tough flight! I think your best bet, assuming the flight is near bedtime, is to try to exhaust her during the day and put her to sleep in a sling or in the stroller before takeoff.

    You might also bring along a selection of very interesting toys so that she'll be entertained if she does stay awake.

    Good luck!

  9. Lydia on October 18, 2011 at 9:54 a.m.

    Hi, I hope you can help me.
    Im from UK and I live in Norway with my boyfriend and our son. I have traveled to and from England many times with my son without any problem. Now Lucas(my son) is now 2. Yesterday we were boarding the flight and when we got to the steps of the plane Lucas totaly freaked out. He was screaming and going crazy. When we got to our seat he continued and was pointing to get off. He screamed and cried and cried and I started to feel panic. After the plane pushed back I called the cabin staff and said I wanted to get off. I couldnt bear to see my son so distressed and so upset. Once we were offloaded he was happy and waved goodbye to the plane with a very unhappy Mummy. I really want us to go home and see my family but is this going to cause trauma to my son or have long term effects??? I dont want to see my son so distraught. Is this normal??????
    Please help.
    Stressed Mummy

  10. Debbie on October 18, 2011 at 10:07 a.m.

    Your experience seems atypical to me. If you have a sense of what was scarey to your son, it would be good to talk with him about his fears, and to gently practice the idea of getting on a plane and flying. Here are some ideas I would try with my own children:

    - Acting out getting on a plane with Playmobil people and a toy airplane
    - Going to the airport and watching the planes take off
    - Reading books about flying
    - Going to a museum of flight (if there's one near you) and climbing aboard the historic planes
    - Lining up chairs at home to mimic airplane seats, and pretending to get on a plane and fly.

    Good luck!

  11. Anne Standing on June 18, 2012 at 8:47 a.m.

    Do NOT tell your 8 year old you are going somewhere on a plane until the last minute or they will have driven you crazy by the time comes to take the trip - and they won't be able to sleep for the excitement up to a week beforehand!

  12. Horizon Pacific Vacations on July 28, 2012 at 12:39 p.m.

    I travel regularly I have also had the pleasure of flying next to some amazing young kids. One boy had his suitcase of toys and I was happy to explore it with him. We colored for a while, then played on his dry erase board games like tic tac toe and hang man. Then we read for a little bit. I was excited he didn't have toy cars in that bag...Something that would have been constantly falling on the ground and rolling around. When I was a server we had triangular crayons so they couldn't roll! A great investment for a plane ride! Thanks for the tips! -Daniella

  13. Trisha on October 19, 2012 at 7:11 a.m.

    Another tip might be encouraging your preschooler to prepare his favourite stuffed animal for the plane. I tried this with my son and watched him get his "moose" onto the plane, ready for take off, feeding etc... It seemed to take the focus off his own fears and made it fun.

  14. Alexandra Jensen on September 3, 2013 at 1:35 a.m.

    The best advice is to stay calm and if you're lucky and two adults traveling - one can take care of the kid and the other one is taking care of all the "traveling stuff". In my opinion the whole check in process at the airport is stressful and if you're kid is sensing this, it's getting even more stressful. As he gets older he understands better the whole thing and we're lucky, he loves flying! His first flight was when he was only six weeks old! Relaxed parents equals relaxed kid!

  15. Dav Wayman on September 23, 2013 at 5:44 p.m.

    Traveling with kids in a minivan is best. Got this idea from Thanks for your tips, by the way, they surely help.

  16. Beatriz on September 15, 2014 at 10:22 a.m.

    My experience traveling with kids has been great so far, my daughters carry their own small luggage and they feel like grown ups. This feeling make our trips easier and no stress at all. We can not control their emotions but at least we try to get a solution for every unexpected situation specially at airports. Great tips by the way.