One of the most common questions I hear about flying with children is “what is a good age to fly with my child?” Also common is its corollary – “what is the worst age to fly with kids?” When I started this blog in 2012 and first published this blog post (my first born was then 3), I thought I had all of the answers. I now have a second child with a very different personality and over a hundred additional flights under our belts. I’ve flown with kids of every age and stage, with very different temperaments, and under a wide variety of travel conditions.
So I have a few opinions about the best and worst ages for traveling with kids on planes. It’s very important to remember, however, that age is not everything. Each child is different. Your two year old may be very different than your neighbor’s two year old. Each flight can be different for the same child depending on the time of day, if they are tired, if they are sick, etc. I always advise traveling parents to think objectively about their child’s temperament and personality in addition to their age in deciding when and how to fly. That is often hard when you are booking flights months out — your kiddo could well change things up on you before flight time. Think ahead as best you can.
So with all those caveats in place, here are a few guidelines to help you plan your family travel adventures.
Best and Worst Ages to Fly with Kids
0-3 months: I don’t recommend flying at this age unless absolutely necessary. I know there are parents who need to fly for very valid reasons like a family emergency or an adoption, and that’s obviously understandable and necessary. But I’d say put the leisure trips on hold.
Why is this stage so hard? Unpredictable sleeping and nap schedules and newborn fussiness or colic can be hard on parents and fellow passengers alike – especially on longer flights or trips with time zone changes. Plus, new parents are stressed and just figuring the basics out, especially if the child is their first. Moms may even still even be recovering from childbirth.
Most importantly, airplanes and airports are germ factories. Infants are highly vulnerable this young, particularly during cold and flu season. It is no fun finding yourself on a trip with a sick newborn and can lead to scary situations without known medical care far from home.
3-9 months: I’ve found that the older infant stage is just a great age to fly. The biggest challenge at this stage is for first time parents who are still just figuring out how to be parents. The babies are actually quite easy, but the parents often don’t know it because everything about parenting is still so new! Second time parents have usually learned and are ready to hit the friendly skies at this point.
At the 3-9 month stage, babies will still sleep a lot and even nap on the go in a carrier or car seat. Babies aren’t really mobile at this stage so there aren’t as many dangers to worry about. Your baby will also still be nursing or taking bottles regularly, so you can feed on takeoff and landing and avoid ear pressurization issues.
9-12 months: At about the time your child starts to crawl, things may start to get a bit more challenging. If your child is active, he or she may want to spend the flight squirming out of your arms and crawling in the aisles. It is at this age that I recommend that parents consider buying a seat for their little ones for longer flights especially or with more active kids. It’s so valuable when you can put them down in their car seats for a nap or have the extra space to get some activity and wear them out!
12-18 months: Once your child starts walking, all bets will probably be off unless you are blessed with the chillest of children. One year olds are often highly mobile yet totally uncontrollable, making for a potentially dangerous combination. They are still too young to understand and follow instructions, so discipline is ineffective. Distraction and maybe bribery are your only tools! This is the age and stage where my family experienced our own personal “flight from h-ll” when my daughter was 17 months old
What to do at this stage if you do have to fly? Walk the aisles with your toddler, hang out near the galley when you can, and bring a variety of snacks, books, and toys to deal with a short attention span (check out my list of 50 kid-friendly airplane snacks for ideas). I highly recommend buying a seat once you have child who is walking — I’ve certainly flown with a lap toddler many times in my family’s travel adventures to save money, but it’s a challenge for sure!
18-24 months: Things continue to be a bit of a challenge. Girls sometimes start turning a corner but boys often lag a few months behind. At this stage at least, most parents are starting some basic discipline with their children, so you may be able to register some successes. An iPad starts to work as a distraction, in short intervals. And of course, children are able to start coloring or doing some other non-electronic activities to pass the time.
2-3 years: This stage is when most parents begin to see a true light at the end of the tunnel much of the time. At around 2 years old, both of our kids finally started developing more sustained attention spans. We found we could could begin to rely on electronic assistance like an iPad to give us a bit of a break on long flights. Hopefully, your methods of discipline will also begin to be much more effective at this age, so your toddler will begin following instructions like staying seated on command (usually).
Two words of warning about this stage. One important consideration will be potty training — you won’t be able to take your child to the bathroom at all times when flying. Toddlers who are just learning can rarely wait as long as a taxi and takeoff when they have to go. I recommend avoiding starting training if you are going on a flight soon afterwards. We waited until our children were fully trained on land for about 4 weeks before braving a trip in the air. And we traveled with a spare Pull-Up in our carry on bags for over a year after each child was potty trained for emergencies.
The other warning about this stage is when your child is very tired. A three year old throwing a tantrum can certainly be harder to control than an 18 month old. In fact, my friend The Deal Mommy contends that three is the worst age to fly because the meltdowns can be that much more epic and the child is much bigger. And while I agree to a point, I find that having more infrequent meltdowns made this age much easier for me.
3-4 years: In comparison to the three years before, flying is a breeze! My kids would sit still and watch a whole movie, gab with the flight attendants, and show concern for (and often entertain) younger children in the cabin when they were fussy and tired. Meltdowns on long trips with a lot of time zone changes can still happen, but much less often. I highly recommend still being prepared with all sorts of distractions like snacks and games, but I found that this stage was the first time that I often didn’t need all the supplies I’d brought along.
4-5 years: Travel with kids just keeps getting easier as you enter the older preschooler/kindergartener phase. The structure of a year or two in more formal schooling usually helps many kids understand the importance of listening to authority figures and following rules.
The only major issue that I’ve personally had with this age and stage is inadvertent seat kicking. Little kids of this age have legs that seem to be just the right length to bump up against the seat in front of them while being too short to bend at the seat’s edge. Watch for this and encourage your child to sit cross-legged if this is an issue.
6+ years: Home free! Once kids are in elementary school, the vast majority of them will be excellent flyers, especially if you travel regularly like my family has. Most will love TV and movies enough to be entertained for hours with an iPad or in-flight entertainment system (limits on screen time don’t apply, in my opinion, on planes!). And being able to read and entertain themselves the old-fashioned way is great too.
My older child is now nearing her 10th birthday, and she has been a gem of a travel companion the last few years. She has helped with her little brother during his more challenging stages. She always carried her own bags (and sometimes a few of ours) on our many adventures. Of course, we have her teen years to look forward to next!
Have you flown with kids? What was your experience with what were the best and worst ages?