What’s the Worst Age to Fly With Kids?

Dec 17, 2018

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While travel with little kids is never what I’d call “easy,” I agree with Summer (aka Mommy Points) that travel does get easier as the kids get older. Where we disagree, however, is on what age is the worst to fly with kids. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t fly with kids in that age range, but rather, you need to be sure you are really on your “A” game before boarding the aircraft. To settle the matter, I called upon the TPG Family team of seasoned family travelers. Here’s when we think is the most challenging time to get on a plane with little ones.

Woman traveling with her baby sitting in an airplane cabin. (Photo by Juanmonino/Getty Images)
(Photo by Juanmonino / Getty Images)

Jason Steele: 6–12 Months

Jason Steele, dad of three, reports: When our children were under 6 months old, they spent most of their days eating and sleeping, and it was actually a pleasure to fly with them. But right at 6 months, their time spent eating and sleeping dropped almost in half, while they developed the motor skills to pick up everything within reach, and put it in their mouths. From 6 months to 1 year old, we tried to curtail our travels as the plane rides were exhausting. The situation improved slightly after they reached 12 months old when they could be exhausted by walking up and down the aisle and around the airport.

I definitely agree with Jason that flying with young babies was easier than I expected. We flew from Dublin to Washington, DC, with our son at 3 weeks, and besides a spectacular blowout in the lav, the flight was a breeze. (Tip: Do not touch anything in an airplane bathroom without sanitizing yourself head to toe afterward. Trust me on this one.) To learn more about traveling with infants, read through TPG‘s flying with a baby checklist and getting ready for your child’s first flight.

Image by Dangubic / Getty Images
The first few months of life are sleepier than the 6- to 12-month range. (Image by Dangubic / Getty Images)

Everyone Else: 12–24 Months

Summer is firmly in this camp. She writes: “I won’t tell you how many flights we totally canceled between 6 to 18 months because the closer it got to the date, the worse it sounded. The closer my girls got to 2 years old, the better, but from about 9 to 18 or 20 months, it is just asking a lot of a kiddo to quietly sit still for hours on end. Frankly, it is also asking a lot of parents to try their best to make that happen. A short two-hour flight is totally doable in that age range, but an around-the-world adventure is a very different scenario (we canceled first class awards to Australia and New Zealand when our second daughter was 8 months old because we were too tired to take on that adventure). Anything is possible, but prepare to be exhausted if you take on a long plane ride with this age range (if your kids are anything like mine). 

Exploring Edinburgh with a toddler was great, but don’t ask about how much rest we got on the flights. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

The rest of TPG Family agrees with Summer with some slight variations. Leslie Harvey votes 18 months is the toughest due to toddlers being “totally mobile and yet completely incapable of responding to discipline.”

Angelina Aucello, mom of two, elaborates:  While I always encourage parents to travel with their kids, I feel that the 18–24 month age is the worst year for kids to fly for a number of reasons. The toddler stage is tricky because the child still has a full dependency on adults, but enjoys exploring their independence, while having no idea how to deal with their emotions (aka meltdowns). With that being said, toddlers under 2 are probably sitting on your lap as a lap infant, and require your full attention in terms of entertainment, diapers and feeding. Parents are already in a confined space and it can be exhausting caring for a child when they are literally on top of you for the duration of a flight. There is also the unpredictable chance of an epic meltdown (which is actually a normal phase of their developmental behavior), that can be stressful for everyone on board.

Photo courtesy of Angelina Aucello
(Photo courtesy of Angelina Aucello)

Richard Kerr, dad of two,  concurs that the worst is “18–30 months, depending on the kid’s attention span. If you can’t entertain them and they’re too old to just sleep, you get a wiggle worm that isn’t happy being locked in an airplane seat for more than an hour flight (plus boarding, taxi, deplaning time).” (Need tips for keeping your kids entertained inflight?)

Dan Miller, dad of six, adds a financial component to the equation. “I think it’s in the 20–23 months range. The reason is that the kids are big and wiggly, but it’s also the conflict between getting a “free” seat under 2 years versus the fact that kids that old and big really fly better on their own seats. Once they hit 2, then you have to buy them a seat so that conflict resolves itself.” (If traveling with a lap child on award ticket, there are some additional things to be aware of.)

(Photo by Luke Chan / EyeEm / Getty Images)
(Photo by Luke Chan / EyeEm / Getty Images)

My Vote: Age Three

Many parents who have come out the other side will tell you that “terrible twos” is a misnomer. While 2 has its challenges, in many ways three-nagers have even more. The circumstances vary, but usually come from a toxic combination. Two of the ingredients parents of 2 year olds will recognize: strong will and lack of self-control.

While a temper combined with a stubborn streak are annoying, as a parent you can cajole, bribe or do whatever you have to do to get a toddler to calm down on a plane. Worst case scenario, you can at least keep a good hold on them. Two year olds are squirmy but generally small enough to control.

Three year olds add another ingredient to the mix: size. Three year olds are bigger, heavier and louder. A difference you desperately feel racing through O’Hare on a 45-minute connection with your “big boy” who won’t ride in the stroller and kicks and thrashes when carried. Or, when he won’t consent to an airline seat belt until you hold him down while your spouse does the buckling.

(Image by Lisa5201 / Getty Images)
(Image by Lisa5201 / Getty Images)

But 3 year olds are potty trained” you might retort. Yes, but usually still prone to accidents. Especially with the extreme air pressure changes, time changes and exhaustion that can happen inflight. You still have to pack extra clothes for both the kid and you, or regret your oversight later.

Of course, 3 year olds don’t behave like Tasmanian devils all of the time. At times they’re charming, helpful and downright cute. However, like Taz, you can never predict when your little creature will go Looney Tunes on you.

Before you think the “3 year olds stink in the sky” phenomenon is unique to my kids, many stories I’ve read about a family ejected from a flight involved a 3 year old. Reasons range from incessant screaming to projectile vomiting to refusing to buckle up to generalized mayhem. 

Bottom Line

While we at TPG Family may disagree on exactly which age in the sky is the most challenging, we all agree on one thing: Travel with kids is worth it at any age, just be selective on when you time those big trips and when you rack up the shorter and easier wins, especially if your own little one falls on the tougher end of the spectrum!

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