When traveling with little people I go by the "whatever it takes" philosophy. If you treat it like a little mini vacation for them it CAN BE one for you too, I promise. I see those hours in the air as a "free zone." Completely inconsequential to all of the regulations I might have down on earth (ie: television time, nutrition, etc). So with that being said, here's a few tips I will share with those of you who have the privilege of traveling with toddlers:
1. Napping. Because all kids have different sleep habits it's hard to give specifics on the hour of day you need to book your flight. The reality is that you really just want to make sure that your child gets good sleep at some point during the travel day (before heading to the airport (late flight), during the flight (mid-day or late-night flight), as soon as you land (morning flight) because happy baby, happy mommy.
2. Gate Check the Stroller. The name of the game is containment people. This keeps them strapped in while you carry your bags and wait in the security line. No need to fold it up when you get to security because they will take it through the handicapped lane. When it's time to board, just leave it at the bottom of the ramp and they will stow it away for you.
3. Consolidate Your Bags. One for you, one for them. I promise you can fit everything you need in one reasonably sized carry on BAG (not suitcase). If your toddler has a backpack of his/her own, let them carry it! This is a great opportunity to teach autonomy. I usually put a few of the things Sam will use on the plane in his little backpack.
4. Boarding. Here's the deal: If your seat is assigned, board last (and not first when they allow families with small children). The reason being: who wants to sit on a plane any longer than you have to with a toddler? Regardless of how perfectly behaved my child is being, you never know how long you may have to sit there before take off or on the tarmac once you land. If my seat is assigned, I don't need to get there in a hurry. If your seat is not assigned, board first when they allow families with small children. Get a window seat for them because, again, CONTAINMENT.
5. Tablet & Over-Ear Headphones. Now is not the time to monitor your child's television intake. Load up that bad boy with their favorite shows and movies and let them go to town.
6. Snacks. Bring the stuff they like. The stuff they ask for again and again at home (even if it's something you don't normally shell out all the time). For Sam, it's graham crackers. I try to limit them at home since they are essentially cookies disguised as "crackers," but when it comes to plane rides it's no holds barred. Bonus Tip: I also put a few lollipops or other candy in an "emergency stash." This would be for emergency situations like, say, a nuclear meltdown or getting stuck on the plane indefinitely.
7. The Dollar Store/Toys. Buy a few small (read: lightweight) dollar store toys and keep them hidden in your bag until your little one seems to be losing interest with the tablet/snacks/etc. Surprise them with a new toy and buy yourself another 15 minutes. If you don't end up needing to use them, save them for the next trip or the next holiday. Other things to consider: crayons & paper, jigsaw puzzles (take the pieces out of the box and put them in a ziplock bag) - I love these puzzles, or a favorite book.
8. Wipes, Hand Sanitizer, Tissues, Stain Wipes. Because you're a mom. Duh.
9. Change of Clothes. ONE change of clothes in case a) luggage gets lost or the more likely scenario of b) spills and/or accidents.
10. Wine. After that baby is sleeping or hunkered down with a good movie and all the snacks they can eat treat yourself to a glass of wine or whatever relaxes you and give yourself a pat on the back. You're the best mom ever.