Surviving Long Haul Flights with Kids

Michelle Duffy from Wandermom
Roof top boys, India.

Roof top boys, India. By Ardy.

I’ve lived in U.S. since 1995 and since then I’ve traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Europe with my children (now twelve and eight) at least once a year. From the beginning, many friends here in Seattle would shake their heads in wonder at our seemingly super-human abilities to manage little kids and jet-lag. We don’t have any special abilities and our kids are not any better nor any worse than most children when it comes to flying. But, in our particular circumstances, travelling long distances to be with family was – and is – part of our life and part of our children’s lives. How could we not go to my brother-in-law’s wedding? Or rush to Ireland when my mom was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer? Our trip tally between the U.S. and Europe so far:

• Seven family wedding (just siblings!)
• Four weddings of close friends
• Two medical situations
• One 40th birthday party
• Three ‘just vacations’ – because it’s easier for us to go there than to expect the rest of the family to come here

My first flight as a new mom (to Dublin) was hideous – mostly because of my inexperience and lack of preparation. The next was a little better. By the time we decided to travel to Australia with some friends and their two kids in 2000, we were old hands. The kids had their blankies, snacks, water and entertainment. They were in their PJs as we boarded the flight. We flew overnight so they would sleep. See below for a full list of tips and tricks for making long-haul flights with very young children more manageable. Following these on this particular flight meant we had a fairly pleasant travel experience.

Traveling with children gets easier the earlier you start and the more you do it.

Certainly a 14-hour flight isn’t as easy as a short one or two hour hop, but it wasn’t hell-on-earth (or just above the earth) either. Traveling with children gets easier the earlier you start and the more you do it. No, they won’t be as well-behaved as an adult on the plane, but they won’t turn into monsters either. So, go for it. Stretch your wings. Pick a place you really want to visit and get your kids excited about visiting there too. You won’t regret it.

8 Tips For Managing Long-Haul Travel with Young Children

Lower your expectations and remember flights have a known duration
Start the flight by thinking “only nine hours to go” (or whatever the duration) and count down from there. Focus on the fact that even if your child is not doing well it will be over soon. If this is your first flight, don’t expect it to be anything like what flying used to be like before children. You will probably walk up and down the aisles many times; read the same book over and over; change multiple nappies in a tiny bathroom; and get food or drink spilled (or vomited) on you at least once.

1 person, 1 seat
Even if you are traveling with a child who is younger than two (who could travel as a lap child) it’s safer and more comfortable if everyone has their own seat. With a full aircraft, there is precious little space in a coach class seat to care for an infant or toddler.

Choose direct flights whenever possible
Keep it simple. Avoid risks of missed connections and reduce your total travel time. Taking two short flights with time to stretch your legs between flights may seem like a good idea but rarely works very well in practice.

Coordinate departure and arrival times with feeding schedules, naptimes and other important kid-related activities
This is particularly relevant for long-haul flights. If your child will sleep on the plane, you may get a jump on jet-lag which will make the start of your trip easier.

Pack plenty of supplies for the flight
Pack nappies, wipes, bottles, formula, snacks, toys and books. Everything and anything you might need. Pack a sturdy backpack or changing bag. Overestimate what you think you’ll need for the flight because it’s better to have too much than to run out. Pack a change of clothes for the baby and at least a spare t-shirt for you.

If jet-lag is likely, give some advance consideration into how you will manage it
This may be something a simple as remembering to ask the front desk if there is a park or playground nearby when you check into your hotel – so you can keep your children outside until the ‘local’ bedtime; or deciding in advance with your spouse or partner who is going to take the ‘early shift’ with the children when they wake up hours before sunrise. Keeping normal bedtime hours, fresh air and light exercise will help you get your child adjusted to the new time-zone. Try to focus on getting her adjusted first and then catch up on sleep yourself.

Plan layovers carefully
Two hours is a standard layover interval but you’re not going to be able to rush anywhere when traveling with a small child. Add extra time to compensate for any risk of delay with your first flight and for getting from gate to gate with bags, buggy and any other paraphernalia. If you’re traveling internationally, remember to allow time for customs and passport control.

Take advantage of airport lounges during layovers whenever possible
It’s so much easier to relax between flights in these lounges than out in the main terminal. There may be additional bathrooms, showers and other facilities which you can also use. Use frequent flier club memberships or purchase access using Priority Pass or Lounge Pass.

About the author:

Michelle is an Irish mum living in Seattle with her husband and two sons. As Wandermom, she is full of advice on how, where and why to travel with kids.

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Discussion »

  • #1Shelly Rivoli

    Re: “Traveling with children gets easier the earlier you start and the more you do it.” Here-here! As I always say, strap ‘em on and go! There’s no carry-on like a baby.

  • #2JLow

    Some good advice!

    Here’s my experience travelling with a 3 year old. She will be 4 when we are travelling again in a few weeks time!

  • #3Soultravelers3

    Great advice! We did lots of traveling as a family, but never did a long haul flight until my daughter was 5 and we started our open ended world tour.

    She is extremely active, so I was concerned. It was sooo easy and we just did two more ( she is 8 now) that were equally effortless.

    My best advice is, if you can wait until they are at least 5, you should be able to fly anywhere with ease.

    Now, the lady ahead of me with the baby, she looked really worn out by the end of the flight despite having lots of help and bulkhead seat and baby bed.

    Oh, get them their own carry on bag with wheels and make sure they are use to lots of walking ( my daughter was by 2). They like the independence and it is a big help!

  • #4Sam

    Great post!

    We found when flying long haul to Australia via the US with our infant (6 months), that feeding during take off and landing is *gold*! Swallowing opens up the throat and means their ears don’t start hurting. Same kind of deal as chewing gum, but obviously that’s not an option with really small kids.

    We did break up the flight in both directions, but not by a few hours. Minimum of a two days at each stop. It worked well for us, not in the least to slowly help with jetlag adjustments.

    Next June we’re planning a new trip to Australia, but the little one will be 3 already, so should be quite different. She’s active though, so I expect to be walking up and down the aisle several hundred times!! :)

    Great post!

    Sam

  • #5Jenny

    This is a good article. Kids are a handful.

  • #6john

    Great advice… i have a 14 month old and one on the way and i’m sure i will use some of the tips you’ve given on my next trip. Thanks!

  • #7Genevieve

    Hi My husband and I are travelling with our 4, 2 & 1 year olds to Florida from Ireland in March 2009! Not looking forward to the flight at all-any advice or information that I should be aware of? Many thanks!

  • #8Nero

    travelling is a pleasurable experience but it could become uninteresting expecially when you are traveling with kids, you have to prepare them for the journey and to cope with jetlag. I traveled to Dubai with my kids and the tips you gave really helped me in coping with the long flight. the idea of one person to a seat is simply great and the first thing i did was to ensure my kids were engaged in one game or the other to keep them busy just to overcome jetlag. Thanks so much for this wonderful tips.

    nero

  • #9Enjoying Travel With Kids

    Because we live in Australia, when we travel with our kids, practically all our flights are long haul. We’ve survived 13 hour flights from Asia to Europe, but without a layover, our trips to Europe from Australia would be about 20 hour non-stop flights…! Sometimes, layovers are completely necessary.

    We always keep in mind that for the first two or three days, the kids will be grumpy because of jetlag – and probably we will be too! You just have to try not to expect too much of everyone.

    You’ve got some great tips. :-)

    Yvette

  • #10bridget

    just about to go to thailand with 3 kids under 5 – have been advised to take a few small presents eg, colouring pad and pencils, wrapped up to give to the kids when they start getting restless or bored. a pillow and a window seat are always a good option as are a small wheelie bag that they can pull along with their own toys and snacks inside. A ds or tune player can also be a good source of entertainment. if i learn anymore tips i will report back!!

  • #11Caroline

    We are about to take our 5 and a half month old to New Zealand from the UK.We have booked a bulkhead seat with sky cot and I’m wondering whether I should stick to his routine at ‘bedtime’of changing him into babygro and gro bag for sleeping or whether that’s all too much fuss (and possibly too warm)and instead take him onto the flight already in his babygro and not bother with a gro bag? All thoughts welcome!

  • #12Naomi

    My husband will be flying with our sixth month old soon and is worried about the pressure as the plane get’s further and further in the air. Do you have any suggestion’s?

  • #13Sally

    Naomi. We flew a short trip from Perth to Melbourne when our son was 6 months. Little did we know that he had an ear infection at the time and the poor bugger was in excruciating pain for the 3.5 hour flight. I suggest to anyone flying with kids that you take them to a doctor for a quick once over a day or so before the flight and NEVER travel without childrens paracetamol. We are now regular international fliers with our son (now 3) and we only ever travel with carefully thought out hand luggage (no matter how long the trip) to avoid long waits upon arrival, anything extra we need can be purchased at our destination. If it is a reasonably short journey, we take mostly old clothes for our son that are about past their life expectancy and dispose of them during the trip, to constantly keep a light load.

  • #14wakjak

    Great article! My parents used alot of these techniques with my sister and I when we were little. By the time we were 5 and 6, we wanted to fly on our own. So, my parents booked us seats at the back of the plane and seats at the front of the plane for themselves. Boy did we feel grown up! We lined up with our tickets and waved buh bye to Mum and Dad! We got to choose our food, toys, annoy the people beside us (we were very inquisitive children) give passengers new hairdos, sleep, colour…the best part? Mum and Dad waiting to great us at our destination once we had disembarked the plane!

  • #15sam

    Great advice !

    will be travelling to australia in dec with a 3year and 2year old kids. this is our first long-haul flight and we are very anxious about it. both my children are very active and they grow restless when told to sit in one place. i will note all your advice and put them to practise, hope it will work out well for us too !

    will surely post my experience after our memorable flight !

    Also, thanks for the advice on how to help children cope with jet lag.I had not given it a thought yet.Anymore advices and tips are welcome.

    Sam

  • #16Brandon

    We went to Africa this summer with a 13 month old and 4 year old. We had one on our laps and wish that we would have bought a seat for him on our flights.

  • #17Lara

    Hi,

    We are traveling with our 3year old and 8months old from Dibai to Canada….. And we are both very worried as this is the first time we travel on a 14hour flight and have no clue what to do or how it is going to be… I keep thinking of how they will sleep specially my 8months old!!! And is it better to stop somewhere for a day or 2 and then travel again? Or one long flight is better? And how do you manage with the jet lag thing?

    I don’t know what to expect and I’m very scared… Would appreciate any more advices regarding the same. And thank you all for the great tips above

    Happy 2012

  • #18Kent

    Thanks for this. Absolutley fantastic…. We have young children and have flown many times with them together and individually. One of the best ideas for the long haul flights that my wife came up with is this. She would buy a few pocket games, or little toys from the dollar store and bring them out in the flight when boredom would hit. The kids love it beacuse it is a little something different, a treat , gift. Especially good for those of us that don’t want our kids watching the in flight movies for hours on end….

  • #19bea

    I will travel with two under two but could only afford teo seats. Any suggestions? How to manage i did purchase comfort seats with more space

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