By Charles Kosman
After countless long and short haul flights with our kids, we like to think we’ve figured a few things out when it comes to flying with young children.
From broken heaters and nonexistent meals to spilled drinks and motion sickness, we’ve seen it all thousands of feet above the ground. We’ve also endured eight-hour delays and cancelled flights aplenty. We were even stuck on a plane with our toddlers for almost three hours before it even left the tarmac for a ten hour flight.
We’ve learned a few things over the years about how to make our flights as stress free as possible when it comes to flying with kids. As you’ll find out, whether you’re traveling with an infant for the first time or with older kids, the biggest challenge is preparation.
So, here are 20 tips for (cross your fingers!) breezing through a long flight with little kids.
When it comes to small bellies and extended travel time, you can never have enough snacks. Snacks keep the kids happy and, depending on what they’re eating, can keep them occupied for a long time as well. Just make sure everything (especially fruits, veggies and dairy) are allowed in through customs at your destination country.
Whether it’s snacks, drinks or toys you need to dispense during the flight, keeping everything small ensures there’s less waste and better control. We usually take a bunch of Ziploc-style sandwich bags. These work well to divide up food for each child and are small and easy to carry. They’re especially good for splitting up larger bags of things like Cheerios or Goldfish crackers.
Nothing ruins a flight faster than having juice spilled all over you. Trust me on that. These days we get the flight attendants to pour whatever the kids are drinking directly into a sealable cup and avoid that nightmare altogether.
We always travel with at least one extra set of kids clothes in our carry-on luggage. Spilled drinks, toilet accidents and overly messy snacks are the norm for kids. Now slap them in a tight seat with a flimsy little table in front of them for half a day and you’ll understand that spare clothes on a long flight are almost a necessity. To be honest, having an extra shirt for yourself isn’t a bad idea either.
No matter the temperature of your final destination, the temperature on most long flights is generally chilly. Make sure you have a light jacket and socks for the kids to wear if they want them. Getting the kids cozy also helps them to sleep if it’s an overnighter or your kids want to nap.
If you’re on a flight for hours with young kids, toys aren’t optional; they’re a must. Keep the toys small enough so they travel easily but not so small that they can get lost between the seats. Avoid balls (they roll away too easily) and be mindful of toys like Lego that come with a million pieces you can lose. Play-Doh can make quite the mess so we generally avoid it in flight and definitely leave things like Silly Putty (which is impossible to remove from hair or fabrics) and loud, annoying toys like whistles and musical instruments at home. Your cabin mates will thank you. If you have time, try wrapping a few of the toys so the kids can open them as a special treat.
Small children generally love to color. With a handy seat back table and a lap belt to keep them somewhat still, a plane is the perfect place to let your little Da Vincis go wild. We always make sure we have a few small coloring books and crayons or pencils handy. Washable markers work as well, but they can get a little messy. Stickers are great too, but just make sure the kids only use them on the books or your fingernails will take a beating as you try to scrape them off the windows and tray tables.
A little known secret behind every great parent is baby wipes. These miracles of modern invention clean up messes from any end and can even leave your clothes smelling fresh. Make sure you have a package of wipes on the flight to help prep, maintain and then polish off the kids (and you) as you disembark.
Your kids are going to make a mess at some point in your long flight. The question is, what will it be? Whether it’s a pile of wet clothes, too many toys or last minute snacks that didn’t get properly put away there will come a time when you need a bag to store them in. Make sure you have a plastic bag you can whip out that will handle it all. It’s also not a bad idea to have something you can put your garbage in while in flight.
Nearly every country these days requires a passport and travel documents for every passenger, regardless of their age. If you’re a single parent traveling with your kids, you should also carry legal papers with explicit consent from your partner. If you’re divorced, separated or the child is adopted you should also have copies of that as well. Some countries are more stringent than others so you should verify before leaving.
Cell phones, tablets, computers and gaming systems like a 3DS can be great distractions for kids on long flights. The trick is knowing when to break them out. We generally find that the longer we hold out the happier everyone is. We talk, play games, color and let them play with their toys for as long as possible before rewarding them (and us) with electronics. We also make sure they take breaks often while using electronics to make sure they aren’t ignoring important events like going to the washroom or breathing.
If the gods are kind or your pockets are deep, there will be private in-flight entertainment on board and half your flight will be spent letting the kids catch up on their favorite cartoons. Every child usually needs their own pair of headphones, unless you want to spend money to buy a cheap set on board. Older children can use ear buds, but we’ve found younger children prefer over the ear headphones. Having a headphone splitter isn’t a bad idea either if they’re sharing a tablet or sitting on your lap.
Lots of flights these days charge extra for advance seat booking and some flights are only first come, first served. Priority used to be given to families with young children, however those days are changing. These days it’s more every man, woman and child for themselves. Depending on your airplane and the size of your family, getting seats together might not even be possible. Confirm your airplane layout before leaving and have an optimal and second choice seating plan in mind. Keep in mind that most seats get booked in pairs. Sometimes it can even be beneficial to split up large families or to seat one parent a few chairs away so the couple can take turns minding the kids while the other relaxes.
Make sure you pack enough diapers if your little ones are really young and essentials like medication to tide you through a long delay. Our plane heading out of Cuba was grounded due to mechanical issues and it took nine hours for a replacement plane to be flown in from Canada. We were stuck in the airport and only had enough diapers in our carry-on for the flight home. With no diapers for sale in the airport, let’s just say that we tested the absorption limits of Pampers that day.
We find talking with our kids about what to expect before, during and after the flight goes a long way toward a better family travel experience. Getting lugged around blindly is never fun for anyone. This is especially useful when passing through security, which we find the most stressful part of traveling in general (with or without kids). Promising rewards for good behavior once the flight is over isn’t a bad idea either.
For active kids, being physically confined to a seat for hours at a time can be incredibly difficult. We try to find a quieter section of the airport before takeoff and let them run around for a while. On board, we also walk them up and down the aisles at set intervals to burn off some of that pent up steam.
Try sticking to your at home bedtime routine as much as possible. Reading a book together is a great way to wind them down before bedtime. Keep them comfortable by putting on their cuddliest pajamas and letting them fall asleep on your lap. If you can lower the lights and even make a private fort for them it also helps to minimize distractions.
Food carts and other passengers are constantly traveling up the aisles, and having your little one in an aisle seat is a sure way to ensure someone is always smashing into their little fingers or feet. If kids are in an aisle seat, it’s also far too easy for them to get up and wander around when you’re not looking or catching a nap. It’s also easier to grab things from the overhead bins and handle drinks and snacks if your child isn’t in an aisle seat.
Small kids don’t have the ability to equalize their eardrums like adults and the pressure build up in the inner ear on landing can be extremely painful. Depending on your child’s age, a bottle, a pacifier (or dummy for those in the UK), a lollipop or chewing gum can be just the ticket. When our kids were old enough (around age three), we taught them to equalize their ears by pinching their noses closed with their fingers, closing their mouths, and gently pretending they were blowing their noses.
Flying with kids, like anything else in life, is all about how you approach it. If you project an attitude that your flight’s going to be a huge hassle, you’d better believe your kids will pick up on it. However, if you put a positive spin on the experience, your kids will start their flight with a better attitude. Even before boarding, talk about aspects of the flight that the kids will enjoy like the little fold down tray tables, the snacks and the in-flight entertainment. Finally, watch their expressions during that moment on takeoff when the plane’s wheels leave the ground. The first time in a plane can be life changing and you never know, you might be paving the way for the next generation of jet setters.
Charles and Micki are the Canadian couple behind the popular family blog The Barefoot Nomad. From hot air ballooning through Turkey to snorkeling with sea turtles in Mexico to riding camels in Morocco, they prove that you can have great adventures with your kids regardless of their age.
For some great products that parents should have when travelling check out The 27 Products Mothers Should Never Travel Without