How I survive long-haul flights with my kids

It ain’t easy, but these tried-and-tested tactics may help make your next family flight a smoother one.

Young girl quietly draws with colored pencils and paper in an airplane seat during a long-haul family vacation

Before heading off on my first flight alone with my two-month-old baby, I spent hours trawling Pinterest and mom blogs, trying to figure out a magic strategy for managing the daunting 13-hour flight ahead.

I needn’t have bothered. My baby slept pretty much throughout the entire flight, waking only for feeds and diaper changes. We landed, I strapped him into my baby carrier and off we went. Absolutely no fuss.

 

The next time around, I wasn’t so lucky. Now four months old, he screamed and cried, fussed and wouldn’t settle. We had the diaper explosion of nightmares, and at one point, I stood up so quickly, I bashed my head on the overhead compartment and reckon I passed out for a few seconds.

Naturally, when we landed, I also ran into an ex-boyfriend in Arrivals.

 

This was probably my worst flight experience ever, and that’s including the times we flew with him as a super-energetic toddler, and after adding a little brother to the mix a few years later. It did get easier. I discovered a few tricks that worked for us, and I’ve stuck to them for years.

 

So yes, there may be the odd juicebox explosion or boredom-related whine, but overall, these are our family’s tried-and-tested tactics for getting over the odd mid-flight hiccup.

 

Go easy on yourself

Before you take that first trip with your baby or toddler, you’re understandably nervous. You have no idea how it’s going to go, and you want it to be as painless as possible. Unfortunately, kids are unpredictable, and the truth is that there is likely to be a difficult moment or two. So take a deep breath and remember: it’s temporary. The plane will land, and you and everyone else will disembark and (probably) forget all about it.

 

Research your airline

Some airlines are more favorable to traveling families, offering early check-in and boarding, front seats, in-flight bassinets and even a diaper changing table in the toilets. Try to find an airline that will offer at least some of these to make your trip easier. As former expats making regular long-haul trips home via the Middle Eastern aviation hubs of Dubai and Doha, we highly recommend Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines for international flights.

 

Book the right seats

If your airline does offer bassinets and your baby is still 22 pounds or under, call ahead and book it, as there are only a few per flight. Ensure that you have the right seat assignment for the bassinet as well.

 

If your baby is a light sleeper and it’s a night flight, try to book seats away from the galley, as the hustle and bustle will disturb them. Personally, we prefer window seats, so that we’re away from the aisle traffic, and if possible, we try to book a row so that we’re all sitting together as a family. Traveling with two kids, I place them in seats by the window, sit alongside them in the aisle seat, with my husband across the aisle, the two of us swopping every hour or so to give each other a break.

 

Board last

Even though most airlines offer priority boarding to parents with small children, we strongly recommend you don’t take them up on it. If you’re traveling with a partner, one of you should go ahead and set everything up, with the other staying behind in the departure lounge to let your toddler run free. They’ll hopefully run off a load of excessive energy by the time you’re among the last to board. And change that diaper one last time before you do.

 

 

Be smart about your carry-on

Keep a small carry-on at your feet for easy access. This should only be packed with your child’s essentials:

  • If you’re traveling with a baby, pack diapers, wipes and a small tub of diaper rash cream, as well as a plastic bag to store soiled diapers and other trash. Include too a cloth for a posseting baby, a blanket, pacifier and pacifier clip.
  • An extra change of clothes for your child, and an extra T-shirt for yourself.
  • A nursing cover if you are breastfeeding, or prepared bottles if your child is on formula. Make up the bottles just before you leave for the airport (or make them up at the airport if you get there early), and keep one handy for take-off to help with ear pain caused by cabin pressure.
  • Pureed fruit and veggie pouches if your baby is on solids, and extra snacks if you’re traveling with a toddler or older child.
  • Hand sanitizer and infant or children’s Tylenol.
  • Don’t forget yourself! Pack in your water bottle, an iPad (loaded with magazines and books), your basic toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, chapstick and a comb or brush), and a pen for international flights.

 

Ideally, as soon as you’re in your seat, take out the absolute necessities and place them in the seat back pocket for easy access. We always keep a bottle right there for take-off and landing.

 

Keep your hands free

If you have to wrestle small kids or a baby, you’re going to need your hands. Take the baby carrier and make sure your carry-on luggage (including that of your kids’) are all backpacks.

 

Break up the monotony

It’s hard enough for an adult to sit in a cramped seat for a long flight, so you can imagine how your energetic little one feels. Every now and then, take them on a plane walkabout, letting them explore and smile at friendly faces.

If you’re traveling with a partner, it’s great to work in shifts, so that at least one of you gets some downtime to watch a TV show, eat a meal or have a little rest.

 

Share the load

Toddlers and older kids love having their own backpacks, so fill theirs with:

  • Child-friendly headphones
  • A tablet with pre-loaded, age-appropriate movies and games, preferably ones they’ve never seen before
  • A snack box with apples, bananas, cheese sticks, granola bars, crackers and muffins
  • Water bottle, preferably with a screw-on lid. Take an empty one to the airport, then fill it up once you’ve gone through security.
  • Toys, preferably a few of their favorites with some new gifts thrown in (see below for our pick of top travel toys). Make sure you choose toys that aren’t noisy enough to annoy other passengers, and that don’t have lots of little bits that can fall off and get lost between the seats.
  • Coloring and activity books, with a pack of fresh crayons or markers

Mimic your routine

Get your kids settled on long-haul overnight flights by trying to mimic their night-time routines as much as possible, like changing into their PJs and brushing their teeth.

 

To avoid your toddler or child kicking the seat in front of them, invest in something like this inflatable ‘foot pillow’. It folds up neatly and can be inflated on the plane. Place it between your child’s seat and the seat in front of them, to create a ‘bed’ that allows them to stretch their legs out and get a comfortable night’s sleep. We bought ours 8 years ago and never travel without them.

 

ACTIVITIES & TOYS

Keeping kids occupied on any flight is most of your battle. Now’s not the time to be strict about screen time or snacks – your objective is to get through this flight with a (relatively) happy child. Here are some ideas based on what worked for our kids:

  • Pre-load a tablet with age-appropriate games and movies.
  • If you have a baby, tether a toy to your wrist and let them bash away at it. Have a few options so you can switch them up.
  • Search online for free printable activities based on their interests – a dinosaur-themed look & find, Star Wars dot-to-dot, unicorn-themed mazes, etc. Print out and place in an activities folder, making sure to include dry-erase markers or crayons as well. Look for activities such as this Airplane Scavenger Hunt by Mama Papa Bubba.
  • Small coloring books
  • Travel-sized boardgames
  • Re-usable stickers
  • Classic, child-friendly card games
  • Toy cars and painter’s tape to map out roads on a tray
  • Magnetized toys and games
  • Several rolls of washi tape

 

Some suggested travel toys for babies, toddlers and children heading off on long-haul family vacations: 1 Little Professionals Wooden Character Set, 3 years+ ($19.99)  2 Police Cruiser, Ambulance and Taxi Cab, 18 months+ ($14.99 each, visit our Vehicles shop for the full Wooden Wheels selection)  3 Make & Break Magnetic Helicopter, 18 months+ ($15.99) and Airplane, 18 months+  ($15.99) 4 Four Seasons Magnetic Playset, 4 years+ ($22.99)  5 Take-Along Barnyard, 6 months+ ($19.99)  6. City Builders Construction Set, 3 years+ ($17.99)

 

Guest post by Megan Masterson.

 

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