Flying with Kids: Your Long-Haul Flight Essentials Guide
The very thought of a long-haul flight with kids is enough to have parents wringing their hands in dread and shaking their heads in fear. Let’s face it, flying with kids is not going to be the most relaxing event of your life, but it can actually be kind of fun. Yes. Fun. I promise!
Being stuck in an elongated metal box with hundreds of adults for five or more hours is bad enough, but taking long-haul flights with kids is a whole other level of stress.
But let’s get to that “fun” part first… Kids love going to the beach, let alone a destination on the other side of the world, in a plane no less! Enjoy that enthusiasm, it’s contagious and can make for some really happy moments and memories. Then there’s the fact that sitting next to a small person ensures you don’t sit next to a large person! So there’ll be no wrestling a stranger for the armrest and a bit of extra leg room.
Flying with Kids
As a parent who has crisscrossed the globe with her kids, sometimes even on her own, I can tell you that having a good plan is the way to go. Yes, they get easier to travel with as they get older and the more they travel, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
Having won and lost this fight with my kids a couple of times over, I have a few tips and tricks up my sleeve to get you from A to B, and back again.
So grab a coffee, sit back and read the second installment of my two-part series on the very best tips for surviving a long-haul flight with kids. <You can read Part One here – How to Prepare for a long-haul flight with kids.>
Allow extra time at the airport
Kids tend to do things in their own time. They get distracted by shiny things, or they need to go to the toilet at the very worst and most inconvenient moment. Trying to frantically get them to walk quickly to your boarding gate will often backfire. So, leave earlier from home than you normally would, and if the kids need an unscheduled stop (due to meltdown or hunger strike), you won’t be a panicked mess at the departure gate.
Toilet breaks, toilet breaks, toilet breaks. I cannot stress this enough! Before you board your flight, ensure everyone has gone to the bathroom. I swear, there will be nothing worse for you than being stuck in your seat with the seatbelt sign “on” and a child squirming next to you who is busting to go.
Get moving before your flight
If you’re on a long-haul flight, it usually means you are heading to an international destination, so you will have to be at the airport more than two hours before your flight. Whatever you do, don’t use that time to sit around. Well, actually you can if you want, but try to get the kids moving as much as possible. Some airports have playgrounds, but if you can’t find the indoor jungle gym, look for a little space and get the kids to have a jumping or hopping competition. The aim is to give them the exercise they need to make them more content to sit when they board their flight and, let’s face it, hopefully, a little tired!
Take advantage of early boarding
As passengers with small children, you will often be invited to board the plane early. This is a great way to get your family settled in their seats and ensure you get your bags in the overhead lockers right above you before anyone else takes it. Yes, it does mean the kids will have a few extra minutes in their seats, but it’s totally worth it. If you can’t bring yourself to board early, then get your partner to board early and get the kids’ bags unpacked and put away before you board towards the end of the line.
Kids ears flying
Invest in noise-canceling headphones. No, not because you don’t want to listen to your kids complaining (but that is a side benefit!), but because they cut down the noise substantially, which reduces the tension you all feel after listening to the nerve-grating plane din for hours on end.
My boys got a cheap Sony pair because they won’t look after them as well as we would, and we fancied it up and bought ourselves the amazing Bose noise-cancelling over-ear headphones. They don’t fall off like the airline-supplied ones do.
When it comes to take-off and landing, kids often suffer discomfort or pain from increased ear pressure. Breast or bottle-feed babies during these times and get older kids to chew lollies or suck on drinks which will help their ears “pop” easier. Once your kids are older, you can teach them how to gently pop their ears to relieve the pressure.
For those little ones with ear troubles, we found Plane Ears were fantastic and are available over the counter at your local pharmacy. Another trick I have used and seems to work is giving your child a non-drowsy child’s antihistamine an hour before take-off to open up the ear canal.
Travel food tips for flying with kids
Never assume you’ll be offered food on your flight. Yeah, really. Check what’s on offer on the plane and order a kids meal if they offer them. Now, even if you’ve ordered a kids meal and your airline provides full food and bar service, don’t be surprised if one or all of your kids won’t touch a thing! I don’t know how many flights we’ve been on where my youngest has simply refused to eat anything on the plane because it’s all just too different (even though it’s really not).
So you’re going to need snacks. Plenty of snacks! I’m not a fan of Bento boxes on planes, because if and when the kids drop these (because you know they will), you’ve lost the lot on the plane floor (and the five-second rule doesn’t count here). We use flip-top snack cups (so you don’t lose the lid), or ziplock snack bags. One thing which has been great for my kids from toddlerdom until now (8 and 10) is putting a variety of snacks into a cloth bag. They can choose what they want to eat and have some control (which they love) and then I have a separate emergency stash in my bag that they don’t know about.
Snack ideas include fruit (that doesn’t go mushy and that you have to eat before you land), granola/muesli bars, crackers/biscuits, sandwiches that don’t require refrigeration. Remember, food such as boiled eggs, meat, and cheese all need to be kept cold which is difficult to do on a long-haul flight. Also, before you pack nuts, consider that there will likely be a person on your flight with a severe nut allergy. We don’t pack them out of courtesy to others.
My favourite emergency food is small servings of cereal. Most long-haul full-service flights will give you milk in a cup and a spoon, and then the kids can eat as much cereal as they like. Just be aware that too much milk in the wrong hands is messy and smelly. Believe me, I know. My son once tipped a whole carton of milk (accidentally) over him, his seat and me. It wasn’t pretty.
In the event that someone’s seat gets saturated in whatever liquid they can throw at it, the flight attendants usually can replace the seat base very easily. This is when your spare set of clothes will come in handy.
Stay hydrated on your long-haul flight
I always find it’s incredible how much water you can drink when flying long haul and not need to pee! Yes, you will need to drink more than normal when flying, especially if you’re nursing. Take your own water bottles and keep refilling them during the flight. I always try to drink at least one lot of oral rehydration solution like Gastrolyte (bring the tablets and add water), if we’re flying more than 12 hours. The kids aren’t always thrilled by the rehydration solution but I still try to get them to have half a cup.
And if you want a glass or two of wine or whatever you drink on your flight, go for it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all part of the experience! I wouldn’t go too crazy though.
How to get some sleep flying with kids
Not to dampen your enthusiasm, but I’m going to get real here. Chances are you’re either going to get a solid five hours sleep on your flight because all the planets have aligned, or the kids will be lying all over you, one asleep, the other wide awake. Then they’ll take turns and you’ll be happy to even get 30 minutes sleep on this 12-hour flight. There’s no point in losing sleep over it (pun intended).
You can plan and do everything to give yourself the best possible chance of everyone sleeping, but there are no guarantees. Just like you have sleepless nights at home, you can have them in the air too.
The best thing you can do is create an in-flight bedtime routine, where kids brush their teeth and go to the toilet, get changed into their pyjamas, and snuggle up under a blanket with a book until it’s sleep time. Just like at home!
Some airlines allow the use of blow up sleeping devices in the foot area, like Plane Pal and 1st Class Kid, but make sure you ask your airline before you buy one. They are great for little kids if you can use one. Also, consider taking a neck pillow – people either love them or they hate them.
If you’re considering giving your child an antihistamine like Benadryl or Phenergan, or some melatonin to help them sleep on the plane, chat to your Doctor first. I’m not going to tell you what’s right or wrong for your child, but I want you to be aware that there are side effects including making some kids totally hyperactive. And no one wants that!
My kids absolutely love flying because it is the one time when I put very few restrictions on how much technology they can have – but only on those long-haul flights. Misbehave, and they quickly lose those privileges.
In saying that, we always pack a small selection of toys and activities to keep the kids busy on the flight. Pack a few in a small bag or sack that they have control over and then back up ones in your bag.
We love things that have moveable parts but are stuck together such as Transformers, as well as squishy and bendy toys. Make them big enough so that when they’re dropped on the floor, you can find them again. Activity books and colouring pencils are also great. I’m not a fan of crayons or felt-pens on flights because they get sat on and mushed into clothes.
With anything you take, ask yourself this first: If this gets lost, will it be a problem? We always try and take the second favourite cuddly because it isn’t as great a catastrophe if it’s lost.
Anything you take on the plane shouldn’t be noisy, smelly, involve liquids or small parts like Lego that will get lost in and under seats.
Also, take a Kindle or e-reading app loaded with books if you can, or a small paperback book or two to read. We always take iPads because you never know when the entertainment system won’t work, and a bunch of toys just isn’t going to cut it for long hours in a confined space. For your own sanity, take the iPad! Make sure you have apps installed that don’t require wifi and you can even download movies and TV shows if you like.
Stopping kids kicking the seat
Is there anything worse than a seat kicker? Kids kicking the seat in front of you is frustrating for you as the parent and oh-so-annoying for the person in front. So how to stop it? When your kid’s feet don’t yet touch the ground, their legs are left hanging and this gets uncomfortable for them after a while.
If you’ve got a kicker, there are a few things you as the parent can do:
- Make them sit cross-legged on their seat
- Give them a bag or a blow-up foot cushion on the floor to rest their feet on
- Book a seat for one parent in front of the kicker so at least they’re kicking one of you, not a stranger
- Get them to stand up regularly and stretch their legs and do a few little mini exercises like heel toe
- As a last resort, hold their feet or threaten to shut down their entertainment system (and then follow through)! That should do it.
Fighting germs on the plane
I’m actually a pretty laid-back Mum, but when it comes to flying I try everything possible to stop us all from catching whatever gross virus is hanging around in the plane. Arriving at your destination or back home and everyone coming down with a vomiting bug, cold or flu will put a serious dampener on things.
Check out these couple of tips to stop the germs in their germy tracks without going overboard with a spray can of disinfectant (although that would be easier):
- Take a packet of disinfectant wipes and wipe down the tray table, entertainment system, armrests and seat belt buckles. It might seem a bit much, but believe me, it’s much easier to do this than it is to spend the first few days of your trip sick. Plus, you really don’t want to know what’s gone on there. Think coughing, picking, spitting, nappy changing. Gross.
- Unfortunately, there is no avoiding the bathroom on a long-haul flight but you can minimise what you bring out of there. If you have to touch the toilet seat, then do it with some toilet paper, use a seat cover especially for your kids who have to sit down, and when you get out of there, use some disinfectant hand gel or hand wipes. And please remember to wear shoes in the toilet.
- For diaper/nappy changing, use disposable changing mats that you can throw away after use.
- Use disinfectant hand gel before every meal. I know I mentioned that in point two, but it’s totally worth mentioning again!
Tips for flying with a baby or toddler
Should I take a stroller or car sear? Check it all in with the mountain of other luggage? Carry the baby in a harness? There are so many questions and decisions when travelling with a baby. There really is no right or wrong answer, but this might help you to decide.
Car seats on the plane
When it comes to car seats, some airlines allow children to use them on board the plane, while others don’t. The best thing you can do is to check with your airline first. The best options for sleeping babies are either to pre-book a bassinet on board your flight or to take your car seat if allowed and if you need it for when you arrive. It’s a pain – and cumbersome – to carry them through the airport and security but if you can’t get a bassinet and you don’t want to hold your baby for hours on end, then I reckon it’s worth it.
Age and weight requirements vary from airline to airline and often plane to plane. Most are suitable for up to 8 months, a few are even suitable for up to 2 years of age. Do your research before you get to the airport.
Baby Carrier or Stroller
Putting your baby in a sling harness or strapped to your body somehow is great because it means you have free hands to deal with other kids, passports, luggage trollies and your carry-on bags.
As for strollers, take a look at whether you can use the airline or airports strollers at departure and arrivals. Otherwise, you can usually take a small collapsible stroller into the plane, but always check this first with your airline.
Food and drink for a baby/toddler
Always ask for food or bottles to be heated up well in advance of when you need them because cabin crew do not have access to a microwave and will need to use hot water to heat. And sometimes they get sidetracked with other passengers.
Especially if travelling with a baby, pack all his/her favourite foods and don’t rely on the airline because what they serve up may not be to your baby’s liking – and who needs that angst? Better to be safe than sorry with a child too young to reason with.
If you’re at the pureed food stage, you’ll need to take your own food.
Please check airport security regulations for the country you are travelling to and from, so you know if there are any restrictions on taking liquids onboard for your baby or toddler. At most airports, you should be okay to take baby bottles and pureed food with a little extra security screening, but regulations change so quickly, you absolutely should check.
Take a ziplock bag or similar filled with one nappy/diaper, wipes, a nappy sack, rash cream, disposable change mat, and a change of clothes, and put it in the pocket in front of you, so you can get to them quickly when you need to. You can restock after every visit, or take a few prepared ones in your bag.
Take more nappies than you need. We all know unexpected accidents happen.
Toys for toddlers and babies
For toddlers, take a soft toy they like to sleep with or cuddle up to for quiet time. It’s comforting and familiar and might just make settling down time easier. Plus take a small sack of toys as mentioned earlier in the Entertainment section.
Jetlag with kids
Now, if you’re flying with kids over several time zones there is going to be jet lag involved – for you, your partner and all the kids. It’s a fact of travelling life. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to change this but my best advice is this:
- When you get on the plane, change your watch to local time at your destination. It helps adults, not so much kids.
- If you can arrive at your destination mid-afternoon following a long haul flight with kids, that is gold because then you have time to settle into your accommodation, find food and put everyone to bed on as close to local time as possible. Routine is the goal here.
- Understand that every single person in your family will react differently and that you’re likely in for a few long nights and even longer days. A flight from Australia to Europe takes us at least four nights to adjust. Breathe.
- Take it slow in those first few days. Long walks, adventure activities, big crowds and fancy restaurants may not be terribly conducive to any form of family harmony.
When things go wrong
Unfortunately, just like everyday life at home, things can go wrong when you fly. The weather turns bad, flights are delayed or cancelled, bags are lost, and babies and toddlers can scream and throw tantrums at the most inopportune times. None of these things are in your control, so my best advice is to prepare well, be patient, take help from others if it’s offered, ignore any glares that come your way (those people are probably not nice to anyone), and breathe slowly and deeply when it all gets too much. The plane trip will end; it’s only a small part of your journey and you and your family will find that sweet spot sooner than you think. (Did I say just breathe?)
And that’s it. Easy, right? Long-haul flights with kids might seem daunting and stressful and chaotic and insurmountable, but it is absolutely, totally, utterly worth it. For the sake of a few travelling hours, the trip with your children will create memories and moments they will carry with them for the rest of their life. They will thank you. I promise.