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Tips for Enjoying (Not Just Surviving) Long Haul Flights with Kids!

Flying with your kids can be so fun!  Yes, it’s hard, but taking care of kids is hard no matter where you are.  If you have the opportunity to travel with your children, take it!  There’s a big world out there and there are so many incredible experiences we can give our children when we travel.  This post will give you ten tips for enjoying (not just surviving) your flight with your children.

Our family just took our first transpacific flight with our four kids (ages 9, 6, 3, and 10 months) and I was SO NERVOUS!  Anyone who talked to me in the week before we left had to listen to me agonize over which toys to pack and what activities to bring and worry over how I’d entertain the baby for such a long flight.  I was so worried!  But guess what?   IT was TOTALLY fine and WAY easier than I imagined.  Your flight will also be way easier than you’re imagining and a lot of fun!

Kids are a lot of work no matter where you are.  On an international flight, someone else will prepare and bring your all of your food, drinks, and snacks for the day.  Your child will probably have a cool TV right in the seat back in front of them.  So it’ll probably actually be easier than regular daily life.  You don’t have to cook or clean or mediate any arguments over what to watch on TV.  It’s going to be great!

The “Don’ts” of Long Haul Flights with Kids

I’d like to start out with a list of don’ts.  There’s a lot of bad advice out there, and you’ll likely get a lot of bad advice from friends and family too when you tell them your taking your kids on a long haul flight.  Here are some don’ts:

1.  Don’t let anyone make you doubt yourself.  You can do this.  Your kids will enjoy it and it will be worth it!  Will there be hard moments?  Yes!  Of course, but there are hard moments with kids at home too.  You’ve got this!  If anyone is giving you negative comments, try your best to ignore it.  Spend your time before you travel talking with people who have done this before and who are uplifting and positive.

2.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you’ll need to drug or medicate your kids.  You don’t need to bring along a sedative or medication that induces drowsiness to fly with your kids.  Certainly bring along any medications that you regularly use and might need, but don’t bring along a medication your child has never used because your neighbor told you it might make your kid drowsy.  An airplane isn’t the place to try a new medication with your child.

3.  Don’t overpack your carry-on.  It’s super tempting to pack everything.  But remember that when you’ve been traveling for 24 hours and you’re exhausted and still have to go through immigration lines, you’ll be carrying your child AND everything you packed.

4.  Don’t worry about giving little gifts to people sitting around you.  Yes, your baby might cry.  Your toddler will probably kick the seat in front of them, even if you’ve already told them not to.  But you, your baby, and all of your kids have as much right to be on the plane as everyone else and you don’t need to give anyone a gift bag to apologize in advance.

Tips for Planning your Flight

  1.  Consider calling the airline and asking for a seat in the bulkhead row with the basinet.  Now if your baby is anything like mine, they won’t sleep in the basinet at all.  However, there is a TON of legroom at the bulkhead seat and the basinet makes a great place to put all the things you don’t want the baby getting into.  We used the bulkhead floor space as a little play area and put all of the toys and things that I was trying to hand him one at a time in the basinet.  They were easy for me to reach, but weren’t rolling all over the floor and getting everywhere either.Another nice thing about the bulkhead seat is that other people with babies will likely be sitting there too!  It’s nice not feeling like the only one with a baby and you can even help each other a little!  The person next to us on our flight home lent me a wash cloth when my baby flung chicken and rice all over me and she saved our day!The downside to the bulkhead row is that you can’t put the armrests up.  This can make it less comfortable for a toddler or older child to sleep because they like to put the arm rest up and sleep on you.  We decided to put the kids who would want to lay out on the seat to nap in the row behind the bulkhead row. This way we were all together, but the 3 and 6 year old could put up their armrests and lean on their dad.
  2. If you think there’s a chance your flight will not be full, you can try choosing seats that leave an empty seat between you and anyone else you are flying with.  One of our flights was a domestic flight that connected to our international flight.   I was planning to sit next to my 9 year old daughter.  When I booked the seats, I put her by the window and me by the aisle.  I left the seat in the middle empty. On one flight, someone was in the middle seat and I just offered him the aisle or the window and he was more than happy not to have to sit between us.  On the next flight, no one was in that seat at all and we had an entire extra seat’s space to stretch out.
  3. It’s not always possible to choose your flight times, but if you are able to choose your times, consider your child’s schedule.  If you are able to, schedule lay-overs for times when you expect your child to be awake and active so that they can run around and play a bit while you are out of the plane.  If at all possible, also schedule your flight so that you aren’t starting your day much earlier than usual.  It’s ideal to start a long day of travel with a baby who has had a full night’s sleep and is as rested as possible.

What to Pack

  1. Bring a baby carrier for any kids that you typically have to carry if they get tired.  A baby carrier for the baby is a so helpful!  See this blog post for my favorite carry to use on an airplane.  It can be really helpful to bring along a carrier for a toddler or preschooler too.  Our daughter is 3.5 and is an awesome walker.  We don’t need to wear her often at home.  But when we had been traveling for 24 hours and still needed to make it through immigration and find our hotel shuttle, our toddler sized carrier was really helpful!  For tips on how to tell if your child fits the toddler size, check out this post. 

  2. When you’re deciding what to pack, think about the things your kids do every day.  The kid who only eats chicken nuggets shaped like a dinosaur will do that on a plane.  The kid who always spills her drink and then refuses to wear a slightly wet shirt, will do that on the plane.  You know what those things are for your kids and you can prepare for that.  Pack a cup with a lid and a spare shirt for the drink spiller.  Pack familiar food for the picky eater.  You know your kids best and if your instincts tell you that you should prepare for a possibility, then you should listen to that.
  3. Don’t worry too much about how to entertain a baby!  Remember that to a baby, everything is new and interesting. I was really worried about how to entertain our baby and packed a million toys.  However, he didn’t play with ANY of them.  He just threw any toy I handed him.  He did spend an hour playing with the airline headphones and another hour velcoing and unvelcroing his sister’s shoe.  He enjoyed tasting all of the airplane food and spend some time removing all of the magazines from the pouch in front of our seat.  He slept a TON too.  Instead of all of those toys, I wish I had just packed a nice pillow so my arm wouldn’t fall asleep holding him for so long while he slept.
  4. Get a nice pair of kid sized headphones.  On an international flight, bigger kids will probably spend the entire time enjoying the in flight entertainment, but the airline headphones do not fit kids’ heads well at all!  Get a pair that’s sized for kids. I also recommend getting a headphone splitter if you’re flying with more than one child.  If one device’s battery dies, or two kids want to watch the same thing, you can just plug both headphones into one device.
  5. Pack a change of clothes for you and baby, at least a spare shirt.  You probably won’t need it, but on the off-chance that there’s a diaper explosion or your child vomits, you’ll be glad to have a spare shirt.

Strategies for Keeping Kids Happy While Flying

  1. When you’re in the airport waiting for your flight, try to keep everyone awake and get them some exercise!  Some airports have nice little play areas that you can find while you are waiting.  If not, let the kids walk around at the gate.  Take them to look out the window at all of the planes, do yoga in the waiting area, etc.  Don’t keep them confined during this time. They’ll have to sit still long enough on the plane!  Try to keep them moving.
  2. Feed the baby or give them something to suck on during take off.  If you kept the baby awake in the airport and let them move around, odds are good that they will just fall asleep during take off.  There’s so much white noise during take off and feeding or sucking is very calming and prevents ear pain.  If you’re lucky, you’ll have a sleeping baby before the plane even hits cruising altitude.
  3. Feed the baby or give them something to suck on during landing as well.
  4. Bring your baby carrier on the plane for the baby.  If the baby is having a hard time settling to sleep or is upset, spending some time in a baby carrier can be very comforting.  If the seat belt sign is off, you can walk the aisles with baby in the carrier or stand and bounce near the bathrooms or near your seat.  This can be very calming to the baby and also gives you the chance to get up and stretch your legs which can make the flight more comfortable and enjoyable for you too.
  5. For toddlers or older kids, it can be fun to wrap a few small gifts and hide them in your carry-on bag.  Modeling Clay, color wonder art supplies, sticker activity books, and coloring books, or anything you think your child will enjoy would be a fun surprise.
  6. For a child who needs proprioceptive input or who has trouble sitting still, it might help to pack a stretchy exercise band.  This post by Mama OT has some great exercises that can be done with any exercise band.  Exercise bands roll up into a tiny roll and can fit easily into a carryon bag.
  7. For older kids, it can be really helpful to tell them what to expect.  This means talking about plane etiquette (like not kicking the seat in front of you, being quiet when people are sleeping) as well as what to expect if the there’s turbulence, what take off feels like, and so on.  The more you can help your children understand what to expect, the smoother the trip will be and the more confident your child will feel.
  8. For older kids, it can also really help to follow their normal bedtime routine at about their normal bedtime (at least their normal bedtime for the time zone you just left).  This is another thing to explain to them in advance.  We explained to the kids that bedtime would be on the plane and what it would look like to go to bed on a plane.  About 8pm EST, we told the kids that it would be bedtime at the end of their movies.  Around 8:30pm, we walked them to the airplane bathroom and had everyone go potty, wash hands, and brush teeth.  We took them back to the seats and read a bedtime book that we had packed.  We usually bring Shel Silverstein poetry books when we travel, because everyone loves them and there are a lot of poems in one small book.  We read stories to everyone and then snuggled them in their seats until they fell asleep.  Keeping a normal schedule and routine as much as possible can make the trip smoother.

Remember that for the kids, the flight and airport experience itself is exciting and magical!  For adults, it can be just something to get through in order to get to the destination.  But for kids, the airport and airplane are both so exciting and amazing!  You’re hurtling through the clouds in a hunk of metal!  How cool is that!?

Be positive and excited yourself.  Take the time to show them the planes taking off and landing when you’re at the airport and to watch all of the cool airport trucks and machines. Make a few laps on the moving sidewalk at the airport and just enjoy the experience with them!  After spending an amazing two weeks in Japan, my 6 year old said the best part was watching the airport trucks.  🙂  It’s all magical and amazing to kids!

I hope your next trip with your kids is amazing and that you found something helpful here!  🙂  If you have a travel tip to share, put it in the comments!

Further Reading

My Favorite Baby Carrier (and Carry) for Plane Travel
How to Use your Baby Carrier

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