Tips & tricks for flying with children

Summer is coming up and you know what that means for many expats: travel and long international plane rides. Amidst the joy and expectation of seeing family and friends comes the dread of a long plane ride with young kids. There’s no way around the fact that it’s not the greatest experience in the world, but The Prepared Expat is here this week with tips to help make your travel more pleasant (and less annoying to those around you).

Read more: Tips & tricks for flying with children

Here are tips to survive and thrive a long airplane ride with kids. The tips are grouped in sections following the chronology of your trip (i.e. booking, packing, at the airport, on the flight, after the flight), but the tips within each section have no specific order.

Have a tip to share yourself? Leave it in the comments below or, better yet, email me and I’ll add your advice to this list!

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Booking your flight

  • Be careful of arrival times; unless there’s literally no other option, you’re better off to arrive at your destination in later afternoon and/or evening. That allows your jet-lagged self (and kids) to push through a couple hours and then go to sleep. Arriving between midnight and 5am is horrendous and arriving in the morning is brutal for jetlag.
  • If possible, book a flight that departs later in the day or towards the evening; starting the flight out when kids are tired and ready to sleep tends to be easier than getting them sleepy partway through the flight.
  • Consider booking your flight in stages or with intentionally long layovers between flights. Thirty or more hours of travel time wears on you and your kids; if you can fly one leg of it and spend a night in a hotel—or schedule a layover with an airport that has a hotel inside it—you’ll reduce how long you and your kids have to travel in one go. Be aware, though, that if you book the flights as separate itineraries, the more generous international baggage allowances will not apply to the other legs of the flight.
  • Beware that you need a ticket even for an infant-in-arms or lap-infant, but these aren’t necessarily cheap. Even though most airlines allow an infant to fly “free” (typically under the age of 2; note that the age is determined at the time of booking the ticket, not the time of flight), you’ll still have to pay customs, airport, taxes, and other fees for your infant. The result can add to be a relatively expensive “free” ticket ($300-$500 is not unusual, depending on your flight). Also, if full tickets are on a great sale, it can be cheaper to book a full seat for your infant rather than pay for the “free” ticket. Counterintuitive and rare, but possible.
  • Decide if you’d like to get a bassinet seat or not. Most international airplanes have a crib-like bassinet that attaches to the wall and is available for infants. It’s not guaranteed you can get one, so check with your airline. Personally, my wife and I found it a wonderful option so our baby could lie down flat and sleep while our arms were freed up and we could sleep better as well. If you get a bassinet, try to get the bassinet seat that is between the first class and economy seats, rather than the one that is behind the toilets; the one by the bathrooms tends to be louder and more disruptive.
    • Do note that there are some downsides to the bassinet: (1) you’ll be required to take the baby out during takeoff, landing, and times of turbulence, even if it means waking up your baby; (2) some airlines will only allow two people to sit near the bassinet (so others can use the bassinet next to yours), so your entire family may not be able to sit together; (3) bassinets seats don’t have storage under the seat in from to you (a wall is in front of you), so you will have limited easily-accessible storage. In my experience, the flight attendants allowed us to have things on the floor (except during takeoff/landing), but others may be more strict.
  • Check what baggage is allowed for your children; some will give 2 pieces of checked luggage for free, even for an infant-in-arms, which may change which airline is most economical to fly.
  • Check with your airline whether you can check a carseat and/or stroller for free. Most do these for free, but it’s good to know in advance.
  • Don’t forget to sign up your kids for frequent flier programs and log their miles! Sometimes airlines don’t do this automatically for children, so you may have to submit their tickets after the flight is over in order for them to be credited with miles.

Preparing for the flight

  • Buy carseat bags, even if you don’t need a carseat. Most (all?) airlines allow you to check a carseat for free; if you put the carseat into a carseat bag, you can fill the remainder of the space with baby items and still get the carseat checked free. Now, theoretically an airline could make you open up the carseat bag and take things out, but I’ve never ever had an airline check (I still keep only baby items in there, just in case). It’s a great way to get some free extra luggage space or to transport all those diapers.
  • Prepare two kinds of food for your kids. First, prepare foods that your kids like, because they may not like the airplane food (who does?) or they may be hungry when food isn’t being served. Second, prepare yummy snacks that you can bring out at random times on the flight to keep things fun and interesting to the kids.
  • Prepare games and activities for the kids. A great idea is to “rotate” through the games you pack so that there’s something new for the kids to do, say, every hour or so. That will help reduce the monotony and boredom for the kids. A few games that parents shared with me which are great ones to include in your game arsenal:
    • Post-it notes. Kids love sticking them anywhere, they’re quiet, and they come off easily.
    • Stickers, sticker books, and, my favorite, paint-by-sticker books. Great activities and quiet–just make sure any stickers can come off the chairs easily because they’ll likely find their way there.
    • Coloring books. A wonderful, quiet activity. Just make sure to pack extra crayons because they’ll inevitable get lost between seat cushions or roll around on the floor.
  • Prepare hygiene stuff: Clorox wipes, wet wipes, plenty of diapers, a small/travel changing pad, big trash bags, and multiple sets of clothing for your kids and you. Motion sickness is common and…well, its more extreme effects probably won’t just affect your kids clothes. Bring multiple extra pairs of clothes.
  • If you’re going to use a bassinet, then prepare a blanket to go inside it (it’s not particularly soft) and a blanket to go over the top (to block out light).
  • If you’re not using a bassinet, consider getting a backpack or travel bed so your infant can sleep flat across your lap.
  • Your children may have mild discomfort on the plane, so check with your doctor about bringing some baby/child-strength paracetamol with you.
  • If your children are prone to motion sickness, some dramamine may ease their discomfort (and help them sleep)—I recommend the chewable gummies for kids, as they’re easier to eat and feel more like a treat. Also, some parents swear by motion sickness bands (also know as sea bands).
  • Some parents use children’s noise-canceling headphones and though I haven’t used these personally, I can see why they’d be a big benefit. A large stressor for our bodies is the constant noise of the plane engines, so perhaps get some for yourself too. And if you don’t want to go that route, at least consider some quality earplugs (but bring extra for your kids, they’re prone to getting lost).
  • Make sure you have a comfortable baby carrier, not just for the airport walk but for the plane ride. You may need to walk your baby to sleep. A small stroller is also nice for use during the airport and you can check it at the gate.
  • Make sure you have chargers for your electronic devices and, importantly, extra long charge cords so your kids can move their devices around without disconnecting them. My favorite brand for chargers and cords is Anker; they make excellent stuff and I highly recommend them. Note: many airlines ban or put restrictions on power banks, so as tempting as those are to bring, they may not be a good idea unless you check with the airline first. They are useful during layovers, though.
  • Prepare hard-sided water bottles (like those made by CamelBak or Nalgene). You’ll need to take them empty through security, then fill them up with water after security or on the plane. Your kids will likely want and need to drink more often than the drink cart comes by, so these are handy to have.
  • Bring whatever you need to follow your “nighttime routine” on the plane. Following the same routine you have at home will help the kids “wind down” and go to sleep, even though they’re in a new and strange environment. For our family, that means bringing their toothbrushes, toothpaste, washcloths, our favorite Bible story book, their own blanket, their favorite stuffed animal, and their pillowcase to put on top of the airplane pillow.
  • Prepare things that will help you feel like a human on the plane: toothbrush, toothpaste, hair brush, comb, deodorant, washcloth, makeup & remover, wet wipes, etc.
  • Communicate with your kids in advance in age-appropriate ways about what the plane ride will be like. Talk about what it will feel like on takeoff and landing, when you hit turbulence, what food you’ll get to eat, what activities they’ll do, etc. Airplanes, and especially 12–14 hours in an airplane, can be scary for kids, so help them mentally prepare.
  • Most importantly: Set low expectations for yourself. Assume that you won’t get to sleep at all on the flight, assume that you won’t get to watch a movie or read a book or the other things you’d normally do on an airplane. Hopefully you will, but setting low expectations will help you be mentally prepared for the flight. Then, if you get 20 minutes of sleep or watch 30 minutes of a movie, you’ll be delighted instead of aggravated and frustrated.

At the airport

  • Arrive early. As much as I hate time waiting in the airport lobby, it’s far better to wait than to run through the airport with children in tow. It’s happened to me before and it is the most stressful way you can begin a trip with children, plus it affects them for hours to come—and that’s assuming you still make the flight. You don’t want to have to wait another 12 hours in the airport for the next available flight. Get there earlier than you think you need to.
  • Fly with your birth certificates, marriage certificate, and passports. Make sure the birth and marriage certificates are translated and/or authenticated into the language of the country/countries you’ll be flying through. Many countries will require these to ensure there’s not an international abduction taking place, so make sure you have them on hand.
  • Put all baby foods in a separate container so it’s easy to pull them out when going through security. You may be required to drink/taste the liquids/foods to prove they’re safe, including any pumped breast milk you have.
  • If you want a bassinet, make sure to ask about it when you check in for your flight and when you get to the gate. Most airlines are first-come first-served, so you need to proactively ask for the seat. Remember you want the one away from the bathrooms.
  • Take advantage of early boarding. Some people like to maximize time outside the airplane, and I get that, but it’s nice to be able to get overhead space right next to your seats and to set up all the things for your kids without the pressure and crowding of other passengers.

On the plane

  • Make friends with the flight attendants. They have the power to help make your flight pleasant or make it even more miserable, so make sure to go out of your way to be kind to them and they’ll often be kind back. I’ve had flight attendants offer to hold our baby for us, offer coloring sheets to our kiddos, bring extra cookies and food to our children, and even take our kids on “tours” of the plane. They won’t do any of that unless you’re extra nice, so it really does pay off.
  • Clean your seats, tray tables, under the chairs, etc. Anyplace that your kids are likely to touch. This is where Clorox wipes come in super handy.
  • During takeoff and landing, sucking on something will help children’s ears pop and adjust. For infants, breastfeed or bottle feed; for older children, a juice-box or chewing gum will help trigger the sucking reflex and pop their ears.
  • If your baby is fussing, you can take them to the back of the plane; the engine noise will help mask their cries so they don’t annoy other passengers and the white noise just might calm them down too.
  • If you have baby food or milk that needs to stay refrigerated, ask a flight attendant; they can usually help you out if you ask nicely. They also can provide you with boiling water so you can heat up food for your baby.
  • Make sure your kids drink plenty of fluids; airplane recycled air is notoriously dry and it’s easy to become dehydrated without realizing it. For infants, you can spray saline into the baby’s nose to prevent discomfort.
  • Turn off TV screens when you sleep (or all the time). If you can’t figure out how, ask the flight attendant.
  • Do basic exercises. Sitting for such a lengthy time can cause cramps, discomfort, or even deep vein thrombosis. Walk around periodically, do squats, jumping jacks, or some other kind of basic exercise to get your blood circulating. You don’t need to work up a sweat, but your body does need to be active sometime. That will also help make it easier to sleep when the time comes.
  • Know that the galley often has extra meals, bread, cookies, snacks, etc. that are available if you ask, and they always have extra drinks available. If you’ve made friends with the flight attendants, you can go back to the galley and ask for more of what you like. It usually helps to take one of your kids with you (for sympathy points).
  • Importantly: Remember that kids will feel and feed upon the mood that your parents have; if you’re stressed out, they’ll be stressed too. Do what it takes to keep yourself relaxed and calm, and it will be easier for them to be calm too. I’ll repeat what I said before: set extremely low expectations for the flight and then, no matter what happens, you won’t be disappointed.

After you land

  • Have snacks, treats, and quiet in-hand activities prepared for the kids while you wait to go through customs/immigration. At this point, everyone will be tired and worn out; you’re almost over, but you can wait a long time at customs.
  • Consider changing clothes and freshening up after you arrive. It helps me feel more human and gives just a bit more pep to my walk. Plus, when I finally get to see my family, I don’t smell like airplane.

And there you have it! A bunch of tips to make your plane ride less stressful. I hope these help you to have a more enjoyable flight!

Have a tip or trick to add? Leave it in the comments below or, better yet, email me and I’ll add your advice to this list!

Note: These tips were assembled with great input from parents in the excellent HABIC community.

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