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!

Note: Links may contain affiliate links which support this site by providing a small commission on your purchase, at no cost to you. See full disclosures.

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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Tips & Tricks: Carry a language notebook

I encountered a super cool local expression the other day; one which captured my emotions at the time in a quite apt and witty idiom that was just perfect. The trouble is, I completely forget what it was. This ever happen to you?

Today’s tip from The Prepared Expat is quite simple and yet one of the most powerful things you can do to improve your language skills: carry a language notebook with you, always.

Read more: Tips & Tricks: Carry a language notebook

Articles on The Prepared Expat may contain affiliate links, which help support this site at no cost to you. See full disclosures & disclaimers.

What a language notebook is

Quite simply, a language notebook is a notebook in which you record anything related to your study of the local language. It’s incredibly useful, for you’re always encountering new ideas, words, or expressions while simultaneously finding gaps in your own vocabulary and/or grammar. A language notebook enables you to record those immediately so that you can follow up on them later.

Later on I show you a sample page of my language notebook so you can see the kinds of things I record. There’s no right./wrong, no strict rules, and no limit to what you can write down, but here a few examples of the things you can use it for:

  • You want to find cranberry juice in the store, but you don’t know the word for cranberry. Write down cranberry.
  • You hear a phrase you know, but in a context that doesn’t make sense to you. Write the phrase & context down.
  • You hear a new word, but don’t know it’s meaning. Write it down.
  • You’re trying to say something, but you can’t quite get the sentence out. Though others get your gist, you know there’s a better way. Write it down.
  • You’re making flash cards with pictures and your Google Image search for the word returns results that don’t fit your idea of the word. Write it down.
  • You hear a new word/phrase that you understand in the moment, but it’s not exactly clear and you don’t know why you understand it. Write it down.
  • You hear a new word and understand it, but it seems nearly synonymous with another word. Write down both.

What to do with your notes

A note book provides an incredibly-easy way to take notes of words, questions, challenges, gaps, etc. that you encounter in everyday language situations. But merely writing your notes down doesn’t help you much and doesn’t constitute learning (though it could be the start). Instead, you need to process those notes and get them into your regular system for learning language.

Ideally, you’d process the notes with a language helper–someone who can help you understand what you wrote, correct mistakes in your spelling (or hearing), provide the word in the local script for you, help you understand the semantic range of a word, etc. For many people that will be your language teacher, but it can also be a classmate, a family member, or a friend–anyone who’s willing to help you out.

Then, after you process your language notes and have an accurate understanding of the words, you input that information into whatever your normal system of language study is, whether that’s paper notes, actual flash cards, Anki, etc. Being entered into your normal system is what will help you actually learn the content–but recording everyday questions into your language notebook is the start.

I’ll repeat this because some people were confused by this initial post: the purpose of writing questions down isn’t that you’re learning is done but, rather, to capture the question in the moment so that you can review them with your helper and learn the content later.

Why a notebook and not a phone

Now, you’re probably thinking that you lalready have a phone and can just record language notes there. Why carry a notebook when your phone already has a notes app?

I’m glad you asked. There’s a variety of reasons why, but I’ll keep it to the two most important reasons.

First, because writing physically with your hand stimulates memory formation in a way that typing on a phone (or computer) does not. There’s an increasing body of research done on this subject–and by “increasing,” I mean overwhelming consensus in every study that’s been published to date. Here are just a few headlines reporting scientific results:

  • Handwriting beats typing when it comes to taking class notes: Writing by hand turns on parts of the brain involved in learning and memory, new data showScience News
  • Handwriting shown to be better for memory than typing, at any age The Big Think
  • Ditch the digital notes: Handwriting is way better for memorization and speed – Fast Company

Increasing your memory is crucial because, in the middle of a conversation, you don’t have time to write out an entire sentence to explain the note you’re making; you probably have just a few seconds to jot down a word of question. Thus, building up the memory of what it is through physically writing will enable you to remember better the context when you discuss it with your language helper.

Second, because writing something down in a single-use notebook that others can see is more understandable to people than pulling your phone out on the middle of a conversation. Though the appropriateness of using a phone while in conversation differs from culture to culture, I’ve yet to encounter a situation where writing in a notebook is rude, but I’ve been in many situations where pulling out a phone would have been inappropriate. I think the key reason for this difference is that a notebook is single-use and visible to others, so they know what you’re doing. On the other hand, a phone is multifunction and usually others can’t see the screen, so, for all they know, you’re ignoring them to check Facebook.

Useful tips

Some things I’ve learned to get more out of your notebook and make it more useful. You can see some of these tips “in action” in the picture of my language notebook, below.

In no particular order:

  • Don’t use a spiral-bound notebook, the pages tear way too easily. Get something bound that can take a beating. See picture below.
  • You want the right size: big enough to write in, but small enough you can take it anywhere. Ideally, it would fit in your pocket. See picture below.
Left notebook: Too fragile, the pages tore out. Middle notebook: so small it was hard to write in. Right notebook: just right
  • When you find a notebook you like, buy a bunch. I regret that I only bought two of the kind I have and now I can’t find this type anymore.
  • Develop your own shorthand. You don’t have much time to note something down, so figure out how you can abbreviate and represent ideas quickly. You can see some of the shorthand I use later on, but what’s important is to do something that makes sense to you.
  • Write—or ask a local friend to write—your name and phone number in the front of the book. You want it returned to you if it ever gets lost.
  • Make sure to have a pen/pencil with you, else the notebook is useless. I always have my tactical pen with me, so that’s easy for me.
  • I put a check mark at the top of each page when I’ve discusssed all the questions on the page with my language helper. That helps me keep track of what I still need to discuss with my language helper.
  • Bookmark somehow whatever page is the one you should write something down on (I use a sticky note). It’ll help you get to that page faster, while the question’s still in your head, rather than flipping through a bunch of pages.
  • I record the start date when I first use the notebook and the end date when it’s full, then store the filled notebook. It’s kind of fun to take a trip down memory lane by looking through the notebook later; it’s also a fun way to visualize your progress (or not!) as you look back at the questions you had in previous years of your study.

A page from my notebook

Here’s a sample page from my notebook; these two pages are probably notes from 2-3 conversations with my friends:

I think it may be helpful to you if I explain a bit of what I’ve written down, so you can get ideas for how you can use one too. My explanations are for the red numbers so you can easily follow:

1: qíngxù. A new word; I think it means “mood” or possibly “spirit”. I note in shorthand that I especially want to know how it compares with gǎnqíng, a word I know with a similar meaning.

2: shuōfu. A new word; I guess it means “to convince” but might be “persuade.”

3: yóupiào. A word I know, but I don’t have an audio recording for it, so I want to make that later.

4: – replica. I want to know how to say “replica” in the local language, but I don’t know how.

5: tōngxíngfèi. I don’t know what this means, so I record the context: something about international travel.

6: I want to know the difference between the words bǔhuò, zúzhǐ, tàozhǔ, and dǎidào.

7: I made a flash card for yùbèi and searched for a picture, but I found lots of unexpected picture of military and police. I want to know why those pictures came up because it will help me understand the semantic range of yùbèi.

8: nèi cún (chún) – I couldn’t hear clearly if the word was cún or chún, so I wrote down both, along with my guess of the meaning (memory / internal storage).

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Tips & Tricks: Get space blankets

The world has been focused on the horrible tragedy of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. I hope that you have donated money and/or goods to help out; I have and encourage you to give what you’re able.

When you read of a crisis like this, whether it’s in your host country or not, it’s a good habit to ask yourself what you can do, not just to help alleviate the crisis, but also to ensure that you could take care of your family and community if a similar situation happened where you live.

Today’s tip is a quite simple one, but it could save lives: get a bunch of space blankets and stash them everywhere.

Read more: Tips & Tricks: Get space blankets

Articles on The Prepared Expat may contain affiliate links, which help support this site at no cost to you. See full disclosures & disclaimers.

What a space blanket is

Space blankets—also know as emergency blankets, weather blankets, mylar blankets, first aid blankets, safety blankets, heat sheets, shock blankets, and thermal sheets/blankets—are specially designed blankets made from extremely strong but thin plastic coated in a thin layer of aluminum (supposedly smaller than the width of a human hair). The result is a “blanket” that is extremely small, foldable, and light, but which reflects 80-97% of radiated heat.

What that means in normal English is that space blankets reflect almost all of your body heat back to you, thereby keeping you warm enough to survive in an emergency. Space blankets are thus warmer than a typical quilt or blanket while simultaneously being thin and small enough to fit into your pocket. This makes them ideal as an emergency back-up blanket; they’re warm enough to keep you from getting hypothermia, but small enough that you can always have one with you in case of emergency. While sleeping under one may not be as comfy as your grandma’s quilt, they’ll keep you alive and that’s what matters in an emergency.

How to prepare space blankets for an emergency

Obviously, you need to buy the space blankets before an emergency happens in order for them to help you in a crisis. The good news is that they’re widely available and cheap—Amazon has dozens of brands that are quite cheap—so buy one you like. At minimum, have one for each member of your family, but they’re small enough and cheap enough—between $1 and $3—that I encourage you to buy a bunch so you can take care of your neighbors in an emergency.

Keep in mind that emergencies can happen when you’re away from home (or they can bury your home supplies under a pile of rubble), so you’ll want to have them in a diversity of places, especially if you’re away from home. The good news is that they’re small and thin, so you can stash some in your car, in your ebike, at your office, in your diaper bag, or in your backpack or briefcase. That way, no matter what happens or where you are, you’ll be ok. Also, since space blankets can be lifesaving in a medical emergency, make sure to put them in every first aid kit you have.

Since they’re cheap and light, there’s not much downside to having them everywhere; if you never need one, you’re only out a few dollars and a few ounces, but if you need one, you’ll save a life. So even though the risk of a plane crash is ridiculously low, I pack one in my carry-on for each member of my family. They’re cheap, small, and light, so why not carry it if it could save a life?

One thing to keep in mind: space blankets can degrade if they get wet or are exposed to heat or direct sunlight—so store them in a cool, dry place and check them every year or so to make sure there’s no cracks or peeling.

How to use them

Survivalists love space blankets for their diverse uses and if that’s your thing (or you enjoy hiking), there’s lots of cool things you can read about ways to use space blankets. But for our purposes here—surviving the cold—the answer is quite simple: wrap yourself in the space blanket with the shiny side facing outwards. Then tuck it in everywhere you can—the blanket only works as well as it traps heat, so you don’t want air to be able to get out anywhere. Covering your head will keep you warmer, but it may be impractical (a hat is probably better in most situations).

Keep in mind that the blankets are waterproof, so if you are sweating or breathing inside the blanket, the trapped moisture can condense and cause you to lose heat when you get wet. If you’re in that situation, make sure the blanket has a small vent/gap so water vapor can escape.

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