No one wakes up and says, “You know what would be FUN to do today? How about 14+ hours of travel with a 2 and 5 year old by yourself in an airplane where people start shooting you death stares before you even get on the plane?”
And while flying with little kids (with or without a second adult) is no one’s favorite part of travel, it is often a very necessary part of it, especially is you live halfway around the world from family or just like exploring new places. Earlier this week I traveled for 22.5 hours door to door, including an 8 hour overnight trans-Atlantic flight and a 4 hour additional flight, with my 2 year 5 months old and 5 year old kids without my spouse. It went waaaaay better than I braced myself for, so I thought I’d share some tips.
First, a disclaimer and apology. Flying with kids after 2 or 2.5 years is much easier than flying with a younger toddler. Ten to 24 months is the hardest flying window in my opinion. They want to be on the go constantly, they have short attention spans, and for most of them, movies and TV shows don’t hold their attention for longer than 30 seconds. They don’t do well missing sleep, but are old enough to get really distracted by everything on the plan and not be able to fall asleep.
Babies under 10 months tend to be more willing to sleep on the go, need less physical activity, and are more likely to be happily entertained by people watching. If you have a child under 2 and you’re on a long flight, pay for the extra seat whenever possible. It’s worth it.
Without further ado, here is Part 1: Ahead of Time for what worked for me.
*Before booking the trip, look at flight time options.
-If travel time is long enough you’ll have to go overnight, try and do the overnight flight first. Get in normal naps, try and get non-napping children to nap (my 5 year old willingly fell asleep on her aunt day of our flight), and get a nap yourself. Well rested children will have an easier time falling asleep on the plane than over tired cranky children.
-If you have two flights-a long one and a short one, try and do the long one first. I’d much rather do 8 hours like this time or 13 hours like with India and then a 3 or 4 hour flight than the reverse. Mentally, it’s easier.
-If travel time is short enough to avoid an overnight, do daytime travel. Even if they scream the whole flight, at least you’re not disrupting others’ sleep. Bring extra entertainment.
-If you have a morning departure, try for a flight late enough that your kids can wake up roughly normal time (or not much earlier) so they are well rested. I’d rather put a kid to bed late after traveling than wake them up early.
*Talk up the plane trip ahead of time.
-DS2 is obsessed with vehicles, so planes are very exciting. As is the car ride to the airport, the transport within the airport, the taxi on the other end, etc. I summed up the trip with “car, 2 planes, taxi, Daddy” and he kept repeating it and acting it out with his toys.
-Talk about what makes the trip exciting for each child. For DS2, it was all things transportation. For DD5, it was unlimited movie watching and getting to do a sleepover on the plane. For both kids it was the draw of their daddy on the other end.
-For preschoolers, explain the order things will happen on the plane. For DD5, I told her, “We’ll eat dinner at the airport. On the plane, we’ll watch one TV show, then we’ll curl up bed. You and your brother get to have a sleepover on the plane with Mommy! After you sleep a while, we’ll have breakfast on the plane and watch another show. Then we’ll land and hang out at the airport a while before our second flight.”
-This is especially important if you’re traveling as the sole adult with more than 1 young child. If they get tired, can you carry all of the bags yourself? What about all the bags plus 1 child? Sure, you probably get 1 carry-on bag, plus 1 personal item per person, but can you carry all that?
-Kid bags should be able to wheel and have straps for carrying. Once they turned 2, my kids started wheeling their own bags (and prefer to!). But by the end of a long trip, even my 5 year old wants Mommy to carry it. And getting on and off planes is usually easier if they’re easy to carry.
-Before the trip, practice moving it all. I take my stroller when possible. Then DS2 can sit in the stroller, I can hang both kid bags off the stroller handles, and wear my own carry on (which doesn’t wheel, but has well padded straps). If DS2 is feeling like walking, kids can wheel their bags and I’ll stick my carry-on bag in the stroller and push. I really like having a carry-on bag with shoulder straps as it keeps my hands free.
-Pack items you probably won’t need on the flight in your own carry-on and plan to stow it up above the seats. In mine, I put the electronics I can’t check (camera, lenses, laptop, etc), complete change of clothes for each person traveling (nothing worse than a kid dumping your water or tea down you and having to travel soggy for 10 more hours), extra diapers and wipes, and my small medicine bag. When DD5 was first potty training, I’d carry her travel potty seat there too. It folds up and goes over a toilet. She didn’t like balancing on a full-sized toilet and it helped with horribly messy bathrooms too. Now she’s fine with that, and DD2 isn’t potty trained yet so I have a brief window where I don’t need it.
-In kid carry-ons, divide by topic, not kid. DD5’s bag has toys and entertainment, plus her water bottle, sleep blanket and favorite stuffed animal for sleeping. DS2’s bag has in-flight travel essentials like headphones, a gallon Ziploc bag with a few diapers, travel wipes, and DS2’s change of clothes, my ipad, DS2’s CARES harness, tons of food, and a few things that they need the first night at our destination I don’t dare checking in case bags get lost (night light, OK to Wake Clock, noise machine–these could go in my carry-on if there is space). Dividing by topic means it’s easy to know which bag to go into for joint things. If you just have 1 kid, then all things you need in flight go in that bag.
-In my purse, I put only things I’ll need for the trip. I empty out as much as possible ahead of time. In it I’ll carry my and DS’ water bottles, my wallet, phone, passports, boarding passes, etc. If I’m optimistic enough to bring my Kindle, I’ll stick that in there too. My purse goes under my seat. The nice thing about my carry-on going up above is that I have more leg room.
What to Pack for Use on Flight
-I still fall into the overpacking category with the kids. Part of it is planning for the unexpected 5 hour flight delay, the missed flight that leads to an overnight at the airport hotel, or horrible airplane food or poor airport restaurant choices. But I’m getting better. And since I can carry it all myself, I’m not doing too poorly.
-For entertainment, once my son hit 2 movies starting to hold more appeal on flights, and by the time he was 28 months it was all about the TV shows and movies. DD5 gets so excited about binging on movies she wasn’t into any of the other toys in particular. I make sure to download lots of movies onto my iPad ahead of time. I mostly use the download option on Netflix. Not every show is downloadable, but enough are that I can load up my iPad. I do mostly TV shows with a few movies. Many planes have outlets, as do most airports, so bring your charger. Downloaded shows help when in-flight entertainment isn’t the best. Bring headphones that work well with your kids–if the airline offers headphones they’re probably earbuds which are hard for kids. We like these headband type ones as they’re soft and stay on.
-I still pack non-electronic entertainment, especially for daytime flights when sleep won’t fill up time. Melissa and Doug Water Wow!, sticker books, small coloring book with mini coloring pencils or triangle crayons (won’t roll away) together in a quart-sized Ziploc, small lightweight books, Matchbox cars, etc. I get duplicates as inevitably both kids want the same thing. Look for cheap, small, light items that won’t matter if they roll under an airplane seat and get lost.
-Snacks! I go for high protein, fruits, veggies, and minimal sweets. I like the little 100 calorie packs of almonds or other nuts, Larabars (just dates, a type of nut or two and sometimes other add ons. No added sugar unless you get the ones with chocolate chips), That’s It Fruit Bars, clementines, dried mango or dried apple (no sugar added varieties), individual cups of peanut butter (for eating with a spoon or spreading on bread or dipping things into), baby carrots, and applesauce or baby food pouches. I’ll also toss in a few “treat” type things–yogurt coated raisins, Fig Newtons, etc. Important!! If you’re flying internationally, leaving a country with fruit and vegetables is fine. Entering a new one (through customs, not just transit) is often hard or not allowed. So make sure to finish up the produce before customs or toss it. Keep all food in gallon Ziplocs. I do one Ziploc for each flight to pace out food.
-Emergency treats! Our go-to are large lollipops. I like the Jolly Rancher lollipops. Look for ones without a filling unless your kid can confidently handle that. I like the big ones rather than dum dums or other small ones b/c it’s harder for DS2 to bite off the whole thing. Boarded but flight delayed and overtired kid screaming? Whip out a lollipop. 7 hours into an 8 hour flight and everyone’s asleep except your cranky hot mess? Whip out a lollipop. They last forever, they’re special (we don’t have them at home), and they’re easy to transport. They do cause DS2 to get sticky as he likes to touch it, but DD5 eats it without mess.
-Change of clothes–One set for everyone in your group. For long hauls, I do 2 changes of clothes for DS2 as I worry about diaper blowouts and he makes the most mess eating out of all of us. I dress the kids in their oldest clothes for the flight and pack old clothes for changing. Then if there is a diaper blowout, or vomit, or something equally gross, I just throw out the soiled clothes rather than carting around poo pants for 8 more hours. One set of DS2’s clothes go into a gallon Ziploc with a few diapers and a small wipes container so I have it with me in case of diaper changing emergencies. The other set of his clothes, plus mine and DD5’s get rolled up tight into another gallon Ziploc and stuck in my carry-on case overhead.
Day of the Flight
If your flight is early, pack as much of the final items the night before as possible.
Make a list of what needs to go into the suitcases in the morning.
Load the car with luggage, or stage by the door.
Lay out breakfast or pack something easy for on-the-go.
Go to bed early!
Go to bed early! Stock up on sleep as much as possible.
Finish packing final things in the morning.
Wear out the kids with something physical.
Get all kids to nap, even normally non-nappers. DD5 was happy to nap on her aunt, even though she doesn’t normally nap. Nap yourself! You’ll need it.
Early dinner or large snack before departure. We ate pizza because that’s good all times of day! Then you can always have 2nd dinner or a snack after security at the airport.
You’ve got this!
Coming Soon! Part 2: At the Airport, Part 3: On the Plane, Part 4: At the Final Airport, and Part 5: Getting Over Jetlag