Guide to Surviving Long Haul Flights with Little Kids: Part 3-On the Plane

You’re on a 13 hour flight with a little kid, or 2, or 3. Maybe you’re flying alone with them and outnumbered. Maybe you’ve got another adult with you, but still feel outnumbered. What’s your worst nightmare for the flight? Does it involve your child (or worse, children), screaming the entire way while everyone shoots you the evil eye or mumbles loudly under their breath about how parents should control their kids?

If it is, you wouldn’t be the only one. And sometimes it actually does happen. It did for me. Not a 13 hour flight, but an 8 hour overnight flight across the Atlantic where my son (age 17 months) screamed almost the entire way. Nothing we did helped. He wanted to be off the plane and in his own bed. Sure, people glared at us, especially a grumpy lady right in front of him. But others looked at us with sympathy. And others didn’t seem to even notice.

How’d I survive? I kept reminding myself that, “This too shall pass. The plane will land and we’ll get off and it will be all over.” And it did and it was. And on the next flight of the trip, a lovely crew of grandmas seemed to appear like magic around us and they all played peekaboo with him the entire 4 hour flight and he was happy. And we survived. And you would too.

For every horror story I have of flying, I have many more success stories. Like my most recent one where my kids DD5 and DS2.5 and I flew alone for an 8 hr flight, 3.5 hour connection, and a 4 hr flight and the kids ROCKED. They slept, they watched movies, they behaved nicely. Sure, they melted into fussy messes when the second plane landed, but everyone feels like melting after traveling for that long.

Check out Part 1: Ahead of Time, Part 2: At the Airport, Part 4: At the Final Airport, and Part 5: Getting Over Jet lag

Guide to Surviving Long Haul Flights with Little Kids: Part 3-On the Plane |

So how do you increase the odds of a successful flight?

-One is just to know that as they get older, traveling gets easier. Once kids hit 2.5, flying gets much easier. Once they hit 4, it is significantly easier. So just because you had a miserable flight when a kid was younger, it doesn’t mean they won’t have an easier time later on. Keep getting back on that horse.

Assume failed in-flight entertainment. Make the assumption that the on-plane movie screens will be broken, or the show selection will be awful, or the sound won’t work, or they charge for it. I always download a mix of TV shows and movies on my iPad ahead of time. I do a mix of new-to-my-kids and favorites. DS2 watched the same one episode of his favorite show (Tayo the Little Bus) on repeat on one flight until he finally fell asleep. If you have 2 kids and 1 tablet, get headphone splitters. However, DS2 is happy to watch without sound, so mostly DD5 wears headphones and he just watches the screen soundless. I download via our Netflix account.

Think about what helps end meltdowns at home. Reading books? A snack? Doing something silly? A new toy? Duplicate that for the plane. Reading books, a TV show, or a snack help my kids. I have some very small lightweight books about the Disney Princesses that are our travel books for DD. They add almost no weight and all fit in a quart-sized Ziploc bag (to keep them together). We only pull them out for trips. For DS, I pack a few of his current favorites and prepare to read them 10,000 times in a row.

For meltdown fixes with snacks, I pack a few special snacks. DD5 loves yogurt covered raisins. We don’t get them often, so I put some into a few snack-sized Ziplocs. She loves them as a special treat. They both love lollipops, so I pack those to pull out when massive meltdowns threaten. For mine, this tends to be sleep related and is most likely to happen when over-tired before sleep happens or when they wake up and haven’t had enough sleep.

Explain ahead of time the order of events, and keep going over it. For our recent trip, this started as a “car, 2 planes, taxi, Daddy” explanation to DS2. When we about to board the plane, I explained the on-flight order, “1 TV show, sleep time, TV show, breakfast, airport.” For DD5, I talked about how we got to do an airplane sleepover. Many times kids have meltdowns because they don’t like change or uncertainty. Explaining the process ahead of time really helps. My kids have flown frequently since infanthood, so they just need reminders. For new fliers, reading books ahead of time can help. Bring a favorite on the flight to reread as needed.

Our favorite book about the airport is Five Trucks, which shows 5 different vehicles you’ll see outside helping the planes. We love looking for them from the airport windows.

Maisy has a book about airplanes, which is great for young fliers. My Plane Trip is a coloring book/story combo that shows a family with young kids taking a flight. It walks you through all the steps of flying. Richard Scarry books are always a hit, and he has one on airports. My First Airplane Ride walks kids through a first flight through simple, rhyming text.

Pack your carry-on bags carefully so items definitely needed on the flight are easily found. For more information, refer to my first post in the series. I use copious amounts of Ziplocs when packing to make things easy to pull out.

Think about seating. We prefer having a window seat. With 2 adults and 1 child, I prefer to put adults in the window and aisle seats and the kid in the middle. With 2 adults and 2 children, we do adults in the 2 aisle seats and kids middle and window.  With 1 adult and 2 children, I’ll do either adult in the aisle seat if not overnight or adult in the middle seat if overnight (so I can easily help both kids fall asleep and they can put their heads on my lap. If your kids are happy to sleep together, the adult could be on the aisle and kids could put 1 head pointing to the window and 1 head pointing to the aisle with feet by the opposite head.

Don’t buckle seat belts until you have to. Let them stand at their seat, kneel and look out windows, and move around until they have to put on seatbelts. I find the hardest time of the flight is between boarding and take off and between landing and walking off the plane. Let them move around, touch things, and explore.

Wipe down everything. Pull out disinfectant wipes or some Purell and tissues and wipe down all hard surfaces your kid might touch. If they’re like mine, you’ll look over to see your toddler licking the window. Wiping it all down cuts back on the odds of getting sick.

Guide to Surviving Long Haul Flights with Little Kids: Part 3-On the Plane |

Take advantage of on-plane entertainment. I don’t mean the movies. I mean the in-flight magazines and safety brochure. DS2 loves looking at the plane drawings on the safety brochure. DD5 loves looking through the duty free magazine picking out what she wants (hint: it’s everything). When younger, both kids loved stacking drink cups or stirring empty cups.

Take a walk up and down the aisle. When DD was 12 months and we flew from India to DC all she wanted to do was walk up and down and say HI to everyone. So I did the bent walk, holding her hand (she was an early walker, but definitely still a bit unsteady on a plane) as she stopped at each and every row and waited for the person to say hi, wave, or pat her hand. Again and again and again. For 13 hours. But she was happy. So we did it.

Make a big deal about each event. “Oooohhhhh! Meal service! I wonder what we’ll get. Oh, look! The drink service. How fun! What do you want?” DD LOVES drink service. She gets to have juice, which is normally reserved for breakfast. But on a plane, she gets it any time of day. I bring one of her no-spill cups on board empty and ask the flight attendant to fill it half full. This prevents the inevitable spills from a regular cup that happen even with good cup drinkers.

Take advantage of long bathroom lines. Join the line. Talk to people. Wave to people. Look around. Then get excited about the bathroom. Check to see if your plane has a handicapped accessible bathroom. These are bigger and make fitting an adult and kid (or even 2 kids) into even easier. They’re not normally the one with a changing table though, unfortunately.

Push buttons. If your kid is anything like mine, they love pushing buttons. If your seat has a remote for the TV screen, pull it out and let them push. DS2 can do that forever. Just be aware of the Flight Attendant Needed button. DS pushed it so many times on flight unbeknownst to me I had to tell the flight attendants to just ignore it.

A note in regard to toys. I always overpack toys. Now that DS is 2.5, I am really cutting back on them. We didn’t use a single toy on our last trip. Between sleeping, food, and movies, it filled all the time. The idea of binge watching TV thrills my kids and it’s all they wanted. Which makes packing easier. Make sure to bring a charger if using a tablet.

Under 2.5 or 2 depending on the kid, TV or movies is less enthralling and maybe won’t last the whole flight. The younger set most likely needs more non-screen entertainment. Some people swear by wrapping a bunch of Dollar Tree items for unwrapping regularly throughout the flight. I’ve never done it, but it works for some. Regardless of whether you buy and wrap new things, or bring items from home, don’t bring irreplaceable small items. You don’t want Junior’s favorite car to roll down the aisle and disappear.

The Great Carseat Debate

Should you bring your carseat on board? It depends. Ask 10 different people and you’ll get a split on answers with 10 different compelling reasons.

On the yes side, arguments include kids sleeping better (especially smaller kids), easier to contain a kid, safer for the carseat than checking it (and potentially getting tossed around), and kids are already used to it.

On the no side, arguments include kids not wanting to stay in it, kids not sleeping well, carseat not fitting in the seats properly, carseat making passenger in front cranky as it’s hard to recline, kid can kick seat in front easier in a carseat, and if the kid refuses to stay in the carseat, now you can’t use that seat space.

For us, we used the carseat a lot for babies. Super convenient to have a spot for sleeping that isn’t a parent’s arms. For toddlers, we sometimes used it and sometimes didn’t. The trip DS screamed across the Atlantic we had the carseat, he didn’t want to be in it, and so the only other option was to be in my lap (which he didn’t want to be in either). Having the extra seat space would have been nice. Other flights it worked out great.

If you do bring a carseat, consider a gogobabyz or a strap to attach it to luggage. For more information, read this post.

Flying with Little Kids: Must have accessories and tips at

Seat or Lap Child for Under 2?

Another debate, though normally a financial one. For kids under 2, do you buy a seat or have them as a lap child?

If at all financially doable, BUY THE SEAT. We flew cross-country (about 5 hours each way) with DS as a lap child at 14 months and it was miserable. He bounced. He wiggled. He didn’t want to nap on me. I definitely think he would have slept in his carseat in his own seat. I debated buying a last minute, one way ticket for him for the return but didn’t due to the high cost. Never again.

Especially for a long-haul flight. Buy the seat. If your baby is very small, you might make do with the bassinet option in the bulkhead if you can get it. But the weight on that maxes out quickly and they can’t be in it on take off, landing or turbulence. Which could mean waking and holding your baby frequently.

In Sum,

Flying with little kids can be stressful. They’re unpredictable and even with your best planning, they can melt. They can scream. They can refuse to sleep. But just remember, the flight will end and you’ll survive and it gets easier each time you do it and each month they get older. Take the trip! It’s worth it.

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