Flying with Kids | Surviving Long-Haul International Flights
Flying with kids can be daunting for even the most experienced traveler. Let’s be honest, between the packing, the commute to and from the airport, checking in, making it through security, the potty breaks, boarding, deplaning, then when you factor in the added bonus of being on the plane for 8+ hours for your international flight,– it’s enough to make me run screaming in the other direction. Vacation is work ya’ll!
Work has been flying our family back and forth across the globe many, many times over the last ten years or so. While it doesn’t always go smoothly, I’ve put together my list of go-to tips and tricks to help you through air travel with your kids– sanity mostly intact!
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What to Prepare When Flying with Kids
All the snacks! You have no idea what’s going to happen on your trip. You know what’s supposed to happen, but you could miss your flight, get delayed, get stuck in the airport, the airplane could be out of mixed nuts OR if your really lucky they’ll be serving a meal that is mystery meat, a starch, and a really stale piece of bread! My point is: bring snacks and bring a variety. You’ll thank me.
Some of my favorite snacks to bring on the plane: Peanut butter crackers, granola bars, power bars, Ritz crackers, orange slices, apples, vanilla wafers, trail mix, pack a sandwich (cut into 4’s if you have littles– packs easier), sunflower seeds, gummy bears (for take offs and landing because I just can’t with gum and my children), if your kids are young enough the airline will let you bring applesauce squeeze pouches, those super awesome 100 calorie packs of cookies/crackers, goldfish, cheerios, jerky, carrot sticks, celery sticks w peanut butter and halved grapes.
As I mentioned in my post about essential carry on items, I love to store my snacks in these babies:
These cute little condiments are awesome for a number of reasons. First, I can get a pretty good variety. Second, I stack them in a gallon Ziploc bag to contain the mess and it packs nice and neat. Third, it helps contain the mess on the airplane because you can place them in the tray. Fourth, once you are done with them you can just toss it or if you are so inclined you can stack them back up inside each other and tuck them back into the Ziploc to use on the return flight.
Disinfectant Wipes and/or Spray and Disposable Tray Covers. I don’t know how many people have been blowing their nose, clipping their toenails or coughing on or around my seat. Let’s not even talk about the bathrooms (Ya’ll what is with people going BAREFOOT to the bathroom in the middle of the flight. No—just no!) When I travel, either alone or with my kids, I always bring disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and spray disinfectant, because so. many. germs!
Bonus! Certain restaurants give away the disposable placemats for free, so keep a lookout!
Change of Clothes. Let your imagination run wild! On my many trips across the big blue ocean, I’ve been thrown up on, treated like a toilet by my dear daughter, gotten a lap full of water during turbulence, gotten gum stuck to the seat of my pants (please see my note about the Gummy Bears above—this is why we can’t have nice things!!), OR a little less imaginative, but typical none the less– your bag missed your flight or gets lost in transit.
I try to bring something that rolls up small and that packs well. The same goes for my littles. I have 1- one-gallon bag and I keep our clothes and change of underwear rolled up just in case.
Fingers crossed you’ll never use it, but glory be, let me tell you nothing’s worse than traveling in damp yoga pants for 14 hours. Or worse when it looks like you’ve lost control of your bowels because you sat on chocolate that melted when your toddler was snacking next to you and the result was a wide landing radius. #itsalwaysme
OTC Meds. You can’t plan to be sick. It would be mighty convenient if you could, but alas, no. I don’t pack everything and the kitchen sink. I try to hit the high points: a pain reliever (Tylenol, Motrin, etc), Benadryl in case some has an allergic reaction to something, Dramamine and or Pepto, band-aids, and first aid cream. Something in there can get me by until we could get to a hospital or urgent care.
Small Toiletry Kit. Hair tie, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, essential makeup. Imagine that your bag doesn’t make it to your final destination. Not completely outside the realm of possibility. You want to make sure you have enough of the basics to get you through until either your bag is found or you can make it someplace to replace what you need.
**Request a bassinet on the airplane. If you have a baby, request a bassinet for your flight. This is such a game changer. These are extremely limited in quantity. You need to request these as early in advance as possible. Not all flights will have them, but its worth checking. Note: they will seat you in a bulkhead, so plan not to be able to keep things at your feet.
Packing Tips for Your Flight
Minimize. You are not a pack mule. You need to pack the essentials, but you also need to be strategic. I would say the majority of my trips back and forth were without my husband. Mostly because his work schedule was crazy and it was either we went without him or not at all. Mama’s gotta passport and we like to GO!
You pack the essentials and minimize everything else. Your goal, especially if your kids are younger is that you are able to keep a hand free.
Free to hold a little hand, to push a stroller, or to cram a granola bar in your mouth as you hurry to your gate!
Essentials: Food (Formula/Milk included), diapers+wipes, meds, change of clothes, a small blanket for babies.
Gadgets and gizmos aplenty. The age of your child will dictate what kinda magic bag you need to bring. Make sure you are prepared.
Packing a bag within a bag. The key here is ORGANIZATION. When you are traveling with children, no one has time to be digging through trying to find things. Same coin- different side, when you are traveling with children you often have to bring the most amount of stuff. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone– it really is! I pack a bag within a bag so that I can bring everything I need, but I don’t necessarily need it all sitting at my feet.
The perfect carry on! Everyone has their favorite kind of bag. I prefer the rolling duffel with pockets. Like this one:
The pockets are essential to help organize and for easy access. This rolling duffel for me is ideal because I can pack everything I need and its all contained in just one bag!
The bag I put under the seat in front of me looks something like this:
It’s small, easy to pack and washable. All good things!
The bag at my feet is for the things I’m going to need at the beginning of my flight, or the most frequently. This is where my hand sanitizer, my tablet, my tissues, my gum, a small portion of my snacks, my handy mini diaper kit (see below).
All the small loose items I throw together in a small toiletry bag or the quart size baggie that TSA makes you use.
If my kids are too small to schlep their own bags, I will also have a small kit of things for them to do. And depending on the flight length I will have a separate small kit* that I can rotate toys/books out if things are looking dire and I need more distractions.
*A great tip for younger children to keep them busy is to bring things that they don’t get to use very often or are new to them. Before my long flights, I stop by the Target dollar spot or the Dollar Store and pick up a few things. Don’t forget to set things aside and pack in your luggage for the return trip!
Keeping your Carry On Organized
Packing cubes are my friend. I sort everything I need either into Ziploc bags or into packing cubes. If I’m on a long haul flight they would look something like below:
Cube 2: Snacks + Extra Kid entertainment (books, toys, etc) + Headphones + Kids tablet/iPod shuffle + External Battery + Cords
Mini DIaper Kit: 1 small container of wipes + 2 diapers + change of clothes+ (disposable) changing pad + 2 one-gallon bags rolled up to contain the dirty diapers or soiled clothing just in case + hand sanitizer and I seal it all inside another gallon Ziploc bag. If I’m on a shorter flight, I still have my carry on bag + the bag I keep at my feet, but I pack less.
When to Fly. The answer to this is when you and your children will be at your best. If your child is the kind that goes bananas if they are late to bed– a late night flight might not be for you!
My kids tend to do better if we can leave a few hours before they are due for a nap. They are still energized enough to make transiting the airport OK, loading onto the plane and having a bit of time to play. When it gets close to their nap time, I transition them to something quiet, give them a snack and cross my fingers.
They do not always nap and that’s ok. We are all outside our routine. Deep breaths- you can do it!
Mindset. Something I learned many years ago is to tune my mindset to expect the flights and my children to be less than their best. I anticipate that planes will be delayed. That my 2-year old won’t nap. That I won’t have a spare second to read or visit the toilet.
You know what–I’m never disappointed!! My experience can only go up. Ha!
Are my children terrible travelers? No. Are airlines really that bad–sometimes, but for me, setting my expectations early helps me manage frustrations and help them from getting the best of me. I plan for the worst and pray for the best!
Where to sit. Particularly for young kids, I always try to give them the window. First, it offers alot in the way of distractions. Second, it keeps them contained in a corner and offers them a little more room. Third, you don’t have to constantly worry that they are disrupting your neighbor with their flying food, toys and wild gestures. Fourth, I find that it makes for an easier place to nap. I know some people argue for the aisle seat, but for the number of times you need to get up and use the toilet or go on a walkabout, I don’t feel like that outweighs all the benefits of the window. My 2-cents.
Check or Gate Check your Stroller. If you are flying direct, my vote is for checking the stroller through. It’s one less thing to wrangle when de-planing and managing your carry-on and children.
If you have a longer layover, my vote is to gate check it so you’ll have it for the layover. Maybe your child needs a place to nap. Maybe you have a long walk ahead of you from gate to gate. More often than not, I’m thankful to have it while we are waiting for our next flight.
I don’t recommend gate checking if you have less than an hour to change planes. It can take 20-30 minutes for you to get your gate checked items once you are parked at the gate.
Get the wiggles out. Sitting for an extended length of time for any kid is hard. Leading up to boarding, let your kids play. Walk the terminal, check the airport- sometimes there are kids play areas, check the planes out the window– stretch those legs! I know it’s not super convenient for you to chase kids and schlep luggage, but it pays dividends to have them expend energy before you lock them into a seat for hours.
Don’t force them to buckle up right when you get to your seat. I know it’s tempting to get everyone all situated as soon as you find your seats, but let them sate their curiosity. If they want to put the tray table down, if they want to buckle and unbuckle the seat belt, if they want to look at the seatback cards– go for it. Again, especially with littles, giving them a little room fosters cooperation when it is time to buckle the seat belt an put the tray table up for takeoff. I always try to give, my two-year-old in particular, a few time warnings. “OK, you have 5 minutes until they close the door and then the captain is going to ask us to buckle up and put everything away.” Minimizes the surprises and freakouts.
Bring your own water bottle. For so many reasons, BYOB. For long flights, they will not be serving drinks forever. They usually do their beverage service and then put it away to give everyone a chance to nap, etc. Go ahead and ask them to fill it up for you when they come around. I’ve never had anyone give me any grief over it.
Turbulence. Enough said.
If you need to go to the bathroom, dig around in your bag at your feet, take your toddler for a walk up and down the aisle, it’s far more convenient for you if you can just throw your water bottle in your seat, then balancing a small plastic cup or having to shuffle it between tray tables trying to get everyone out into the aisle.
Dress Comfortably. That goes for the entire family. For kids in diapers, I also dress them in something that’s easy to get on and off to ease with diaper changes.
Changing Diapers on the Plane. First, let me start off by saying, buy yourself some time by changing your child’s diaper right before you board.
Some planes actually do have changing tables, but not all of them. In case they don’t: If your child is sturdy enough to stand, I close the toilet lid in the bathroom and stand them up on it. I take my mini diaper kit and put it on the sink and go to work.
Pro Tip: If you can use Pull-Ups, it makes your life ten times easier. I know they are more expensive than regular diapers, but the convenience is worth it. Everyone who’s ever changed a diaper knows the challenges of trying to fasten a diaper on a child while they are standing up. #amiright
If your baby is not able to stand: OK, I’ll admit this took some perfecting, but go with me. You have a few options:
A. Put the toilet seat down and sit down (if you are the squeamish sort *cough* you can put a disposable changing pad on the lid before you take a seat). Put the changing pad on your lap and lay your baby across it and go to work.
B. If that’s not for you, you can, close the lid of the toilet, put the disposable changing pad down on the lid, put your changing pad down and change their diaper.
C. Still not for you? Lay the changing pad on the floor (either at your seat or at the back of the plane) and change them there. This is not my favorite option and not one that I typically choose, but I’ve seen it in action several times.
D. Not a fan? My last option, lay the changing pad on their seat and change them there. Again, not my favorite option. I think bodily fluids belong in the bathroom, but sometimes a Momma has to do what a Momma has to do.
Well, those are my time-tested tips, tricks, and must-haves. I would love to hear from you! What are your must-haves and flight hacks for flying with kids? Please comment below!