Top Tips for Flying with Children from a Family that's Traveled the World
When we ask, most people want to know how we survive the international fights with our child. Our top tips for flying with a baby or child are pretty simple, but they work. The key to an easy flight is preparation, just like everything else. Preparation and the right attitude.
Truth be told, we’ve just never made a big deal out of flying with Eleanor. Her first flight was when she was 5 months old to Chicago from Denver and then a few weeks later to California. We do not live near our families so we always knew we would be flying a few times a year anyway. Our first trip overseas as a family was when Eleanor was 13 months old. We flew from Denver to London with an overnight stop in New York. The longest flight we have taken with her to-date was a direct 11.5 hour flight from London to Los Angeles when she was 18 months old and she only slept for about an hour of it. That one was tough, but we learned a few new tricks, grew thicker skin, and all lived to tell about it. We’re traveling again and this time flew from Chicago to Madrid and will be taking shorter planes rides throughout our travels so that really long flight didn’t stop us.
As we prepared to board another fight today, I asked Eleanor what her favorite mode of transportation is. She answered with riding in planes, then trolleys, and then Tuk-Tuks. I think most kids like flying in planes if you let them.
But, because this seems to be the most asked question, here are our best tips for flying with a baby or child and coming through unscathed.
1. Select the Best Flight for Your Family
Flight times are super important. If you have the money, definitely book a direct flight. Okay, now if that is not your reality (like us because we usually travel on miles), you should try to schedule the longest leg of the flight overnight and when your kids will be naturally tired. When Eleanor was a baby, I would breastfeed her on take off. This helped with the differential in air pressure and helped her to fall asleep. She would nap for about 2 hours and I’d get to watch a movie or read a book. Then we’d worry about the rest of the flight when she woke up. On longer overnight flights she would sleep longer which worked out great for everyone.
On our last trip, Eleanor was just about 5 years old. We ate dinner on the plane, brushed our teeth (in our seat by spitting into a dixie cup), and read a story. We tried to keep our regular bedtime routine in tact as much as possible so that her body and mind would signal that it was time for bed. She was able to fall asleep and slept better than either of the adults.
We also chose shorter connecting flights during the day when excitement was high and the longer portion of the flight overnight in hopes that we would sleep. I worked pretty well and the excitement of flying had worn off a bit by the time it was nighttime.
2. Carryon the Right Way
Let’s talk about what to pack in your carry-on bag. Since this is the only bag you will have at your disposal for several hours, it is important you get this right.
Yes, you can get water on the plane, but there have been lots of times, we want more and either it’s too early in the flight, too late, or we’ve hit turbulence. Just make it easier on yourself and bring water. These are our favorite refillable bottles that we always fill up at the airport after getting through security.
I have a special compartment in our bag where I keep snacks. Some favorites are BelVitas or animal cookies, apples (but make sure you eat all fruit or throw it away before getting off an international flight as it can cause issues at customs), granola bars, trail mix, and veggie/fruit squeeze packets. Avoid high sugar foods and stick with water to drink for the best hydration. That also means going easy on the alcohol for adults too.
3. Extra Clothes
For babies, you should bring two additional outfits. If there is a spill or a blow out, you will need one, and a spare is always a good idea. We’ve gone through 2 outfit changes on a short domestic flight before so I think this is a must for a long international flight. Even now, that Eleanor is 5, I still bring extra clothes, but now it’s just leggings, t-shirt, and undies. We pack a long sleeve too in case it’s chilly on the plane.
We always bring some new toys. They can be small trinkets you pick up at the dollar store or toys you find around the house that have not been played with in a while. The idea here is novelty. I recently saw a fun idea to purchase window clings to stick to the airplane window. That would have been a hit with Eleanor when she was younger. Bring out one new toy every 30 minutes to an hour and then remove the toys they have been playing with. This is a similar tactic to road trips.
Entertaining Eleanor on the flight is easier now that she’s older. She does not get much screen time at home so flights are a great time to watch a show or two. For those times when when the flight is longer or she’s been watching tv already, these sticker art boards are amazing. I even enjoy doing them with her. Other fun ideas are sticker books, coloring books, card games, and this awesome putty.
5. Diapers / Pull Ups
Pack enough diapers to get through your flight and your first night plus a couple extra for emergencies. Do not try to pack enough diapers for your whole trip as they are too bulky, but thankfully sold the world over. You can buy more when you arrive, but it’s best not to stress about it on the flight or to need diapers immediately when you arrive to a new location. If your child is recently potty trained, pull ups can be a lifesaver. Small bodies sometimes do not give you enough warning to make it to the potty and it can be tough to get to the bathroom quickly enough on an airplane.
6. Items needed for soothing
This might be a pacifier, bottle, special blanket, or stuffed animal. You want to make sure the favored item is with you to help your child get over the anxiety of flying and being in a new setting.
3. Don't forget your baby carrier
This was a lifesaver for us! Being able to put Eleanor on my back securely in a baby carrier meant getting through the airport was so much easier. It was also great for those times when she was antsy and would not fall asleep. I would put her in her carrier and walk around the plane (or later the hotel or town) and she would eventually fall asleep. This was the carrier we used, but this one is very popular as well.
There is a debate between strollers and carriers. Personally, we never travelled with a stroller, but I can see this would be much more necessary if we had more than one child. For those of you that insist on a stroller, this one has gotten rave reviews, and this one is a great double stroller option.
Now that Eleanor is 5 (and a tall 5 at that), she has outgrown strollers, but loves piggyback rides when the walking gets to be just a bit too much.
4. Fill Bellies and Empty Bladders
Before your flight, be sure to eat a good nutritious meal and use the restroom. Food is generally served on international flights, but the quality can be questionable and it make take a while for your flight attendant to reach you. No one enjoys being hungry or trying to distract a hungry child. Being hungry is a surefire way to start your trip off on the wrong foot. Plus, if your child does not like the food served, it will not matter as much because they have already eaten. Not sure I need to explain the need for using the potty before the flight, but let’s just say that children do not have as much control over their bladders as adults. Clean diapers and empty bladders make it so much easier to wait for the fasten seatbelt sign to be turned off.
5. Ask Nicely
This tip is great when traveling with a lap child. When you check in for your flight, be sure to ask the desk personnel if there is an empty row they can move you to. They have always been willing to accommodate us when a row was available in the past. This will give you more room to spread out and a little more privacy. It is so much easier to sleep with that extra seat! We were not lucky enough to get the bulkhead bassinet on any of our flights, but it does look nice for those of you who have gotten it. Now we have to book 3 seats so we have the row to ourselves.
Being nice also applies to your neighboring passengers on the plane. It's best to start the flight with a cordial hello and to let them know that you are trying your best on the flight with your young travelers. People are generally pretty amazing when you start the conversation nicely and may even help you out if you need it mid-flight.
6. Set an Alarm
Traveling can wreck havoc on your internal clock so I have actually set alarms on my phone in the past to remind myself to offer water, snacks, or a stroll around the plane to the family. You want to anticipate the needs of your family and keep ahead of them if possible. Planes are dehydrating so be sure to offer water more frequently.
We also make it a point to stretch our legs about once an hour when not sleeping. Babies are curious and love exploring so feel free to get up out of your seat when possible. People generally love babies when they’re not crying and I’ve yet to be pelted with death stares from other passengers as we walk up and down the aisles. Usually looks will come from understanding parents that have been there before.
Once we are in the air, I also change my watch to the local time of our destination. Yes, I still have an old school watch that is not tied to my phone in some smart way, but I love being able to glance at it with the new time, instead of my phone which will stay on my previous time until we land. This makes it much easier to get over jet lag once you arrive.
7. Pack the Right Attitude
When it comes down to it, the flight is only a small portion of your trip and it will be over soon enough. It’s best not to stress and just go with the flow when flying long distances with little ones. They may have a hard time falling asleep, entertaining themselves, or eating. There may be a diaper blow out (been there!) or they may scream on take off or landing (been there when other kids have done this). But, it’s best to remember that this is a temporary state and you will be on the ground in just a few hours.
8. Get to the Airport Early
One of our biggest stressors is when we are running late. In order to avoid this we get to the airport early and use that time to "get out our sillies" by running around. Airports are pretty cool places to explore and you will often find areas for families. In the past, we've discovered old planes, interactive art displays, kid's rooms with toys, and play areas to crawl on. Look up your airport online to see what fun things there are to do there. You may be surprised. But, at the very least, you should be able to find an area where you can run around and burn off that anxious and excited energy before having to sit for several hours.
9. Pack an emergency kit
This will be different for each family, but we recommend a basic first-aid kit with bandaids, Neosporin, aspirin, and hand sanitizer. I also keep nail clippers and a file in mine because there's nothing worse than breaking your nail or snagging it on a zipper and not being able to do anything about it for 8 hours. So annoying! Finally, we also pack vitamin c packets for the adults and wipe down our seating area on the plane with sanitizing wipes. Sure, I may look crazy, but we just spent a lot of money for this vacation and I do not want to lose a minute of our fun time because we picked up someone's germs on the airplane.
We also highly recommend travel insurance because you just never know what might happen along the way.
And finally, just remember that it is worth it! Even if you are all tired after the flight, it will get better with a nap and a good night’s sleep. If that doesn’t work there is always coffee for you and ice cream for the kids.
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